Citation for Islam and Celibacy

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MLA

Hussein, Shakira and Alia Imtoual. "Islam and Celibacy." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Nov 29, 2021. <http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t343/e0324>.

Chicago

Hussein, Shakira and Alia Imtoual. "Islam and Celibacy." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t343/e0324 (accessed Nov 29, 2021).

Islam and Celibacy

Celibacy is not widely extolled in Islamic texts or practices and in fact most scholars regard it as prohibited and “unnatural,” since the Qurʾān describes monasticism as a human invention (57:27). Bukhārī relates several ḥadīth in which celibacy is explicitly forbidden, including one stating that “Whoever among you can marry should marry, for that will help him to lower his gaze and preserve his modesty” (Khan, Muhammad Muhsin Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī, Book 62, ḥadīth 4; Roald 2001, p. 213). In addition, the ḥadīth recorded by Bayhaqi which states that “when a man marries he has fulfilled half of his religion, so let him fear Allah about the other half” has entered popular circulation in the abbreviated form which claims that “Marriage is half the religion” (Macfarlene 2012, p. 52).

The belief that celibacy is unnatural and even deviant, combined with the fact that chastity is expected from Muslim men and women alike, has underscored a range of social practices in Muslim societies and communities. These include social attitudes favoring early marriage, polygamy, and the practice of muta (or temporary marriage), which is endorsed by some Shia scholars in order to provide a licit sexual outlet for men when they are unable to commit to a permanent relationship, or are separated from their primary spouse(s) by travel or illness (Haeri, 2014). Historically, female slaves have also been permitted as a sexual outlet for Muslim men on the basis of Qurʾānic verses 4:24. Contemporary female scholars have generally addressed the issue of polygamy by highlighting the limits within which it is permitted for men, rather than by arguing that it should be either abolished or extended to allow both genders to have multiple spouses. The failure of a spouse to fulfill his or her sexual responsibilities is regarded as grounds for divorce for both men and women (Mernissi, 1987).

Despite these injunctions, however, celibacy has featured in Muslim societies in various forms throughout Islamic history.

Spiritual Celibacy

Some Ṣūfī ascetics, including Hujwīrī (d. 1071) are said to have practiced celibacy as a form of self-discipline. As Riffat Hassan notes, “[d]ue largely to the influence of mysticism, the celibacy of men who dedicate their whole lives to God is accepted in many Muslim societies, yet these societies are not as accepting of ‘holy women’ who turn their backs on the institution of marriage to lead celibate, God-centred lives” (Hassan, 2005, p. 246). Nonetheless, female mystics such as Rabi’a al-Adawiyya (d. 801) and Hasna al-ʿAbida of Basra are well-known for their embrace of celibacy. Valerie Hoffman-Ladd writes that celibacy allowed female Ṣūfī ascetics to “[reject] the guardianship of men and the requirement of obedience to a man, as well as the burdens and responsibilities of being a wife and mother” (Hoffman-Ladd, 1992, p. 83). While celibacy for female mystics was regarded as a life-long practice, male ascetics more often undertook to abstain from sex for a set length of time.

Forced Celibacy

Shahzad Bashir describes castrated slaves (eunuchs) in premodern Muslim societies as enduring “forced celibacy.” This practice predates Islam and the relevant surgical procedure is forbidden under Islamic law. However, legal prohibition on castration was often circumvented by purchasing imported eunuchs (Bashir, 2007; Hofert, 2017), with the procedure mostly having been carried out by Christian doctors (Bashir, 2007). Their lack of sexual partners and biological offspring prevented them from forming their own households, which might have been a source of rival loyalties. This undivided loyalty enabled them to occupy high-status roles requiring great trust, while also rendering them social outsiders (Marmon, 1995; Bashir, 2007).

Eunuchs were the guardians of royal and other high-status households, where their physical inability to engage in “standard” penetrative sex allowed them to be used in roles that required proximity to designated female space (Marmon, 1995). They were also used as guardians of holy places, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the tomb of the Prophet in Medina, and the Kaba in Mecca from the twelfth century until slavery was outlawed by Saudi Arabia in the twentieth century (Hofert, 2017). Eunuchs continued to perform the role of Guardians of the Prophet’s tomb in Medina into the early twenty-first century, when the surviving eight members of the final generation were photographed for a 2013 exhibition commissioned by the governor of Medina (Stoby, 2015).

Seasonal Abstinence

Muslims are expected to practice short-term periods of sexual abstinence—for example during daylight hours during Ramadān and while undertaking the ḥajj and ʿumrah. This restraint on all forms of physical “appetites” is regarded as a form of self-discipline. The Qurʾānic verse permitting sexual relations between sunset and sunrise during Ramadān demonstrates that celibacy for the whole of the fasting month was too great a burden (2:187). Women and their sexual partners are also expected to abstain from sexual intercourse during menstruation and the period of postpartum bleeding (normally expected to last for up to forty days). This prohibition is based on the Qurʾānic description of menstruation as a condition of adha (usually translated as vulnerability) for women (2:222). This verse is also widely understood as excusing women from religious responsibilities such as fasting and prayer during menstruation in order to lighten their load (an interpretation that is increasingly contested).

Circumstantial Celibacy

Celibacy has come under renewed discussion in contemporary Muslim discourse in response to social factors such as changing marital patterns and as a response to LGBTQ sexuality. Shifts in marriage patterns mean that increasing numbers of Muslim men and women are spending long portions of their adult lives without a licit sexual partner and are therefore assumed to be celibate by default. Migration (whether temporary or permanent) frequently delays matrimony or separates married couples. This has led to extensive online discussions among Muslims about techniques for observing celibacy until circumstances allow them to enter or resume married life (Imtoual and Hussein, 2009). The fact that Muslim men are allowed to marry Christian and Jewish women while prevailing gender norms prohibit Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men, means that there are many more unmarried women than men in religiously diverse societies. Furthermore, Jamila Bargach writes that “Access to education, the possibility of being financially autonomous, and large-scale urbanisation have encouraged some women to remain celibate, celibacy here in the sense of not being under the authority of a husband, in-laws or one’s own family.” This is seen as “a fortuitous kind of celibacy” (Bargach, 2005, p. 52).

Some scholars and writers have gone so far as to use the term shahīd (martyr) for LGBTQ Muslims who abstain from sex rather than transgress by following their desire for illicit intercourse. Louis Crompton describes how poets such as Ibn Daʾud and Ibn Ḥazm in Arab Spain rationalized the homoerotic content of their work with reference to a supposed ḥadīth that states, “He who loves and remains chaste and conceals his secret and dies, dies a martyr” (Crompton, 1997, p. 144). Celibacy has also been extolled by some contemporary Muslim scholars and community leaders as a “compassionate” alternative to corporal punishments for same-sex intercourse, with the prominent United States–based Sheikh Hamza Yusuf telling LGBT Muslims, “I know that people can live celibate lives. I did it myself for many years” (Burke, 2016). This outlook has been critiqued by scholars such as Kecia Ali, who argues that if “one accepts the view that homoerotic desire is neither freely chosen nor inherently blameworthy, but can have no licit satisfaction, then one is left with the untenable stance that those who desire a satisfaction that cannot be obtained through licit means are, through no fault of their own, forced to choose between a celibate life devoid of sexual satisfaction and one of sexual release obtained through sin” (Ali, 2016, p. 109). Scholarship addressing this catch-22 highlights the Islamic abhorrence of celibacy in refuting the endorsement of abstinence as the “lesser evil” for same-sex-attracted Muslims, as well as the description of celibacy as a praiseworthy sacrifice in the face of a “test from Allah” (Alipour, 2017; Eidharmer, 2014; Jahangir and Abdullatif, 2016).

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