Islam, Sexual Ethics, and Community Conversations

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Spirituality of Sex. Read other perspectives here.

Sex is described as many things: it can be an act of passion for some, physical gratification for others, a necessity for procreation, an act of worship for people of faith, or some combination thereof. It is also a word and experience that is often loaded with many emotions: joy, love, and all too often, fear, shame, and stigma.

One of the challenges of beginning this conversation is that historically, sex and sexuality have been seen as uncomfortable subjects across most racial, ethnic, and religious communities. In Muslim communities, the strong notions of privacy and modesty are often conflated with the shaming of feeling sexual desire, which creates an environment hostile to open discourse, let alone operating outside of religious code. This lack of open, nuanced conversation has long-term consequences: it instills shame and unhealthy attitudes toward sex, which many women carry into their sexual relationships, both within the framework of marriage and outside of it. Islam, like many other faiths, has values around sex and sexuality, and most mainstream scholars would agree that the tradition emphasizes:

  1. Abstinence until marriage
  2. Modesty and privacy around sexual issues
  3. Mutual pleasure between partners, a sexual right that both men and women are granted

It is also noteworthy that Islam as a faith is sex-positive—sex is considered to be a sacred act of worship and the right to mutual pleasure is at the forefront—but cultural baggage and patriarchy has perpetuated attitudes of shame, stigma, and silence about sexuality. So what role does sexuality play in the life of the spirit? The current narrative is that sexuality and faith can be at odds with each other for those who may not operate within the above-mentioned religious code, but do they have to be? Have we created a safe, judgment-free space for all in our communities where individuals can explore values and expectations about sex while still feeling a sense of belonging to the faith community they identify with? Is it possible to have a values-based conversation on sex while still honoring personal agency? How can we reclaim the conversation to one that instills positive, healthy attitudes toward sex, instead of one laden with cultural baggage, patriarchy, and shame?

As the Executive Director of HEART Women & Girls, a nonprofit that promotes sexual heath in faith communities, my work demands that I ask these tough, uncomfortable questions. Often times, these questions are the pink elephant in the room. In secular spaces, sex positivity and feminism promote sexual freedom and tend to dismiss religious law that promotes ideals such as abstinence as oppressive. Despite the reality that Islam is historically a sex-positive faith, with numerous, detailed references in Quran, hadith, and other legalistic texts, current religious discourse often offers Muslims little space to openly ask questions and negotiate their sexual identities.

In fact, many Muslim scholars instead reinforce cultural and patriarchal stereotypes about female sexuality and pass them off as Islamic guidance. Consequently, many unmarried women, and even some married women, find themselves being denied their sexuality even as adults, being shamed and at times alienated when speaking openly about sexuality or sexual health concerns. And while I am certainly not arguing that Islamic law should be changed, I do believe it's time to address the topic of sex and sexuality with respect and dignity, to engage in nuanced, honest discussions, and to reclaim sexual decision making—both for those who choose to engage as well as those who choose to abstain—as a tool of empowerment. For example, many Muslims find their faith and Islamic guidelines empowering (and not oppressive), and work to incorporate them throughout their lives. There have been instances when individuals:

  1. Choose abstinence, or return to abstinence after being sexually active, for the sake of their faith.
  2. Explore romantic relationships and companionship in at a time when the age of marriage is delayed, but still strive to maintain their physical boundaries.