Rant Number 310 7 July 2008
Sexuality in Islam
A learned academic conference in Oxford on the subject of orgasm. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and whatsit argue heatedly all day long. Hard-line feminists accuse men of phallic fascism. ‘Castrating viragos!’ emotional males hurl back. It nearly comes to blows. Throughout, a bespectacled, donnish-looking fellow sits it out, quietly, with a puzzled expression on his face. Just before the conference is over, the man manages to seize the mike and declares: ‘Honestly, I cannot understand why you people get so hot under the collar about something which happens only once a year and lasts only two minutes.’
I wonder whether Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, author of the diverting Sexuality in Islam, would find that funny. Many eminent sexologists were perhaps a tad less than priapic in their private lives. From Krafft-Ebing to the translator of the Thousand and One Nights, Sir Richard F. Burton. But I do not wish to be flippant. Sexuality is an awesome subject. The Greeks knew all about it. ‘Eros is a great demon’ avers Socrates in Plato’s Symposium. And Professor Bouhdiba is undeniably a serious scholar. Despite chapters entitled ‘the infinite orgasm’, ‘erotology’, ‘variations on eroticism’ and ‘commerce with the invisible’ – this latter also dealing with coitus with djinns. One could of course carp that a book which purports to be about ‘the Islamic view of sexuality’ begs the question. An Edward Said might object that it also smacks of a timeless, abstract essentialism. (Taking a leaf out an unnamed Rant reader here…) Why write of the view? As if a plurality of Islamic viewpoints on this subject were non-existent or impossible. The author himself mentions some tricky, heterodox ones, prevalent amongst certain Sufis. Bet no self-respecting Wahabi or Taleban would underwrite them. See, a cautionary note is in order.
The writer teaches Islamic sociology at Tunis University. So he rightly roots his work in the Qur’anic text. E.g. sura 4, 1, The Women, suggests that sexes are complementary: ‘O Mankind! Fear your guardian Lord who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered countless men and women.’ And a famous prophetic saying has it that ‘marriage is half of a man’s religion’. Accordingly, it is ‘the mutual relationship of the sexual and the sacral within Arab-Muslim societies’ that the book sets out to investigate. With a declared polemical intent. Because, unlike Christianity, he claims, Islam assigns an absolute, total and totalising position to sexuality. Is that so? ‘Total’ sounds a bit too totalitarian. Anyway, it is for the ulama to comment authoritatively there. For Christianity, the priest will cite only the service for Holy Matrimony in Cranmer’s Prayer Book. It speaks of marriage as ‘signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’. A mighty high view of sexuality, by any theological reckoning! Further, the Anglican Prayer Book enjoins the duties of mutual friendship between man and wife and of the begetting of children. It also warns against fornication, i.e. unlawful sex. Would any pious Muslim disagree with that?
Under the stirring heading of ‘infinite orgasm’, our sexologist invokes both the Qur’an and writers like Sheikh Suyuti. To the effect that sex galore obtains in heaven. Indeed, paradise is ‘the place of perpetual erection and orgasm that lasts for 24 years’. Wallahi! Too much of a good thing, perhaps? By sharp contrast, St Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus assert that at the resurrection people ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.’ (22:29-30).
Four points. First, it is not for the priest to interpret Qur’anic passages describing the carnal pleasures of the Hereafter. But he knows that some Muslim exegetes understand them not literally but symbolically. They’d better, because the resurrected bodies in question are a bit peculiar. ‘The inhabitants of paradise have no behinds…behinds were created for defecation and in Paradise there is no defecation’. I am happy to note that implies that sexual activity in the next world must be strictly halal.
Second, granted that both monotheistic faiths believe in the resurrection of the whole person, so that the blessed must enjoy both bodily and mental delights, the philosophical question stands as to which pleasures are more distinctive of transfigured human beings. John Stuart Mill, hardly a Platonist, admitted that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. In other words, human happiness is of a different kind from that enjoyed by an animal. Aristotle thought the highest form of human happiness was that of the intellect, bios theoretikos. All right, not all people enjoy doing high maths or reading poetry or discussing Heidegger. Maybe there is a hierarchy of pleasures, or even souls, in Paradise, as indeed the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina believed. We are all different and diversity, we are constantly reminded, is a good thing.
Third, there are actually differences between Christian and Islamic views of sexuality. The whole monastic and celibate tradition, so important to Catholics and Orthodox, is alien to Islam. (Thus speaks a Protestant.) Jesus, unlike Muhammad, did not have a wife and that’s that. And our Scriptures, though sharing much, are different. Hence we must live with, accept our differences. Vive la difference!
Fourth, Professor Bouhdiba won’t like this but sexuality, like power, must be controlled. Sex, as chubby St Thomas Aquinas well saw, must be with the right person, in the right way, for the right purpose. The ‘perverse and polymorphous’ sexuality of Dr Freud no society will ever countenance. Islam surely does not. Freud’s maddest epigones, like Wilhelm Reich, came to grief because of that. After constructing a crackpot ‘orgone machine’, to capture cosmic orgasmic force, Reich tried to experiment in on kids. Naturally, he ended up his days in the clinker. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse had another go at unleashing the pleasure principle in 1968, amongst university students. It no doubt increased copulation but, to his chagrin, it brought about no revolution.
Lastly, a minor point. The professor lists many worthy Muslim females. The Prophet’s mother, Amina, his nurse, Halima. His many wives, Khadija, Aysha, Zyanab, Um Salama…No mention, however, of his daughter, Fatima. Ali’s wife. Revered by all Muslims but especially by the Shia. Chance or design?
Revd Frank Julian Gelli