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Asim Roy
University of Tasmania
South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Volume 13 Issue 2 1990

  Painting from Manafi al-Hayawan (The Useful Animals), depicting Adam and Eve. From Maragh in Mongol Iran 1294-99
Painting from Manafi al-Hayawan (The Useful Animals), depicting Adam and Eve.
From Maragh in Mongol Iran 1294-99

Sexuality, or attitudes to and relationships between sexes, is a fascination as old and vital as life itself. As the most basic level of human relationship, it forms a primary concern not only of religion, philosophy, morality, and law but of art, literature, mythology, and science as well. The underpinnings of a society are often revealed by an examination of its standards and criteria for what is accepted and rejected, approbed and deprecated in social behaviour. To probe the sexual mores of a society and its individuals in the light of these questions is to provide a basic and rather effective means of defining and understanding the same.

The study of sexuality in the context of Islam and Muslims by modern scholars has, however, been a desideratum. Not until the sixties of this century was any serious academic undertaking in this area to be found. Even so, this interest at its early stage was not embodied in the English language. Both the major works to appear since are in French. The first substantial undertaking in English appeared in 1979, incorporating the results of the Sixth Delia Vida Biennial Conference on sex and society in medieval Islam, held in May 1977 under the auspices of the G.E. von Gruenbaum Center for Near Eastern Studies, University of California.

B.F. Musallam's very recent study in birth control in pre-modern Islam also offers some perspectives on eros in Islam. And if, in the context of Classical Islam, the study of sexuality seems to have aroused interest rather recent and quantitatively meagre, one is only looking at a clean slate in the matter of academic interest in the erotic and sexuality in South Asian Islam. We shall, however, return to this issue a little later.

This tardy response to Islamic sexuality is ironical in that there is a growing realization of a more positive sexual attitude in Islam than in traditional Christianity. The 'sexual revolution' of recent times in the West has brought about a wide dispersion and a heightened awareness of sexuality among people, urging many to try to live their own sexual lives, sacred or profane, normal or deviant.

The 'seminal' importance of sexuality in human affairs has forced its recognition on the West. Until then, a pervasive negative sexual attitude had been attributed to traditional Christianity. R.W. Southern, a distinguished medievalist, contrasts what he calls the 'sex-negative' attitudes in Christianity with 'sex-positive' religion and society of Islam. Franz Rosenthal, while pointing out that modern Western scholarship 'takes a generally favourable view of the Muslim system as reflected in the theoretical, ideal guidelines of religion and law', does not totally concur with Southern's positive-negative polarity, but concedes:
'Islam always took care to admit that sexuality existed as a problematic element in the relationship of individuals and society and never hesitated to leave room for the discussion of approval or disapproval. Traditional Christianity was inclined to pretend that sexuality's legitimate right of existence was limited, and further discussion was to be avoided as much as possible'

This may create an impression that Islam has achieved an ideal fusion etween sex and religion. Such a view would, however, be a gross oversimplification. Islam, like other belief-systems, reveals a significant hiatus between the ideal and the actual. This gap, in Islam, is to be understood in more than one sense.

The first discrepancy concerns two aspects of the ideal itself. Islam offers a striking contrast between the sensual pleasures of Paradise and the more restrictive moral code of life on earth. While some Muslims and non-Muslims had undoubtedly seen it as reinforcing the argument for sexuality in Islam, the dichotomy itself had strengthened in many believers a realization of the disruptive potential of sexuality on earth. Moreover, Muslim society had had its share of the champions of celibacy and asceticism, who regarded religion and sex incompatible.

Finally, in Islam as in traditional Christianity, the ideals of sexual morality find their contrasts in real life. Subsequently, the laws in most Western countries were gradually adapted to leave most sexual matters out of their ambit. Subject to the triple principles of free consent, adulthood and privacy, modern Western laws remain content to regard sexuality a matter of individual conscience and private morality. Shari'a, or the Islamic Law, is based on a principle very opposite to the modern Western, and makes no distinction between law and morality. No sexual relationship among Muslims is permissible unless it is legal as well. Otherwise it constitutes a criminal offence.


As in all other respects in Islam, attitudes to sex and sexual morality are moulded by the Qur'an and the sunna, or the examples of the Prophet as recorded in the hadith on the basis of the testimonies of his companions. Major aspects of sexual behaviour and the most important elements in the Muslim sexual ethic are in the Qur'an, elaborated by hadith, or the tradition of the Prophet, and akhbar, or later tradition of the companions of the Prophet. The keynote of this cumulative tradition, bearing on sexuality, is: 'legal sex or no sex at all'.

Islam clearly recognizes, as noted above, the existence and importance of sexuality as a major human concern. Of the 'six' categories of 'pleasures' on earth such as food, drink, clothing, scent, sound, and sex, some medieval Muslim writers chose 'sexual enjoyment as the greatest of human pleasures'. Abstinence from sex was vaguely associated with the cause of insanity. Jalal al-Din Rumi, the mystic poet, alludes to it. The Prophet himself had a rather positive sexual attitude. In an oft-quoted hadith, the Prophet expressed his liking for women, along with perfume and prayer. According to another, he regarded every copulation 'a meritorious act comparable with alms giving'. He was reportedly the first in Islam to use an aphrodisiac. In response to his complaint to Jibrafl (Gabriel) about his 'weakness of potency' the angel recommended him a special food which 'would give him the power of forty men'. 'It is this example and confession of the Prophet', says Burgel, 'that made erotic pleasure if not an integral part, in any case a not unseemly aspect of a pious man's life'. Muslim medical and other literary sources contain references to numerous aphrodisiacs. And magic picked up where medicine stopped. Magical recipes to arouse or kill concupiscence, love etc. were also quite popular. In reference to concupiscence (shahwa') which, he thought, dominated the Arab nature, al-Ghazzali, the great medieval scholar-mystic, remarked:
'If one wife does not suffice, marry up to four times. Even if there is no content in heart, change is advisable. Ali married again seven days after Fatima's death. His son Hasan married 200 wives, four at a time. The Prophet would say to him, 'you resemble my nature and my character!'

Having conceded that the primary objective of coition was progeniture, al-Ghazzali was willing to recognize 'a value of its own' in terms of 'its unrivalled but always all too brief delight, arousing man's longing for the lasting one in the world to come'.


This positive affirmation of sexuality in Islam is, however, rigidly confined to the bound of Islamic law (shari'a) and morality. Shari'a clearly differentiates between nikah, or legal sex, and zina, or illicit sex. The legal intercourse for a woman is with her husband only, while for a man it is extended beyond his wife or wives to concubines and slave girls.

The Qur'an and hadith strongly enjoin marriage on the believers. Men are even urged to find spouses for the slaves. The example of the Prophet, in whom the believers are told by Allah that they 'have a noble pattern' (Sura 33:21), had finally set the tone for marital sex in Islam. In his early life, Muhammad was engaged in a relationship of happy monogamous matrimonial love with Khadija and had four daughters out of this wedlock. Later in his life he was involved in polygamous relationships. But he strongly favoured marriage.

Despite the dominant position of marriage, the issue of marriage vs celibacy remained long alive in the history of Islam. The question of asceticism and celibacy has been mentioned above. Some later sufis, or mystics, frankly underlined the importance of marriage for prosecuting religious activities untrammelled by sex, as Junaid frankly admitted: 'I need sex the way I need food'.

In a rather rare hadith bearing on the Prophet's sexual life, we are told that his desire was once aroused by a woman, and he resorted forthwith to his wife Zainab and 'satisfied himself in her'. The Prophet is also said to have remarked: 'when a woman approaches, she comes like a shaitan go to your wife, she has the same thing as the other.' The Prophet's uxoriousness had been a strong argument against celibacy.

Despite this, there is some good evidence to suggest a strong movement in favour of celibacy in the early days of Islam, and again later. Some mystics were deeply concerned about their family responsibilities interfering with their spiritual pursuits. As in many other vital areas, al-Ghazzali's reasoned and balanced analysis of the relative advantages and disadvantages of marriage and celibacy contributed largely to the resolution of the question. He summarized the advantages of marriage in the following terms: procreation, sexual gratification, housekeeping, enlargement of the kinship circle, and finally, the struggle of the soul in upholding justice and responsibility in respect of the wife or wives and children.

Against these Ghazzali arrayed the disadvantages, of which three were most important, namely possibilities for illegal livelihood, inability to discharge duties to the family, and distraction from Allah. It was for individuals, according to Ghazzali, to weigh up the situation for themselves, and 'there is no question but that he should marry' provided one is capable of fulfilling all his obligations, familial and spiritual. The practical considerations of sexual gratification were so strong', observes James C. Bellamy, 'that the fears that sex and the responsibilities of family life might endanger one's hope of salvation could deter only a very few men from following the course approved by the religious and social norms of Muslim society.'

The Islamic laws regarding sexual behaviour are strongly designed to preserve the institution of marriage and marital sex, subject to the recognition of concubinage in Islam. Islamic Criminal Law recognizes two different categories of offences, hadd, or defined offences with fixed punishments, and ta'zir, lesser offences where the determination of punishment is a matter for the discretion of the authorities. Extramarital sexual intercourse by persons, married or unmarried, constitutes the hadd offence of zina, and punishable by 100 lashes, if unmarried, and by stoning to death, if married. The offence of zina is so grave that accusation without proof is itself a hadd offence and liable to the most serious charge of defamation with a punishment of 80 lashes.

Zina requires a very strict and rigid system of proof, almost rendering an actual conviction and punishment impossible. Doubts have been raised about the rationale of this rigidity, and suggestion has been made that the law was not really designed to bring offenders to justice, in order that undesirable publicity to a violation of this central maxim of Islamic sexual morality could be avoided and that while the law was broken, it was not to be seen as broken. Noel Coulson rejects this line of reasoning as 'facile and cynical'. He points out that for hadd offence, Islamic Law is against inflicting any punishment should there be a shadow of doubt as to the guilt of the accused. For zina, the rule is obviously carried to the fullest extent. This is because Islam brought about a radical change by elevating the marital status and enhancing the position of women as wives and mothers. The pre-Islamic notion of women as child bearing chattels was replaced by a bilateral and contractual relationship in which the husband claimed exclusive right to sexual union with his wife against the dower, the wife's right to maintenance and inheritance. The Islamic provisions for zina were clearly aimed at upholding this newly elevated marital status which was the corner stone of the Islamic Family Law.


Islamic attitudes to sex are marked by as much directness as pudency and prudery. The opinions on the nature of pudency and prudery in early Islam, however, vary. Franz Rosenthal and James Bellamy both find prudery as a very consistent theme of Muslim behaviour ever since the time of the Prophet. The Qur'an urges 'sexual modesty' (Sura 33: 35; 24: 30ff.) for both men and women; and the hadith and akhbar generally refrain from referring to sex in personal contexts, and their language is chaste and uniformly serious. Pudency was not quite enjoined by the law and could not have been enforced. But the hadith and akhbar were rather important in fostering a strong sense of pudency and prudery. Some hadith clearly urged it. According to a hadith 'the Prophet was more modest than a virgin in her private quarters; if he found something to be distasteful, we could see it in his face.'

Lack of modesty was often compared to disbelief. Bellamy points out:
'there is good evidence that it has increased with the passage of time. It is much more difficult today to publish an obscene book in the Muslim world than in the West, and... Muslims sometimes show embarrassment at the frankness of the works produced by their ancestors in the Middle Ages.'

It is perhaps this gradual stiffening of attitude of pudency that prompted Burgel to adopt an apparently dissimilar position from Rosenthal and Bellamy. Burgel believes that the Prophet's companions and the early Muslim notables were 'far from prudish in their expression about erotics.' His view is based on the authority of al-Jahiz, the brilliant ninth-century Muslim writer, who ridiculed the false modesty, affectation and hypocrisy of his contemporaries opposed to outspokenness in literature. Jahiz cited an anecdote from a reputed hadith, which evidenced outspokenness in sexual matters in a gathering graced by the presence of the Prophet, his favourite wife Aisha and her father Abu Bakr. But the description of the incident clearly suggests that 'voices were raised against this kind of candor from the very beginning'. Besides, that Jahiz and Ibn Qutayba his contemporary, who also used explicitness language for sexual subjects, had felt compelled to apologise for their outspokenness and caution others against excesses of literary explicitness clearly underlines the persistence and dominance of this sense of prudery and pudency in Islam.

By the middle of the eleventh century in the classical period, the sense of prudery in sexual attitudes had strengthened so much that a merchant banker of Tunisia out of a sense of propriety, chose not to mention his wife in his many letters where his children and all others were mentioned. Another young schoolmaster wrote to his mother about his prospective bride, and, out of the same sense of decency, described her beauty in Hebrew and not in Arabic as was the case with the rest of the letter. Even physicians were reluctant to speak about some topics. Many seemed apologetic about discussing 'subjects which they were not sure were to be considered medical problems or moral problems to be left to society to handle.'

The growing strength of pudent and prudish attitudes was perhaps ultimately drawn from a situation of steady formulation and integration of the mores of Islamic sexual morality and ethic through a mass of didactic literature in the forms of hadith, akhbar, and risala or kitab. The initiative and dedication of a people to be called Ahl al-hadith, who organized highly popular reading sessions of this didactic literature, gave Islam its religiosity and moral flavour. To this was added the contributions of the sufi mystics who also drew upon such prosaic material to transform them into a fine instruction in living sexual morality and ethic for Muslims.


Of the various problems associated with the study of sexuality in Islam, as under any other religious and moral systems, one has to contend with the most formidable one of ascertaining the nature and extent of the gulf between the norm and practice, the ideal and actual, the scriptural and the living realities. The study of a sensitive and delicate subject like sexuality cannot, by its very nature, but be limited by its rather meagre and non-empirical data.

To bridge the gulf between the normative and the real existential worlds of his study has always been a despair of a historian bound almost entirely by the nature of his written sources. No where else is the task more daunting than a study of the sexual attitudes and behaviour of a multitudinous community bound by a religion and divided by ethnic and cultural diversities. The theoretical or normative perspective is relatively easily derived from a perusal of the scriptural, philosophical, moral and ethical works. For an appreciation of the reality of the situation at an existential level one cannot but turn almost exclusively to the creative or fictional literature. To what extent does literature, however, reflect societal reality and morality is a crucial question which we shall have to explore later.

Besides the basic scriptural works like the Qur'an, hadith and akhbar and their ancillary legal and juristic sequels, philosophical treatises on love like Risala fil-'ishq by Ibn Sina, or marriage like al-Ghazzali's 'Book of Marriage' in 'Revival of the Religious Sciences', and handbooks on courtly love and wedlock like Tauq al-Hamama ('Necklace of the Dove') by Ibn Hazm (d.456 A.H./1046 A.D.) and etiquette (adab) like Ibn Arabi's al-Futuhat al-Makkiya, offer a broad normative perspective on sexuality in Islam.

In addition there are some practical guidebooks of coition (bah) with occasional anecdotes. The most well-known among them is the Perfumed Garden by Shaikh Nafzawi (flourished in early 15th century), which gained the reputation of being the Indian Kamasutra in Arabic. Outside the domain of these writings, there is a wide range of essentially or partly secular literature shedding direct or indirect light on Islamic sexuality. Among literature of this genre, prose romances and poems are most rewarding.

In prose there are epics, tales,and anecdotes. Apparently, distinction can be made between fictitious love stories such as the Persian romantic epics, The Thousand and One Nights and the Book of the Peacock (Tuti Nama), and love adventures forming part of the biographies of poets like the 'Book of Songs' of Abu'l-Faraj al-Isfahani (d.356 A.H./967 A.D.). But the basis for this distinction is often rather weak. A fictitious work, as Burgel points out, may be used as a vehicle for distinct personal views on love and love morals, and the biographical materials about a celebrity, on the other hand, are not necessarily factual.

Finally, quite opposite from elegant and chaste love stories there is the mujun literature dealing with obscene erotic anecdotes and poems.

The reality and morality of the popular and entertaining literature in relation to religion and law on one hand and empirical life on the other raise significant questions. There were, as noted above, various genres of this literature in both verse and prose. The very purpose and rationale of this literature were to offer a temporary respite from the tensions of real life, and not a great deal of value was to be attached to it as a source of moral instruction.

Attempts in this literature often to focus on the unusual caused distortion of the reality, and the urges of a writer for originality also encouraged artificial attempts to break away from conventionalism and traditionalism. In fictitious love stories, as in The Thousand and One Nights, men and women appeared 'very little restricted in their opportunities of meeting each other and making love', although gross 'sexual misbehaviour is always presented as the doings of despicable characters, or as practised by lecherous fools leading to the deserved punishment.'

Poetry raises even greater doubts, when Muslim literary critics recognized 'the best poetry' as 'the most deceptive one', and that 'quite a few poets say things openly in their poems which are the opposite of what they leave unexpressed.' Further ambiguity was created by the sufi mystics' metaphorical use of erotic language and symbols. All in all, most love poetry,as Rosenthal points out, was at variance with moral norms commonly accepted in Islam, and offered 'some glances at a reality very different from the official ideal', providing a confirmation that 'the desire for erotical expression beyond that approved by society was always alive.' He argues further that , imaginative literature like religion, law and philosophy developed its own standard view of what the ideal society should be like, and that standard ideal was capable of existing side by side with official Islam, for which it was 'much less of a transgression to neglect a religious obligation than come out openly against its theoretical necessity.'

This explains why rarely the apparent discrepancy, in literature, between law and the reality was openly questioned, for it was 'perfectly possible to abide by rules and at the same time believe in oneself that reality could never be in complete harmony with them and fictional longing had their own kind of legitimacy.' Besides, the Muslim literary critics debated the issue of poetic truth in terms of the Aristotelian concept of form and matter, and gave the verdict in favour of artistic excellence rather than truth and morality. 'Form, the most powerful element in Islamic culture, won the battle over morality.'


Irrespective of the nature of reality in literature the dichotomy between the official ideal of sexual behaviour and morality and the reality emerging from the literature is often rather sharp and pronounced. Despite supreme importance being attached to marriage in Islamic law and religion, as discussed above, Muslim literature reveals a contrary disposition of differentiating between marriage and sexual pleasure (tamattu). The chapters on marriage and sexual life in the Qabus Nama, a Persian tract, illustrate this point very well:
'If you take a wife... do not choose her for her beauty. For if you want beauty you may take a sweetheart... a wife is taken as a housewife, not for carnal pleasure. As for this latter, a slave girl may be bought from the bazaar without too much trouble and expenditure. But the wife must be perfect.'

The idea of pleasure in extra-marital sex is more forcefully brought out in the anecdote about the poet Farazdaq. The poet, already married, exercised some undue pressure on a woman to make her yield to his sexual demand. The woman apprised the poet's wife of it, and the two women together worked out a situation in which the poet copulated with his wife in a dark room mistaking her for the other woman. When the truth was discovered, he exclaimed, 'So, it was you! Praise be to God! How sweet you are when forbidden, and how disgusting when allowed!'

Similarly, the monogamous ethos in love relationship is consistently projected in the literature. The idea of true love is based on the monogamous relationship. All the great figures of love in literature are couples, and it is significant that most great couples symbolising true love are of pre-Islamic origin such as Wis and Ramin, Khusru and Shirin, Yusuf and Zulaikha, and Solomon and Bilqis, the queen of Sheba. Some famous Islamic couples like Laila and Majnun, and Jamil and Buthaina are of early Islamic origin and belong to the rather stylized tradition of 'Udhrite family of lovers.

There are stories about polygamous relationships broken eventually by jealousy, as in the story of Qamar al-Zaman in The Thousand and One Nights. The great poet Nizami spoke of his three successive wives, especially of the first. He writes:
'To marry one wife is enough for a man, the husband of many is the husband of none.'

A whole range of erotic and sexual relationships and practices not in conformity with the official ideal are found in literature. These range from heterosexuality through homosexuality to autoeroticism, transvestism and bestiality, in addition to other sexual matters pertaining to any one of these broad categories.

Among heterosexual relationships illicit sex in the form of flirtation, fornication and adultery, 'Udhrite love, and prostitution may be included. Reports and anecdotes about poets and writers like Umar ibn abi Rabia, Imru'l-Qais and Farazdaq, and their poems refer to illicit love affairs and adventures necessitating masquerades in order to escape the observer (raqib). In the love tales the most common circumstance for a young wife's involvement in an affair is the prolonged absence of her husband on a commercial voyage or pilgrimage. This is the frame of the Tuti Nama story as well as the background of many other stories included in it, and also of The Thousand and One Nights. Countless are the tales of how unloved husbands were duped by a cunning wife and her lover.

'Udhrite love is a striking phenomenon of early Arab poetry and love life. The origins and nature of this concept of love are not easy to determine. It is, in essence, an asexual love, absolute love, love as idea, where fate or adverse social circumstances impose a tragic barrier against physical or matrimonial union, but the love remains undying till the end. Jamil and Buthaina, Majnun and Laila, Qais and Lubna, 'Urwa and 'Afra' are classical examples of Arab 'Udhrite love. In a variant of the 'Udhrite love theme, the story ends in union rather than in tragic separation. Elements of 'Udhrite love permeated love poetry of non-'Udhrite poets, and had also channelled into the Persian love poem, or ghazal and became an integral part of it.

Islam legalizes concubinage and sexual intercourse with slave girls or girls bought 'from the bazaar'. But there are references to sexual relationships outside this legal category which are rather akin to prostitution. Al-Jahiz discusses a special sexual relationship (marbutin) of men with a type of singing girl, qaina (pl. qiyan), and seeks to justify it in terms of the Prophetic sanction for 'the lesser offences' (al-lamam). The dancing girls usually belonged to a rich owner, with access given to them for his chosen clients. Burgel considers such a house a 'maison de passe' if not simply 'an upper class brothel'. There is of course specific reference to the presence of brothels in Muslim lands.

Both religious-legal and literary sources mention homosexual relationships for both men and women. Lesbianism occurs in the story of King 'Umar bin al-Nu'man, figuring in the 390th night of The Thousand and One Nights. The Prophetic tradition condemns lesbianism along with sodomy. In the eye of Islamic law, the two cardinal sexual sins are zina, or fornication and adultery, and sodomy. The Qur'an mentions repeatedly the story of the people of Lot, and forbids sodomy in unequivocal terms. The Prophet curses the sodomites in several hadith. The vice of sodomy is so disgusting that of all the animals only pigs and asses engage in it, says one source.

The Muslim juristic opinion would seem to have had less concern about homosexual relations between adult males than they had for relations between a man and a boy, because 'boys were a greater temptation'. According to one source:
'I have less fear for a pious young man from a ravening beast than from a beardless boy who sits with him.'

Pederasty, also known as the cult of ephebes, or attractive male youths, became rather widely familiar in Muslim literature, especially Persian, since the period of the Abbasids. The princely author of Qabus Nama not only allowed but recommended his son not to restrict himself to either of the sexes, alluding to relationships with slave boys (ghulam). The poet Abu Nuwas disliked females because of their 'impurity', and preferred 'boys'. Goitein does not find any significant role for this practice or even homosexuality in pre-Islamic Arabia, and accounts for its origin as an 'outcome of the superimposition of a caste of warlike conquerors over a vast defenceless population.' Pointing his fingers at 'the Arab, Turk or Mongol conquerors', he writes:
'After the endless supply of girls of all races, colours, shapes and personalities had been tasted, the oversatisfied and refined appetites had to be satisfied elsewhere. The cult of... attractive male youths, originally was a privilege of the men in power... the example of the ruling classes filtered down, and became a state of life for the entire community.'

The early sources of Islamic law almost unanimously insist on the death penalty for sodomites, who will suffer dreadful tortures and humiliation in the next world. They will be resurrected in the form of a pig or a monkey. They will, along with six other groups of sinners, be the first to be thrown into hell.

Besides heterosexual and homosexual deviations the sources refer to sexual abnormalities not covered under these two broad categories, such as bestiality and attitudes relating to reversal or confusion of sex identity like transsexualism, transvestism and intersexualism or hermaphroditism. On bestiality, the Islamic law is unequivocal. In the words of a Prophetic tradition: 'Whomever you find who has had intercourse with an animal, kill him and kill the animal'. On the reversal of the sex or gender identity the absence of details about a few known cases render it difficult to make positive identifications of them either as transsexualism, or transvestism or hermaphroditism. It is, however, interesting to point out that Bellamy finds it 'curious' that an alleged transvestite (mukhannath) was 'not classed with the sodomites'. A modern sexologist is not likely to equate transvestism with 'sodomy' or male homosexuality. A transvestite is perhaps more capable of a homosexual relationship than a normal male person, but is often married and has children. However, the Prophet's dislike for these deviations is expressed in a hadith in which he curses men who act like women and women who act like men.

Various other ideas and practices with bearings on sexuality find mention in early Islamic literature, while many others such as sadism, masochism, necrophilia, cunnilingus, fellatio or irrumation are not mentioned. There is no word for incest in Arabic, but this is covered by the prohibited degree of consanguinity for marriage. There are depictions of incestuous situations, but in all cases the culprits suffer bad end.

Masturbation is frequently mentioned particularly in the religious-legal literature, although the law is somewhat uncertain about this sexual practice, The opinions are sharply polarized on its moral and juristic defense. The Malikites forbid it completely, and the Hanbalites and a section of the Hanafis allow it to relieve the pressure of sexual desire. A hadith includes the masturbator among seven offenders first to enter the hell fire.

Finally, the issue of coitus interruptus ('azi) also engages the attention as much of traditionalists and jurists as other writers of materia medica, belles-lettres, erotica and popular literature. B.F. Musallam's thorough study on birth control in Islam clearly reveals the popularity of the issue. The Prophet did not seem to have a strong feeling against it, saying: 'If God wants to create it (the foetus), this action will not prevent it'. Despite some early reservations against this practice, the sheer weight of evidence clearly establishes its general acceptance in the Muslim world. One of the reasons for birth control cited by Muslim jurists was that a man might wish to divorce his wife in the foreseeable future - and divorce was fairly easy in Islam. A second argument most frequently used was the fear of begetting slave children of a concubine, legally recognized in Islam.


The study of sexuality in reference to Muslims in South Asia is problematical because of the nature of its sources. First, South Asia does not have the natural advantage of West Asia where the primary Arabic religious-legal tradition not only had set down the normative guidelines for sexual morality but also somewhat reflected the situation in the region. The same tradition based on the Qur'an and sunna provided the theoretical framework of sexual behaviour for South Asian Muslims, but who did not derive their ideas from the South Asian situation.

Secondly, the South Asian question is further complicated by an almost total lack of any interest in studying Muslim sexuality in this region. It is quite commonplace that the historiography of South Asian Islam has been rather more disproportionately oriented towards either political or religious-cultural than social or societal concerns. And the study of sexuality has elicited no interest whatsoever among scholars. This apathy may well have been related to the strong sense of pudency that have steadily grown in Islam, as discussed above.

Finally, in the absence of any basic study in the subject, any attempt in this direction must involve an extremely painstaking and time consuming research in regional literatures of diverse genres - a task quite daunting for an individual scholar. In the circumstances, I have chosen to offer only an impressionistic picture on a none too wide canvas, drawing upon scarce and scattered material, supplemented largely by a corpus of primary literature that belongs to a particular region of South Asia with which I am most familiar, namely Bengal.

Muslim Bengali literature, like its Hindu Bengali counterpart, is broadly divided into traditional verse and modern prose (effectively from the late 19th century for Muslims). The Muslim literary tradition in verse comprises religious manuals or books of instruction in Islamic fundamentals, religious-historical or semi-historical and legendary narrative poems, mystical pada (short song) compositions on the model of the Vaisnava padas; and finally, long narrative poems based on secular romantic themes. Sexual and erotic matters may be found to lie scattered in this literature.

But the 19th century saw a new genre of didactic literature written, unlike the old tradition, not in chaste Bengali but in a mixed Bengali-Urdu diction, being churned out from the cheap presses in Calcutta and becoming rather popular with the Muslim masses. Although this literature concerned itself, like the old tradition, with both religious and secular matters, it brought to bear on its attitude a new missionary zeal in instructing Muslims in all aspects of life including sex and sexuality. Rooted in the classical Islamic tradition as expounded by the Muslim theologians and jurists, this literature reveals undoubted traces of local influence.

One of the most popular sex manuals of this variety clearly acknowledges its indebtedness to Kokasastra, the famous twelfth-century Sanskrit sex manual attributed to the poet Kokkaka or Koka-pandit. The women, in this literature, are classified, as in Hindu sexology, into four groups such as padmini, chitrani, hastini, and sankhini on the basis of their physiognomical features and their corresponding sexual dispositions. There are also innumerable references to indigenous medical properties and prescriptions, and other recipes for the purposes of enhancing sexual virility and concupiscence, making the penis larger and stronger, facilitating the vaginal passage, enlarging or reducing the breasts, maintaining total sexual dominance over wife, bringing sexually coveted women or men under control, and so on.


Muslim interest in Hindu sexology was evidenced as early as the first half of the 14th century, when Ziya Nakhshabi (d. 1350), 'a master of simple and elegant prose', translated Kokasastra. This erotic interest was often expressed in the works of Muslim litterateurs. In Malik Muhammad Ja'isi's (1493-1542) Padmavat, a brilliant product of early Indo-Islamic literature, 'there are examples of purely erotic poetry of the type called sringar rasa in Sanskrit'. Abd al-Rahim Khan-i Khanan (in the early Mughal period) and Raslin or Saiyid Ghulam Nabi Bilgrami (in late Mughal period) were 'regarded as having excelled in erotic poetry'. The greatest value of their writings, says M. Mujeeb, 'lies in their having placed the Indian concept of female beauty, which was true to nature, in opposition to the conventional Persian concept, in which the sex was disguised.'

Love poems in Urdu which are modelled on the Persian ghazal are saturated with erotic imageries and nuances. The general motif of this genre of composition in which two people are involved in a most intense love relationship without the readers being told about the legal status of the lovers is in itself a significant challenge to the law. In both Persian and Urdu ghazals, true love emerges as driven into illicit relationship by the force of fate (nasib) and circumstances. True love, inspiration, life joy and humanism are contrasted with orthodoxy and legalism, or as Burgel puts it,'eros stands against ratio'.

On the other hand there is often an undoubted element of 'Udhrite love in these compositions. There is clear recognition and acceptance of the fact of separation and its rationale. In the opinion of two scholars on the Urdu love poetry under the later Mughals:
'Love was seen as a danger to ordered social life, and was persecuted accordingly... the unfortunate lovers themselves shared this view of love. The character of Urdu love poetry is determined by this background.'

Even in the nineteenth-century Urdu novel, like The Courtesan of Lucknow by Ruswa, the lovers address the beloved in a style typical of the 'Udhrite poetry. A strain of mystical love mixed with 'Udhrite as well as sensual love often lent to Urdu poetry an element of uncertainty and oscillation between mystical and profane meanings, or between sensuality and spirituality. This art of 'glittering ambiguity' or of 'veiling and unveiling' in Urdu poetry is shared in common with its Persian prototype.

During the period of Mughal decline, the provincial culture of Oudh developed a popular style of music called thumri, or 'love music that makes a sensuous appeal through repetition of words and musical phrases'. Its 'theme is human love, not a symbolic representation of divine longing as in the older music'.

An indeterminate fusion of mystical and erotic love for South Asian Muslims was perhaps most poignantly expressed in their attachment to and pursuit of the Krisna tradition both in literature and life. The appeal of Krisna to some medieval Muslims of mystical or other persuasions has been long known, and the Qur'anic sayings such as 'And every people hath its guide' (Sura 13:7), and 'To every people we have sent an apostle' (Sura 16: 36) had made it easier for them to accept Krisna and Rama as prophets.

The devotional songs of the Vaisnavas, or the followers of Visnu and Krisna, 'excited more mystic ecstasy in the Sufis than other forms of Hindi and Persian poetry'. Some were attracted to the Krisna tradition because of its 'strong element of sensuousness', while some 'went further towards worship and devotion'. As early as the 14th century Jamshid, a disciple of a reputed orthodox Sufi Makhdum Jahaniyan, fell into a trance of mystic ecstasy to see a group of singing and dancing Vaishnavites and joined them dancing and roaming for three days and nights on the streets of Kanauj. Saiyid Ibrahim of Pihani (b. 1573), alias Rasa Khan, was a devotee of Krisna, who 'gave up everything and came and settled at Krisna's reputed birthplace, Vrindavana'. A Pathan was converted to the intensely devotional and emotional Vaisnava movement in Bengal under Chaitanya, and became popular as Haridas, the servant of Hari, or Krisna. Mirza Saleh and Mirza Haidar, two Mughal dignitaries were known to have Vaisnava leanings.

Muslim interest in Vaisnava love themes also found expression in music. Sultan Husain Sharqi of Jaunpur is generally credited with the foundation of the romantic school of music called khiyal. Based on the Hindu devotional theme of Krisna's love for the milkmaids (gopini), khiyal 'transformed the devotional theme to thinly veiled invocations of human love and romance'.

There is a very large and rich corpus of Bengali Muslim lyrics modelling itself, in both style and content, on the Hindu Bengali Vaisnava pada, or short songs, on Radha-Krisna love. Elsewhere I have discussed this subject in some detail. Much of this literature is of sufic or mystical nature, while there is an undoubted element of the Vaisnava adoration of the divine love between Krisna and Radha. Regardless of the nature and source of their poetic inspiration these Muslim compositions are replete with strong and bold erotic imageries. While Radha fills her pitcher with water Krisna 'observes Radha's breasts'. Radha's youth is about to give away 'under the weight of the fruits of her bosom'. A look at her face 'sends waves on the ocean of desire' and with her mercy the poet is ready to 'plunge into her youth'. Kami (Krisna) is 'unsettled to see Radha's brassiere (kanchuli)' and his 'mind is arrested to see Radha's breasts'. Kanu appears from nowhere, throws away his flute and 'embraces me' (Radha), 'puts his lips on mine', 'presses on the breasts and tears away my brassiere with his nails'. Kanai (Krisna) tells Radha, 'you are the lotus and I am the bee. Let us go to the garden and satisfy'. Radha is fast asleep 'unaware of Kanu lying in her embrace'. 'My (Radha) lotus of a hundred petals is in full bloom, but my bee, Krisna, is not beside me'. Radha and Krisna 'remain awake in love very late in the night... Binodini (Radha) lies beside him... loses herself in a blissful state. With Kanu in her embrace and one's lips on the other's, Radha is not awake.'


The obvious erotic elements in the love-dalliances of Krisna and Radha, combined with the sexual ideas and practices of Sakta-Tantrism and of the Buddhist Sahajiyas gave birth later in the 17th and 18th centuries to a number of rather mixed Vaisnava orders at the popular level, the members of which were generally called Vairagis. Some of these groups were strictly esoteric in practices and were given to sexual exercises. Hindus and Muslims alike could join these fraternities as they could and did earlier in Bengal with the Vaisnavism of Chaitanya.

The activities of some of them provoked strong reactions and denunciations from both Muslim and Hindu purificatory fundamentalist and revivalist movements. Dayananda Saraswati of the Arya Samaj launched a vicious attack on them, while the Bengali Muslim didactic and revivalist popular literature in the 19th and early 20th centuries contain similar fulminations against Muslim adherents of them. Some Muslims were known to have been founders themselves of fraternities of this type such as Hazrati, Gobrai, Pagal-nathi and Khusi-biswasi.

In the early part of the present century, Maulana Akram Khan, a distinguished Muslim theologian and reformer, wrote strongly against 'shocking and demoniac' practices of those Muslim 'marfati, faqirs, nedas, or mystic mendicants' or 'Muslim versions of the Chaitanya sects'. He accuses them of practising the rituals of 'five essences' (pancha-ras) rather similar to what was known among the Bauls as 'the piercing of four moons' (chari-chandrabhed), or rituals involving 'four matters derived from the parent's body namely, blood (rakta), semen (virya), excreta (mal) and urine (mutra). The five essences were popularly referred to as black (liqour), white (semen), red (menstrual blood), yellow (excreta), and finally, the esoteric teaching of the murshid, pir, or guru.

These rituals involved coition with the practitioner's wife or other women. They attached special meanings to the Qur'anic terms and concepts. Hauj-i kauthar, or the divine ambrosia, was identified with menstrual fluid (rajas). The ritualistic drinking of semen was based on the interpretation of the key Islamic word 'bismillah' (in the name of Allah) as 'bij me Allah' or 'Allah is in the semen (bij/virya)'. The women disciples were sometimes involved in a ritual with their pir in which the women placed in a room with the pir would take off their clothes, and the pir would put their clothes away, imitating the practice of Krisna stealing the clothes of the milkmaids. This was done to the accompaniment of song and dance, culminating in the women surrendering themselves sexually to the pir who invariably occupied a place of supreme importance among these vaishnavite sects.

For the sect called Aul or Auliya, extra-marital coition was considered of greater merit for the attainment of their religious object. They were specially taught to conquer jealousy resulting from adulterous relations. Reference was also made to a ceremony associated with 'the fulfillment of desire' (Ichhapuran- bhajan). Its aim was to urge every member of the group, male or female, 'not to feel hesitant or shy' about letting other members fulfil their sexual desires with them. All members, for this purpose, would assemble in a 'secluded spot', resort to intoxicants, and fulfil their sexual desires. Any member unwilling to cooperate was treated as a 'great sinner (maha papi).'

Also elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent, religious gatherings and festivals served to ventilate the sexual urges of individuals subjected to severe limitations on the free social mixing of sexes. Muslim participation in Hindu festivals of Holi and Basant partially achieved this object. Even Muslim festivals such as Id al-Fitr performed similar functions. On this occasion, unlike the Roman Catholic Lent, 'rejoicing and voluptuous excesses' followed rather than preceded the particular day of abstinence.

The death anniversaries ('urs, literally 'marriage') of popular saints provided similar occasions for massive mixed gatherings. The 'urs of Salar Ma'sud Ghazi, popularly called Ghazi Miyan, at Bahraich in Oudh was resorted to by many, seeking marriage and fertility. At Makanpur the shrine of Shah Madar was also a popular resort especially for the blind and the lame. In such large gatherings of men, women and 'beardless boys', 'great liberties were taken. Even a rigid Mulla like Abdul Qadir Badauni, the historian, committed an act of impropriety at Makanpur on the occasion of a pilgrimage and was severely beaten and attacked with swords by the relatives of his beloved.'

Mujeeb describes the features of these festivities, consisting of 'song and dance, display of charm, meeting and lovemaking', and adds:
'the lustful indulged themselves without fear where there were crowds of 'boys' such as would 'break the vows of ascetics, sons of gazelles matchless in love-making', 'a world of sinners attaining their heart's desire' and 'multitudes of lechers going about their business'.

The cult of ephebe, or catamites, or pederasty, or handsome boys, was as well known in South Asia as in West and Central Asia. Both Abu'l Fazl and Badayuni of Akbar's times made pointed reference to it. The former considered it 'a custom of Transoxiana transported into India'. It was 'customary with the aristocracy to keep a large number of handsome pages in their train.'

From Tavernier, a foreign traveller in Mughal India, we hear about a Muslim governor of Surat who 'wanted to enter into unnatural intercourse' with a young page, a faqir's son, at his employ. The incident led to a confrontation between the governor and a group of faqirs. Shah Quli Khan Mahram was reprimanded by Akbar for his love for a boy named Qabul Khan. Ali Quli Khan was 'in love' with Shahnam Beg, the son of a camel driver to whom he gave away his own wife, a former prostitute. Shahnam, after having enjoyed her, made her over to Abd al-Rahman. The latter's refusal to return her back to Shahnam led eventually to the murder of Shahnam. Khan sought revenge on Rahman for Beg's murder without success, and consecrated his love and grief for Shahnam with the raising of a lofty building on his minion's remains near Jaunpur.

The Muslim mystics were equally, if not more attracted to amrad, 'the beardless boys' or the divine beloved. Rasa Khan, noted before, fell in love with a boy. Madho Lal Husain (1539-1594), a mystic, given to song, dance and drinking, was named Madho 'out of his intense attachment to a Brahmin youth of that name'.

The case of Sarmad, a friend of the Mughal crown prince Dara Shikoh, was very well known. A Persian Jew, Sarmad accepted Islam, and on his arrival in India he became 'infatuated with a Hindu lad, namely Abhai (Abhaya) Chand, and casting off his clothes, sat down at the door of his beloved. When Abhai Chand's father became convinced of Sarmad's purity of love, he allowed him to take away the boy into his house.'


It has been pointed out that medieval European Christians were concerned and felt threatened by two aspects of the Muslim phenomenon: power and pleasure. If Islam's political power and might terrified them, its sexual life and morality also drew a great deal of their attention.

The medieval European travellers to South Asia provide ample justification for this view, as they offer clear impressions of the sexual life of South Asian Muslims, especially the upper classes. Manucci wrote: 'all Mohamedans are very fond of women, who are their principal relaxation and almost their only pleasure'.

In the words of Careri, Muslims 'spent all they have in luxury keeping a vast number of servants, but above all of concubines. These being many every one of them strives to be beloved above the rest, using all manners of allurements, perfumes and sweet ornments. Sometimes to heighten their master's lusts they give him much wine that he may require company in bed. Then some drive away the flies, others rub his hands and feet, others dance, others play on music, and others do other things.'

Manucci also pointed his finger at sections of the Muslim 'holymen' who had 'control of the women' resorting to them, and added:
'They know how to make use of their opportunities, sparing neither Muslim, Hindu, nor Christian women, if they are good-looking. In addition, they have numerous wives and slave girls in their houses.'

According to Yasin, 'the excessive indulgence of the Muslim community, particularly of the upper classes, in sexual pleasures was encouraged by the abundant booty of captive beauty in war or easy purchase in the slave market'. Besides, courtesanship was a consistent feature as much of the pre-Muslim as post-Muslim phases of South Asian urban social life. They were both a caste and a profession. Ala' al-Din Khalji (1296-1316) tried to control their market, as with other commodities, by putting up a fixed schedule of remuneration for their services. In Akbar's times their number became 'so scandalously large that he was obliged to segregate them in a separate quarter designated as Shaitanpur or the Devil's Quarter and have registers maintained to enter the names of those who visited their quarter'. A prospective young entrant to this quarter was personally interviewed by the Emperor to ascertain if there was any undue influence and pressure on her decision. Aurangzib attempted their expulsion from the city of Delhi or getting them married.


The popular instructive or didactic literature in mixed Bengali-Urdu diction since the nineteenth century and still available in reprints, of which we have spoken above, comprises a genre of what may be called a complete sexual manual, dealing with almost all conceivable sexual concerns. The following account is based on Saiyid Shah Sa'dat Ali's popular work.

In this type of writings, marital copulation is very strongly recommended and its virtues are loudly proclaimed. It is soothing for the mind and is also rewarded with progenies. A wife is a 'priceless jewel' should she be a chaste woman. Excessive copulation is, however, to be avoided as being rather 'damaging' for health, since a drop of semen is equal to seven drops of blood. Once a week in normal cases, and once in three days, where there is greater concupiscence, are recommended.

The literature goes at length to list occasions and grounds for not engaging in copulation. Coition on the very first night after the marriage, or on a full stomach are to be avoided. A child with no sense of shame and propriety is born consequent upon copulation in the nude condition. Coition in a standing posture gives birth to a child with bad manners. A thief is the likely issue of a coition during the dawn or the dusk, and an ill-tempered child results from a sexual union in a condition of unhappiness. Other occasions to avoid sexual intercourse are storm, earthquake, eclipses of the sun and the moon, after six months of pregnancy, and the menstrual period, the latter causing insanity in the resultant child.

Copulation with a woman over fifty years of age is as undesirable as that with a minor girl. The jurists also prohibit, according to the author, a sexual intercourse with a woman on the top of a man. Finally, while men should not engage in copulation before the age of twenty, they usually suffer from the lack of sexual virility after sixty.

Following the precepts of Hindu sexology, the Muslim didactic literature classifies women into four classes, as noted above, on the basis of their sexual dispositions determined by their physiognomical distinctions. As in the Hindu literature, the two superior types - padmini and chitrani - are placed on the highest pedestal by virtue of their physical beauty, psychological endowments and sexual richness. Likewise, the inferior types — hastini and sankhini — are thoroughly castigated.

Again, the Hindu sexological notion of the seats of concupiscence in a female body on each day of the lunar month are also adopted in this literature. This information is designed to help concentrate erotic acts on the particular region in the woman's body in order that orgasm is facilitated and hastened. Similar beliefs are also attached to determining the sex of the progeny with the help of choosing the time and circumstances of copulation.

The bulk of this sexual manual concerns itself with a whole range of indigenous Bengali and general Islamic popular recipes for achieving sexual objects such as keeping as well as bringing the coveted woman or women under control, enhancing concupiscence, redressing impotency, strengthening and enlarging the penis, thickening the semen, prolonging the duration of coition, enlarging or reducing the size of the breasts and ensuring pregnancy.

The literature also discusses other venereal matters like masturbation, lesbianism and anal intercourse, and these practices are all strongly condemned. The last named practice sends the culprit straight to hell.


Perhaps the most seminal and relevant issue concerning sexuality has reference to the role and place of women in society. The system that governs the place of women in general in South Asia, though may have had its local labels, is generally recognised as parda (literally 'curtain') referring to a system of veiling and seclusion of women. There are two major facets of parda, namely physical or spatial segregation, and covering of the female face and body. Hanna Papanek has sought to explain the meanings of its observance in terms of the twin concepts of 'separate worlds' of men and women, and the 'symbolic shelter' of women for protection from their sexual vulnerability in the outside world.

Despite a widely prevalent belief in the Islamic origins of parda in South Asia, most modern scholars are convinced of its independent inception in the Hindu society. The recognition of their independence has, in its turn, induced some to draw a marked contrast between the social purposes and objectives of the apparently 'common' Hindu and Muslim practices of parda.

According to this view the aims of the Muslim parda is directed primarily against the 'outsiders', that is, the people outside the family and kins, considered a potential threat to the sexual inviolability of women. The Hindu observance of parda, on the other hand, is said to be geared to preserving the unity and integrity of the family and kins by upholding the respect and avoidance relationships, maintaining the differential position between the conjugal and natal families, and generally refraining from posing a threat to the male-centred family and kin structure.

The case for this differential systems of Hindu and Muslim parda is strengthened by relating these to the respective Hindu and Muslim social organizations and values. It is pointed out that Islamic law, unlike Hindu law, provides for close kin marriage, and the consequent existence of small and almost endogamous marriage groups obviates the necessity of a bride observing seclusion in a strange surrounding with disruptive potentialities.

This notion of a total dichotomy between the Hindu and Muslim observances of parda appears simplistic in the light of other findings and studies. First, despite Islamic legal sanctions for close kin marriage a substantial proportion of Muslims in South Asia, especially the large number of service and artisan groups, practised lineage exogamy in the same manner as their peer Hindu groups. Among Muslims of this circle, intra-family respect and avoidance relationships were very commonly observed. Secondly, Muslim veiling practices outside the family do not seem to correspond to the normative pattern of 'kin-outsider' polarity. In the words of Sylvia Vatuk:
'in many modern Indian Muslim communities the object of the veil is not so much the total outsider or stranger as it is certain persons standing intermediate to these in one's social universe, namely members of one's wider kinship circle, neighbors of one's residential district, and other Muslims to whom one or one's family is known. In other words, one observes purdah with reference to the social approval of persons whose opinion about one's respectability matter. Beyond this group, where one is completely anonymous, the veil become unnecessary.'

Thirdly, veiling and other forms of parda practices were observed by Muslim women, like their Hindu counterparts, before other women, in a variety of situations, thus clearly modifying the popular concept of 'symbolic shelter' from male sexual aggression.

From myriad ethnographic reports on the practice of veiling, especially among urban Muslim women of the younger generation, the use of the veil before strangers appears clearly on the wane even for those who continue to use it in the vicinity of the home. This clearly indicates that 'there is more to the issue than sheltering a woman from the unwelcome advances of outsiders'.

Finally, following from the doubt raised immediately above, one may postulate about a common central concern underlying the South Asian parda system as a whole. Undeniably, the dominant concern in South Asian social development has been the preservation of the structural unity and integrity of the kin group. Marriage, involving admission of non-kin outsiders, contained serious disruptive potentialities that needed accommodation and containment. While violation of sexual purity and modesty posed a grave threat, bringing ignominy to the family and the kin group, maintaining internal hierarchical allocation of status and authority based on sex and age was no less crucial for the structural integrity of the family and kins.

Parda represented a rather complex and intricate system of social and cultural devices to ensure the place of South Asian women in the local community of interacting kin and lineage groups. To ensure sexual modesty, such devices ranged from fixing standards of dress to imposing behavioural restrictions on direct eye-contact, raising the voice, uncontrolled laughter, touching and so on. Likewise, the internal structure of authority was upheld by measures ranging from standardized gestures of deference to more extreme measures of avoidance relationship including veiling and spatial segregation.


In conclusion, a couple of issues relating to Islamic perspectives on sexuality may be underlined. First, Islam is characterized by its positive affirmation of sexuality as a practical and necessary human concern, as we have seen before. This positive attitude was, however, squarely based on an assumption of woman's subordination to man, as characteristic of a traditional society and culture. The Islamic religious tradition, as Hanna Papanek puts it very succinctly, 'stresses the equality of all believers before God but clearly puts men a step above women'.

Islam had undeniably raised, as noted before, the marital status obtained in pre-Islamic Arabia where women were no better than childbearing chattels. The provisions for dower (mahr) and the right to inheritance for women were rather substantial enhancements of women's position and status. And yet the overall position of women's subordination cannot be obscured. There is monogamy for women, polygamy for men; non-marital sex is totally disapproved of for the former, while the latter is permitted concubines and 'girls from the bazaar'; men can divorce very easily, women cannot; two women are equivalent to one man as legal witness; a very widely adopted motif in Muslim fictional literature such as Tuti Nama and The Thousand and One Nights is the wife being encouraged to have an affair with another man by the prolonged absence of her husband from home - all this clearly reflect the dominant male sexist attitudes.

Much of the legal-religious underpinnings of these attitudes are, however, being gradually set aside in many Muslim countries today under pressure either from the growing forces of secularism or Islamic modernism.

Secondly, it appears now in retrospect that both Islamic and Hindu laws began with an advantage on traditional Christianity in terms of bringing a much greater realism to bear on the issue of sexuality in human life. With the rapid secularization of Western law in the recent past, law and sexual morality in Western countries have been clearly differentiated and demarcated. Subject to the three overriding principles of adulthood, consent and privacy ('consenting adults in private'), state and law have been content to leave sexual morality to the individuals concerned. Even Hindu law, in the post-colonial period, underwent significant changes amounting to the virtual secularization of sexual morality. Islam, on the other hand, still largely continues to dominate and control the sexual morality of its believers, forcing even its modernizers to seek the legitimization of reform not in secular but in religious terms, though reinterpreted and reformulated.

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