– Mateen A. Khan (Trenton, NJ)
Addressing the Issue
We have a problem. The ummah continues to move away from a life guided by Islamic principles to the detriment of the individual and society at-large. Historically, I would submit the percentage of adherents who comprehended the nuances of tawhhīd, risālah, and the ākhirah (the foundations of īmān) have been small and limited to the Islamic theologian. By this, I mean very few lay-Muslims likely held belief through an understanding of Islamic cosmology via a solid epistemological framework. Rather, there’s was a practical and lived understanding, which guided them towards a life of purpose and fulfillment. Additionally, the retention of societal values based in normative Islam and the mostly blind-following of those values have kept the rest of adherents protected in this world and the next. In other words, you either followed Islamic injunctions because you truly understood `aqīdah and its logical ramification of obedience, or you followed them because it was the societal norm. Either way, your belief and your practice were in-line with what Allah and His Messenger ﷺ prescribed (or proscribed). Unfortunately, the number of those who inherently understand has decreased while societal values for the majority of Muslims are no longer based in normative Islam. This has been devastating to the ummah in belief and practice. As such, I worry for our collective dunyā and ākhirah.
An example has been the case of zinā. I take zinā as an example, not only for its contemporary prevalence among Muslims, but also because it serves well to propose an Islamic solution to address this harmful issue as well as most others. Additionally, the Qur’an affords its prevention huge importance in personal and community affairs. While describing the qualities of a Believer, Allah places the crime of zinā only after polytheism (shirk) and murder and states it as the cause of everlasting punishment for the unrepentant.
وَالَّذِينَ لَا يَدْعُونَ مَعَ اللَّـهِ إِلَـٰهًا آخَرَ وَلَا يَقْتُلُونَ النَّفْسَ الَّتِي حَرَّمَ اللَّـهُ إِلَّا بِالْحَقِّ وَلَا يَزْنُونَ ۚ وَمَن يَفْعَلْ ذَٰلِكَ يَلْقَ أَثَامًا ﴿٦٨﴾ يُضَاعَفْ لَهُ الْعَذَابُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ وَيَخْلُدْ فِيهِ مُهَانًا ﴿٦٩﴾ إِلَّا مَن تَابَ وَآمَنَ وَعَمِلَ عَمَلًا صَالِحًا
And they are the ones who do not call upon any other god with God. Nor do they kill a soul – which God has prohibited – except by right. Nor do they commit illicit sexual intercourse. For whoever does this shall meet the penalty of sin: torment shall be multiplied on the Day of Resurrection for such a one. Thus, he shall abide therein forever, disgraced – except for whoever repents, and believes, and does righteous deeds. (25:68-69)
To further drive home the point, the Prophet ﷺ indicated that both a complete belief and zinā cannot co-exist in a person at the same time saying, “A person cannot be a Believer during the act of zinā.” (Bukhārī 6809) In an Islamic state, it is one of a few punishable offenses explicitly described in the source texts (nusūs) – the Qur’an and Hadith – pending a multitude of other conditions. Other cases of extra-marital sex such as mut`ah (a form of temporary relationship) and cohabitation with one’s female slave are no longer practiced. The former due to the binding consensus of the early Muslims and the latter due to context. Recent Orientalist-inspired reinterpretations allow for extra-marital sex such as those by Wudud and Kugle, but they grossly deviate from acceptable interpretation, utterly contradict original sources, lack scholarly authority, and so, have been dismissed outright. In short, Islam seeks to both actively and passively prevent zinā and its multitude of harms while describing it as an action incompatible with belief.
First, I’d like to briefly expound on the contemporary prevalence of zinā. Muslims today, like their non-Muslim counterparts, are exposed to popular media, which contain a large amount of sexual messaging. Whether in the form of books, movies, television shows, lyrics, or advertising, permissive sexuality is pervasive. Recent studies report sex on television and in other media as the primary basis for young adults’ opinions about acceptable sexual behavior. This is unsurprising considering 77% of prime-time television programs contain some sexual content according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study almost 15 years ago. Further, if we include “sex-leading” acts (referring to kissing, touching and the like as expounded by Islamic scholars about the Qur’anic words “And do not approach zinā”), media and cultural exposure nears 100%. Many popular depictions of hookup or a friends-with-benefits culture encourage it as enjoyable and without repercussions. For most today, apps are a way to shop for easy sex and pornography is only a browser away. Further, recent data suggest that 60-80% of North American college students have had some sort of hookup sexual experience. (Garcia 2012) Although, there are little studies to enumerate Muslim involvement in these activities, my experience and the experience of those who interact regularly with young Muslims is that they have not been left out of this trend. When asked, “Do you know any young Muslims in a relationship?” nearly 90% of young Muslim boys and girls answered “yes” in an informal poll done locally in New Jersey. In a 2001 study, 53.8% of Muslim American youth (57.1% male, 47.6% female) admitted to pre-marital sexual relations. (Ahmed 2014) In a more recent study of a larger sampling of US and Canadian Muslims, about 37% (148/403) admitted to sex before marriage (31% male, 38% female). (Ali-Faisal 2014) All of this should not be surprising given the cultural adaptation among Muslims, most of whom are second generation immigrants.
At times, the Qur’an and Hadith give us insights into the wisdoms for prohibitions and many times, they do not. Logic demands that all Sharī`ah injunctions including the prohibition of zinā inherently benefit or prevent from harm. Allah is not in need of anything. He does not benefit from our worship or obedience, nor is He harmed by our disobedience. Rather, all injunctions must serve to benefit creation in one way or another. That in mind, modern studies are rife with the negative consequences of zinā particularly hookup culture ranging from the psychological to the physical. Increases in rates of depression and loneliness, embarrassment, loss of self-respect, and other emotional difficulties have all been reported. Rates of sexual assault, unwanted sex, and rape are now increasing. (Garcia 2012) A growing number of people report associations between pornography addiction and alcohol and drug use. (Ahmed 2014) Far from being liberating or offering meaningful companionship, the proliferation of zinā has been damaging to the psychological, physical, and spiritual health of both genders.
Much of the culture of sexual permissibility is credited to the wide availability of contraception. Its availability has led to gains in female health, longevity, and wealth, but there have been many unexpected downsides. Since contraception is tightly linked with zinā, I will mention a few of them to indicate some additional relevant harms.
Along with the freedoms afforded from contraception, many women continue to desire a life of family in general, and motherhood in particular. One could rightfully argue – whether creationist or evolutionist – that women have been designed with and selected for this desire. Unfortunately, women today observe that men willing to commit to a relationship are increasingly difficult to find. This is the logical outcome of commitment-free sex – men do not feel a need or desire to settle down with those who they bear no responsibility over and with whom they can receive sexual access without the burdens of marital life. Sex has been made cheap, easily available, and without the consequences of pregnancy and subsequent children-rearing obligations. Additionally, as women have allegedly gained greater control over their bodies and have become the gate-keepers of pregnancy, men have been divested of responsibility. After all, it is thought, if women control their pregnancies through contraception and it fails, that was their own wrong-doing. Besides, they always have the option to abort. So, if a pregnancy occurs, its termination remains a forgone expectation. However, if she chooses to keep the child, then that is her decision, and he faces no guilt over a decision he was not a part of. Rather than becoming expendable, he has become a commodity sought after by woman desiring families. As Imam al-Rāzi pointed out in his al-Tafsīr al-Kabīr more than 800 years ago, “If the gate to zinā is opened, the exclusivity of a man to one woman no longer remains. Each man may jump to any desiring women.”
Muslim men disposed to predatory behavior have found an easier time in all of this. Stories of young Muslim men coming to Muslim gatherings like college clubs and national organization conventions to seek their next score are common. These are often “white knight” brothers who are outgoing, friendly, and open to female interaction and close friendships. Consequence-free sex has served to further embolden them. Abortion as an accepted fail-safe allows men greater freedom with less threat of unwanted responsibility or accountability. Much of the backlash of the #metoo movement has stemmed from the predatory practices of powerful men, but some average Joe Muslims also engage in the same practices. Paraphrasing the author Mary Eberstadt, “In a world where most women use contraception (and abortion exists as a fail-safe), and they are without male protectors and guardians, the predator has little to lose and even less to stop him.” After encountering such predators, Muslim women are often left feeling used, unwanted, and abandoned.
Lastly and most importantly, the sexual revolution has had moral and epistemological implications. The dominant secular-liberal worldview is much like a religion in that it defines an identity for the individual, alleges the “religious” as the misguided “other,” is staunchly defensive when attacked, and attempts to serve as a source of morality. Its epistemology is limited to empiricism in the form of science with an outright dismissal and mockery of religion and the musings of its prophet-scientists. Unlike traditional religions, its morality is the pursuit of individual pleasure with subjective harm as the only moral standard. In the context of our discussion, the sexual revolution has made sexual pleasure (in any form) its goal with consent as the only moral standard. In contrast, Islam provides an objective framework with Allah as its source and creation as its beneficiary Zinā is a violation of Allah’s explicit and unambiguous command even with consent. It is not possible for two epistemological frameworks to co-exist within one mind. Hence, a passively-accepted framework (society’s dominant epistemology) often forces young Muslims to reject an unfamiliar Islamic framework and eventually, to reject Islam itself. In other words, that which often leads to zinā often leads to rejection of faith. Perhaps, the Prophet’s ﷺ words can be understood in this way when he said, “While a man is involved in zinā, belief leaves him. It is like a darkness on him. When he desists, belief returns to him.” (Abū Dāwūd 4690)
Moving past worldly harms, let’s look at harms in the Hereafter. In addition to the utter remorse, one will feel in the Hereafter for having caused the displeasure of one’s Creator, there is Jahannam and its torments. Since zinā at the least involves another human being and at the worst, affects the greater society, one’s torment is multiplied. Recall the previously mentioned verse, “For whoever does this shall meet the penalty of sin: torment shall be multiplied on the Day of Resurrection for such a one. Thus, he shall abide therein forever, disgraced” (Qur’an 25:68-69) Of all the harms described above, this is by far the worst. I will suffice with the mention of one additional prophetic hadith. One day after Fajr prayer, the Prophet ﷺ narrated a dream in which he was shown the punishment of those involved in zinā. “We passed by a hole much like a baking oven with a narrow top and a wide bottom. A fire was kindling beneath it. Whenever the flame went up, the people were pushed up (by the fire) to such an extent that they almost came out of it. When the fire lessened, the people fell back into it. In it were naked men and women.” (al-Bukhārī 1386) If one retains his or her īmān, Allah may forgive these punishments out of mercy or He may send us to Jahannam for a time out of justice. We ask Allah for the former as we seek His forgiveness for our mistakes. Thankfully, the verse continues, “Except for whoever repents, and believes, and does righteous deeds. For the likes of them, then, Allah will substitute their misdeeds with good deeds.” (Qur’an 25:70)
My primary goal here is not to tout the benefits of marriage. I will say regarding all the harms mentioned (and many not mentioned), Islam promotes sexual activity within the strict confines of marriage as a means of psychological and physical well-being. Marriage brings shared responsibility and accountability between the sexes. A marriage necessitates support between two spouses with somewhat defined and potentially enforceable gender responsibilities. Importantly, pregnancies arising from the union are vastly more likely to be born and supported into adulthood. All of this within an epistemology that is logical and comprehensive.
In the next part, I will further delve into what factors have contributed to the rise of many problems among Muslims in non-Muslim cultures and attempt to lay out an approach to a solution from the perspective of Islam and its scholarship. Like the discussion above, I will utilize zinā as a case study, but the approach is generalizable to most issues.
Proposal for a Solution
Islam as a whole approaches social harms in a holistic way addressing the entire person – the emotional, physical, and the spiritual. Both extra-marital sex and sex-leading acts. Previous writings have attempted to address the zinā issue by focusing on sexual guilt and anxiety (Ali-Faisal), an approach with limited if any value at all, or by enhancing parental roles in the life of a child. Parental involvement and education are no doubt very important, but it is only a part of the solution and does little for those who do not have Muslim parents, or their parents are unaware of Islamically-derived morality. Besides, at some point, every individual must empower themselves to rectify his or herself despite their upbringing.
So, what factors have contributed to the rise of harms including zinā among Muslims in non-Muslim cultures? Some of those factors have been alluded to above, but they will be repeated along with others below.
- Lack of an Islamic epistemology. Every individual needs a cognitive framework by which they evaluate their surrounding and process life-events. Most Muslims are completely unaware that our scholars have elucidated a comprehensive and coherent approach to knowledge extrapolated from the Qur’an. In short, Islamic epistemology begins with acknowledging a necessary Being. One may use any of the multitude of avenues to conclude the necessary existence of Allah including the Kalam Cosmological argument, the Argument of Design, or a Call to Fitrah. One understands that some knowledge are known definitively (qat`ī) and others with varying degrees of speculation (zannī). Islamic epistemology allows one to place all knowledge, whether physical or metaphysical, into a convenient spectrum ranging from the qat`ī to the unlikely eliminating much of the confusion and perceived incongruities we suffer from today. The prohibition of zinā is qat`ī (definitively known from revelation). A sound epistemology demands adherence to it like other definitive knowledge.
- Not realizing that morality needs a stronger anchor then the prevalent culture. In our youth, many of us were critical of the prior, mostly immigrant generation for saying, “Do this because we said so,” or instead, “Do this because Islam said so.” Oddly, we rebelled while taking the same sentiment from our own surroundings instead. In other words, we did it because our generation’s culture said so. The prior generation taking what made sense in their context is no different, in principle, then us taking what makes sense in our context. Both are subjective, haphazard, and likely to be rejected by the next generation. An ever-changing, subjective morality is not really a morality at all. It is more akin to a whim. “They don’t have any (definite) knowledge of that. They only follow their whims.” (Qur’an 43:20) A compass that points in different directions each time can’t be a source of guidance. Morality needs an objective anchor. After some thought and guidance, one will conclude this anchor can only be Allah, the one unchanging Being.
- Decreased Islamic literacy. Once establishing the source of an objective morality, Muslims need to access and study it. Many are unaware of their deen’s injunctions and if they are, have a grossly inadequate understanding of the underpinnings to them. Instead, they carry misunderstandings such as one of “double standards” among genders. For example, many believe the virginity of a female is valued more than a man’s. In a 2007 study done among Indonesians, many Muslims did not realize that premarital sex is equally impermissible for men and women. (Bennett 2007) Another example is assigning culturally perceived wisdoms or representations to rightfully unlawful actions. As an example, rather than rooting prohibitions against male-female contact like handshaking in the first two points above, some mistakenly place it in culturally perceived “wisdoms.” When asked about handshaking, a female responded, “… in the Muslim, like, tradition it’s not acceptable because it implies like you’re giving your hand away (to the guy) …” (Ali-Faisal) The rationale here has no basis in religion. After learning the essentials of belief and epistemology, Muslims must invest in learning their religion properly. Only in this way, will they gain clearer insight and shed misunderstandings.
- Loss of culture rooted in normative Islamic values and scholarly taqlīd as a safety-net. There has and will always be those who miss out on the first three points, or perhaps, even though they are aware of them, find themselves lapse in moments of weakness. Historically, Muslims belonged to homogeneous societies in which Islamic values were the norm. The laity took its cues from the pious and knowledgeable. If your nafs or a shaytān caused you to slip, a communal safety-net prevented you from harming yourself. People think twice before breaking social taboos. When your culture’s taboos are rooted in Islam, then even better. Muslim majority nations have much lower rates of extra-marital sex even among its non-Muslim members. (Adamczyk 2012) This safety-net has been undone to a large extent by Muslims to their own detriment. A culture of mistrust developed in the previous colonialized generation against traditional Islamic scholars in favor of Liberalism’s distrust of religious authority. This mentality advocated for separation of culture and religion, which led to the abandonment of Islamic norms without an adequate replacement culture. Now, only a conscious effort by Muslim leaders and laypeople can re-establish a Muslim subculture and respect for scholarship. Both involve actively establishing (in the case of the former) and seeking out (in the case of the latter) beneficial, religious companionship (suhbah).
- Loss of preventative measures. Related to the last point is a dismantling of preventative measures such as separation of genders at gatherings, humility and modesty in dress, touching in the form of handshaking and hugs, and other concepts of sadd al-dharā’i` (blocking of means). Sadd al-dharā’i` refers to making impermissible those actions that lead to the impermissible. Whereas other religions and cultures may shun zinā, they allow for immodest dress (by Islamic standards), gender mixing and the like, and have comparatively failed at preventing zinā. Islam’s success is attributable to the divinely-based principle of sadd al-dharā’i`. For example, the Sharī`ah specifically prohibits unnecessary touching, mixing and even looking between the genders as a means of blocking zinā such that those actions in and of themselves are impermissible. The Qur’an commands believing men and women to both “lower their gaze and guard their chastity” because “that is purer for them.” (24:31-32) Most likely, these preventative measures are why Islam has been shown to be the most effective religion in curbing premarital and extra-marital sex. (Adamczyk 2012) Many speakers and local, well-meaning “uncles” have advocated for gender mixing citing benefits like increasing marriage prospects. Unfortunately, they lacked the foresight to realize that for every abandoned divine injunction, a harm will surely present itself. Indeed, many young men and women have approached MSA’s, other organized activities, and even masjids as places of hookup and dating. The harms have ranged from spiritually devastating to enabled predatory behavior as mentioned.
- Loss of ihsān. The Prophet ﷺ famously stated in the hadīth of Jibrā’īl that ihsān is “to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you cannot see Him, then (to remember) He sees you.” (al-Bukhārī 50) Ihsān is a science that has beautified Muslim lives since these invaluable words echoed from the Prophet ﷺ. Muslims relied upon it to attain states of taqwā (piety, God-consciousness). Its benefits were all-encompassing ranging from acknowledging Allah’s existence (ma`rifah) to creating an immense love of Allah and the Prophet ﷺ to assisting in strict adherence to Sharī`ah injunctions. So important is this point that conceivably one could lack the prior five points and suffice with it alone. Muslims have alienated themselves from it in previous generations. Individual and communal efforts to revive this science would go a long way in all aspects of human life.
The above six points are not meant to be exhaustive nor does every individual need all of them. The descriptions above are short and meant to introduce the concepts for consideration. Although I’ve taken zinā as a case-study, these points are applicable to all aspects of deen. Muslims have suffered due to loss of knowledge and culture based in normative Islam. Working towards reconstructing it will be difficult. An important step will be in establishing counterculture spaces in masjids, youth organizations, and conferences. Organizers, speakers, and scholars should be tasked with forging an environment in which Western living is enhanced with Islamic ideals. An environment which functionally supports īmān, Islamically good actions, and cares about all its members. Admittedly, this is asking for a difficult culture and paradigm shift, but it is not impossible. If we, the Muslim public, after asking for tawfīq from Allah, demand this from our leaders with a purposeful, concerted effort while forgiving the mistakes that will invariably take place, I believe we can accomplish this to the benefit of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Al-Bukhārī. Sahīh al-Bukhārī. Retrieved from https://sunnah.com/bukhari.
Abū Dāwūd. Sunan Abī Dāwūd. Retrieved from https://sunnah.com/abudawud.
Adamczyk, A., & Hayes, B.E. (2012) Religion and Sexual Behaviors: Understanding the Influence of Islamic Cultures and Religious Affiliation for Explaining Sex Outside of Marriage. American Sociological Review, 77(5), pp. 723-746.
Ahmed, S., et al. (2014) Prevalence of Risk Behaviors Among U.S. Muslim College Students. Journal of Muslim Mental Health. 8(1), pp. 5-19.
Ali-Faisal, Sobia F., Crossing sexual barriers: The inﬂuence of background factors and personal attitudes on sexual guilt and sexual anxiety among Canadian and American Muslim women and men (2014). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 5051.
Bennett, L.R. (2007). Zina and the enigma of sex education for Indonesian Muslim youth. Sex Education, 7, 371-386.
Garcia, J.R., et al. (2012) Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review. Review of General Psychology. 16(2), pp. 161-176.