There are many non-Muslim writers, especially of liberal and feminist ideology, who have attacked the Islamic view of woman’s sexuality. Their criticism is mostly based on some misconceived ideas about the Islamic sexual morality. Basically there are two problems with these writers: either they study Islam based on some Western social theories and models, or they are ill-equipped to study the original Islamic sources. They rely mostly on the work done on Islam by the Orientalists or the European travellers. In some cases, books like Thousand and One Night and The Perfumed Garden are used to explain the Islamic view on women’s sexuality! These books, at most, reflect the Arab view of female sexuality not the Islamic view. Therefore, these writing do not even deserve refutation.
However, for our discussion I have selected the work of an Arab feminist writer, Fatima Mernissi. The reason for selecting to comment on her work is that she is an Arab writer who had easy excess to Islamic literature, and she has indeed used the hadith literature of the Sunnis, in particular, Ihyau ‘Ulumi ‘d-Din of Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a famous Sunni scholar of the eleventh century C.E. Moreover, Mernissi’s book has been translated into various European and Asian languages and is becoming popular as an insider’s report!
Fatima Mernissi’s book, Beyond the Veil subtitled as “Male-Female Dynamic in Modern Muslim Society,” is a study of the male-female relationship in the present Moroccan society. It is important to bear in mind that the attitude of the Muslims of Morocco does not necessarily represent Islam. However, Mernissi has discussed the Islamic sexual morality in a chapter entitled as “The Muslim Concept of Active Female Sexuality.” The main part of her discussion centers on the comparison between the views of Freud and Ghazali on female sexuality. Mernissi has summarized her conclusion as follows:
The irony is that Muslim and European theories come to the same conclusion: women are destructive to the social order -for Imam Ghazali because they are active, for Freud because they are not.
Then she goes on to describe the negative attitude of the Christian West and the positive attitude of Islam towards sexuality in general. She writes:
Different social orders have integrated the tensions between religion and sexuality in different ways. In the Western Christian experience sexuality itself is attacked, degraded as animality and condemned as anti-civilization. The individual is split into two antithetical selves: the spirit and the flesh, the ego and the id. The triumph of civilization implied the triumph of soul over flesh, of ego over id, of the controlled over the uncontrolled, of spirit over sex.
Islam took a substantially different path. What is attacked and debased is not sexuality but women, as the embodiment of destruction, the symbol of disorder. The woman is fitna, the epitome of the uncontrollable, a living representative of the dangers of sexuality and its rampant disruptive potential … Sexuality per se is not a danger. On the contrary it has three positive, vital functions …1
After describing the positive side of Islamic sexual morality. Mernissi attacks the concept of female sexuality in Islam as she has understood it from Ghazali’s writings: According to Ghazali, the most precious gift God gave human is reason. Its best use is the search for knowledge … But to be able to devote his energies to knowledge, man has to reduce the tensions within and without his body, avoid being distracted by external elements, and avoid indulging in earthly pleasure. Women are dangerous distraction that must be used for the specific purpose of providing the Muslim nation with offspring and quenching the tensions of the sexual instinct. But in no way should women be an object of emotional investment or the focus of attention, which should be devoted to Allah alone in the form of knowledge-seeking, meditation, and prayer.2
The views of this ardent Arab feminist can be summarized as follows: (a) Women are considered sexually active in the Islamic view; (b) therefore, women are a danger to the social order. (c) There should be no emotional investment in women; that is, a man should have no love for his wife. (d) Why should there be no love between husband and wife? Mernissi would answer that love should be exclusively devoted to Allah.
Now let us deal with each of these premises and conclusions gradually and see whether or not they are based on any reliable Islamic sources.
1. Beyond the Veil, p.44.
2. Beyond the Veil, p.45.
Adapted from: “Marriage & Morals in Islam” by: “Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi”