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Islam and Sexuality

In the present lecture, my purpose is neither to convince, nor to persuade, but only to convey some interesting facts that I came across in my personal readings. And, quite frankly, I may or may not agree with all the points I present before you. But I will still list them because they all come from sages greater than me, and each one of us deserves a chance to form one's own position of agreement or disagreement on them.

Confusion arises when people discuss religion because they may be speaking about their own personal interpretation of "religion." The notion of religion as a source of wisdom is quite different from the notion of religion as a mean of acquiring power. The first leads to nurturing our own selves. The second was mostly developed by the despots and their subservient clergy to be used like any other tool for the enslavement of the people. 

There is a long tradition of mystics, sages, writers, poets and intellectuals who upheld the notion of religion as a source of wisdom. Despots, on the other hand, have left the tradition of coercion and intolerance in the name of "reforming" the society. The classic answer of the mystic versus the call to join the "reformatory campaigns" upheld by the kings and clergy always was, "I am busy reforming myself first!" 

There are several anecdotes and stories to illustrate this point. My favourite one is about a young man who was famous for his piety. When a rich man of his town was about to leave for a journey, he came to him and told him that he wanted to leave one of his slave girls with him. "I have trusted all my other treasures to noble friends, but I can't think of anyone but you who could be trusted with a beauty like this one. You are pious and you will sure guard her chastity." As luck would have had it, the young man fell in love with the girl soon afterwards. Torn between temptation and conscience, he went to his mentor and asked for help. The mentor told him to go to another city and meet a certain man. When the young man reached that city, the people there informed him that the man he sought was a debauched scoundrel. The young man returned, only for his mentor to insist that he should go back and meet that person in any case. The people of the other city tried to dissuade him again, but this time, he was determined. He was directed to a site along a river where, at last, he found the man attended by a young boy who was apparently serving him wine. The young man's worst suspicions were now confirmed, but just then, the man called his name and said, "What you are thinking is not true. This boy here is just my son, and the cup only contains water." The young man was touched by the supernatural insight of the man, and asked him, "If you are so enlightened, why do you let such rumours float about you in the city?" The man looked into his eyes and said, "The greatest advantage, my son, is that the people here don' t trust me with their slave girls!"

Before going any further on the issue of Islam and sexuality we must stop to ponder over the ethos of good humour and healthy attitude embodied in stories like this one. They were written and lived by people who probably had a greater understanding of the word of God than we do.

Discussing Islam and sexuality, we may first check out some of the concepts about gender because our perceptions about gender equality (or inequality) underlie our understanding of sexuality. I would like to make a few observations on this account.

  1. In the Quranic version of the story of Creation there is no mention of the woman being created after man or from his rib. Again, it is not woman who is tempted by the Satan first, but "both of them." Also, women are described as individuals in their own rights, and not as ones created for the pleasure of men. Both traditional and modern commentators of the Quran have been keen to point out that the myths contrary to these beliefs, mostly coming from Judaeo-Christian sources, should not be confused with the Muslim version of the creation story. This point was elaborated by Iqbal in our own times, in his lectures The Reconstruction Of Religious Thought In Islam, and, more recently, by Dr. Riffat Hasan in some of her papers on theology. The later has also drawn on some of the modern Judaeo-Christian research on the Old Testament to prove very sympathetically that the rib story wasn't meant to be a part even of the Old Testament, from where it was imported into some of the Muslim writings.
  2. The female prototypes presented in the Quran lend to interesting observations. There are women of all shades from non-believers to very pious women as well as women whose characters haven't been defined as black or white. One interesting example is Zuliekha (mentioned by her title rather than name in the Quran), who comes out as a woman of strong sexual preferences. Her fate is left without description, hence evoking such imaginative works of Muslim literature as Yousuf Zuliekha, the Persian epic by Jami where Zuliekha's thriving sexuality becomes a symbol of the human soul yearning for spiritual fulfilment. Also, in the gallery of females portrayed in the Quran we find the Queen of Saba, the wise and thoughtful female ruler who is presented as the saviour of the people she ruled upon. (It is interesting to note that while the Quran presents several male rulers, mostly arrogant and non-believing like the Pharaoh and Nimrod, the only female ruler presented there turns out to be a divinely inspired righteous one!) In the classical times, Ibne Hazm and Abul Hasan Ash'eri, two respected and authentic religious scholars from the medieval times, wrote papers to prove that the portrayal of women like Mary, Sarah, Moses' Mother and some others in the Holy Quran presents them as prophets! In our own times, Ameena Wadud-Mohsin has made some interesting observations on the female prototypes presented in the Quran in her book The Quran And Woman. 
  3. Classical Muslim writers were also keen enough to observe that the attributes of God, mostly listed in the 99 Names, are distributed between men and women. For instance, the prime attribute of creation is more completely reflected in the female than it is in the male. Ibne Arabi even made some observations on the Arabic roots of the word Rahman, one of the most-often repeated names of the God, to show its relationship with Rahm, the Arabic word for womb (and by implication carrying the meaning of mercy). Ibne Arabi explored this linguistic connection to point out that the mercy of God for His creation is like the state of a child living in the womb of its mother.

Speaking of gender equality it would be ironic if on one hand we emphasise no end that Islam is a religion based on the principle of equality and on the other we give in to malicious interpretations undermining this very principle between men and women. 

The problem in our society is further complicated because as much as we would like to get emotional about religion, we have severed our links with the roots that lie in the written word. We have forgotten that religion is not only doe's and don'ts, but it also goes a long way beyond to raise questions about life, and to sensitise the mind and the soul for searching their answers. 

While looking for resources to understand religion we must not overlook the vast bank of writings by the giants of our history, such as Ghazali, Rumi and Ibne Arabi. 

Ibne Arabi, for instance, is one writer who wrote at length in order to place the issue of sexual desire in its larger context of human spirituality. In fact the last chapter of his masterpiece Fususul Hikam (Bezzels Of Wisdom) is entirely dedicated to this theme. The views presented by him in that book sound more modern than classical today, especially in the context of modern theories about sexual sublimation. Ibne Arabi's basic stand on this issue is that the sexual desire is one form of the human soul's yearning for a union with its origin. Since both men and women have some Divine attributes that are missing in the other, they are attracted to each other by what they see as the other half of the Divine Existence. Ibne Arabi states that they must see this attraction for what it really is, and transcend from the attraction of the form (the opposite sex) to the attraction of the Soul, which is One in this universe. (This brings to mind the popular modern classic The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield for what is described there as breaking away from "addiction to people" and connecting to the universal source of energy.)

The concept of beauty in the classical Muslim psyche has always been associated with the spiritual. The true lover always recognises the craft of the Maker through the physical beauty presented in His creation. This theme has always been so common in the Muslim culture that it would be hard to find a single Persian poet (or of any other language from the classical Muslim tradition for that matter) who does not play upon this theme. 

The theme was probably worded most aptly for all times to come by Rumi in the celebrated opening lines of his Matnavi. Until as recently as a few decades ago it wasn't difficult to find at least a few people in any gathering of our own society whose eyes would swell with tears if these lines of Rumi were recited in their original Persian splendour. "Bishnu ez nay chun hikayat me kunad/ Wez judai ha shikayet me kunad..." ("Listen from the flute how it tells its story, how it complains of the woes of the separations...") And he goes on to say that since the flute was cut away from its homeland it wails of the separation from its source but its lament appears as song to those whose ears are trained to listen to the sound without getting the true meaning. "It neither has a string, nor pulp, nor a taut skin, I wonder from where comes into it the voice of my Friend!"

It is this lost heritage of the wisdom of our ancestors that we need to reach out for, if we wish to connect to our sources. It is one authentic means for looking beyond the do's and don'ts and placing things in their larger context.

Summary of lecture delivered at a seminar in Gujranwala (Pakistan), Nov 1999

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