On Sex and Politics
In the Name of Allah, the Most Kind, the Kindest
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
“Prepare yourself for something very dreadful” (Pride & Prejudice). Why is it difficult to speak about sex and politics? There’s an adage that advises people not to discuss these topics nor religion to keep things from becoming contentious or embarrassing. Interestingly, these three topics are heavily entwined and often go hand in hand, which is why comedians like Lilly Singh (YouTuber), Adil Ray (the creator of Citizen Khan), and Dana Carvey (famous for The Church Lady) poke fun at it.
It may be harder to bring up these topics in religious families because beliefs about acceptable and unacceptable behavior are usually clearly defined and sacrosanct. At the same time, children may receive conflicting messages, like telling them to abstain from sex until marriage, while allowing them to date, which is a complicated undertaking without plenty of guidance and buy-in. The religious dictums that many faith communities depend on to safeguard their children are contrary to the secular world in which they live. We leave children ill-prepared to navigate life and its pleasures by excessively shielding them from a natural human act. In the two YouTube videos I include, Citizen Khan and Lilly Singh tip-toe around “the birds and bees,” and the Kama, I mean, Drama Sutra! Some parents are comfortable referring to human body parts, but many from religious families like euphemisms because we can’t speak of “it.”
I’ve spoken to several women and a few men while writing and rewriting this newsletter. All of them had a religious upbringing either from the Islamic, Christian, or Hindu traditions, respectively. Everyone’s parents shielded them to a greater or lesser extent, and sex was never (or rarely) discussed at home. It was understood to be something evil, taboo, sinful, or off-limits. Almost everyone was told to wait until marriage and more or less left to figure it out. Most of the women dealt with feelings of guilt, shame, and regret. All of us had to reclaim our sexuality and heal.
Most of us living in the West or who have been Westernized learn about sex through trial and error in pre-marital relationships. For many of us, this is traumatic because we’ve inherited all these ideas about a god who is insanely punitive and hates sin. I mean He seriously HATES SIN. It tends to be a masculine god who happens to be preoccupied with our sex lives and will burn us with fire for engaging in self-pleasure and seeking out pleasurable company.
Now don’t get me wrong, I feel sex is and can be a Sacred Act. When held in a Sacred Container like marriage, it has the potential to ensure prolonged satisfaction, provide necessary relief, and enable us to stay focused on our purpose, which is greater than this physical world. And I don’t fault our parents for trying to protect us. But it’s worth noting that religious communities have been exploring sexuality for centuries, as the Kama Sutra, an ancient Sanskrit text on eroticism, makes explicitly clear. Or take a page from The Perfumed Garden (an Arabic sex manual comparable to the Kama Sutra), 1001 Nights, or Rumi’s Masnavi. It’s not hard to read homoeroticism into Sufi poetry as well. As one friend noted, “Islam in the Golden Age was a lot more relaxed when it came to sex.” This shows us that the interpretation of Sacred Texts plays a considerable role in our conceptions of Ultimate Reality. What verses do we elevate and emphasize? Are they helpful? Do they have the desired result (pun intended)?
Like did our religious parents want us to be unprepared, taken advantage of, riddled with guilt, and in need of therapy because we couldn’t be open about our carnal desires and find healthy outlets? Did they want us to believe god loathed us and that we were unredeemable, unworthy, damaged goods? Did they want us to be dissatisfied and unhappy? I doubt it.
Most parents want their children to be safe and want to position their children well in life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we empathized with our children, knowing full well that most of us are fallen angels rather than giving them bad odds? Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi does this in If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran. He argues that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was “often far more flexible than the legal scholars who followed him and developed fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence].” And he counsels Muslims accordingly. When frantic parents reached out to him because their unmarried daughter had revealed she was pregnant, he told them to help and support her. That they should not judge her in this world. Sex outside of marriage is considered a major sin in Islam, so he also said what the parents expected to hear that she had already sinned and there will be consequences in the afterlife.
Here’s my problem, how does he know that, especially the bit about forthcoming consequences in the afterlife? What of Allah’s forgiveness, is She not the most forgiving, the oft-forgiving, the One who forgives all sins in numerous verses? The Quran declares: “O My slaves who have acted unwisely against yourselves, despair not of God’s Mercy. Verily God forgiveth sins in their entirety. He is the All-Forgiving, the All-Merciful” (39:53).
قُلْ يَا عِبَادِيَ الَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُوا عَلَى أَنْفُسِهِمْ لَا تَقْنَطُوا مِنْ رَحْمَةِ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعًا إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ٥٣
In an agreed-upon hadith, the Prophet ﷺ said Allah forgave a prostitute for giving a dog dying of thirst water. Imagine that! She was guilty of committing a major sin for a living; God forgave her to the hilt simply because she showed kindness to an animal by relieving its thirst and saving its life. There is a similar account in the New Testament in which the scribes and Pharisees brought an adulteress before Jesus. They reminded him that the punishment for adultery according to the Law of Moses was stoning. Then they pressed him for an answer, and he said, “let him without sin cast the first stone” (John 8, 3:7).
It’s disquieting how some men are obsessed with women and want to punish them for that, rather than disciplining the soul and breaking their sexual desire. It may be fair to say that people with a perverted religious understanding engage in a type of perversion that harms everyone in society. One need only look at the headlines for proof of this, which begs the question: do these religious do’s and don’ts work, or are they causing the very problem they’re supposed to prevent by repressing sexuality? I would say they don’t work and that they result in egregious notions about sex and intimacy. So what is the solution? I feel it is twofold: one political and the other spiritual.
In households that tend to suppress sexuality, a dose of liberalism may prove advantageous. The strength of liberalism lies in its openness to new ideas and unconventional ways of being, thinking. Its weakness is excess. Conversely, overly permissive households may benefit from conservativism’s commitment to tradition and desire to protect what’s wholesome. Its weakness is calcification. One needs the other to achieve balance.
A spiritual understanding reminds us that “it is the spirit that possesses the sexes, in order to bring them together for its own purpose of manifestation. Therefore many religions and philosophies have considered the sex relationship to be most sacred since it is thus that the spirit manifests itself. And for the same reason, the sex-relationship may become most sinful, if this purpose of the spirit is lost to view” (Rasa Shastra).
For further discussion of this subject, see Hazrat Inayat Khan’s Rasa Shastra or The Revival of the Religious Sciences by Imam Ghazali.
Shall we close with this beautiful description of intercourse from Hazrat Inayat Khan: “Sex is a direction. Two is a part of one, growing out of one. As the conductor guides the music, each movement of his baton demands a second movement; a single motion is not possible. A single stroke has no meaning, but as soon as there is a second motion, then the rhythm of the music begins” (Rasa Shastra).
From one needy of your dua,
PS. What aspects of sex and politics do you wish religious communities were more willing to talk about and explore?
PPS. I am utterly grateful to everyone who shared with me and helped me write this newsletter. I hope you see glimpses of what you imparted to me here and that it is pleasing to you and a source of benefit.