Conjugal Rights in Islam and Western Morality
One of the rights the husband has over his wife in Islam is that the wife must comply with the husband's desire for sex. On all accounts (at least in the West), as we will explore, it seems that a wife's being compelled to sex with her husband is nothing more than a devotional act to God that a wife must perform dutifully- just as how it is mandatory to fast or to pray.
We say this because, other than the husband's temporary satisfaction, there seems to be no apparent benefit to unwanted sex for the wife or for the relationship in general (again, at least in the West). We may even go as far as saying that unwanted sex is pernicious and strains a marriage (once again, at least in the West). By utilitarian standards, a wife being coerced to have sex, especially when painful and devoid of pleasure or affection, is problematic.
Furthermore, by Western sexual morality, since the woman does not have consent, a husband calling an unwilling wife to bed is most probably rape, and therefore immoral and abhorrent. And as mentioned, no arguments of creating benefit or reducing harm seem to exist to salvage the default Islamic marital rights from being considered as immoral by Western standards by virtue of those rights facilitating rape.
There is no getting around these apparent contradictions between Western morality and Islamic law- neither the ethical requirement of consent, nor a utilitarian benefit are met by Islamic law.
One way some have tried to reconcile the contradiction posed by consent is by claiming that the nikkah contract itself is blanket consent to all sexual relations in marriage. The contract is akin to any other job contract, one signs up to work for a given period of time, and must show up to work and perform his or her duties even if he or she may not want to on any given day. If the worker no longer fulfills these requirements, the contract is broken.
But, the analogy stops here between the Islamic nikkah, and a job contract- since, while one can rescind their own contract with their job at any time, a wife does not necessarily have this right (divorce) unless she explicitly states that wants the right to divorce in her nikkah contract. While such a condition, by many scholars, is considered valid, it is not in the original contract. It is an aberration, and many Muslims would almost call it a deviation.
Nonetheless, by making the nikkah contract the moment of consent, coercing a wife to sex in marriage can no longer be seen as immoral by Western standards, especially if wife-initiated-divorce is an option the wife and husband agree to. This seems like a clean solution, but it fails to address another aspect of popular Western morality- that men and women must have the same rights over each other. We will return to this soon.
Consent is Irrelevant to Morality
Other analyses of this contradiction tended to focus on undermining consent as a requirement for morality. In general, consent is not a central feature of our day to day lives, and only on occasion are we truly free to make choices. As children, we never consented to go to school, dress a certain style, eat certain foods, go to the grocery store, etc. And as adults, we do not always consent to following traffic laws, paying taxes, going to work on time, and so on. Even democracy requires some coercion to enforce the majority opinion over the minority that disagrees. Yet, we consider all of these things morally sound. Therefore, it is argued consent is not a necessary condition for something to be moral.
An interlocutor may claim that these things become justified because there is some apparent benefit involved. Indeed, sending children to school against their wishes is beneficial, just as are traffic laws and paying taxes. They may claim, anything without consent is prima facie wrong, unless there is compelling benefit otherwise. However, this undermines the claim that consent is a necessary condition for morality. Such an argument places the focus of morality on apparent harm and benefit, utilitarian reasons, and not on the consent itself. Rather, this argument views a loss of consent as a sort of harm in of itself, not as consent as a sacred, inalienable, untouchable requirement. By this argument, consent merely becomes another item to balance in the cost-benefit calculus involved in the morality of a thing. Again, it still stands that consent is not always relevant to the morality of a thing.
This is a fair argument, but it is underdeveloped. Yes, we can acknowledge consent is not a necessary condition for morality, but this does not address or explore the concept of consent itself. It's a rather cold argument, and not likely to be persuasive, even if sound, because it does not address the emotive bases on which consent gains its gravitas, by which consent has taken such a central role in popular Western morality. Thus, we wish to understand the concept of consent- what exactly is it? And on what basis do we demand it?
Both Western and Islamic morality are centered around a set of rights granted to individuals. However, Western morality, at least today, considers all individuals on one plane- male, female; old, young; atheist, religious; etc. On the other hand, Islam very clearly defines distinct rights and responsibilities according to certain identities. Christians are treated differently than atheists and both are treated differently from another Muslim, a woman is treated differently from a man, and so on.
Inherent to defining rights and responsibilities according to identity will always be a certain asymmetry. If parents and children have different rights over each other, then this is inherently asymmetrical (I use this word specifically, and not the word “imbalanced”). For example, it is mandatory for a child to pay respect to his parents, but the reverse is not always mandatory. We also mentioned the example of a husband calling his wife to sex, and her being forced to comply. Or on the other hand, a wife in Islam requiring maintenance from her husband or compensation for house chores or breastfeeding. It is impossible to define rights and responsibilities unique to individual identities while maintaining equal relationships between two identities. So if it is assumed that men and women have different rights both deriving from their identities as men and women, then Islam’s legal requirement for a woman to comply with her husband has found ground, and then becomes ethically justified.
Popular Western morals, however, say that all human beings have the same “natural rights”, there are no relevant differences in human identities that warrant a difference in rights. The only relevant identity is being of legal adulthood. Before adulthood, a child is under legal guardianship, and the guardian has a right over property as a fiduciary and so on.
So if all people are otherwise equal, then it is quite clear why consent is considered as necessary for morality in Western ethics. All people have a right to autonomy, to say yes or no to what they like, and this right is symmetrical and uniform to everyone- for someone to enforce or use another for their body is a violation of this natural right, rendering it immoral according to Western morals.
In other words, consent is only relevant once we assume men and women on the same plane, and this assumption is justified only if we say the differences between men and women are so inconsequential that their rights should not be different in any way. Thus, a wife ought to be allowed to refuse sex, because her right to autonomy is inalienable, and cannot be violated by a husband whose rights are on the same level. However, if the premise that men and women should have the same rights is denied, then Islamic marital rights can be justified. Therefore, to use a lack of consent as a moral criticism against Islamic marital law would be dishonest and misguided, since the premises are different, and both Western and Islamic morals are simply following justifiably from this difference in the concept of rights.
There is no doubt that there are men who act more “womanly”, acting as stay-at-home fathers, not earning a living for their house, and so on; and there is no doubt that there are women who act more “manly”, working and supporting their own households, advancing their careers, and so on and so forth. Physically, athletic women can be stronger and faster than most men working office jobs. Even when it comes to personality or intelligence, there are women who are less agreeable, more forward, more direct, women who work jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields such as science science or philosophy. Some women even look like men, and some men even look like women. Even genitalia can become convoluted with intersex individuals. There are nuances. This much is undeniable.
Certainly with this in mind, from a secular perspective, Islam seemingly can’t justify a difference in rights when in nuanced situations, the difference between men and women becomes blurry. We have been careful, however, not to place a justification for asymmetries between the genders in Islamic marital law in these concepts of “manhood” and “womanhood”, rather, we have placed the difference in rights in the identity of being a man or a woman. That is, a man has a right to sex by virtue of him being a man, and a man has the responsibility to provide by virtue of him being a man, not because men are necessarily better providers or because men have other personality qualities, and so on. Equally, a woman has the right to demand payment for housework or breastfeeding purely by virtue of her identity as a woman, and not because women are generally a certain way.
“That Doesn’t Make Sense”
Understandably, from a secular perspective, placing rights as inherent to the identity, and not the functional concepts of manhood or womanhood, seems quite arbitrary- and it is. But if we include God in the picture, this seeming “arbitrariness” becomes irrelevant. Islamic prayer and ablution are “arbitrary”, instead they are devotional acts to God. Our concepts of reason and rationality simply do not apply. For example:
[Allah] said, "What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?" [Satan] said, "I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay." (7:12)
Here, even if Satan were correct that he was created from a superior mould and was a superior creation, he would still be incorrect because he has disobeyed Allah. A saying attributed to Imam Ali almost goes as far as embracing the “arbitrariness”, and “nonsensical” nature (I mean nothing sacrilegious by this) of ritual and obedience in the religion:
If Religion were based on reason, then the bottom of the feet would be wiped upon instead of the tops of them, however, I saw Rasulullah (SAW) wipe upon the tops of them (Musannaf ibn Abi Shayba)
There are many “contradictions” or “arbitrary” rules between reason and religious mandates. Why is pork prohibited if it is no longer unsafe to eat? Why is Maghrib three rakats long and Fajr two? Why do we need four witnesses to establish a crime when DNA testing and other evidences can bring certainty? Why should a wife be compelled to sex if (at least in a Western context) it’s harmful and based on “arbitrary” gender roles? Islam outright rejects the basis of these questions- it’s not about what makes sense, it’s about what God says.
Here we remind the reader of the very first thing that was mentioned in this piece- that a wife being mandated to have sex, at least in a Western context, is a woman’s act of devotion to God, in the same way prayer would be for all Muslims, or physical fighting in the face of danger would be for a man. God has made some people into men and has made others into women. These genders are merely outer shells, vehicles for the soul to enact obedience and devotion to God. How God has chosen for us to enact obedience is up to Him, and Him alone. And indeed- all souls are capable of reaching high stations and all receive the attention of God:
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. (49:13)
And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer - those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed. (4:124)
Up until now, we’ve largely skirted around the question of abuse, and for good reason. The topic of abuse is an unendingly deep moral crevasse that can easily hit the nerves of many people. Especially in the West, sexual abuse has increasingly become a serious topic. As a result, this topic requires far more research and sensitivity than can be handled here.
Some relevant questions need to be answered. One, to what extent is the concept of abuse socially relative (is what is abuse in one time and place not abuse in another, and vice versa?)? Two, is a legal definition of abuse even possible to begin with? There are definitely more questions that need to be answered to get a full picture of abuse, and whether Islam enables or creates a culture of abuse; or whether it is even possible or practical to make legal structures to eliminate it altogether, but only these two considerations came to mind.
We can attempt to understand the question maybe by probing into what isn’t abuse. Is cooking a dish that one’s wife doesn’t like considered as abuse? Probably not. Is taking one’s wife to a movie she doesn’t want to see, but begrudgingly tags along to, considered as abusive behavior? Again, not really. One thing is clear, absolute individual happiness is fundamentally incompatible with a stable relationship. There are bound to be situations where one’s preference clashes with the other, and either one capitulates, or both compromise at the expense of a little bit of both parties’ happiness.
Unless we view sex as a very special sort of action which demands different rules, it’s hard to see how an analogy cannot be drawn between a wife begrudgingly complying with her husband’s demand for sex and a wife wanting to watch a romcom movie her husband does not want or care to see. Of course, there is a difference between the “ugh, make it quick” sort of ‘refusal’, and the “please stop, I am in pain” type of refusal. They have different weights, and we cannot downplay this. It would seem obvious that the latter is closer to abuse than the former, but we cannot lump the two as the same situation.
We are ultimately in need of more research to understand how Islam looks at the latter situation. At least from a cursory glance, Islam does recognize physical pain, and Islam does recognize physical health, and an Islamic court would mandate that a husband refrain from physically harming his wife. However, again, there are far too many scenarios and situations and cultural contexts to look into to make any judgements here. We’ll leave this discussion altogether for a later time.
It might be a bit of a cop-out of an answer, but it’s important to note that abuse is not just a “man” issue. It’s a universal problem. Women can just as easily abuse their husbands in Islam by pushing on their legal rights to maintenance and lazing around while demanding payment for housework. Abuse is a problem of human beings, of cultures, not legal systems.
Anyway, this might be another cop-out, but Westerners should not seek to throw stones in glass houses. What do we call the exploitation and objectification of women by pornography and popular media other than abuse? What can we say about frat parties whose sole purpose is to treat women as objects, getting them drunk and having sex with them? Is this not abuse as well? Equally, what do we say about men getting the brunt end of custody courts? Of criminal sentences? Are these not legal abuses?
It should be noted, while treating one’s wife with care, respect, and consideration is not necessarily legally required, it is something mentioned and encouraged time and time again in Islamic tradition. Consider the following narrations:
Ishaq ibn ‘Ammar who has said the following: “Abu ‘ Abd Allah, ‘Alayhi al-Salam, has said, ’Love for women is of the moral manners of the prophets.’” (Al Kafi)
Abu Maryam who has said the following: “Abu Ja‘far, ‘Alayhi al-Salam, has said that the Messenger of Allah, O Allah, grant compensation to Muhammad and his family worthy of their services to Your cause, has said, ‘How can one of you hurt the woman whom he continues to embrace? (Al Kafi)
Jamil ibn Darraj who has said the following: “He (the Imam), ‘Alayhi al-Salam, has said, ‘A man is not compelled, but for providing the expenses of his parents and children.’ He (the narrator) has said that ibn abu ‘Umayr has said, ‘I asked Jamil about the woman and he said that ‘Anbasah has narrated from abu ‘Abd Allah, ‘Alayhi al-Salam, who has said that if one provides clothes for her which is sufficient to maintain her dignity, sufficient food to survive, she then must stay with him, otherwise, she is divorced.’” (Al Kafi)
`Amr b. Jami` from Abu `Abdillah ‘Alayhi al-Salam. He said: The Messenger of Allah, grant compensation to Muhammad and his family worthy of their services to Your cause, said: The saying of the man to the woman “I love you” never leaves her heart. (Wasail al Shia)
It is clear from these that one ought to consider his wife, and care for her, and treat her with delicateness and respect. There is even emphasis on considering one’s wife’s needs:
From Imam Ali “When you intend to have sex with your wife, do not rush because the woman (also) has needs (which should be fulfilled).” (Wasail al Shia)
It is narrated that the Prophet (SAW) said: “Three people are cruel: …a person who has sex with his wife before foreplay.” (Wasail al Shia)
It is narrated that the Prophet (SAW) said: “When anyone of you has sex with his wife, then he should not go to her like birds; instead he should be slow and delaying.” (Wasail al Shia)
It is narrated that the Prophet (SAW) said “Do not engage in sexual intercourse with your wife like hens; rather, firstly engage in foreplay with your wife and flirt with her and then make love to her.” (Wasail al Shia)
It is narrated that Imam al Ridha said “Do not engage in sexual intercourse unless you engage in foreplay (Mustadrak al Wasail)
There are even some narrations which seem to discourage hurting one’s wife:
Aban from certain persons of his people who has said the following: “This is concerning my question before abu ‘ Abd Allah, ‘Alayhi al-Salam, about coming to women from their rear. He (the Imam) said, ‘She is a doll; you must not hurt her.’” (Al Kafi)
Ali ibn Muhammad has narrated from Salih ibn abu Hammad from Harun ibn Muslim from Burayd ibn Mu‘awiyah who has said the following: “Abu ‘Abd Allah, ‘Alayhi al-Salam, has said that once a man came to the Holy Prophet, O Allah, grant compensation to Muhammad and his family worthy of their services to Your cause, and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, I carry the largest thing that men carry, if I can make use of the animals that I own, like a donkey or she-camel, because women cannot bear what I have.’ The Messenger of Allah said, ‘Allah has not created your thing without creating what can match your kind.’ The man went and very shortly came back to the Messenger of Allah and repeated what he had said before. The Messenger of Allah, O Allah, grant compensation to Muhammad and his family worthy of their services to Your cause, said, ‘Why do you not find the black woman with a tall neck and healthy body?’ He went and very shortly came back and said, ‘I testify that you are the Messenger of Allah in all truth. I searched for what you commanded me to do and found her to be of my kind and match and I am satisfied.’” (Al Kafi)
And furthermore, some narrations explain that one should value his wife for her piety, not simply her looks or superficial qualities. Rather, on the basis of her religiousness- her akhlaq and adherence to the faith:
Hisham ibn al-Hakam who has said the following: “Abu ‘Abd Allah, Alayhi al-Salam, has said, ‘If one marries a woman for the sake of her beauty or wealth he will be left alone with such things; but if one marries for the sake of her religion, Allah provides him beauty and wealth.’” (Al Kafi)
In any case, if a woman simply doesn’t want to get married, and take on the responsibility of a husband, there is no legal problem in doing so:
Muhammad ibn Muslim who has said the following: “Abu Ja‘far, ‘Alayhi al-Salam, has said that once a woman came to the Holy Prophet, O Allah, grant compensation to Muhammad and his family worthy of their services to Your cause, and asked, ‘What is the right of husband on a woman?’ He (the Messenger of Allah) said to her, ‘She must yield to and obey him and must not oppose and disobey him. She must not give charity from his house without his permission and must not fast optionally without his permission. If she goes out of his house without his permission, the angels of skies and earth condemn her as well the angels of wrath and angels of mercy until she returns to her home.’ She then asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah, who has the greatest right on a man?’ He (the Messenger of Allah) replied, ‘His father has the greatest right.’ She then asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah, who has the greatest right on a woman?’ He (the Messenger of Allah) replied, ‘Her husband has the greatest right on her.’ She then asked, ‘How is it that I do not have as much right on him as he has on me?’ He (the Messenger of Allah) said, ‘No, not even one out of one hundred.’ She then said, ‘I swear by the One who has sent you as a prophet in all truth; I will never allow any man to have a hold of my neck.’” (Al Kafi)
We return with something of an uncomfortable reconciliation for most Westerners. We’ve demonstrated that a “lack of consent” cannot really be used as a moral criticism of Islamic marital ethics, since the relevancy of consent comes from viewing human rights as something that applies to all people equally and in the same ways. In this way, Islam’s “lack of consent” and the West’s concern for consent are incommensurable, and therefore it becomes impossible to criticise Islam morally on this issue. We recognize that Islam grounds rights based on identity, and these can seem arbitrary in nuanced situations. However, Islam, by grounding its morality in God makes this notion of arbitrariness irrelevant, and grounds the rights of a husband and a wife over each other as devotional aspects of the religion, as a means of submission to God.
Understanding that there is nonetheless capacity for abuse, we consider that Islam does encourage politeness and kindness between a couple, and if this isn’t enough, one may simply opt out of marriage altogether or arrange for stipulations in their own nikkah contract that provide more power to the wife. In any case, the question of abuse ought to be explored for a later discussion.
I made mention of one point earlier which I want to discuss a little bit further: “Unless we view sex as a very special sort of action which demands different rules, it’s hard to see how an analogy cannot be drawn between a wife begrudgingly complying with her husband’s demand for sex and a wife wanting to watch a romcom movie her husband does not want or care to see”.
The point I want to make clear is to highlight a certain Western cultural tension around the value and significance of sex. On one hand, we have feminist movements which rightfully bring a lot of gravity to sexual violence, yet these same groups will tout sex positivity and calling an end to “slut-shaming”. I don’t mean that just because a woman is loose that sexual violence against her is justified in any way, nor do I mean that a loose woman invites sexual violence to herself. Sexual violence can happen to anyone, from anyone, at any time and in any place. Rather, what I want to zero in on is the cultural significance given to sex. On one hand, there is a pull to devalue sex- to end “slut-shaming” for example, and on the other, Western culture is attempting to draw hard lines in the sand around sexuality, and acceptable sexual behaviors. It is an odd mixture of prudishness and sexual openness.
Take for example the feminist backlash against dress codes. The common mantra is “teach men not to look”, yet we find that viewing pornography is considered as morally acceptable. Even more strange is that while a feminist would say a wife should require consent for each and every time her husband is to have sex with her, it’s somehow acceptable for a woman to post her body online for men to look at, and her posting it is blanket consent into the future for others to look, despite feminism saying that to ogle one requires consent.
In response to the following line: "The contract is akin to any other job contract, one signs up to work for a given period of time, and must show up to work and perform his or her duties even if he or she may not want to on any given day.", a friend of mine noted that the military contracts people in a way where they cannot revoke the contract until it is completed. We somehow find it easier to say an impressionable highschooler can consent to risking death or permanent disability in the military, but we can't consider a woman giving blanket consent to sex in a marriage at the time of the contract?
Somehow, considering a woman as a gift, and thinking of sex as an exchange for caring for her needs and providing her food and shelter is morally problematic, but when it comes to prostitution, feminists do not see any problems. Marriage is a patriarchal social construct, but prostitution is female empowerment, when the only difference between the two are semantics and socially relative circumstances.
If men complain that they cannot find women for relationships, they are told to stop wanting sex, and that they should not be so superficial, to work on themselves and their personalities. “Marriage and relationships aren’t about sex” is the typical mantra. Yet, we find it’s acceptable (or even good) for Tinder to exist, where the most common use for it is a quick hook-up, and its very formula is based on superficial looks-based judgements.
Children cannot consent, yet, they can perform in drag shows near half naked grown adult men. A boy should not be circumcised until he is grown into an adult, but sex changing hormones and puberty blockers are acceptable. An Afghan man in a happy marriage with a girl 30 years younger than himself is “creepy” and “grooming”, but teaching kids about polyamory and genderqueer folk is “empowering sexual representation”.
Ultimately, what we are looking at is a cultural atmosphere of emotivism. These contradictions exist because they simply aren’t grounded in anything real. A closer look needs to be taken at the notion of sexuality. Is it merely as routine a human need as eating food or wanting companionship? Or is it something special that requires very clear and distinct rules? Either way, there should at least be some consistency in one’s notions.
Originally posted on zurarah.com, see the article here