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ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What are some of the religion's teachings in the area of human sexuality?

by John Kaltner

In general, Muslims tend to hold traditional and conservative views regarding human sexuality. Islam teaches that sexual relations are appropriate only within the context of marriage. Muslim men are allowed to marry women from among the People of the Book (i.e., a Jew or a Christian), but a Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man.

This difference is due to the belief that the husband is the head of the household and the wife is expected to follow the law of his community. She must marry a fellow Muslim because it would be inappropriate for a Muslim woman to come under the authority of Judaism or Christianity. Muslim attitudes regarding the rearing of children also influence who may marry whom. Since the religion of the father typically determines the religion of the offspring, a woman should not marry a non-Muslim. There are exceptions to these norms, but this remains the general practice throughout the Islamic world.

One of the more unusual differences between the two main branches of Islam is that Shi‘a Muslims may enter into a temporary marriage, something that is not permitted for Sunnis. This practice, called mut‘a, allows a man and woman to become legally married for a set period of time that they mutually agree upon. After that point the marriage is dissolved, but the man is required to provide for and support any children that are conceived during the course of the marriage. This practice has been criticized by some as nothing more than a form of legalized prostitution, but its supporters argue that it is an effective way to promote individual responsibility and accountability within society.

Because marriage between a man and a woman is the ideal state, homosexuality is not considered to be a valid form of sexual expression in Islam. Gay and lesbian Muslims are becoming a more vocal part of the ummah in the modern world, particularly in the West, but they are still often marginalized by their fellow Muslims. In some countries homosexual activity is a punishable offense that is against the law, so gay Muslims in those areas must exercise discretion and caution in how they live their lives. There is no tradition of celibacy in Islam, with some texts of the Qur’an criticizing it as a lifestyle. It is therefore an expectation within Muslim societies that one will marry someone of the opposite sex and raise a family.

Birth control is generally permitted in Islam, although it is not mentioned in the Qur’an. The legitimacy of birth control is sometimes debated in the modern day, but most experts say it is permissible as long as both partners are in agreement about using it. In some countries, like Egypt, where population growth is a cause for concern, the ruling government openly promotes birth control through the media and official publications. Sterilization is generally not allowed in Islam because it alters creation from God’s intended purpose and cuts off the possibility of procreation. Some who oppose birth control do so for a similar reason in that they maintain it puts humans in the place of God, who alone should have ultimate authority over the creation of human life.

Although abortion is frowned upon in Islam it is allowed when the life of the mother is in danger. In that situation it is permissible to terminate a pregnancy because the mother’s life takes precedence over that of her unborn child. Legal experts disagree on when the soul enters the body and the related ethical questions regarding when human life begins. Some say it is at the moment of conception, while other argue that the fetus is not a human being until 120 days after conception. Those who hold the latter view claim that abortion is permitted up to that point but not beyond.

Local attitudes and practices regarding sexuality often play an influential role in shaping the views of Muslims who do not live in Islamic countries. For this reason, it is important to avoid overgeneralizations regarding what Muslims think about matters related to human sexuality. Despite the range of opinions, however, all Muslims are taught by their faith to believe that sexual expression is something healthy and good. It was given to humanity by God so that men and women might enjoy each other and perpetuate the human family.

Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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