In my last column, I discussed the importance of the conversation around sex from a personal perspective. Yet as powerful as the personal narrative may be, it is always important for us to look for the collective good and what benefits the community at large. For it was the combination of personal and community needs that led me to launch Across Red Lines.
So in the tradition of the Sunnah, let me share the top three reasons for why I have embarked on promoting positive sex awareness among mature Muslim women.
1. Time for a new narrative – pleasure as a way to the Divine
Let me be clear. This isn’t about reformation. This is about an Islamic revival.
Islam has and always will be an enlightened and revolutionary religion for women. Almost every Muslim knows the basic rights afforded to women – many of which were light years ahead of other religious traditions. Women have always had the right to vote in Islam, to own property, to divorce and to be financially independent, to name a few. Not to mention, Islam was built on trailblazing women.
And the question of sexuality is no different. In fact, Islam not only was known for its erotic literature, but also for specific Islamic jurisprudence around sexuality and pleasure. The reality is that somewhere down the line we have been sold the story that sacrifice and suffering build character. That this is the only way to the Divine.
Yet the teachings of Islam show the opposite, especially when it comes to sensuality and pleasure. Islam is one of the few religions that does not emphasize procreation as the primary motivation for marriage. Sexual fulfillment is the primary motivation for marriage, our early scholars explained.
Organizations like Women in Memory Forum based in Cairo, Egypt set out to explore the sanad (Islamic methodology for jurisprudence) around issues involving women. The organizations discovered that many of the rulings that create a shame-based culture around sexuality and shifted marriage towards procreation had a direct link to the colonial influence, specifically of the Victorian era on Islamic scholarship.
In other words – the idea of procreation as the sole purpose of sex is not Islamic.
When the Qur’an speaks of marriage and union, it is explicitly described as a sign “for those who reflect” (30: 21) and a union that the Divine has blessed with “love and compassion.” (30:21) It is a true gift from the Divine to complete the human experience. The Prophetic tradition goes further to say, “In your [act of] sexual intercourse there is an act of charity.”(Sahih Muslim)
The Prophet directly advised the men in the community, telling them, “The best of you are those who are the best towards their wives.” (Al-Tirmidhi). Over and over, the Prophet emphasized – la haya fee al deen (there is no shame in faith). He went into great detail about the importance of sexuality, further offering men the advice, “When a man has sex with his wife, he should strive to satisfy her. Then, when he fulfills his need, he should not hurry until she fulfils her need.” (As Suyuti)
Open and honest conversations around sexuality were the norm. It is time for us to bring it back to the public square.
2. Our community needs to build resilience
There is no doubt that globally the Muslim ummah has entered a period of great tribulation–there are tests to people of faith around every corner. The reality is this may last for decades. There is also a real threat to the community that in assuming a defensive posture, we forsake spiritual growth. There is the potential pitfall that Muslims in America will mistake social and political activism for practicing deen. Our bodies and souls also need nourishment. As Sister Aisha Alwayiah, the founder of Women In Islam, Inc and a personal mentor advised me, “The time to call in beauty is stronger than ever.”
The last few years were among the most difficult in my life and I could not find one Muslim leader based in the U.S. that had time to offer guidance. Our leaders are so focused on the external battles that we face and on outreach that, despite having direct access to the top Islamic leaders in the nation, there were none that had the time for true one-on-one spiritual counsel. In almost all cases where I found myself paralyzed, I would turn to Imams in Nigeria, UAE and Jordan for guidance since the Imams in the West were unavailable.
I pray that women do not have to struggle and discover their rights on their own. The hope is that through an open dialogue on one of the most essential human subjects, we can create a safe space where women can turn to other women for guidance. The time has come to bring back the traditional rituals where women would support and uplift other women. This by no means replaces the need for a strong communication between partners as they work to build a life together. Yet the first step is to know yourself.
There is a temptation to stay focused on the fires directly threatening the community. And indeed, we have embarked on a two-front battle, fighting both Islamic extremism and Islamaphobia in our backyards. It is for this very reason that this conversation is essential. The reality is, as we take to the front lines to push back on extremists and Islamophobes alike, the time to build resilience has come. Now more than ever is the time to understand the richness and joy found within the spirituality that Islam has provided. These are the key ingredients to building resilience as a community.
During my years of working on peacebuilding, in interviews with ex-combatants, the subject of sex would somehow come up in one form or another. As I watched the rise of ISIS in the region, a center part of their recruitment strategies for both genders heavily revolved around sexuality—denying it, shaming it or promising to fulfill it in its most base forms as “rewards” for those who had seen it denied. And, frustratingly, watching the amazing people who dedicated their lives to making positive change and working toward peace were slowly and steadily burning out and surrendering, in part because they had no pleasure and joy in their lives.
Umar Hakim, INKERIJ Founder and Principle, and also one of the Muslim male leaders I turn to in order to gain a balanced perspective, agreed that this conversation is more important than ever. Understanding both the tradition and Islamic jurisprudence around sexuality, he says, “Gives us relevant understanding and halal healthy practices, that can safeguard a community’s well-being for what is natural. As a married man who deals with social ills, sex is our self-care.”
3. Access to full leadership potential
At the end of the day, the overarching theory of change for Across Red Lines is that inclusive societies can only be formed with the full participation of women. For women to access their full leadership potential, they must master all parts of themselves.
Almost every media outlet bombards us with strong opinions about what and who a woman should be. Internationally renowned author on Women’s Leadership, Tabby Biddle explains, “The wound that is being created and perpetuated by our cultural distortion and commercialization of female sexuality needs to be and can be stopped. We have an opportunity today to hold the space and teach girls and young women that their bodies are special, sacred and beautiful.”
Yet the reality is that as Muslim women – and I would argue all women of faith – there is a lot more to consider in relation to the overall well-being of the community. The Islamic perspective has always been one of the collective good, and the Prophetic tradition teaches us to balance individual aspirations with community needs. Within Islam they are not mutually exclusive, in fact, they are directly tied to one another.
As Muslims, we know that the body will testify. The Holy Quran tells us, “On that day We will set a seal upon their mouths, and their hands shall speak to Us, and their feet shall bear witness of what they earned.” (36:63-65).
In my personal opinion, this is not only in the Hereafter, but the bodies can serve as our guide to connecting with the Divine. From the Islamic perspective, a read through Hamza Yusuf’s “Purification of the Heart” demonstrates the power of the body to guide. From the scientific framework, doctors are now referring to the colon as the second brain. There is a wide range of proof of the power of the body as a compass. To disconnect from your sexuality is to disconnect from your body. When we shut down pleasure, sensuality, desires and sensations, we are disconnected from the GPS system that God has given us.
Dr. Linda Savage, a mentor for Across Red Lines, explained to me, “When a woman is aware of and knows how to access her connection to this Life Force Energy, she is able to feel the guidance of her body wisdom. By tuning into her sexual energy, she empowers herself and releases her creativity. “
Savage is a licensed psychologist and sex therapist who has been exploring the mysteries of sexual healing for over 25 years. She emphasizes, “Shame is the fundamental impediment to women becoming fully embodied. For them to feel comfortable with their natural sensuality, including all the senses, we need a new and more positive meaning for sexual energy. Empowerment is essential for women to live fully, and in order to experience this, we need new a relationship with this energy in our bodies.”
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.