By Altaf Husain
Growing up, coming of age: an Islamic website using code language to talk about human sexuality? Coming of age indeed! You know what those words mean. Yes, when you have stopped giggling shyly, let's get started talking about human sexuality. You are probably wondering why Youth 4 the Future at IslamOnline.net would want to present this topic. Well, let's face it: It is impossible to escape talk about sex and sexuality these days. Even the supposedly most age appropriate movies, television shows, video games, and novels — those intended for a teenage audience — consist of themes such as fornication, adultery, and homosexuality.
So rather than pretending that Muslims do not care about those topics or that Muslims are not supposed to talk about them, Youth 4 the Future wants to tackle the topic to help you navigate your teenage years in a healthy manner. And I am the big brother assigned the challenging task of talking to you about it, to spare you the awkwardness of having to send your own questions to the Cyber Counseling section. You should still address the Counseling section of course because, in the limited length of this essay, we are not going to cover all there is to know.
Non-Islamic Approach to Human Sexuality
In many parts of the world, especially in days gone by or in religious communities, the approach was to treat sexuality with disdain, often as something "dirty," not to be talked about and not even to be thought of. There were strict guidelines about how men and women were to interact. In fact, the prevailing thinking was that intimacy between husbands and wives was to be "tolerated" for the sake of procreating but definitely not to be enjoyed. Even for husbands and wives, there was always an overabundance of guilt associated with seeking sexual pleasure, and it was almost unthinkable for a woman to speak about or express her desire for such pleasure, even with her husband.
Children who were coming of age were supposed to just come to an intuitive understanding about their sexuality even though they could make absolutely no sense of the physiological changes they were experiencing. Even today, rather regrettably and despite Islamic teachings to the contrary, discussions of sex and sexuality are still taboo and Muslim children are still navigating this difficult terrain on their own or resorting to information outlets which are less than wholesome and in some instances are outright forbidden in Islam.
In for a Surprise
Unless you have been blessed to have been taught how Islamic teachings view human sexuality and sexual intimacy, you are like the majority of Muslim youth whose knowledge about such topics has been acquired second- or third-hand and is most likely totally culturally biased. You might have already attempted to discuss or deal with such topics with your parents only to find that their responses were incomplete or did not make sense.
They were most likely giving you responses they had heard from their parents, which their parents in turn had heard from their parents, and so on. For the most part, we find that our etiquette of discussing sex and sexuality is often based on superstition and culture rather than on religion. It is important therefore that you put aside what you think you know so far because you are in for a real surprise.
Coming of Age
Although there is no exact date, time, or year when puberty is supposed to occur, both boys and girls usually get a major introduction to adulthood through, among many other things, the changes they experience in their voices, physical growth such as getting taller, and experiencing nocturnal emissions known more commonly as wet dreams. In Islamic teachings, once a person reaches the age of puberty, they become mukallaf (accountable for compulsory duties and answerable to God). Below is an excerpt from Abdul Wahid Hamid's book Islam the Natural Way:
This means that you come under the obligation to discharge all the duties and fulfill all the rights of an adult. To keep yourself physically clean is an obligation, to work is an obligation, to refrain from lying or the consumption of alcohol is an obligation; there are no less than the obligations of maintaining honor and chastity and performing prayer.
Islamic teachings guide you through this time of intense and ongoing changes. But if no one discusses these changes with you, it can be scary and embarrassing to have your sleep interrupted when you experience a "wet dream" for the first time. You do not know what happened, why it happened to you, if others ever experience this, and how you are supposed to clean yourself up afterwards! Growing up, you might have talked to your parents about your dreams — you know, those dreams about how you scored an awesome goal in soccer, or how you grew up to be a firefighter, and so on. Imagine trying to talk to your parents about your first "wet dream." No! Why not? Too shy? Too embarrassed?
Can you believe that as the religion of Islam was being revealed, the people of Arabia literally turned to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) for EVERYTHING, literally everything. A beloved wife of Prophet Muhammad, Umm Salama, tells of an instance when Umm Sulaim, Abu Talha's wife, came to speak to Prophet Muhammad. Umm Sulaim is reported by Umm Salama to have said, "O Allah's Messenger! Verily Allah is not shy of (telling you) the truth. Is it necessary for a woman to take a bath after she has a wet dream (nocturnal sexual discharge)?" Allah's Messenger replied, "Yes, if she notices a discharge" (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 5, Hadith 280).
Can you believe she asked that question in the first place and then to, of all people, the Prophet? Wouldn't you have just wanted to disappear if you were sitting there and someone asked such a question? If you reread the hadith, however, you will notice that there was a certain etiquette to asking this type of question, and the critical factor is that there is a purpose to asking the question: to learn how to deal with a particular situation so that we can be sure we are behaving in a manner acceptable and pleasing to Allah Almighty. For example, it is unacceptable to discuss such sensitive topics if one is doing so to pass time and is driven by a motivation other than to learn. And of course Allah knows what is in our hearts.
The Qur'an similarly presents such issues in a frank though dignified manner, such as the verses which address the menstrual cycle, commonly referred to as a woman's period. People at the time of the Prophet wanted to be sure whether women were required to pray during their menses and what type of cleaning, if any, the women would have to do in order to resume praying at the end of their periods. We read in the Qur'an a reference to Prophet Muhammad who was asked a question by the Companions about the menses:
[They ask you concerning women's courses. Say they are harmful and a pollution, so keep away from women on their courses, and do not approach them until they are clean. But when they have purified themselves, you may approach them in any manner, time, or place ordained for you by Allah, for Allah loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean.](Al-Baqarah 2:222)
Dating, Masturbation, and Homosexuality
Allah Almighty created us and knows our strengths and weaknesses. He has given us guidance and a teacher to be sure that we live our life in a manner that is acceptable and pleasing to Him. In His infinite wisdom, He endowed us with the ability to procreate through sexual intimacy after marriage, characterizing sexual relations as natural and guilt-free. Through procreation, we not only ensure the continuation of the human race but also fulfill our sexual desires with our spouses.
I know what you are thinking: That's so far away. What about my sexual desires now, while I am still young, unmarried, and having all these desires? You will experience sexual desires no doubt. In fact, Prophet Muhammad particularly addressed the stage of life when young, unmarried people have intense sexual desires but cannot satisfy them because doing so without being married would mean committing the sin of fornication. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad was a patient teacher, and the young men and women among the Companions often sat in his company trying to learn from him and to apply in their lives everything they learned from him. Once when some young, unmarried men were in the company of the Prophet, he said to them, according to the narration of Abdullah ibn Mas`ud,
O young men, those among you who can support a wife should marry, for it restrains eyes [from casting evil glances] and preserves one from immorality; but he who cannot afford it [marriage] should fast, for it [fasting] is a means of controlling sexual desire. (Sahih Muslim, Book 8, Hadith 3233)
Even though one might be experiencing sexual desires, which are normal and natural, experimenting through dating or attempting to satisfy those desires before marriage in other ways is a sin. Allah Almighty warns us:
[Nor come nigh to adultery: For it is a shameful [deed] and an evil, opening the road (to other evils).](Al-Israa' 17:32)
Although the word used in the translation is "adultery," the verse in Arabic refers to zina, which includes fornication or premarital relations.
Among the changes young people experience as they come of age is the intensity and frequency with which thoughts of a sexual nature occur. Not all young people will experience this, but for those who do so, the experience can be overwhelming, embarrassing, and confusing, and it can end up leaving them guilt ridden.
For young people who have not already been introduced to Islamic teachings regarding fornication and homosexuality, there is often the danger of their wanting to explore or experiment with their sexuality without realizing the consequences of their actions. Some young people become caught in a trap of viewing outright pornography or certain movies which present sexual themes or explicit sexual content. They justify their actions by saying that at least they are not acting on their desires. However, this behavior is not acceptable in Islam and should be avoided, by fasting if necessary, so as to control one's desire as recommended by Prophet Muhammad.
In addition, there are other young people who have been misled by their peers or through various media outlets into believing that they need to explore their sexuality through dating, masturbation, and through acting upon their homosexual or lesbian desires. Islamic scholars agree that masturbation is frowned upon in Islam but a minority of such scholars allow for the possibility that a young person might turn to masturbation infrequently if only to avoid engaging in outright sin through fornication. The obviously much more preferable course of action is to fast and to exercise self-restraint. But still, there is no disagreement among Islamic scholars on the prohibition of engaging in fornication and homosexuality.
A very insightful story about fornication is narrated to us by Abdullah ibn `Umar who literally grew up in the company of Prophet Muhammad. According to this hadith, three men were on a journey and spent the night in a cave only to find that a big rock had rolled down the mountain and blocked the entrance. They convinced one another that the only way to move the rock would be to seek the help of Allah through narrating the most righteous deed that each of them had conducted for the sake of Allah alone. Among the stories recounted in the hadith is the experience of one of the three men who was tempted to commit fornication with his cousin but restrained himself from doing so. We present this portion of the hadith:
The second man said, "O Allah! I had a cousin who was the dearest of all people to me and I wanted to have sexual relations with her but she refused. Later she had a hard time in a famine year and she came to me; I gave her one-hundred-and-twenty dinars on the condition that she would not resist my desire, and she agreed. When I was about to fulfill my desire, she said, 'It is illegal for you to outrage my chastity except in legitimate marriage.' So I thought it a sin to have sexual intercourse with her and left her though she was the dearest of all people to me, and I also left the gold I had given her. O Allah! If I did that for Your sake only, please relieve us from the present calamity." So the rock shifted a little more but still they could not get out of there. The Prophet added, "Then the third man said [his story] … So that rock shifted completely and they got out walking." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 36, Hadith 472)
For those young people who might be struggling with confusing thoughts about their own sexuality and wondering about homosexuality, we refer to a series of articles which appeared on IslamOnline.net under the broad title Homosexuality in a Changing World: Are We Being Misinformed? . Even if you think you are attracted to a person of the same gender, fear Allah and turn to Him constantly, seeking His guidance and His assistance in exercising self-restraint. Allah Almighty will not punish us for thoughts upon which we do not act, but we are sure to incur His wrath and punishment for acting upon our sexual desires outside of marriage. Some people at the time of the Prophet engaged in homosexual behavior and Allah Almighty forbade homosexuality as an abomination for all time to come:
[For you practice your lusts on men in preference to women: You are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds] (Al-A`raf 7:81)
[And unto Lot we gave judgment and knowledge, and We delivered him from the community that did abominations. Lo! They were folk of evil, lewd.] (Al-Anbiyaa' 21:74)
What is important overall is that you understand that coming of age, thinking about sex, experiencing sexual desires, and feeling sexual passion are all blessings from Allah which carry a heavy burden of responsibility and are a trust from Allah. It is not permissible in Islam for us to violate that trust, to be irresponsible with these blessings, and to risk incurring Allah's displeasure.
Natural, Enjoyable, and Worthy of Reward
After being chaste throughout your unmarried life, here's what you have to look forward to: According to Islamic teachings, sexual intimacy with your spouse is not only considered natural and guilt-free but also is meant to be enjoyable by both husband and wife, and sexual relations between spouses are worthy of reward! What's that? Never heard of such a thing? Shocked that this is what Islam teaches, right? Well, get over the shock and start to appreciate what these teachings have to do with your life.
It happened that on one occasion Prophet Muhammad helped his Companions, as narrated to us by Abu Dhar Al-Ghifari, to understand that one did not have to be rich only in wealth in order to give sadaqah (charity) and earn reward from Allah Almighty. The Companions were concerned that the rich among them were taking all of the reward by praying, fasting, and giving charity out of their surplus wealth. The Prophet reminded his Companions that a man or woman who chooses righteous conduct over sinful conduct is worthy of being rewarded by Allah. And one example of righteous conduct the Prophet specifically mentioned was the fulfilling of sexual passion with one's spouse instead of having an extramarital affair, that is, committing adultery. The complete hadith is reported in Sahih Muslim as follows:
Abu Dhar reported: Some of the Companions of the Messenger of Allah said to him, "Messenger of Allah, the rich have taken away [all the] reward: They observe prayer as we do, they keep the fasts as we keep, and they give sadaqah out of their surplus riches." Upon this, the Prophet said, "Has Allah not prescribed for you [a course] and if you follow Him you can [also] give sadaqah? In every declaration of the glorification of Allah (e.g., saying "Exalted is Allah"), there is a sadaqah, every Takbir (i.e., saying "Allah is Greatest") is a sadaqah, every praise of Him (saying al-hamdu lillah) is a sadaqah, every declaration that He is One (la illaha illa Allah) is a sadaqah, enjoining good is a sadaqah, forbidding of that which is evil is a sadaqah, and in man's sexual intercourse (with his wife) there is a sadaqah."
They (the Companions) said, "Messenger of Allah, is there reward for him who satisfies his sexual passion among us?" He said, "Tell me, if he were to devote it to something forbidden, would it not be a sin on his part? Similarly, if he were to devote it to something lawful, he should have a reward." (Sahih Muslim, Book 5, Hadith 2198)
Whether you are just reaching puberty or have come of age sometime ago, you should be reminded by this article that all of us need to be conscious of our sexuality and strive ceaselessly to remain chaste. Although common notions of adolescence encourage you to explore and to experiment with your sexuality, there is nothing within Islamic teachings that even remotely tolerates premarital sexual relations of any kind. It is important that you know what is allowable and that you ask trustworthy scholars should you have any questions. The goal should be for you to have a healthy, normal adolescence while striving to remain chaste throughout.