Photo: Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock

Sexuality and spirituality are no contradictions

In this text, the Pakistani author and activist Humeira Shahid is concerned with the connection between spirituality and sexuality from the female perspective. This bond stems from the fundamental meaning of love. I would like to start with 5-6 basic questions about sexuality, through which we can understand the distortion and madness about this topic.

Photo: Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock

Firstly, on the one hand we have an oppressive puritanism. And on the other, the whole debate has shifted towards extreme expressions of freedom, choice and pleasure. Which is right?

Secondly, there are different theories about sexuality. And they have been redefined at every time and in every era. Which interpretation is correct here? Are they based on the truth of human nature and behaviour or are they based on assumptions and conjecture?

Thirdly, if they are rooted in truth, why does it change? Can sex and its moral code be reformulated at any given time? If it is truth: Is it biological or mental?

Fourth, my truth is subjective and based on my reality. If I define reality as what I think and feel, should that be the basis for assigning me a gender?

Fifth: If my sexual identity is not based on my biology, but my spiritual identity, I decide what my gender should be. That is, God has not assigned me a gender, but I do so based on my thinking? This is an extreme form of humanism. Can I believe today that my mental identity is male, but at the same time have a female body? And can I imagine tomorrow that I am not a human being but a fish?

In this way, I am trying to show how truth and the narrative about sexuality are partly constructed today. Everything is in flux. Sometimes it is mental, sometimes biological. Every age can define truth. But truth cannot be permanently redefined. This is where insanity begins.

A fundamental study on this was written by Michel Foucault. Following Heidegger, he produced the four-volume work Sexuality and Truth (1976). The key to understanding contemporary denial (arab. kufr) lies in the construction of narratives based on pure subjectivity. In the process, false claims of objectivity and personal perception are bent into “truth.” The Arabic word for truth is Al-Haqq. We use it to describe Allah, the Exalted. He is the True One.

Before we come to a Muslim perspective, let us look briefly at Foucault and Heidegger and their critique of the Western construction of truth. If we understand how the West constructs the “frame” and narrative of truth, we understand how this is applied to religion, theology, sexuality, society and education.

When we say that Allah is Al-Haqq (the absolute truth), He has no “what,” “when” or “where.” We cannot compare Him to anything, for that is an “associate” (arab. shirk). Allah is Truth and beyond human understanding. If truth, Al-Haqq, is beyond our comprehension, but the West wants to define it while being unable to attain it, it becomes smaller. This is the beginning of Greek philosophy and the West.

The basis of this thinking says that truth is based on logos, which could be translated as “word “or “speech.” An example would be the sentence “this is a glass.” It is related to my perception of this object. When Western thought is applied, it is called “truth.” We, on the other hand, call such a statement sahih or “accurate” in Arabic or our languages. The reality of a thing corresponds to my perception of it. But we do not call it Al-Haqq. The glass is one because I perceive it as such.

Western thinking here does not just mean one that is geographically anchored in the West. It is the contemporary mode of thinking throughout the world. If you call something accurate or correct, you cannot call it “truth.” This is how theology developed. It is an attempt to define truth, but it is an attempt to conceptualise God. You cannot make Allah an idea, because He is not an idea, but truth – and beyond our human capacity to perceive.

“God” became a concept and so did man. Spirituality and sexuality underwent the same process. Foucault says: “What happened in the definition of sexuality, the production of human truth, was a compartmentalisation. Things are pigeonholed. This is not only separation, but additionally categorisation.” There are different boxes for “biology,” “sociology” and “economy” – the essence and life of the human being are split up.

The philosophy that has developed here – not only in the field of compartmentalisation – is the maximum expression of subjectivity. It is accompanied by the false claim to objectivity. Heidegger says that a thinking that cannot think truth is none. The whole truth is much greater than human perception. What is interesting here is Foucault’s assessment that this compartmentalisation and production of truth has an agenda. In Sexuality and Truth, he analyses various movements, times, philosophies and ideologies that all had the purpose of perpetuating a status quo.

And Martin Heidegger has proved in several books that scientific truth is based on personal subjectivism. There is no objectivism, but my truth versus yours. If something – about the human being or God – is said to be true that is not “the truth,” can laws be based on it? The divine cannot be understood that way. Nor can man and his being be defined in this way. What is crucial here is to understand that this production of truth can become dangerous. When teaching philosophy, education or the like, we need to understand how the subject is formulated and compartmentalised and how “truth” is produced. This is exactly what happened with the women’s movement as well as the whole phenomenon of “sexual identity.”

Let us return to Islam, our own Din. What does Allah say about where the mind (arab. ‘aql) comes from? This word is important. Surah Al-Hajj says: “Do they not then travel about the earth, so that they may get hearts with which to understand, or ears with which to hear? For not the eyes are blind, but blind are the hearts that are in the breasts.” (Al-Hajj, Surah 22:46)

Allah is talking about the heart here. Mind does not mean “the head,” but is knowledge of the heart. This is one of the great misunderstandings of this age: thinking is rational. Intellect, the head, is the highest faculty of man. In reality, cognition takes place in the heart. It is said that Allah is present on His throne (arab. ‘arsh), in the heavens and in the heart of the Muminun.

The heart is not just an organ, it is the place of intuition and wisdom. One of the words in the Qur’an for this is qalb. If we want to reach Allah – or the truth – we must reach that part. And that knowledge has disappeared. It is only part of Sufism now; the Sufis have preserved it. It is about understanding the heart and how to deal with it. If we want to understand truth, we can only attain it with our core. If we want to achieve it through the head, we only create a mess.

Back to spirituality and sexuality and their relationship: I would like to introduce the teaching(s) of Ibn ‘Arabi. In his book Sealing Stones of Wisdom (Fusus Al-Hikam) he talks about the different wisdom seals of each prophet – for example that of Adam, Nuh, Yahya, etc. and ends with the Prophet Muhammad. This is about the love of man and woman. He says that in the first act of creation of Adam and Eve lies the secret of existence.

It is so beautiful the way Ibn ‘Arabi explains it! He quotes the hadith of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, as saying, “Favored to me of your world were women and perfume, and the coolness of my eyes in prayer.” (Ahmad and An-Nasa’i)

Ibn ‘Arabi emphasises that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, did not say that he loved women, but that Allah had made him to love women. This is the key to understanding the love between man and woman.

Allah placed the love of women in the heart of Prophet Muhammad and from there in the hearts of mankind. Ibn ‘Arabi said, “Love is the fundamental state of all existence.” I would say: Love is the DNA of the universe and the secret of creation. Whoever understands it understands the whole existence.

The first relationship in the creation of Adam was between Allah and him: God and man. The second was created between man and woman: Adam and Eve. Let’s go back to the Qur’anic verse. Allah created us from clay, which is the lowest thing. But Allah says: “(…) and breathed into him of My Spirit, (…).” (As-Sad, Surah 38:72)

This is the supreme thing. Allah has created the Ruh (soul) which is light – the manifestation of Allah – and that is what we represent. Ibn ‘Arabi says: We long for Allah. But He also longs for us. And then he cites a hadith which says: “O Dawud, I have a strong longing for them.” That is, for those who yearn for Allah. And there is another hadith which says, “None of you will see his Lord until he dies.” Ibn ‘Arabi says here that our inability to see Allah and feel His presence depends on our ranks (arab. maqamat). Nevertheless, we are all, each of us, manifestations of Allah’s light.

Let us return to Adam and Eve: men and women come from one source. They are not separate things coming together, but one and the same thing that became two. And because they were one and became two, their essence is a constant longing for each other. They want to be reunited. The whole feminist discourse that Adam was born first and Eve later – and therefore she would be beneath him – is completely dismantled by Ibn ‘Arabi. They were one, and later divided. Adam longs for perfection and that means the love of women for him. And Eve is in permanent longing to return home.

The key to understanding what Ibn ‘Arabi is explaining is when he says: “When a man and a woman love each other, they do not just return to their home or to the missing part of themselves.” But this love goes beyond that. Because we are not just bodies. We are spirit. If we love each other, we love the spirit (arab. ruh). This love is a relationship of wholeness, not just one of bodies loving each other. The heart loves the heart. We love not only the outer, but also the inner.

What do we do when we love one another? We bear witness to Allah in it. It is an act of recognition or knowledge. And it is an act of mutual worship of Allah. For the cause and source of this love is not a mutual relationship, but the significance of Allah, the Exalted.

Its meaning is not based on self-gratification. Remove Allah from the love relationship between husband and wife and it becomes lust. And the desire to possess the beloved. Then one believes that the other belongs to us. Instead of being a source of happiness and blessing, it becomes distress and obsession. And one gives the partner one’s own burden, which he cannot bear. This happiness that he cannot give us. The relationship becomes sick.

Without Allah, there is no transcendence of love. For a man cannot love a woman for herself. But this love is for the sake of Allah, the Exalted. Looking at her or him, one sees the face of Allah. In mutual love, one is loved by Him. If Allah, the Exalted, disappears from the equation, the mutual witnessing of Allah becomes mere worldliness. Satiety sets in, as if one becomes sick of something if one eats too much of it. It becomes compulsive. It becomes need-orientated and a cage of lust. Without recognising the divinity in the other, one cannot go into deep love, which in Arabic is called ishq. Strictly speaking, it refers to being overcome by love – when the ego disappears.

The Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, loved women because of the perfection of witnessing Allah in them. And because no one can witness Allah without the presence of matter. This is because of our human form; the witnessing of Allah is greatest and most perfect when it is in women. The highest union is in marriage. And that is the love of man and woman.

The physical union is a spiritual one. Unlike what is understood today, the two are not separate. The spiritual and the sexual are one. Both come together. The love of man and woman is the basis of knowledge. Everything in existence is built on this event. The key to this love is: that one can transcend form and reach the source of love.

This leads us to the next theme of Ibn ‘Arabi: death. It is a special encounter. This is the new beginning of the return to Allah. It is an encounter with Allah. We are separated from Him, but we return. This is the encounter with Allah.

How is the word “death” used in Sufism? It is called “extinction” (arab. fana’). It means “die before you die.” For this reason, orgasm is also called “the little death.” The orgiastic union between man and woman in the act of love is like a little death. It is the annihilation of the self by the other. The lower self (arab. nafs) has disappeared. Let us look at the significance of this event: In mutual affection, we love Allah. Sexual becomes spiritual. Sensual ecstasy transforms into spiritual rapture. Here sexuality is a parable for spirituality.

Love between man and woman is a metaphor for that to Allah. Here the heart loves another, one spirit loves another. From love for the creation of Allah, we come to the Creator of love. Without understanding of and capacity for mutual love, one cannot comprehend the affection for Allah. This little orgasmic death in each other is a parable of extinction in Allah.

In the affection of husband and wife, Allah teaches us to love Him. The love between man and woman and the mutual desire are an extension of love for Allah. This is not an understanding of sexuality in the realm of the sensual, but one in the space of meanings. It adds another dimension to our whole theme. Love, physical as well as emotional closeness between man and woman are not as trivial as they are projected to the West. Their union is sacred. If we look at their meaning, it is a spiritual phenomenon.

Marriage and the love of a man and a woman are not ordinary. Neither is the desire and longing for the other. The sexual parable of spirituality is something high. The idea of Adam and Eve’s physical closeness is in their everyday “little death.” They cease to be themselves and become one again. Man’s relationship with Allah lies in union and extinction.

I would like to explain the madness of today’s view of sexuality. And I have cited an explanation by Ibn ‘Arabi where he locates the love of man and woman. This brings us back to the understanding of what human beings are. Are we human beings who have spiritual experiences? Not at all. We are spiritual beings with a human background! Spirit is our first identity. We are a manifestation of Allah’s light. The rest derives from this: our spirituality, sexuality, physical world and all are sacred, full of meaning.

And what is the insanity of today’s definition of man and human nature? Puritanism says: the body is evil. Pleasure is evil. Desire is evil. Everything is degraded and debased. Everything is a sin. And it is at this point that Ibn ‘Arabi gives the highest significance to the love between Adam and Eve. Where is there shame here? Where misogyny? Where is there a politics of comparison between Adam and Eve?

This hadith of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, in which he says, “Allah has made me love women,” is about the highest worship. She is the centre of love, life and creation. Considering that, how could a man degrade a woman? Allah says in so many places in the Qur’an: “Respect the womb!” In loving a woman, a man loves Him. This is the opposite of Western thought. A contradiction to Puritanism and even to Islamic clergy. For it promotes a Protestant Christian interpretation of “original sin,” “guilt” and “shame.” Islam has nothing to do with this.

Allah has made mutual physical, emotional and spiritual love our natural state of creation (arab. fitra). In Islam, there is no distinction between the temporal and spiritual worlds. In Christianity, one cannot have the dunya and be spiritual at the same time. And if one is to be spiritual, one would have to leave the dunya. We don’t have that separation.

In Islam, if we want to be spiritual, we must take care of each other. We must act. It is a doing, a service to our fellow man. Our spirituality manifests itself in our actions in this world. That is, how we live, serve each other and behave in society. How ethical are our economic actions? When we are in a higher state spiritually, it will manifest in our dunja as being more compassionate and kinder – how we serve and care for others.

Spirituality is how we live in this world. The total opposite to the Christian view. We have no concept of “original sin,” “guilt” and “shame.” All that comes from western thinking and Christianity. We cannot take our definition of sexuality from that.

* This text is an abridged version of a talk given at a conference of Muslim women in Granada, Spain, in early July 2021.

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