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Sherifa Zuhur
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century


In the Muslim world, sexuality is simultaneously more open and more conservative than in other geographic regions. These contradictory aspects result from a confluence of Muslim principles and regional ideologies of gender combined with centuries of cultural modulation. Misrepresentations of Muslim sexuality frequently focus on gender relations.

Islamic law recognizes the sexual nature of believers; sexuality provides a balance to the spiritual, material, and intellectual spheres of life. However, the Freudian critiques of Abdelwahab Bouhdiba (Sexuality in Islam, London, 1985) and Fatna Sabbah (Women in the Muslim Unconscious, New York, 1984) posit an authoritarian relationship in Islam of God‐to‐man and man‐to‐woman. Within this hierarchical formula, with women ranking lowest, it is assumed that men fear the supposedly disruptive potential of women's sexuality (fitna). Thus the need to contain it in a rigidly patriarchal framework. The Freudian interpretation of Muslim sexuality and others drawing on colonial mythology and Orientalism do not fully recognize mainstream Islam's rejection of asceticism, or its vision of the complementary role of the sexes. Muslims understand sexual fulfillment within marriage for both partners to be the ideal state of affairs; sexual needs are understood, satisfied, and allow the couple other forms of communication as well as other pursuits. Licensed sex is neither sinful, nor restricted solely to procreation, but serves as a means of communication and a source of solace. The subordination of women within the marriage institution is considered a degradation, or corruption, of Muslim practice.

Characteristics of the ideal man and woman constitute a flexible masculinity and femininity: strength, stubbornness, bravery, jealousy are found in a man; delicacy, shyness, resourcefulness, patience define a woman. Some Muslims argue that women naturally require male protection, and that a man's sexual needs may exceed a woman's thereby supporting arguments for polygyny. Others refute both claims, holding that women may be physically smaller than men, but not weaker, and that it is impossible to accord multiple wives the equitable treatment demanded by the Qur'ān. Conceptions of gender have traditionally defined sex roles. Women who have experienced expanded sex roles by working in male fields or occupations, are sometimes accused of being masculine, or aggressive. Yet in reality, the range of personal and sexual identities is enormous, limited more in the Muslim ideal than in daily life.

Sexuality may be realized through gender identity and cross‐gender interaction. Muslims consider puberty to be the age at which gender identity is fully manifest. As secondary sex traits emerge, the issue of hermaphroditism is resolved one way or the other; either male or female gender identity results. Homosexuality exists in the Muslim world (and was probably encouraged under the system of strict separation of the sexes). It is either considered unlawful, abnormal, and punishable under sharī῾ah, or tolerated in areas where homosexuals are viewed as a “third sex,” neither men nor women.

Although sexual impulses may arise after puberty, virginity is highly valued for girls. Brides are assumed to be virgins when they marry, and may be required to obtain a certificate of virginity from a physician in some countries. Muslim families do not expect or permit teenagers to engage in sexual activity. But, since the age of marriage has risen for economic reasons, and because young people are expected to complete their education, this prohibition on youthful sexuality produces a relatively long period of sexual tension. Separation of the sexes is enforced in social and school networks enhancing same‐sex communication and strengthening the notion of spheres for men and women. In urban areas, young couples may date, sometimes chaperoned, sometimes only in groups.

Female circumcision is practiced in Egypt, the Sudan, parts of the Gulf, Libya, Chad, and other Muslim areas of Africa in order to control female sexuality and ensure virginity at marriage. Pre‐Islamic in origin, the operation, which may also involve infibulation, serious medical complications, and psychological trauma, is wrongly considered to be Muslim, intended to “purify” or “clean” the circumcised. Although illegal in Egypt, it is nonetheless the rule among more than half the population. [See Clitoridectomy.]

Other aspects of female sexuality are affected by popular customs. Kidnapping of brides was a common practice in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria until a generation ago, as were arranged marriages. Although family involvement in the selection of a marriage partner is part of Muslim tradition, a woman's consent must be obtained. Honor killings continue, mostly in rural areas when a wife, daughter, or sister is suspected of illicit sexual relations. These practices represent specific abuses of Muslim family standards. But more general tensions have developed since the demise of the harem system in the early twentieth century and the integration of women into the workplace and other aspects of public life. These tensions are sometimes overt, as in the case of male harassment in public places, or form the subtext of intellectual and media debates over the proper status of women and the potential danger to societal morality posed by the relaxation of sexual codes.

Education has promoted new ideas concerning family planning and population growth. Birth control is viewed as an aid to managing family resources, and allows married couples the opportunity to enjoy sex for itself. Still, powerful links remain between sexuality and reproduction. Traditional birth control practices reflected social conditions and gender inequities. With less than secure legal protections against divorce, women believed that if they did not bear children they would be repudiated. Men disliked the use of birth control devices, which they considered a mediator (waṣiṭah), interfering with their sexual pleasure. The Prophet recommended coitus interruptus to control impregnation (῾azl). (Basim Musallam has written about many other historical forms of reproductive control in Sex and Society in Medieval Islam, London, 1983.) Official rulings from religious scholars were needed to legitimize modern forms of birth control. But resistance to certain forms of reproductive control continues.

Some Muslim doctors and scholars have called for a ban on sterilization. Almost all disapprove of abortion. Muslims generally hold that children are divinely created, and fetal rights legitimately restrict a woman's rights over her body. Although life was once considered to begin when the mother could feel fetal movement (at about four months), modern Muslim opinions have found that life begins at fertilization. Abortion has been permitted only when the mother's life is severely medically compromised.

Impotence and infertility or sterility are considered shameful culturally, although the Qur'ān reminds adults that children are a divine gift. Infertility treatments, including in vitro fertilization, are permitted by a number of jurists, but not the use of donor sperm, eggs, or surrogate arrangements.

Sexual relations are licensed only within a legal and normative marriage, or among the Shī῾ī, in a temporary marriage contracted between an unmarried woman and a married or unmarried man (mut῾ah in Arabic, sīgheh in Farsi). Sexual intercourse is prohibited during menstruation, for forty days after childbirth, during the day hours of Ramaḋān, and on pilgrimage. Women must be chaste for three months after divorcing, and for four months after a man's vow of sexual abstinence and desertion. Legal arguments also allow or oppose specific forms of sexual activity, and mandate women's rights to conjugal pleasure as well as men's.

See also Family; Family Planning; Marriage and Divorce; Mut῾ah; Polygyny; Puberty Rites; Seclusion.


  • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, 1992. General history of women and gender issues, mainly in the Arab Muslim world with a narrower focus on Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • ῾Aẓm, Ṣādiq Jalāl al‐. Fī al‐ḥubb wa‐al‐ḥubb al‐῾udhrī. 3d ed. Casablanca, 1987. Critique of emotional relations and conceptions of love, including “courtly” or unrequited love in Arabo‐Islamic society.
  • Bauer, Janet L. Sexuality and the Moral ‘Construction’ of Women in an Islamic Society. Anthropological Quarterly 58.3 (July 1985): 120–129. Presents attitudes imposed under the Islamic Republic.
  • Bowen, Donna Lee. Muslim Juridical Opinions Concerning the Status of Women as Demonstrated by the Case of ῾Azl. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 40.4 (October 1981): 323–328. Detailed treatment of the topic that also explains distinctions in the status of slave vs. free wives.
  • Esposito, John L. Women in Muslim Family Law. Syracuse, N.Y., 1968. An excellent introduction to specific issues in shar῾īah related to gender and stemming from a Muslim perception of sexuality and family.
  • Malti‐Douglas, Fedwa. Woman's Body, Woman's Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo‐Islamic Writing. Princeton, N.J., 1991. Analysis of the discourse of gender, woman, and female sexuality through specific classical and modern texts.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Virginity and Patriarchy. Women's Studies International Forum 5.2 (1982); 183–192. This issue contains other articles concerning aspects of women's status including al‐Sa῾dāwī (below).
  • Sabbah, Fatna (pseud.) Women in the Muslim Unconscious, New York, 1984.
  • Sa῾dāwī, Nawāl al‐. Woman and Islam. Women's Studies International Forum 5.2 (1982): 193–206.
  • Sanders, Paula. Gendering the Ungendered Body: Hermaphrodites in Medieval Islamic Law. In Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender, edited by Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron, pp. 74–95. New Haven and London, 1991.
  • Toubia, Nahid. Women and Health in Sudan. In Women of the Arab World: The Coming Challenge, edited by Nahid Toubia, pp. 98–109. London, 1988. Discusses social and psychological as well as medical aspects of female circumcision.
  • Wikan, Unni. Behind the Veil in Arabia: Women in Oman. Baltimore, 1982. Covers gender issues as well as homosexual men in Sohari society.
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Presents the polemics of gender issues and conceptions of femininity since the advent of Islam, and Islamist ideals of cross‐gender relations, family interaction, and women's roles.
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