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A Discourse on Sexual Desire

A Discourse on Sexual Desire

    Know that man has been made subject to sexual desire for two beneficial reasons. The first of these is that by knowing its delight he is able to draw an analogy which suggests to him what the delight of the Afterlife must be like. For the delight of the sexual act, were it to last, would be the greatest pleasure of the body, just as the pain of a burn is the body’s greatest agony. Encouragement and deterrence [al-targhib wa’l-tarhib], which drive people towards their saving happiness, can only be brought about by means palpable pain and pleasure, since what cannot be perceived through experience will never be greatly desired. The second reason is that it allows the human race to continue and the world [‘alam] to abide. Such are its benefits.

    However, sexual desire also contains evil which may destroy both religion and the world if it is not controlled and subjugated, and restored to a state of equilibrium. It has been said that His word (Exalted is He!), O our Lord! Burden us not with more that we can bear! [II:286] refers, when correctly interpreted, to powerful lust. And Ibn ‘Abbas understood His word (Exalted is He!), wa-min sharri ghasiqin idha waqab [CXIII:3] to refer to ‘the erection of the male member’.

    It is told that Moses (upon whom be peace) was once sitting in company when Satan came up to him wearing a cloak in which he assumed many colours [yatalawwanu fihi alwan]. When he drew near to him he took this off and set it aside. Then he said, ‘Peace be upon you Moses!’ Moses ask him who he was and he replied, ‘I am Satan’. ‘God slay you!’ Moses said. ‘What brings you here?’ And he answered, ‘I have come to greet you in view of your great rank in the sight of God’. ‘What was it that I saw you wearing?’ he asked, and he replied, ‘A cloak with which I snatch away the hearts of the descendants of Adam’. ‘What is it then,’ Moses asked, ‘that a man does which enables you to prevail over them?’ And he replied, ‘He becomes pleased with himself, and considers that he has many good deeds to his credit, and forgets his sins. Now, I would warn you against three things! Never be alone with a woman who is not lawful for you, for never does a man do so without having me, not my companions, as his companion, so that I tempt them both with one another. Never make a vow to God without fulfilling it. And never prepare something to give as charity and then fail to give it, for never does a man do so without having me, not my companions, as his companion, so that I prevent him from giving it [at a later time]’. Then he went away, crying, ‘Woe is me! Moses has learnt something against which to warn the descendants of Adam!’

    Sa’id ibn al-Musayyib once said, ‘Satan never despaired of destroying any previous prophet by means of women. In my opinion they are to be feared more than anything else. I do not enter a single house in Medina – apart from my own and that of my daughter, which I take a bath in on Fridays and then leave’ (Abu Nu’aym).

    Someone once said, ‘The devil says to women: “You are half my army! You are my arrow with which I do not miss! You are my confidante! You are my messenger with whom I achieve my wants!” Thus half his army is desire, the other half being anger.’

    The desire for women, which the greatest of all desires, is susceptible to excess, defect, and equilibrium. Excess obtains when the intellect is overcome, so that a man’s concern is so distracted towards the enjoyment of women and slavegirls that he is unable to tread the path of the Afterlife; or it may overcome a man’s religion, so that he is drawn into obscene activities. This may become so extreme in some cases that two foul habits are acquired. Firstly, he may partake of something which makes him desire to have intercourse more often, just as some people take certain drugs which strengthen the stomach and allow them to eat more of the things which they desire. This resembles nothing so much as a man tormented by savage beasts and snakes which sleep from time to time, but which he finds methods of awakening and arousing, and then has to make his peace with. For the desires for food and intercourse are in reality pains, which a man would rather be free of so as to gain another form of delight. Should you object that it has been narrated in a gharib (A hadith which contains unusual lexis, or which is related by only one chain of authorities. (Jurjani)) Tradition that the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) said, ‘I complained to Gabriel that I would like more strength when having intercourse with my wives, and he instructed me to eat harisa,’ (Tabarani, Tabarsi) then you should know that he had (may God bless him and grant him peace) nine wives, and that he was obliged to satisfy them all, and that no-one was permitted to marry them after his death, or even if he divorced them: his request for strength was therefore for this, and not for enjoyment.

    The second thing is that in the case of some misguided people this desire may end in amorous passion [‘ishq], which constitutes utter ignorance of the intended purpose of sexual congress, and a descent to a level lower than that of the animals. For such people are not content merely to gratify their lust, which is the unsightliest of all desires and the one of which a man should most be embarrassed, but instead believe that their lust can only be satisfied by one person. An animal finds it enough to satisfy its lust anywhere it can, whereas these people will only be satisfied by one person in particular, which thing heaps abasement upon abasement, and enslavement upon enslavement, until their intellects are subordinated to the service of their cravings, even though the intellect has been created to be obeyed, not to obey desires and devise means of gratifying them. Amorous passion is nothing but a wellspring of excessive sexual desire, and is the disease of an empty and unconcerned heart. One should be one’s guard against its preliminaries by abstaining from repeated glances and thoughts. Otherwise, it will take firm hold of one and be difficult to shake off. In this it resembles the passion which certain people harbour for wealth, status, land and children, or even for playing with birds, lutes, backgammon, or chess, all of which may posses them to such a degree that their religious and worldly lives are adulterated and they are unable ever to abstain from them. To break the power of amorous passion in its early stages is like pulling at the reins of a riding-beast when it heads for a gate it would like to enter: to rein it back is a very easy thing, whereas to treat such a passion after it has taken hold of one is like letting the beast go in, and then catching it by its tail and pulling it from behind: a much more difficult task. One should therefore take precautions at the onset of these things, for later they can only be treated with an effort so intense as almost to lead to death.

    Excess in the matter of sexual desire, then, causes the intellect to be overcome to this degree, which is very much to be condemned. Insufficient sexual desire, however, leads to an indifference to women, or to giving them insufficient pleasure, which is also to be condemned. Sexual desire is praiseworthy thing when it stands in a state of equilibrium, obedient to the intellect and the Law in all its movements. Whenever it becomes excessive, it should be broken with hunger and marriage. The Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) said: ‘O young men! You should marry, and whosoever cannot should fast, for fasting is a form of castration.’ (Bukhari)

    -Hujjatul Islam, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Breaking The Two Desires (Kitab Kasr al-Shahwatayn); Book XXIII of The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din)


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