The issue of sexuality in Islam has been a common target of criticism against the religion since the earliest European perspectives. From the 9th Century, writers and travellers understood Islam as sanctioning the fulfilment of lusts, which Christian thinkers perceived as being detrimental to the spirit, and rationally argued as being contrary to natural law.
The framework within which such reproaches were deployed held Christian marital and sexual values as the benchmark from which all morality was measured. Christians had perceived marriage as strictly monogamous and permanent till death to the extent that divorce and remarriage of other traditions was seen as legalized adultery. The ideal was that of unconditional commitment – evidence of mutual respect and relational sanctity. Moreover, Christian thinkers understood Muslim marital law, which fell short of permanently exclusive monogamy, as sexist. Victorian writer on Islam, John J. Poole, in his Studies in Mohammedanism (1892), makes a stark comparison between the treatment of women in the two major faiths: “nowhere on earth will you find woman so degraded as in countries where Islamism reigns supreme! A Mohammedan regards woman not as a companion and helpmeet for him, but as a plaything, a pretty toy, as soulless almost as his turban, his pipe, and his amber mouth-piece. How blessed is the contrast when we look at Christianity, and think of Christ, who reverenced women, who made them His friends, who chose them as His co-labourers, and who regarded them as heirs with men of the Kingdom of Heaven!”
Similarly, in his foundational work “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1894), Austro-German psychiatrist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, expresses that “Christianity gave the most powerful impulse to the moral elevation of the sexual relations by raising women to social equity with man.” Krafft-Ebing goes on to refer to Islam and its treatment of women in comparison: “the Mohammedan woman has ever remained essentially a means of sensual gratification and procreation; while, on the other hand, the virtues and capabilities of the Christian woman, as housewife, educator of children, and equal companion of man, have been allowed to unfold in all their beauty. Islam, with its polygamy and harem-life, is glaringly contrasted with the monogamy and family life of the Christian world.”
There was a general fascination towards the ‘looseness’ of Islamic sexuality, which permitted the fulfilment of desire in and of itself, against the strictly pro-creative function of the sexual union, rationalised by earlier Christian thinkers. Early 19th century scholar of religions, Robert Adam, described the laws prescribed by the Prophet Muhammad as “too loose for the most compliant moralist to justify, and too favourable to afford the most abandoned sensualist any probable ground of complaint.” The perceived sexual laxity of Islam was even seen as means through which to attain conversions from Christianity. It was as if Victorian scholars could not see past the question of sexuality in the Muslim faith in judging the religion or the character of its prophet. Adam continues: “the retirements of Mohammed, from his first acquisition of power to his last decline of life, were continually disgraced by every excessive indulgence of that passion, which has a more particular tendency to degrade the dignity of the human character even below the brute creation.”
Such was the sentiment across the Christendom of 19th century Europe. In the modern Western world, the perspective of Islamic sexuality has changed. No longer are followers of the Muslim faith seen as lax with their desires and passions, but rather, they are seen as sexually restraint and reserved. The simple reason for this is that the ethos of sexuality has dramatically changed in Europe, altering the standard from which Muslim social law is judged. In contrast, Muslims have remained relatively consistent in those practices and beliefs that so appalled the 19th century western onlooker: divorce, remarriage, polygamy, sex without the intention to procreate, and a sensual paradise.
Moreover, the modern liberal resentment towards Victorian prudishness, with its narratives of sin, shame and guilt (particularly for women), is often imposed upon the Muslim faith. The modern perspective is, therefore, also deeply psychological. The ‘contained’ and ordered sexuality of Islam is associated with a past self that most Europeans are happy to have left behind.
In many respects, the altering of European values undermines the stability and validity of its moral judgments. There can hardly be any absolute “truth” to a set of values if they are based on a shifting essence. And if moral relativity is self-acknowledged, it makes little sense to be so staunchly judgmental. Nevertheless, moral absolutes are typically deployed in anti-Muslim thought. Despite Europe’s evolving values, there is remarkable and almost perplexing consistency in the fact that in both Victorian and liberal modern times, Islamic sexual values are seen as negative, backward and unenlightened. This would unfortunately imply that the desire to construct Islam as negatively oppositional is a top priority in perceiving the religion at all, regardless of its actual content.
Adam, Robert (1818) The Religious World Displayed: or, A view of the four grand systems of religion, Judaism, paganism, Christianity, and Mohammedism, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Moses Thomas
Krafft- Ebing, Richard von (1894) Psychopathia Sexualis, with special reference to Contrary Sexual Instinct, 7th ed., Chaddock, Charles G. (trans.) London: A, O. Watts & Co.
Pool, John J. (1892) Studies in Mohammedanism: Historical and Doctrinal with a Chapter on Islam in England, London: Archibald Constable and Company