Virtue and Danger: Sexuality and Prophetic Norms

By Kecia Ali

A famous statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad declares: "Marriage is my sunnah (exemplary practice); whoever abstains from it is not from me." Another states that those who marry have "completed half their religion" (Zayla'i 2000: 2:444). Still another Prophetic dictum rejects the notion of a celibate religious life: "There is no monkery in Islam" (Maghen 2005: 5, n. 11). And one warns married believers not to let pious practices of daytime fasting and night-long prayer vigils keep them from satisfying their basic drives for food, rest, and sex.  Muhammad insists that a believer's body, eyes, and wife have claims on him -- and that Muslims are to follow his own example: he fasts and prays, but also eats, sleeps, and has sex with women (Bukhari 1987: 7:97). These brief extracts from the voluminous compilations of hadith -- authoritative (to varying degrees) records of Muhammad's words and deeds that supplement the Qur'an as a source for religious knowledge -- touch on vital themes relevant to celibacy and sexuality in Islamic thought and Muslim life. These include the role of Muhammad as a model for believers, the lack of an ordained clergy or vow-bound religious class, and the implications of treating the normative believer as male. There are thus various points where Muslim and Roman Catholic perspectives disagree vehemently, others where they can profitably converse, and a few where they barely come within shouting distance of one another.

To begin with the most obvious distinction, there is no tradition of clerical celibacy in Islam in part because there is not really a clergy. Historically, the religious scholars, the ulama, have been more akin to rabbis than ordained priests. Islam has rituals but no sacraments. Those who perform clerical functions -- prayer leadership, preaching, legal guidance, and spiritual advising -- have no sacerdotal role and take no vows that distinguish them from laypeople. Some Muslim subgroups, including both the Twelver Shi‘a and the Ismailis, maintain more formalized and hierarchical authority structures, but on the whole a fecund and fragmented informality has ruled. That said, maleness as a qualification for religious leadership is often assumed, if under siege in some quarters today. Moreover, debates over the intersections of religious law and civil law regarding marriage and divorce roil diverse Muslim publics. Gender, sexuality, and religious authority are thus linked in modern Muslim thought but in ways that differ from how they are related in Catholic and other Christian debates over female ordination, clerical celibacy, clerical homosexuality, and same-sex unions.

Of course, Islam has had its share of ascetics and contemplatives, both loners and those in mystical orders. Some Muslim renunciants have remained celibate despite the prohibition against "monkery," but they have always been a minority. Muslim jurists oscillate between strongly recommending marriage and deeming it obligatory; that it could be undesirable as a general matter is inconceivable (Abou El Fadl 2001: 195). Still, scholars acknowledge that some people are unsuited for married life. Some do not need it, for instance those who lack sexual desire, and some cannot fulfill its obligations, like those (men) who cannot support a wife. Indeed, the 11th-century scholar al-Ghazali counted among the dangers of marriage the possibility that a man might be led by financial need to unethical dealings (Ghazzali 2002: 15). Marriage was also, as the hadith from Muhammad attests, a distraction from worship (Ghazzali 2002: 16). While the Prophet praised balance rather than abstinence, his advice was intended for an already married man, and there were certainly some who considered the trade-off too great -- once again, Prophetic admonitions to marry notwithstanding.

From early in the history of Christianity, debates over marriage (Ought one to marry?) and married sex (Should spouses have sex? Should it be for procreation only? Should they enjoy it?) have occupied thinkers whose answers have varied considerably. The spectrum of views within Muslim circles has been considerably narrower and much more strongly positive: marriage is good and sex within marriage is religiously meritorious as well as physically pleasurable, even when procreation is not the aim. Marriage functions as a fortress against unrestrained sexual urges, which are potentially destructive of the social fabric as well as devastating for individual morality. In a popular hadith, Muhammad counsels a man that God will reward him for having sex with his wife, just as God would punish him for an illicit liaison (Ali 2006: 60-61). The key juxtaposition in Muslim thought, then, is not between marriage and celibacy but between lawful and unlawful sex: the former is good in part because the latter is so very bad. As in some strands of Christian thinking, one finds the negative association of women with temptation, but sex itself is not evil, just extremely dangerous.