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Sexual Norms and Practices in the Qurʾān and the Sunnah

Abdessamad Dialmy
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Sexual Norms and Practices in the Qurʾān and the Sunnah

This article examines sexual norms and practices as they are expounded upon in the Qurʾān and sunnah and as they are understood and interpreted in mainstream, Sunnī Islam.

Within its four legal schools of law, Sunnī Islam establishes licit sexuality as a fulfillment of the Quranic concept of the couple (zawj): “Allah has created the two spouses, the male and the female” (50:49). Allah then made the desiring of women a natural province for men (3:14). Sexual desire (shawah), a desirable phenomenon in Islam, is the basis for the complementarity of the sexes in a regulated setting. Divine recommendation is clear about this: “They are a garment for you and you are a garment for them … live with them and look for what Allah has prescribed for you” (2:183–187).

The complementarity of the sexes rests on the founding principle that there are two distinct genders operating within a public sexual order, which is organized around two main norms (heterosexuality and legality) and two types of sexual practices (gendered practices and prohibited practices). Indeed, difference and complementarity of the sexes imposes heterosexuality as the only normal and legitimate public sexual order (Dialmy, 2005). In (normative) Islam, being heterosexual is being sexually correct.

These patriarchal norms and practices are not specific to Islam but they were organized in specific ways. An important specificity is the definition of woman as a potential source of seduction (fitnah) through her totally erogenous body (awrāt). Woman is potentially the arrow that the demon uses to deflect men from the fear of God. She is therefore a feared body, a body to tame, a body to sexually neutralize in the public space, thanks to its (total) veiling or its confinement. In this, a ḥadīth in al-Tirmidhī (d. 893) states that “the woman is totally awrāt, and if she goes out of her house, the devil guides her, she is the closest to God when she stays in the depths of her house” (al-Tirmidhī, 1173).

Within the norm of legality, marriage and female concubinage are the two settings for legal sexuality (4:24). Outside these two settings, sexuality is fornication (zinah): “the female fornicator and the male fornicator scourge each of them a hundred whips … and let a group of the believers witness their punishment” (24:2). The word nikāh is used only for marriage with free women; it is not used for sex with concubines. With concubines, it is watʾ (intercourse).

Praise of Marriage

The sunnah valorizes marriage with no ambiguity: “O young men, whoever among you can afford to get married, let him do so, as it lowers the eyesight and guards his modesty and whoever cannot afford it, let him fast, for that will be a shield for him…” (al-Bukhārī, 4778; Muslim, 1400); “marriage is my way (or norm)” (Ibn Mājah, 6807).

The Qurʾān and the sunnah use the word nikāh, which etymologically means “coitus” and terminologically indicates coitus in marriage or, more generally, just “marriage.” Therefore, nikāh is a contract between a man and a woman, an integrating act, psychologically as an act permitting coition, and socially as a marriage. Virginity is one of the qualities in a wife that is highly regarded. Verses in the Qurʾān describe virgin nymphs in paradise as model women and epitomes of the desirable. For traditional scholars, virginity means that the wife will be an obeying sexual disciple who discovers sex through her husband, her sexual master. In contrast, there are no Arabic words to describe a virgin man, not only because of the absence of a hymen in male anatomy, but also because men were not expected to remain virgins until marriage. They may have owned a concubine.

As far as women are concerned, marriage is the only legal space for sexual enjoyment. The sunnah stresses this point repeatedly:

"“the marital coitus leading to pleasure is equivalent to alms… When spouses make love, God looks at them, full of kindness”" (al-Nawawī, 25; Muslim, 1006).

“No one among you should have sex with his wife like animals; rather there should be a messenger between them… good speech, foreplay, kissing”

(al-Daylami in al-Albani, 6075).

Traditional scholars like Ibn Ardun (d. 1603) used the notion of the “meeting of the two waters” in order to express the necessity of simultaneous or shared orgasm (Dialmy, 1987). They affirmed that men should make love to their wives neither too often for fear of saturation, nor too little for fear of causing harm. Coitus interruptus is a legal practice for contraceptive purposes. It wasn’t prohibited in the Qurʾān or by the Prophet, but it must be practiced with the wife’s authorization. No authorization is needed when it is practiced with a concubine (al-Bukhārī, 2542; Muslim, 1438).

More importantly, the female orgasm is considered necessary for ensuring the wife’s affection and fidelity, and through this the husband can be certain of his paternity of their children, and the security of his lineage with respect to maintaining honor and correct inheritance. Satisfying the wife’s sexual needs makes her muhasana (fortified), a wife built like a fortress, able to withstand any temptation of adultery. In summary, female marital orgasm is a means to maintaining patriarchal lineal security. This security is one of the five goals (maqāṣid) of Sharīʾah (Shāṭibī, d. 1388).

Concubinage: The Other Legal Sexual Practice

The Qurʾān states that:

"“[As for those] who safeguard their sex except from their wives or whom their right hand possesses, […] they are free from blame. But whoever seeks anything beyond that, those are the transgressors”"


This verse allows both marital and concubinal sex. Concubinage was practiced at the time of the Prophet and it was regulated in a number of ḥadīths. The Prophet Muḥammad himself owned female slaves and practiced concubinage. One ḥadīth advises that when a female prisoner of war who has been reduced to slavery is pregnant, she cannot be “fucked before her delivery,” while a non-pregnant concubine could not be accessed sexually “before one period” (Abū Dāʾūd, 2157). What is more, when a female slave gives birth to a child by her master, she becomes a mother of a child. Then she cannot be sold and she should be emancipated after the death of her master-owner (Joseph, 2006).

One contemporary argument made to legitimize the practice of concubinage in the Qurʾān and sunnah is that concubinage satisfies the sexual appetites of the female slaves, preventing the spread of fornication in the ummah.

Four Gendered Sexual Practices

While marriage is permissible for men and women, concubinage is only a man’s right. While (free) women also have the right to own slaves (female and male), they are not allowed to have sex with them. The practice of concubinage was thus a gendered sexual inequality. In other words, premarital and extramarital sexual abstinence are only for females because men can enjoy concubinage before and during marriage. Consequently, the free women’s right to sexual enjoyment is linked only to marriage, the only legal possibility. In this setting, the husband is obliged to satisfy his wife’s sexual needs. But he legally has the right to abstain for four months according to the Qurʾān: “Those who vow abstinence from their wives must wait for four months. But if they reconcile, God is Forgiving and Merciful” (2: 226). On the contrary, the wife is considered to be disobedient if she refuses to have sex with her husband without religious impediment (such as having her period, being in postpartum, fasting, or on pilgrimage). The wife cannot ask for a divorce during the husband’s abstinence while the husband has the right to repudiate her or to beat her in case of her sexual refusal/disobedience (2:34). Furthermore, the Prophet said: “If a man calls his wife to his bed and she refuses to come, angels curse her until morning comes” (al-Bukhārī, 3065; Muslim, 1436).

Another gendered sexual practice that discriminates against women allows Muslim men to marry Jewish and Christian women because they are “people of the book”: “So are chaste believing women, and chaste women from the people who were given the Scripture before you, provided you give them their dowries, and take them in marriage, not in adultery, nor as mistresses” (5:5). For jurists this male right is used to convert those women to Islam. It is also a means to growing the Muslim demographic, since the children of those women are then raised as Muslim. The reverse of this practice is legally forbidden: a Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man. Defined as weak and vulnerable, Muslim women are considered unable to pass their Islam to their children, and are forbidden from marrying outside their faith.

The fourth gender-based discrimination in relation to sexuality is polygamy, the man’s right to marry as many as four wives: “Then marry the women you like, two, or three, or four. But if you fear you will not be fair, then one, or what your right hands own, that makes it more likely that you avoid unfairness” (4:6). The Prophet Muḥammad himself became polygamous after the death of his first wife, Khadījah. Exceptionally for him, he married nine women at the same time and was able to have sex with all them on the same night. The sunnah shows how Muḥammad was a very virile man (al-Bukhārī, 4917). For this reason, he is perceived as the model man for all Muslim men. Polygamy is the legal solution for the “sexual natural difference” between men and women as al-Ḥasan ibn Alī ibn Abī Ṭalīb (d. 670) explains: “poor is the man who has only one wife: if she has her period, he has it with her, if she has her lochia, he has it with her” (al-Ouazzani, 1908). In a word, polygamy is traditionally perceived to be better than monogamy (and adultery). This norm has been criticized by some modern Muslim reformists (al-Haddad, 1972) and such critiques have led to polygamy being limited or prohibited in some few Arab countries, such as Tunisia, which outlawed the practice in 1956.

Three Prohibited Sex Practices

In the setting of marriage and concubinage, anal sex/sodomy is prohibited in the dominant Sunnī interpretations of the Qurʾānic verse “Your women are a tilth for you, so go into your tilth as you like” (2:223). This verse is read to mean that semen should be put where it would be useful, for procreative purposes, and not in the anus. “As you like” is interpreted to give a free choice over sexual positions but always in the vagina. Many ḥadīths forbid anal sex, such as: “Cursed he… who has sex with a woman through her back passage… Sodomy of the wife, this minor homosexuality” (Ibn Ḥanbal, 213).

Oral sex is also prohibited; disliked at the very least. If a man inserts his penis in his wife’s mouth, it is said that it is disliked (makrūh), and others said that is not disliked (al-Bourhânboûri, 5/372). The main argument contends that the mouth and tongue are used for Qurʾānic recitation and the “remembrance of Allah” (dhikr). In addition, genital secretions are viewed as impure, and they oblige the faithful to undertake major ablutions. Consequently, the mouth and tongue are to be preserved from impurity because they are to be used to interact with holy texts and the names of God. Further, there is no mention of oral sex as a part of foreplay in the ḥadīth, even though Islam focuses on the importance of foreplay (Ebrahim Desai, 2012).

There is also neither explicit mentioning nor prohibition of masturbation in the Qurʾān or sunnah. The majority of Sunni scholars consider it as ḥarām because only heterosexuality in marriage and/or in concubinage is ḥalāl. For them, no sexual enjoyment outside these two settings is permitted. However, Ḥanbalī doctrine makes an exception to this if there is a potential for fornication otherwise. In such cases masturbation is to be utilized to avoid the graver sin of fornication (Ibn Taymīyah, 34/230). It is also the case in Ḥanafī doctrine: “it is to be hoped that there will be no sin if someone does it because he experiences a strong pressure of instinct” (al-Shami, 3/371)

Conclusion and Sociosexual Change

Sexual norms in the Qurʾān and sunnah appear to represent a paradoxical sexual order (Dialmy, 2010). On the one hand, the exercise of sexuality is valued and encouraged through the use of positive terminology, such as desire (shahwah), intercourse/marriage (nikāh), good things (ṭayyibāt), foreplay (beautiful words, caresses, kisses, nudity), enjoyment (mutʾā), contraceptive interrupted intercourse (ʿazl).

On the other hand, access to sexuality is unequal. Discrimination is established between: 1) heterosexuals and homosexuals, 2) men and women, 3) married and unmarried, 4) “free” individuals and slaves. In a word, the right to sexuality as such is not recognized as such. It is subject to possessing the “good” sexual orientation (heterosexual), and is regulated by the obligation of marriage or to the (financial ability) to own female concubines.

Since their “establishment” in the Qurʾān and sunnah, sexual norms and practices have evolved out of their initial historical context. Most notably, the second half of the twentieth century marked the disappearance of concubinage and there emerged a predominance of heterosexual relationships based on love between couples. The twentieth century also marked the emergence of new and competing standards in Islam, arguing for sexual and bodily human rights. Sexual practices that do not conform to Islamic norms, such as premarital sex and homosexuality, are seeking to be legalized, either through a rereading of Islamic norms (as is the case in Morocco) or through the secularization of laws (as is the case in Turkey). One can conclude that the current gap between Islamic sexual norms and Muslim sexual practices expresses a transitional sexuality (Dialmy, 2017).


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