Virtue and Danger: Sexuality and Prophetic Norms

Marriage as a hedge against sin has its own complications. Catholic scholarship paints a broad-brushstroke portrait of coupled sexuality where harmonious physical intimacy deepens spiritual life and spousal love. But sex can also be contentious. Muslim sources, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledge friction between partners when desires are out of sync. A handful of hadith insist that wives must acquiesce to their husbands' requests for sex, even when the women are otherwise occupied or uninterested. Married women were, according to legal rulings, required to be sexually available to their husbands. This availability could conflict with their voluntary pious practices, such as fasting (which required abstention from sex as well as food), and nighttime devotions (which precluded joining one's spouse in the marriage bed).  Although they were never allowed to interfere with their wives' obligatory devotions, men could thus prohibit supererogatory acts of worship on the grounds that they interfered with men's marital rights. But we have seen that men, too, were enjoined to be attentive to their wives' needs. If the Prophet's exhortation that a wife had a right over her husband was sometimes overshadowed in classical religious discourses, which stressed wives' sexual obligations rather than their needs, an element that valued and promoted women's sexual pleasure was always present (Al-Ghazali 2002: 28-9, Hidayatullah 2003). This discourse has come to the fore prominently in the modern world and served as one basis for the Western view of Islam as "a sex-positive religion" -- and the muddled and contested view of the Prophet as a role model for Muslim men in their marital relations.

Muhammad as an ideal husband is a notion that will, perhaps, be strange for Western audiences. There has been a long -- though by no means uniform or static -- Western tradition of tandem criticism of Muhammad and Islam, with much of the nastiest material centering on the Prophet's relations with women. Charges of sensuality formed an integral part of the character assassination in premodern European polemic (Reeves 2001). The most common objections were to his polygamy, his unflattering preoccupation with sex, and his marriage to his former daughter-in-law, the ex-wife of his adopted son. (This last marriage raised the most qualms for early Muslims as well.) In late modernity, Muhammad's polygamy still comes in for censure, but Muhammad's marriage to his friend and supporter Abu Bakr's young daughter Aisha has taken center stage as evidence of his depravity. For these critics, Muhammad's wanton sensualism stands in explicit contrast to Jesus' exemplary celibacy. Modern Muslims grapple with various strands of this critique as they engage in debate over what Muhammad's example means. There is no longer a discrete Muslim tradition in isolation from a Western one; thinking about Muhammad as a husband and as a model for other husbands proceeds through the medium of an integrated set of questions about the propriety of his conduct and its applicability in the world today. Some Christians today ask, in assessing a course of action, "What would Jesus do?" Muslims often ask, "What did Muhammad do?" 

Jesus and Muhammad are clearly incommensurable in certain theological respects, but there are productive areas for comparative conversation about what it means to have such a role model. Other topics for discussion include the linkages between abstinence and power, and the relationship between ordination and religious authority. Less immediately obvious but potentially interesting avenues of exploration would be broader consideration of favoritism and its connection with sexuality. One of the more intriguing Roman Catholic arguments in favor of clerical celibacy is that by virtue of not forming exclusive personal bonds, priests or religious can devote themselves equally to all of humanity, whereas a married person must first attend to spouse and children. But I wonder whether some forms of favoritism are inevitable, whether they are not necessarily bad, and whether the sexual bond is necessarily the most dramatic key to intimacy. To have closer relationships with some people than others -- friends as well as kin -- is simply part of most people's experience of being human. Love for broader segments of humanity needn't always be hampered by close personal ties; those ties can serve as training grounds for intimacy and empathy. On the other hand, the linkage of favoritism with sexuality is potentially explosive.  Actual or potential polygamy, rare and controversial though it is in most Muslim contexts today, complicates marital dynamics. Can one derive lessons about favoritism from Muslim sources that acknowledge Muhammad's scrupulous equality in certain dealings with his wives as well as his greater emotional investment in some relationships than others (Ghazzali 2002: 27)? 

Of course, marriage in Muhammad's era meant something quite different than it does to Muslims today, just as the Church fathers' visions differed not only from one another but also, quite dramatically, from the present. Debates over sexuality in marriage (and outside it) must be connected to shifting ideas about what kind of relationship marriage is or should be. Stephanie Coontz subtitled a recent history of Western marriage "from obedience to intimacy" and the incomplete and contested shifts she describes have their counterparts among Muslims worldwide. The pace and specific dynamics of some of the shifts (to nuclear families, for instance) differ widely between Muslims in Iran and Indonesia, Turkey and Toronto, or Australia and Afghanistan. Key elements of patriarchal marriage are being heatedly debated nearly everywhere and occasionally jettisoned. But whether patriarchal or egalitarian, whether Muslims are in the minority or the majority, whether Islam is the state religion or not, marriage -- and sex within it -- remains normative.

1/6/2010 5:00:00 AM