Written by Manal Omar
For more than 40 years, I have read article after article about the virtues of abstaining from food and drink for the mental, physical and spiritual self during the month of Ramadan. Yet little has been discussed on the benefits that come from the requirement to abstain from sex.
Well, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Despite the rich history of erotic literature in the Muslim world that flourished between the ninth and 16th centuries, there is not much discussion about sex and Islam in this day and age. The fact that volumes and volumes were dedicated to this discussion, from al-Ghazālī to al-Suyuti, and entire fiqh books around eroticism, it seems to be lost on the majority of today’s Muslim population.
Until now, that is.
AcrossRedLines is dedicated to bringing an Islamic perspective following the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH) and the early Muslim scholars who spoke about sexuality at great length, particularly for Muslim women.
So what better time than Ramadan to look to the Islamic tradition to gain a better understanding of the “why” behind the things we do as opposed to the “how?”
A quick scan of Islamic literature will reveal that when exploring the topic of Ramadan and sex, there is plenty of information that goes into great detail about the rules and prohibitions of sexual acts in Ramadan. So if a long list of harams and halals are what you are looking for – do not worry. The lists abound.
However, absent from the literature at first glance is a discussion about the roles intimacy and intercourse have in strengthening your fast, and therefore your soul.
So why do we abstain from sex?
I was hoping to get a simple answer, but like anything to do with legal systems, instead, I was reminded of the complexity of the law. Adnan Zulfiqar, former Muslim chaplain and current fellow at Penn Law, patiently explains to me as I bombard him with texts, that the question is multifaceted and multi-layered. “‘Why’ we abstain from sex is a layered question, as is the question of refraining from food and drink. Remember that most of what folks say on this topic is derived from their own speculation. The Qur’an only tells us that fasting is obligated upon us to increase our awareness of God (taqwa) and the Prophetic tradition adds a little more detail on what this means. ‘How’ exactly abstinence increases our awareness is what scholars offer as a potential explanation for why we abstain,” he says.
Exactly how does abstaining from sex increase our awareness? How does it strengthen discipline? To answer these questions, I turned to different kinds of experts. The sex experts.
First, starting with Dr. Azza Karam, a senior advisor at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). She works to convene diverse religious voices and experiences supportive of the sexual and reproductive health as part of the development agenda. As a practicing Muslim, she explains from a personal lens how abstaining strengthens her experience. “During fasting, I try to tune my mind inward into my thoughts in particular, as I try to ensure that no negative whisper passes through my soul. Because sex is so tactile and energizing, it tends to distract from the inner probing and the calming I need to focus on the spirit,” Dr. Karam explains.
Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University and philosopher, explains that fasting provides an opportunity to truly understand one’s carnal soul, what the Qur’an describes as the al-nafs al-ammarah. In layman terms – how to put your ego in check!
Beyond that, there is nothing more intimate than sexual relations with your spouse and to abstain from that is to forgo one of the most private moments of humans experience. The abstinence from the act is a reminder of the great scholar Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī’s teachings in Ihyā’ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, where al-Ghazālī discusses the “secrets” of fasting.
The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said in a hadith qudsi that Allah said in regard to the private nature of fasting, “All of the actions of the son of Adam are for him, except for fasting. [Fasting] is for me and I reward for it [what I please] …” The hadith illustrates that fasting is a personal, intimate and hidden act of worship and unlike other forms of worship – prayer, hajj, etc. – which can be performed publicly, or for praise from others.
The act of abstinence – be it from food, drink or sex – isn’t about the acts themselves as much is it is a form of discipline that allows you to focus on the spiritual self rather than physical. “As a result of this systematic restraint, the human soul becomes aware that it is independent of its immediate natural environment and conscious that it is in this world but not of it,” explains Dr. Nasr.
And you don’t have to take only the Islamic scholar’s word for it. Many traditions have emphasized the importance of fasting, as the Holy Quran reminds us, “It has been prescribed on us as it has been on those before us.” (2:183) Almost every religious and spiritual tradition has some form of fasting and in most cases, as in the case of Islam, it isn’t merely about food and drink. For example, the Grace Valley Christian Center says about the Christian Bible, “We read that fasting from sex can be proper. If a couple desires to spend some time in prayer, they may go without sex by mutual consent for a period of time.”
But abstaining from the physical act of sex doesn’t only have spiritual benefits. Linda Savage, a member of the board of advisors for AcrossRedLines and a licensed psychologist and certified sex educator with over 35 years of experience, explained to me, “In my exploration of sacred sexual traditions worldwide, I have come to believe that sexuality is not separate from spirituality and that it was never meant to be split off from the sacred and relegated to a physical act. Sexuality is energy within us and it connects each one with God: it is our life force and our birthright.” She goes on, “When we abstain from the physical we can use this energy as a form of meditation, moving it from the base of the spine and radiating it through the whole body-mind system. It is the source of healing and promotes enlightenment as well as the feeling of love. Since love is truly the most powerful force in the universe, the more we tune into the state of loving inside of ourselves, the more we can feel it at any moment.”
Dr. Sara Nasserzadeh, who is a social psychologist and certified sexuality counselor shares her own observations from seeing clients. She explains, they “might experience more intimacy with each other when sex is not in the picture.” She outlines how shared rituals can lead to a deeper spiritual connection. Ironically, Dr. Nasserzadeh points out that abstaining from sex will give her clients a “clearer mind and more in touch with their bodies if they observe fasting because they not only learn self-control, but also they develop awareness towards what their bodies and minds could want and do.”
In fact, research has shown that non-intercourse affection may lead to stronger relationships between couples, allowing for a stronger mutual satisfaction that goes beyond simple physical gratification. This argument is made strongly and with solid research in the book, “Peace Between the Sheets: Healing with Sexual Relationships,” by Marina Robinson.
Yes. You read that right. Abstaining from sex may just be the very thing you need to improve your sex life with your spouse.
And as with every element of the fasting, it isn’t just about the month of Ramadan. The benefits are long-lasting, with the development of a deeper appreciation by experiencing life without it. Ramadan is not meant to be only a restriction on daily acts for the prescribed 30 days. It is meant to be a springboard for stronger physical, mental and spiritual life for the year to come. As Nasr explains, “One must withdraw occasionally from the full life of the senses even in order to be able to enjoy the fruit of sensual perception.”
Manal Omar is Muslim Girl’s resident sex expert, and the CEO and founder of AcrossRedLines. Her column, Sex & The Divine, looks at comprehensive analysis intersecting religion, sexual education & research in order to provide resources specifically for Muslim women.