Recently, I had one of the most uncomfortable car journeys of my life. It was not a problem with the road or my suspension, but what was on the radio. I was driving my mother-in-law to the shops and we had BBC Radio 4 on in the background as we chatted politely about all the safe topics that mother-in-laws and son-in-laws tend to talk about. After the news, the announcer told us, there was a programme about Muslim attitudes towards sex.
I knew that we had both heard the mention of Muslims and sex – when Muslims hear that there is going to be a discussion about Islam on the BBC they tend to take notice – but we pretended that we hadn’t, out of mutual embarrassment.
After the news, the show started and it quickly became clear that this was going to be more than just the usual, gentle Radio 4 discussion; the first words we heard were from a gay British Pakistani Muslim. The presenter went on to interview several more Muslims about their sex lives. She spoke to couples, Imams and even a Muslim marriage counsellor who had a special interest in sex, purely in her capacity as a professional psychotherapist, we were assured.
If I had been listening on my own I would have been fascinated by all of this and probably would have turned the volume up so I could concentrate; it is not often that you hear sex discussed so openly by Muslims.
As it was, I had a choice to make: turn off the radio and continue the journey in an awkward silence; or listen and try my best to look as though my interest was of an entirely academic nature, when in reality my thoughts were more along the lines of: “by listening to this programme we have both acknowledged that sex exists and is a perfectly natural act performed between a married couple; and I am your daughter’s husband”.
I was surprised, as I often am, by the reaction of my mother-in-law, who was born and raised in a Muslim country, but has lived around the world. She listened, clearly very interested, commenting at times about what we were hearing and occasionally reciting relevant lines of the Quran and providing a helpful English translation for me. In fact, she did not seem shocked or embarrassed at all.
It got me thinking that most British people think that Muslims are conservative in their attitudes towards sex, but that isn’t the whole story.
I think there are many reasons why Islam forbids sex outside of marriage. One is that unmarried sex, if it involves promiscuity, carries a high risk of spreading disease which, in the early days of Islam, would have been particularly problematic, being more than a millennium before the discovery of penicillin; having sex could have literally made your dick rot off [trust me on this, I’m a doctor]. Back then there was no effective way to prevent the transmission of STIs either; any condoms that did exist were not widely manufactured, owing to the fact that they were made from things like sheep intestines rather than rubber. The only effective prevention was abstinence, and since abstinence is not a natural human state, the next best thing would have been to limit the number of sexual partners that each person had.
Sex outside marriage, even today, leads to abortions, but at that time an abortion would have carried a very high chance of death for both mother and baby. There was no welfare state either, so a single mum would have been forced to rely on family or charity, and this would have lead to a reduced standard of living, at the very least.
Sex within a marriage is a completely different ball game, no pun intended.
I like to think that the main reason that Islam restricts sex to the marital bedroom is that, simply, it is better.
People talk about the walk of shame – being caught leaving the bedroom of a one night stand the next morning. There is no walk of shame in a marriage, you both know what happened was halal, and rather than avoiding eye contact and dashing for the door, you can both congratulate each other on job well done.
Sex within a committed loving relationship is just much, much better. Both of you know what the other likes and when, how fast and how hard. You can take things slow and you can experiment – after all you have your entire married lives together to enjoy it. And it is true that there isn’t a skill in the world that can’t be improved with regular practice.
When you think about it, Muslims must be having lots of sex: just look at how many children we have. Within marriage Muslims are permitted to have sex pretty much whenever and however they please. There are some restrictions like not having sex during Ramadan or when your wife is on her period, but all of them seem fairly sensible to me.
Sex is incredibly enjoyable, and we should be thankful that it exists. If all of us were getting more of the good quality, safe, responsible stuff I am certain that there would be fewer problems in the world.
I would love to hear what people have to say about this still-controversial subject in Islam.