The subject of today's khutba is sex, which is the sort of topic where everybody's voice truly matters, because it is something so fundamental to human experience. But as a lecturer or a khatib, it is a one-way conversation, and I can only tell it like I see it. So listen to what I have to share with a grain of salt, and feel free to share with me any thoughts, feelings, ideas and criticisms you might have of what I say. May Allah grant me to say what is right and true in a beautiful manner, and forgive me at the moments when I inevitably stray, ameen!
I begin with a hadith. In the chapter on marriage in Sahih Muslim, it states that Abu Sa'id al-Khudri (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that Allah's Messenger (may Allah send peace and blessings upon him, his wives, and their children) said, "The most wicked among the people in the eye of Allah on the Day of judgment is the man who goes to his wife and she comes to him, and then he divulges her secret." This hadith establishes the sanctity and reverence which we must have for sex, because it involves the sharing of that which is most intimate between two souls. Just as if someone came to us with a deep secret, we wouldn't go broadcasting it, so too do we not broadcast the secrets shared between a husband and wife.
The sanctity of sex is also revealed in the nature of some of the legal rulings associated with it. For example, there is capital punishment in the Shari'ah for the married adulterer. And although it is virtually impossible to actually convict someone of this crime if they do not themselves confess, the severity of the punishment indicates the severity of the crime in the eyes of Allah. The punishment for the person who is unmarried and convicted of fornication is less than that of the married person, but it is still severe. The physical act is exactly the same, but whereas with one person it brings reward, with the other it brings punishment. The Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) taught, in a hadith related in Sahih Muslim, that making love with one's spouse is a virtuous deed. His companions were astounded and asked, “O Messenger of Allah, if one of us fulfills his desire, is there reward in that?” He replied, “Do you not see that if he does so in a haram way he will have the burden of sin? So if he does so in a halal way, he will have a reward for that.”
God warns against prohibited sex in the Qur'an with the same wording that God chose to warn our grandfather and grandmother Adam and Hawwa (may peace be upon them) about the tree, "Do not even come near it (la taqrabuu)." This reminds us that sex is incredibly special, powerful and can have major ramifications in our lives. But unlike the tree in Jannah, we are allowed to taste sex during our journey here on Earth. But we may only do so in the way that God allows us to do so. Sexual expression is myriad, just as is human expression in general. And so adhering to the limits of that which is permissible is what defines us as servants of God as opposed to servants of our own desires and imaginations. As the Qur'an states
"Have you seen the one who takes their own desire as a god?!" (Surah al-Furqan, verse 43)
We worship the Creator of sex, the One who made it the way it is. When we engage in it, we do so with the intention to be thankful to God for what God created, seeking the reward that God gives to those who obey the limits of God. For God has placed clear limits. We are not allowed to have sex when we want - in Ramadan during the day and in ihram we are forbidden from doing so. We are not allowed to have sex with whomever we want, and the rulings related to this are well-known by Muslims all over the world. We are not allowed to have sex however we want - certain sexual acts are haram in and of themselves, regardless of who does them. But sex in and of itself is good, and Islam encourages us to seek halal ways to experience it.
The taste that we develop for sex in adulthood - for it is not with us when we are children, which we often forget after the transformative experience of puberty - should lead us to an awareness of the infinite bliss potential of Jannah, and it is precisely the legal rulings associated with sex which allow us to do so. Our time here on Earth is to see whether we will obey God, or whether we will rather obey the desire which is inside of us. This is why the Shari'ah is so essential. Everything on this earth will ultimately pass away, for the march of civilization is temporary. But Heaven is not like that - Heaven is a place of pure, unrestrained enjoyment for all eternity. It is a place of never-ending ascent to the reality of Allahu akbar, wherein everything that is possible in this universe is unleashed beyond our comprehension. The Qur'an is quite explicit in a variety of places about describing Heaven in sexual terms. Because enjoyable sex is one of the most amazing things a human being can experience on Earth, so its exalted mirror image in Heaven will be truly indescribable. But the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, in a hadith related in Sahih Muslim, that, "the Garden is surrounded by hardships and the Fire is surrounded by temptations," and we must remember that.
If we are not married yet, we have no choice but to be patient. Allah has made the nikah the thing that separates the lawful from the unlawful, the rewarded from the punished. And what is a nikah? It is a solemn agreement between two people that they will share that intimacy and all that comes with it. There are witnesses, so it is public. There is a gift to the bride, so it shows the seriousness of the commitment. There is a party (the recommended walima), so it is communal. It establishes rights and duties, and is the basis for the preservation of the family structure from which human beings come. God says in the Qur'an:
"O humanity, have a reverential awareness of your Lord which impacts your behavior, for God is the One who created you from one soul, and created from it its mate, and from those two spread forth many men and women..." (Surah al-Nisa, verse 1)
One of the 5 main purposes of the Shari'ah is the preservation of lineage, so that every child would know who its father is and who its mother is. The nikah is the basis for ensuring that is the case, because for all the pleasure that sex can bring between a man and a woman, it is also about creating children. God chose sex to be the means by which He brings new souls into this world, which is an enormous thing when we reflect on it, and is one of the reasons for the sanctity of sex. So the nikah shows that we are serious about the potential consequences. But it is not just the physical consequences. It is also the emotional ones. When our lover gets sick, do we abandon them because they are a burden? When our lover is sad, do we turn away from them because we are searching for our own happiness? When our lover is stressed, do we ignore them because we want to relax? No, the reality of sex is such that it should increase us in attachment to our lovers precisely at the most challenging times. Otherwise, despite what our words may claim, the truth is that we are just using them for their bodies.
So in the Islamic tradition, if we are not ready to get married, we are not ready to have sex. But the way we approach sex before we are married can have a deep impact on how we treat sex within marriage. Just because we can't have halal sex right now doesn't necessarily mean that our sexuality is dormant. So if we are conditioning ourselves every day to see each other as nothing more than physical objects created for our enjoyment, then how will we learn to be lovers who follow the Sunna and seek excellence in our sex lives? Unfortunately, we live in a culture where sex is very often presented as a commodity, and it is detached from its sacred origins. But we must give the best of ourselves, and check our selfish tendencies, so that we may honor the gift of sex. Just as we wish to be fulfilled, so too must we desire to fulfill the needs of others.
We should begin with endeavoring to truly connect and communicate with another human being, which is something that ultimately makes our sex lives more beautiful. The Prophet Muhammad (upon him peace) said, in a hadith related by al-Daylami, "One of you should not fulfill one's need from one's spouse like an animal, rather there should be between them foreplay with kissing and words." We forget, or overlook, that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was a deeply sexual being, and part of his Sunnah is to teach us to discover that in our lives. The Prophet (may God bless him) taught them what they shouldn't do, but he also taught them what they should do. In some narrations, the Sahaba (may God bless them for their realness) even asked him for advice about sexual positions! As one of my teachers once said, when I prefaced a question with the idea that it was a little embarrassing, "nothing in the deen is embarassing." It covers the whole of our lives. We should not be embarrassed about sex, but we should hold it sacred. There is big difference between the two. In the first case, we think that sex is something to be shied away from, as if it is somehow not part of our ethical and spiritual selves. In the second case, we recognize that sex is a proof of God's generosity and beauty, and a reminder of Heaven, and therefore to be cherished and given our best. Muslims have always striven for excellence (ihsan) in every endeavor, in compliance with the Prophetic teaching, and it should be no different with sex. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why medieval Christians and Victorian European colonialists were so fascinated and obsessed with Muslim sexuality!
One of the tools we can use to put things in their proper place is to see physical beauty as a temporary manifestation of al-Musawwir, the name of God that pertains to how God fashions human beings and other creations. God says
"He created the heavens and earth in truth, and fashioned you, and made your forms excellent, and to Him is the return." (Surah al-Taghabun, verse 3)
A beautiful person does not create their beauty - God does. And at some point, God will take away that beauty through sickness, old age, or death. It is an inevitable fact. So too the power of a powerful person. It is a temporary manifestation of al-Qawi, the Powerful One, and one day that person will lose what they thought was theirs to wield, through old age, sickness, or death. So if we happen to be attracted to the beauty and/or power of another human being, one of the best ways to move beyond delusion is to remember that they do not own or control that which we are attracted to. God is ultimately the source of all beauty and power. So if we can see God's work present in that which we desire, we can more quickly remind ourselves of the limits that God has made, as well as remember that what we truly want is somewhere else. If in our short lives here on Earth we can mold ourselves to not worship temporary manifestations of attractive qualities when we are forbidden from doing so, but instead worship the Creator of those qualities by only going after them when allowed to do so by God's Shari'ah, it shows that our faith is real and we have put things in their proper place. God is the Rich (al-Ghani), the All-Knowing (al-Aleem), and the Protector (al-Hafeedh), so we must remember that our lover, or the one we want to be our lover, is ultimately poor, dim-witted, and unable to defend us, unless it be that God covers their deficiencies with Divine perfections. And the longing for the bliss of the Hereafter is the longing for experiencing those perfections without limit or end. Just as al-Musawwir has formed us here on Earth, so too will God form us again in Jannah. If we think the men or women we desire are amazing now, then if we were to experience what they will be like in Jannah, we would give up an entire lifetime with them here for a moment with them there.
But this can be the hardest thing in the world, because we have not seen Jannah, and desire is very real and can overwhelm the best of our intellect and spiritual longing. We can make so many mistakes, and fall down so many times. But we have to keep picking ourselves up and keep trying to keep the limits, whether before marriage or in marriage. And once we have kept the limits, we have to keep striving for excellence. When Yusuf (alayhis salam) was exonerated and released from prison, he said, "I do not absolve myself of blame." Some of the scholars of Qur'anic exegesis say that he said this in order to show that, even though he was a Prophet, he was not above temptation. So do not despair and know that this is part of the human struggle - indeed it is one of the most essential parts of it. Islam does not have a monastic ideal because sex is ultimately an amazing thing and was an important part of the lives of most of the Prophets, may peace be upon all of them. We are not trying to rid ourselves of the sexual drive, but rather control it and direct it in a way that enhances the beauty that God has already made manifest in the sexual act.
Real, loving, passionate, mutually fulfilling sex between a husband and a wife is what Islam encourages us towards. If achieving that seems unappealing for any reason, then a life of celibacy can be considered as an alternative. Many famous Muslims who lived exemplary lives of worship, scholarship and sacrifice for the deen were celibate, either by choice or circumstance. Imam al-Nawawi (may God have mercy on him) was probably the most famous of them, and the books he produced are still providing guidance for Muslims every day around the world. But if the sex of the Sunna is something we want, yet it seems far away, or seems like it has so many roadblocks, then we must keep trying. Keep trying to keep ourselves pure. Keep trying to find a spouse who will be good for us in this world and the next. And if we have a spouse, we must keep trying to elevate the connection between us, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I guarantee you that you will fail in this endeavor, most likely many times. You will make mistakes. You will feel guilty. You will feel awkward. You will feel misunderstood. You will feel like it is too much of a struggle. But it we stop trying to do the right thing, and stop trying to treat other human beings in the right way, and stop trying to be thankful for the beauty that God has placed in this world, then we will just fall deeper into the darknesses that Islam was meant to lead us out of, and we will never reach the point where everything falls into place and we realize why God made us the way He did, how He did, when He did, and why He surrounded us with certain souls. Was not Muhammad for Khadija and Khadija for Muhammad, for all eternity, from the moment their souls were created by God (may everlasting peace and blessings envelop the Prophet, his wives, and their children)!
Our struggles in this arena of life are not disconnected from our worship of our mutual Creator, and in any situation that we find ourselves in with regards to our sexual desire, we should do the following when we feel frustration or worry:
ma sha' Allah la quwwata illa billah wa'l-hamdu lillahi rabb al-'alameen.