Islam considers sexual pleasure to be a gift from God to humanity that should be enjoyed with gratitude. The religion has also always frowned on celibacy. The Prophet, who is an exemplar for all aspects of Islamic behavior, enjoyed his many wives, including his famous child-bride, 'A'isha. Hence, sexual regulation is concerned not so much with the potential for sexuality to distract the believer from God as with its capacity to disrupt social relations. Specifically, this means control over paternity, being sure that the father is really the father of his children. As a result, those forms of sexual behavior that do not threaten patriarchal transmission are either authorized or socially tolerated, while those behaviors that threaten to create a doubt over paternity are both condemned in Muslim law and aggressively repressed by Muslim societies.
Sexual segregation, rather than preaching, has always been seen as the most (if not the only) effective means to keep sex within licit channels. One of the most oft-repeated sayings of the Prophet is that when a man and a woman are together (alone is implied), the devil is the third. In premodern times one result, especially for the rich and powerful, was the use of eunuchs as guardians of women or domestic spaces generally. Even in the early twenty-first century, in most Muslim societies, women's domain is said to be the home and there is a reluctance, especially among revivalists, to permit women to go out into public nondomestic space more than the minimum necessary. Outside the home, and in the presence of all but a limited circle of male relatives, a Muslim woman should be covered by garments that range from a scarf covering the hair and neck, in the more lenient view, to the all-enveloping shrouds of niqabs, chadors, or burkas, for stricter interpretations. The need to avoid stimulating men and women through public contact has led to practices such as separate seating, or entrances, in public transportation, separate seating in public halls, and so on (mosques have separate seating and entrances). After a period when the imperialism of Western mores led to a reduction in segregation and covering, both practices have been on the increase since the late 1970s.
Licit sex includes sexual intercourse (whether genital, oral, or anal) within marriage. (A man may marry up to four wives if he has the means to support them; a woman may only have one husband). But a man may also have licit sex with concubines whose number is not limited. In premodern times there was a vigorous and legal trade in slave-girls for those with the means to own them. Some branches of Islam authorize temporary marriage. Since the period for this marriage may be as short as one hour, and since Islamic marriages are contracts in which property usually figures, the result can resemble prostitution, with the difference that the woman cannot remarry until she has had her menses, thus obviating any doubt over paternity.
Both male and female homosexuality are forbidden in Islamic law (though only male homosexuality is explicitly condemned in the Koran). In premodern Muslim societies homosexuality was widely tolerated, and even celebrated in literature. In discussions of lesbian practices, mutual masturbation (called rubbing) was even considered potentially positive as it helps to prepare the woman for male sexual penetration. In most respects, attitudes to homosexuality in Muslim societies were a continuation of those that dominated in the ancient classical world in which any shame only attached to the passive partner. Modern revivalist movements, by contrast, have made the repression of homosexuality part of their neo-puritanical agenda.
Literature, both popular and elite, took a very free attitude to the varieties of sexual behavior in premodern Muslim societies. European imperialism, however, brought Victorian values that have been strengthened by the contemporary revivalist movements (at least in their public utterances). Hence, a great classic such as The Thousand and One Nights is only available in expurgated editions (or on the black market).
The sacralization of sexuality extends to the rewards promised to the just in Paradise. In addition to spiritual and other sensual pleasures, the elect male is given multiple (the most common figure is seventy) houris, beautiful maidens in paradise, for his sexual pleasure. He will also enjoy congress with all his legitimate wives (these last will have the enjoyment of their husbands).
The sacralization of sex coupled with the need to control behavior have historically led Muslim societies to potentially contradictory positions. On the one hand, the rich literature of sexual technique and description celebrates female pleasure. On the other hand, many Muslim societies (principally, though not exclusively, in Africa) continue to practice clitoridectomy, the removal of this part of the female genitalia before puberty in order to dampen female desire. The practice also exists in some non-Muslim African societies. Muslim jurists have labeled the practice as either recommended (hence optional) or permitted, but never required or forbidden.
The Koran specifically grants men authority over their wives, including the right to use corporal punishment on a rebellious wife. A wife's marital duties include the obligation to grant sex to her husband unless she is physically indisposed. However, contemporary revivalist women have argued either that the sexual obligation does not extend to anal sex, or that the husband's right to use corporal punishment does not apply to issues of sexual access. Disputes over anal sex also appear in premodern sources.
Adultery or any sex outside of licit relationships is condemned in Islam, though in practice enforcement has been made difficult, especially for men. A woman accused of sexual impropriety, or even the appearance of such, suffers the full brunt of social disapproval, extending to death by legal or extralegal means. The "honor killing" of females who have escaped the control of their male relatives or guardians is widespread in many Muslim societies. Though such homicide is clearly not consistent with Islamic law, its proponents claim the support of the religion and adduce the Koranic verse permitting corporal chastisement of rebellious women as justification.
Ascha, Ghassan. Du statut inférieur de la femme en Islam. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1987.
Bouhdiba, Abdelwahab. Sexuality in Islam. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.
Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Woman's Body, Woman's Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
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