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Religion Library: Islam

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Mohammad Fadel

Practices such as unilateral divorce (especially a unilateral and irrevocable divorce) had been long been frowned upon in traditional Islamic law (even though they were legally effective), and as such are rare among Muslim communities in North America. To the extent a husband purports to exercise such a right, the weight of opinion among contemporary Muslim authorities would deny the effectiveness of such a divorce. Ultimately, however, at least as a matter of religious law (but obviously not civil law), the decision to recognize the effectiveness of such a divorce turns on the religious scruples of the couple involved. If the wife sincerely believed that a divorce took place, for example, then she would be ethically bound to leave her husband, and vice-versa. The great majority of Muslim religious authorities in North American Muslim communities also counsel Muslims to refrain from polygyny on the grounds that it is not permitted under domestic law. On the other hand, given the substantial possibility that laws criminalizing polygyny could very well be struck down as unconstitutional in either the United States or Canada, the Islamic objection to polygyny in North America based on its illegality would be subject to revision.

Islamic norms of sexuality are closely connected with Islamic marital law. Indeed, one of the primary purposes of Islamic marital law is to make sexual relations licit. The taboo against extramarital sex is set forth clearly in the Quran and the sunna of the Prophet Muhammad, and pre-modern Islamic law applied harsh penalties to illicit sexual intercourse. These harsh penalties—lashes for the unmarried fornicator and stoning to death for the married adulterer—although mitigated by impossibly unrealistic evidentiary standards (four male witnesses of outstanding character to the act of penetration), served the purpose of communicating the moral gravity of illicit intercourse. 

While modern Muslims have little taste to apply such penalties, traditional views regarding the immorality of extramarital sexual relations continue to prevail in Muslim societies, leading some observers to point out that it is Muslims' continued commitment to traditional norms of sexual propriety that represents the most substantial cultural difference in the modern world separating Muslim popular culture from the popular culture of non-Muslim societies. Muslims' continued commitment to the traditional norm that sex is only licit within marriage may be explained in part by the relative ease of access to both marriage and divorce within the Islamic tradition, so that serial monogamy, for example, has been and continues to be, a realistic option in Muslim societies. 

Finally, open homosexuality remains a strict taboo in Muslim societies. Here, however, the privacy norm complicates sexual practices in Muslim societies. There is little doubt that homosexuality is widespread in Muslim societies. Because of Islamic norms of privacy, however, private homosexuality can be and was tolerated, so much so that 19th-century Europeans tended to view Islamic societies as sexually liberated havens relative to Europe. This toleration, however, was based not so much on acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate expression of sexuality, but rather as conduct which, so long as it was confined to private spaces, was not anyone else's business. Such a theory, while making space for homosexuality, does not, nor could it contemplate legitimizing homosexual relationships by, for example, recognizing same sex marriage.

Study Questions:
1.     Why were men and women treated differently at the time of Islam’s origins?
2.     How does ritual contribute to gender inequality, even in contemporary society?
3.     Where do women have the most power? Where do they seem the most powerless?
4.     How do civil laws influence the ritual of marriage within Islam?
5.     What is the role of sex within Islam?


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