Faith and Reason: Experiencing the joy of Islam: Our series on attitudes towards sex is continued this week by a Muslim writer, Abdul Hakim Murad, the chairman of the Guilliam Press, a publishing house.
Saturday 02 October 1993
This prayer by the Egyptian theologian Jalal Suyuti brings to mind one of the largest issues which divide the mindsets of medieval Islam and Christendom. While St Augustine was convinced that 'man is by nature ashamed of lust', and the monks of Mount Athos begged to be made eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake, the thinkers of Islam extolled the sexual instinct as one of God's most delicious gifts to His creatures. Suyuti was only one of many orthodox jurists and imams who wrote sex manuals, some of which, translated by furtive Victorians, expound to modern connoisseurs of private- case literature an impressive although sometimes far-fetched versatility.
Here we are far from the Christian universe. Aquinas and Chrysostom did not write pillow books. The view which prevailed in the pre-Islamic Middle East was that 'virginity is the foundation of the Church', and that marriage is at best a regrettable concession to human nature.
Such an outlook found itself without a future in the new context of Islam. When it came to the flesh, the Arabian Prophet had left the faithful in no doubt: 'My way is the way of marriage.' And with a very unpatristic candour, he taught his Companions that 'In the sexual act of each of you there is a charity. If someone acts on their sexual desire lawfully, God will reward them.' To the great gratitude of later generations, he bequeathed guidance on the importance of foreplay and mutual consideration during sex, stressing particularly that a husband should not 'lie with a woman and satisfy his need from her before she has satisfied her need from him'.
All this aroused a historic storm of protest and anxiety in the Western religious mind. The medieval Christian writers routinely flayed Islam for its affirmation of 'fleshly delights' and its shocking belief that there could be sex in Paradise. In our present decades of sexual 'revolution' this polemic has become less noisy, but even today liberal Catholics such as Hans Kung have felt able to adduce the Prophet's 'sensuous lifestyle' as evidence against the authenticity of his mission.
The Koran excludes the Pauline vision of man as radically 'fallen', and hence in need of a Saviour. Adam and Eve may have sinned, but the repercussions were muted when, as the Book puts it, God in His mercy 'relented towards them'. Man's tendency to wrongdoing is not to be viewed as the result of a sexual temptation connected to the lost 'prologue in Heaven'. Instead, each believer must seek God's compassion directly, through the life of prayer and sincere good works.
But there is more to Islam's position than a simple toleration of a faculty that gives pleasure. In Muslim eyes, there exists a theology of the sexual gift which expresses much that we need to know about man's relation with woman, and the relationship of both with God.
The Koranic world-view is 'dyadic', that is, it sees the universe as a creative interplay of opposites. Up and down, light and dark, right and left, hot and cold, wet and dry: all these manifest what has been the underlying principle of the cosmos since its differentiation at the Creation: 'Of all things have We created a pair.' The male and female represent nothing more - or less - than another of these primordial bifurcations of reality.
Just as the beauty and sustainability of nature flow from this miracle of opposition and relation which God has arranged, so too is human society made whole and cohesive through the mystery of gender. Love, in this vision, can be called the reconciling and fecundating force of all existence. And in the way that the environment is destabilised when the natural oppositions are interfered with, so too does our society grow unbalanced when the polar energies of male and female are disturbed. As Robert Bly has argued, a society which deprives men of their identity as soldiers, priests and fathers, or which belittles the nurturing genius of women, will lose its most fundamental coherence, and find itself beset by armies of street-fighters and single mothers.
There is something tragi-comic about the modern public obsession with sex. Having shaken off the old repressive and guilt-laden ethos, popular culture cannot imagine any form of sexual liberation other than promiscuity. But the public performances served up by television, adult magazines, and popular fiction are deficient and tasteless, castrated by a fundamental ignorance of what sexuality means. The sexual revolution is more than a reaction against a repressive past. More seriously, it is an attempt to discover, in increasingly frustrated extravagances, the joy of sex. Outside a spiritual context, a full attainment of this is simply not within reach. In a moment of insight, Boswell's Life of Johnson opines that 'for a man whom religious education has secured from licentious indulgence, the passion of love, when once it has seized him, is exceedingly strong.'
But while the divine gift of the libido is not to be suppressed, it does need protection. Our modern mass-culture likes to be jaded by a constant partial nudity, which provides a leakage and hence a debilitation of sexual energy. More damagingly still, a Cartesian legacy of mind-body dualism bedevils the young into thinking that something done to the body will have no significant impact on the soul. But the intensity of sex can only nourish the spirit, rather than wound it, if it takes place within the protected space known as marriage, which, with its invocation of divine blessing, nurtures the meaning and efficacy of sex as the essential link between flesh and spirit.
The Koran says: 'And it is of God's signs that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, that you may find peace in them; and He has placed between you love and mercy.' From the creative union of opposites, tranquillity ensues - the Koranic sakina being no other than the shechina of the Old Testament: the serene and imminent presence of God.
Could there be a more appropriate reward for celebrating human nature?
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