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In this article I wish to discuss the Western liberal approach to sex morality and to ascertain to what extent it is in harmony with the essential Quranic approach, despite their seeming differences.

Sex morality has always been the central concern of all great religious and moral teachers. As we know, the ideal of chastity and the condemnation of adultery have dominated man’s thinking from time immemorial. In fact until very recently the vast majority of the human race thought that an unchaste person could not be morally good or virtuous at all. Though norms of sex morality were frequently broken such violations were shrouded in an atmosphere of fear and secrecy. Moreover, the fear of the social consequences of extra-marital pregnancy was as great, (if not greater) a restraining factor for man and woman than the fear of violating God’s commandments.

All this has gradually changed in Western society, which has become extremely permissive in the sphere of sex morality. This does not mean that it has become immoral, but only that it permits the individual to choose his or her own norms of good behavior in a matter deemed to be the private and personal concern of the individual. Barring rape, fraud and bigamy the individual is left free to choose his or her own code of sexual conduct. The case is rather analogous with the permissive approach in the sphere of religious belief and practice. Just as an individual in Western society feels perfectly free to believe or not to believe in God or life after death and has no embarrassment in declaring his authentic beliefs (whatever they might be), so also does he feel free in choosing or not choosing chastity as a major value of life.

The same applies to other personal matters like food and drink, dress, entertainments etc. This freedom to choose one’s own values has given rise to such new institutions as life companionship, companionate marriage, single parenthood, homosexuality, apart, of course, from romantic affairs and casual sex.

The above permissive approach to sex morality should not be equated with sexual chaos or amorality, since it merely affirms the value of man’s inner freedom to choose rather than any particular choice as such. It is held, that a person who freely chooses chastity and marital fidelity as basic values and a person who chooses otherwise may both be morally excellent persons, worthy of our respect, to the extent that they possess other virtues such as truthfulness, kindness, loyalty, integrity etc.. Thus the thrust of a permissive society is not that values don’t matter or that one choice is as good as another in all spheres of life, but only that in personal matters like religious faith, artistic taste, sexual conduct, in so far as it is based on mutual consent, the individual should be free to choose his own values. In other words, the permissive society stands for plural value systems rather than the imposition of a single code or the rejection of all values as such.


What exactly is the Western liberal sex morality and how did it gradually displace the Victorian mores? The Victorian sex morality was centered on the values of female modesty and chastity with considerable latitude enjoyed by the male sex. This double standard was commonly justified on the ground that un-chastity did not cause any harm to the male, but rather added to his worldly experience and confidence in discharging his duties as the head of the family, while the fair sex, as the weaker vessel, would be utterly ruined by sex outside the sacred bonds of marriage. Monogamy and the indissolubility of the marriage bond (except on grounds of adultery or impotence) were the other two basic ingredients of the Victorian mores or rather of Christian sex morality. The Christian sex morality was an integral part of an inclusive spiritual weltanshauung and value system, which held that man, could not know and pursue the good and the right without God’s grace and guidance in the form of a revealed rule-centered morality. This approach gradually developed in Western Europe into the modern scientific humanistic outlook, which stood for a value-centered morality. Humanism or liberalism, in this very broad sense, is just a critical or reflective attitude of mind rather than any specific system of ideas. This attitude which is characterized by a spirit of free enquiry, concern for moral values and tolerance of rival religious creeds was jointly produced by the impact of natural sciences and technology and of social sciences in the 19th century.

The remarkable progress of the social sciences and the global access of Western scholars and thinkers made them familiar with diverse value systems of the entire human family. Abandoning the earlier Christian missionary approach of trying to convert the human family to the one true religion, these scholars and social scientists came to view the different value systems of the human family with sympathetic understanding. They tried to probe into the ‘survival-value’ of the customs and rites of different wings of the human family, instead of dismissing them as immoral perversions of the barbarian world. Thus polygamy, polyandry, group-marriage, temporary marriage, puberty rites, female circumcision and so on became the objects of objective anthropological studies.

The approach of ‘anthropological detachment’ could not but be applied, in the course of time, to Christian sexual mores themselves. Social scientists were soon discussing the survival value of the near universal disapproval of incest, adultery and the prevalence of a double standard of morality for men and women. At about the same time medical and technological progress brought about what may well be called the ‘contraceptive revolution’, that is, man’s ability to control conception at will without renouncing sexuality, or man’s ability to separate sex from parenthood.

The contraceptive revolution has brought about a qualitative change in the human situation, apart from family planning and control over the growth of the human population. Controlled conception has liberated one half of the human race from the fear and misery of unwanted child bearing and rearing, to the almost total exclusion of other human pursuits. Secondly, it has transformed sexual intercourse, as a mechanism for procreation or, as relief from physical tension, into a language of loving communion between the sexes, independent, of the function of procreation. In other words, man’s control over conception has given a new meaning and dimension to sex and marriage. It is indeed significant that the concept of romantic marriage, that is, marriage as a romantic union between equal companions jointly seeking total self-realization was not known in the ancient or medieval world which kept love and marriage as entirely separate and relegated women to a subordinate position. The contemporary idea of romantic marriage, at its best, presupposes the equal dignity of the sexes and capacity and right of woman for a life of intellectual, moral and spiritual creativity apart from the function and duty of motherhood to which traditionally she had been confined. The factors mentioned above combined to usher in what may be called the Western liberal sex morality whose chief features will presently be described.


The natural biological consequence of sex union is the creation of new life whose sustenance and maintenance should naturally be the responsibility of the parents. Without accepting this responsibility sexual intercourse becomes mere satisfaction of impulse without acknowledging duties flowing therefrom. The core justification for confining sex activity within the bonds of marriage is precisely the identification of paternity and fixing of responsibility for the maintenance of the family.

Now, adultery violates the fundamental ethical principle that there should be no procreation without acknowledgment of responsibility, since extra-marital intercourse renders the issue of paternity quite uncertain. The moral indignation of the lawful husband and his refusal to be economically burdened by the consequences flowing from the action of another person are thus quite understandable. This is the real psychological and economic basis of the strong and near universal disapproval of adultery and free sex and of the stress upon marital fidelity in different forms of marriage: monogamous, polygamous or polyandrous, as the case may be.

Allowing that the evil of adultery and extra-marital sex is due to the impossibility or difficulty of fixing of the paternity of and financial responsibility for the offspring, the question arises whether or not extra-marital sex is also a moral evil per se, that is, evil in the intrinsic and not merely in the instrumental sense? Far from being a purely academic or technical question, this is a very vital practical issue. If one holds that sexual intercourse with consent, is not an evil per se, then why should adultery or extra-marital sex be deemed to be morally wrong if conception is avoided and if none of the persons concerned has any objection? On the other hand, if one holds that sex, without marriage, is an intrinsic evil it would unconditionally and invariably be evil like, say, rape, murder, fraud, malice and so on, even if there be no procreation of children or any other evil consequences.

This is a basic and crucial issue. Obviously, even the framing of this question was not possible or permissible within the framework of medieval Christian rule-centered morality. And when there was no question, obviously there was no need for any answer one way or the other. But with the advance of independent ethical reflection and value-centered morality associated with the rise of humanism in the late 18th and succeeding centuries some of the most earnest and ablest Western savants gradually converged to the rather revolutionary view that non-procreative sexual intercourse with consent (provided no prevarication or deceit be involved) was not an evil, per se, even though it may well be an instrumental evil.

This approach made a clear distinction between sexual intercourse and rape, judging the former to be ethically neutral (in the intrinsic sense) while the latter to be an intrinsic evil, like say, murder, theft or under weighing etc. These actions fill us with feelings of moral revulsion and disapproval quite independently of their being prohibited by most religions. The more we probe our inmost self to determine the depth and persistence of our moral revulsion at the idea of say, murder, ingratitude towards a benefactor, disloyalty or treachery against a friend, business fraud or adulteration, deliberate punishment of an innocent person falsely accused, and so on, the greater becomes our inner certainty of the validity of our moral judgment.

Now the case with adultery is different. To begin with, the unsophisticated Christian or Muslim does feel a deep revulsion against sexual intercourse, outside marriage just as he does in the case of the evils mentioned above. But calm and detached moral reflection often modifies his absolute condemnation of adultery as evil per se, even though he may continue to disapprove of sex outside marriage. He may become perplexed whether extra-marital intercourse is an intrinsic evil, like rape or adulteration or whether it is after all only instrumental evil that is, usually productive of bad consequences for the individuals concerned and also society at large. The case is analogous with our reaction to say, polyandry, that is, the legalized marriage of one woman with more than one male. To begin with, the concept of polyandry strikes us as immoral and repulsive or sinful (if we are used to speak the, language of religion). But calm and detached reflection on the socioeconomic conditions and legal aspects of polyandry softens our initial revulsion, enabling us to view it as a possibly satisfactory social system in conditions very different from those prevailing in monogamous or polygamous societies. In other words, polyandry ceases to appear to us as an absolute intrinsic evil, even though we may still disapprove of it for ourselves.

Now what are the undesirable consequences flowing from extra-marital sex, according to Western thinkers? Firstly, if the individual does not have the courage to own the truth about himself this erodes his basic integrity of character and leads to a secretive double-faced lifestyle. Secondly, extra-marital sex may lead to procreation without acknowledgment of paternity and responsibility for the offspring. This evil would not result if conception is scrupulously avoided or if the woman has no objection to accepting the responsibility of supporting offspring of the union by herself. Thirdly, extra-marital sex, in the absence of a firm commitment by the partners may lead to an unrequited longing on the part of either for a socially approved permanent union which may not be feasible due to constraints on either side. This leads to a tormenting predicament, which tends to destroy one’s peace of mind and capacity for productive work.

The above evils would not result if sex is de-linked with love or a commitment to share each other’s lives. But sex without love becomes mere sensation (no matter howsoever enjoyable) and a mere physical transaction or game. Only when sex and love are fused with each other does sexual intercourse become a rite of worshipful union of bodies, a physical symbol of total loyalty and spiritual merger of separate ego hoods, a language of the soul that transports the lovers into the domain of the mystical. And is not mystical ecstasy the deepest bliss humans can taste, if there be any truth in the claims of poets, mystics and saints of all religions? But, then can all persons be expected to have a taste or preference for the mystical, even as can all be expected to have an ear for rhythm or an eye for color harmony? The answer is obvious.

The conclusion of the above analysis is that while rape and deceptive sexual relations are clearly moral evils, there seems to be no clear answer to the question whether extra-marital consensual sex between adults who, otherwise, are absolutely guileless and open to each other and to society is also an intrinsic evil. Under these conditions, liberal thinkers in the West have converged to the view that every individual must probe his or her own authentic conscience, and society must respect that answer.


Let us now analyze the Islamic approach to sex morality. The Islamic ethos gives a high value to sexual fulfillment of man and woman through the institution of marriage, which is not deemed to be an obstacle in the path of spiritual attainments. The Quran also permits much greater freedom and ease of divorce, polygamy, and sexual relations with female slaves with or without marriage, and Shia Islam also permits temporary marriage (muta), an ancient Arab custom that was given up by Sunni Islam. Thus, on the whole, Islamic sexual ethics is ‘instinct-affirming’ and permissive rather than ‘instinct-denying’ and repressive. However, it has almost banned the social association of the sexes and it has also gone back to the old Jewish custom of stoning unto death as a penalty for adultery. In some respects, therefore the Islamic approach has been repressive. Perhaps the almost total social segregation of the sexes and the deterrent penalties of flogging and stoning were intended to prevent, as far as humanly possible, the evil of adultery.

Let us now turn to the Quranic concept of marriage. According to the Quran, as also the Pre-Islamic Arab mores, marriage is not a mystical or sacramental indissoluble union (as in the case of Hinduism and Christianity) but essentially a contractual obligation, (intended to be permanent but terminable by the male partner) to ‘cohabit’, and jointly to maintain the offspring of the union. Further, while the male is permitted to enter into such a contract with more than one female at a time, the woman is permitted only one contractual partner at any point of time. This is the essential core of marriage, according to Islam. The religious ceremony, presence of witnesses, the public declaration and celebration of the contract, though all recommended, are dispensable adjuncts of the essential core of marriage, namely a proposal by one party (whether male or female) and its acceptance by the other based on some ‘consideration’ or other.

An accurate analysis shows that the thrust of the Quranic text lies in prohibiting secret or casual sexual relationships without any commitment or consequential responsibility flowing there from. Indeed, the permissibility of polygamy, sexual relations with one’s female slaves, the simple and easy method of divorce (though only from the vantage point of the male partner), the encouragement of remarriage of widows and divorced women and finally, the permissibility of temporary marriage (though the practice is confined to Shia Islam only) all go to show the permissive and liberal approach to sex expression. However, adultery is severely condemned and is punishable by hundred lashes of the whip, provided four witnesses testify to the deed. Again, the Quran lays great emphasis upon the clear identification of paternity by prohibiting women to remarry immediately after divorce or the death of their husbands.

Since the Quranic ethos lays great stress upon paternal identification, prostitution, casual sex, extramarital affairs are all patently un-Islamic. But to the extent that conception is avoided the degree of the evil would be proportionately reduced. Such activities make a Muslim believer untruthful and hypocritical and truth and authenticity are the fundamental values of the Quran.


To my mind, the spirit of the Quranic contract for marriage may well be present in a genuine and responsible partnership even without any formal religious or legal ceremony or protocol. However, signing a written protocol or giving solemn oral consent makes it psychologically easier to honor the agreement. In other words, what is called civil marriage (under secular auspices) or even common law marriage is not some act that can be said to be evil in terms of reflective morality. However, extramarital intercourse, especially when one or both partners are already married becomes morally objectionable the moment secrecy or deception enter into the relationship at any level whatsoever. The basic evil of adultery lies in the fact that it seriously endangers the inner integrity and transparency of the character of the persons concerned. Adultery also causes much hurt and pain to innocent victims of secrecy and breach of contract.

The Quran prescribes flogging as a penalty for adultery provided four reliable witnesses testify to the deed. But this condition makes the penalty almost inoperative in practice for quite obvious reasons. The net result of this proviso is to throw men and women back into the realm of pure morality when dealing with such private and intimate actions that never or hardly ever get registered by observes. No law can touch or detect what goes on in the minds of men and their fancies or their private acts away from public perception. By the very nature of the case, only inner constraint, not law can regulate sexual behavior. The inner check may come from fear of God or from authentic commitment to basic values. Both can be present at the same time. But flogging is a poor teacher in a matter that requires spiritual education and nurture rather than fear of the rod. This is the crux of the modern permissive approach to sex morality.

State censorship (as is found in Saudi Arabia), vigilance squads and public punishments produce only terrified puritans or hypocrites, who are held in check by fear, rather than motivated by respect for the moral law. Like the rest of humankind, Muslim society has no workable choice except adopting a permissible approach to sex morality in preference to a harsh legalistic one.

It seems to me that the time has also come for intellectually honest and honest to God Muslims to face squarely the data now available in respect of the considerable incidence of a natural or congenital homo-sexual orientation among both men and women. The evidence is now too strong to keep matters under the carpet any longer. We all know that until very recently the phenomenon of left handed children was viewed as an unfortunate perversion and parents went out of their way to root out this ugly trait or tendency in some children. Scientific advance has now confirmed that neural circuitry is by no means absolutely uniform in the human species and considerable variations and mutation are found in nature. In all humility and earnestness I submit that harsh condemnations of a congenital homosexual orientation as a heinous vice or abominable evil is no longer justifiable in the light of reliable statistics of inborn homosexual traits from birth.

The modern global industrial society is gradually pushing all religious groups (including Muslims) into accepting the permissive approach to sex morality. The new ethos of human rights and gender equality is turning segregation of women a thing of the past and encouraging the marriage of free choice and family planning. The ethic of marriage as a romantic workable union between more or less economically independent and equal partners is bound to disturb the traditional self-image of the male as the dominant bread-winner and the female as the loyal home-maker and helpmate. The greater the professional attainments and economic independence of the female the more difficult it becomes for her to accept the traditional secondary role as the junior partner in marriage. Nor is it natural and easy for her to accept double standards of marital fidelity after the contraceptive revolution. It is almost inevitable that marriage breakdowns become far more common than they ever were earlier.

The empowerment of women, however, can not be arrested in the name of domestic harmony and family values by any religious tradition, just as we can not turn our back to the industrial age in the name of any religious utopia. Humanity can only go ahead with full awareness of the complexities of the human situation and deep spiritual faith in the Unseen Creator and Sustainer of cosmic harmony.


A few observations may be offered at this point on the puritan approach to life in general. Religious puritans arise when any large human group begins to suffer from emotional and economic deprivation, helpless frustration and despair. They begin to devalue or almost reject the softer values of love, compassion, aesthetic delight, and the inner peace and joy of being human. Sheer anger and desperation impels them to overturn the apple cart when they think they have no share in the apples. Sheer anger distorts their judgment and everything becomes rotten for them except their own version of whatever religion they happen to profess. And a negative Puritanism becomes their last refuge from the unbearable pressures, tensions and frustrations of their lot in life. This is how and why the ‘Taliban’s’ among different religious groups reject music, dance, painting, love and romance in literature, innocent gender free social mixing, the pleasures of the palate and contact with nature and several other entertainments and sports. Their moral and spiritual growth, thus, remains ever stunted and fails to reach the higher level of inner-directed discipline that is very different from fear based external control.

Puritanism, as traditionally understood in Islamic circles, is not an integral part of the Quranic ethos. Nowhere does the Quran prohibit the fine arts. Why, then, did the puritanical temper become rather strongly entrenched in orthodox Islam? Well, Muslim theologians and jurists projected personal or regional biases or temporal value patterns on Quranic texts as well as the reported sayings and doings of the Prophet. Pious and sincere as were the learned Islamic divines of the past, their fallibility and limitations should be patently clear to the intellectually honest Muslim believer.

In all humility I would like to recall that the penalty of stoning unto death, banning art forms and music, belief in the exclusive salvation of Muslims, the death penalty for apostasy, opposition to contraception, the total segregation of women, and so on, do not find any clear mention in the Quran and yet they become rather well established components in the thought and value system of medieval Islam.

Rulers and affluent classes all over the world have paid scant attention to puritan protests and warnings, and, most likely, they never will. Perhaps, the show will go on as usual. However, I am quite optimistic that the Muslim world today stands at the threshold of a new paradigm of Quranic Islam minus the gloss of medieval ideas and values, and the most tragic Shia-Sunni schism. This paradigm will certainly not be a patchwork synthesis or an imitation of Western modernity. It will be an organic and orthogenetic understanding of the Quran in the light of timeless Spirit-centered Humanism and the interfaith movement of modern times.


Sex Morality And Islam
BY Jamal Khwaja

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Jamal Khwaja studied Philosophy in India & Europe. He was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1957. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of seven major books. 

Khwaja’s work seeks to answer three inter-related questions: Firstly, What does it mean to be an authentic Muslim? Secondly, How should a believer understand and interpret the Holy Quran in the 21st century?  And finally, What is the role of Islam in a pluralistic society? 

Khwaja believes in judiciously creative modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. His mission is to stimulate serious rethinking and informed dialog between tradition and modernity in Islam. 

Khwaja’s work is the definitive contemporary discussion regarding the collision of Islam and Modernity. Readers of his work will be in turn, informed, inspired, and intellectually liberated.