Citation for Sexuality

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Zuhur, Sherifa and Fatma Umut Beşpınar-Ekici. "Sexuality." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oct 21, 2020. <>.


Zuhur, Sherifa and Fatma Umut Beşpınar-Ekici. "Sexuality." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Oct 21, 2020).


In the Muslim world, sexuality is both more open and more conservative than in other geographic regions. It is more open inasmuch as it is subject to much comment in Islamic discourse, and it is more conservative inasmuch as Islam often stresses the regulation of sexuality. The abundance of controversy about sexuality is partly the result of the absence of any monolithic Islamic approach to sex; the perspectives of the four major schools differ in some important respects on rules governing sexual conduct. In addition, Islamic practices are embedded in a variety of historical, economic, and socio-cultural forces, which are absorbed in the teachings of these schools. Since Islam presents a set of rules and regulations for both spiritual and civic aspects of individual and communal life, sexuality, like other aspects of human life, is regulated through Qurʿānic verses, the sunnah, ḥadīths, ijmāʿ (rulings of jurists), and qiyās (analogy).

Islamic law recognizes the sexual nature of believers; sexuality provides a balance to the spiritual, material, and intellectual spheres of life. The Freudian critiques of Abdelwahab Bouhdiba and Fatna Sabbah posit an authoritarian relationship in Islam of God-to-man and man-to-woman, and Bruce Dunne argues that sexual relations in the Middle Eastern context are closely related to the articulation of power relations based on the social hierarchies between men and women and the categorizations of subordinate-dominant and normal-deviant. Within this hierarchical formula, with women ranking lowest, it is assumed that men fear the supposedly disruptive potential of women's sexuality (fitnah). Fitnah is supposed to give rise to potentially uncontrollable urges in men if it is not socially regulated, hence the need to contain it in a rigidly patriarchal framework. Control over women's sexuality through rules and regulations on sexual conduct and segregation is the indispensable correlate of safeguarding family honor and the social order (seeKeddie).

The Freudian interpretation of Muslim sexuality and others that draw upon 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 and 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. As Fatima Mernissi (1985) argues, Islam does regard sexuality and sexual urges within marriage as having positive and vital functions, in contrast to “unlicensed” forms of sexuality, which are seen as negative and disruptive. Pre- and extramarital sex—called zinā—are forbidden, illegitimate, and punishable under sharʿīah. Women's virginity is a major consideration for marriage, and early marriage is encouraged, since an unmarried girl after puberty may be vulnerable to violation. 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.

Sexuality and Gender Roles.

Conceptions of gender have traditionally defined sex roles. Characteristics of the ideal man and woman constitute a flexible masculinity and femininity: strength, stubbornness, bravery, and jealousy are found in a man; delicacy, shyness, resourcefulness, and patience define a woman. The male guardianship over women within the family shapes both women's and men's gender roles. In Islam, the emphasis on the different biological characteristics of men and women legitimizes the division of roles and responsibilities between them. Men are expected to protect their wives and provide for their needs and desires, while women need to obey their husbands in the conjugal relationship. Moreover, the gender-segregated organization of everyday life through rules regulating and limiting interactions between different sexes is common in Muslim societies. Women are expected to adhere to the rules of “modesty” in entering the public sphere. Dress codes, including veiling, are common ways of shaping the presence of women in the social spheres of many countries. Although there are social norms, expectations, and rules about gender roles, the variety of gender roles and related practices reflect the intersectionality of class, race, ethnicity, and regional characteristics in which social actors are embedded. For instance, while women from higher classes tend, ideally, to be secluded from the public sphere, lower-class women are more likely to be involved in the public sphere through their participation in the labor force. Women who work in traditionally male fields or occupations are sometimes accused of being masculine or aggressive. Yet in everyday life the range of personal and sexual identities is much wider than the Muslim ideal would suggest.

Polygyny is another practice that is closely connected to gender roles in sexuality and marriage. Although polygyny is often discussed in the West as though it were a widespread practice in the Middle Eastern societies, it has been confined mostly to the middle and upper classes. Some Muslims, arguing that women naturally require male protection and that a man's sexual needs may exceed a woman's, see polygyny as an answer to both tendencies. Others refute both claims, holding that although women may be physically smaller than men, they are not weaker, and that it is impossible to accord multiple wives the equitable treatment demanded by the Qurʿān. Although the importance of equitable treatment of multiple wives is emphasized, the practice of polygyny functions as a disciplining mechanism against women. The hierarchical order among wives is based on their marriage sequence, age, physical characteristics, and race and ethnicity, and their standing in the family and community varies with these varying characteristics (see Hatem).

Sexuality may be realized through gender identity and cross-gender interaction. Muslims consider puberty to be the age at which gender identity becomes fully manifest. Cases of hermaphroditism are resolved by classifying the subject as either male or female as secondary sex traits emerge. Homosexuality exists in the Muslim world and was probably encouraged by the system of strict separation of the sexes that held before the advent of modernization. It is regarded as a punishable crime against the laws of God in the sharīʿah. It may, however, be tolerated in areas where homosexuals are viewed as a “third sex,” neither men nor women. Religious and social perceptions of homosexual relations are not independent of the power relations linked to rigid gender roles in a particular Islamic society. As Dunne explains, the “active” and “passive” positions of individuals in same-sex intercourse are regarded as crucial to locating them in the social hierarchy.

A spectrum of different forms and intensities of control over women's sexuality and bodies can be observed in different regional contexts. Female circumcision, domestic violence, and honor killings are practiced in Middle Eastern and North African societies. In Egypt, Sudan, parts of the Gulf, Libya, Chad, and other Muslim areas of Africa, female circumcision is practiced in order to control female sexual pleasure and ensure virginity at the time of marriage. As Lindy Williams and Teresa Sobieszczyk have shown, female circumcision historically predates Islam in all of these areas. Although it is linked with Islam in those Islamic societies where it occurs, it is wrongly considered to be a Muslim practice. The operation, which is intended to “purify” or “clean” the circumcised, may involve infibulation, serious medical complications, and psychological trauma. As Esther K. Hicks points out, infibulation is embedded in a structural nexus of marriage, family, and social honor.

Violation of the religious rules and sociocultural norms about sexuality may bring about both legal punishment and communal or familial forms of violence in different sociocultural contexts of Muslim societies. The Qurʿān gives men the right to beat their disobedient wives. Islamic religious norms and values are influential not only under sharīʿah, as one might expect, but also crop up, thinly disguised, in secular law systems, as in Turkey. The importance of a woman's purity and modesty as an indicator of family honor and the myth of the heterosexual family union are embodied in the strict division between normality and abnormality as categories of sexual behavior. Individuals whose attitudes are socially “questionable” or “abnormal” may be targets of family or community violence. For instance, honor killings continue in Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, and Turkey when a wife, daughter, or sister is suspected of illicit sexual relations. These practices represent specific abuses of Muslim family standards. As Aysan Sev’er and Gökçeçiçek Yurdakul point out, “honor killings predate Islam and are not consistent with the Qurʿān” (p. 966).

Other aspects of the regulation of marriage are affected by popular customs, which combine religious values and the socioeconomic aspects particular to a region. Marriage is a highly recommended deed in Islam, and it is a contract between the bride and groom and their families, regulated by religious rules. A guardian's participation in the selection of a marriage partner is common in the Muslim tradition and displays the importance of parental involvement in the marriage. Marriage between cousins, which aims to keep property within the lineage, is another customary practice in Middle Eastern societies. Although the various schools of Islam have diverse views on the necessity of a woman's consent to a marriage, the kidnapping of brides against the family's and sometimes the woman's wishes used to be a common practice in certain regions in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Divorce by a thrice-pronounced declaration is regulated by Islamic law, which permits a man to decide if the marriage is over and to divorce his wife. Divorce initiated by the wife can only be realized by an agreement between her and a judge in court. Economic and social pressures make it likely for a divorced woman to return to her family of origin. The woman's father, brother, or son then becomes responsible for her economic needs and social protection.

Social prejudices against women's presence in the public sphere work against the integration of women into the workplace and other aspects of public life. The tensions are sometimes overt, as in the case of male harassment in public places, and they also form a 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. While in Middle Eastern and North African countries women's participation in the labor force is lower compared to other regions, there has been an increase beginning in the last decades of the twentieth century. Religious and political discourses in these countries attempt to counter this trend, or at least to control the parameters of potential female involvement in the public sphere, by encouraging women's traditional gender roles within the family, while discouraging their social and political roles.

Sex and Reproduction.

Socioeconomic development, more prevalent female education, and state-sponsored family planning programs have promoted new ideas concerning family planning and population growth that have affected women's productive and reproductive choices (see Moghadam). Birth control is viewed as an aid to managing family resources, and it allows married couples the opportunity to enjoy sex for itself. Still, powerful links remain between sexuality and reproduction. Traditional birth control practices reflect social conditions and gender inequities. With less than secure legal protections against divorce, women commonly believe that childlessness will lead to repudiation. Men, on the other hand, commonly dislike the use of birth control devices, which they considered a mediator (waṣiṭ) interfering with their sexual pleasure. The Prophet recommended coitus interruptus (ʿazl), with the consent of the woman, to control impregnation; however, even this form of birth control has been in dispute by several jurists and Islamic leaders. Basim Musallam has written about many other historical forms of reproductive control in his book Sex and Society in Islam.

There is no consensus on the birth control issue in Muslim societies. Abdel Rahim Omran, Homa Hoodfar and Samad Assadpour, and Kevin McQuillan show that while in certain contexts Islamic influence has been associated with the persistence of high fertility, in others it accommodates active family planning programs. Zulie Sachedina describes differing legal practices about sterilization and abortion in six Muslim countries in 1990. 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 recently found that life begins at fertilization. Abortion has been permitted only when the mother's life is severely medically compromised. Impotence, infertility, and sterility are considered shameful culturally, although the Qurʿān reminds adults that children are a divine gift. Infertility treatments, including in vitro fertilization, are permitted by a number of jurists, while the use of donor sperm, donor eggs, or surrogate arrangements are controversial in Muslim societies.

Sexual relations are licensed only within a legal and normative marriage or, among the Shīʿī, in a temporary marriage contracted between an unmarried woman and a married or unmarried man (mutʿah in Arabic, sīgheh in Farsi). Sexual intercourse is prohibited during menstruation, for forty days after childbirth, during the day hours of Ramaḍān, 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 have been made to allow or oppose specific forms of sexual activity and to mandate women's rights to conjugal pleasure as well as men's, so that this area of sexual control is a patchwork of different precedents in different regions of the Muslim world.



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