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By : KH. Husein Muhammad

The term of “sexuality” is often simplified with understanding to merely biological activities related to male or female sexual organs. Whereas, more than just a biological bodily desire, sexuality is a kind of human existence which contained emotional, love, self actualization, expression, perspective, and orientation to other bodies. In this context, sexuality is a human cultural space to express themselves among another in the very complex meaning. 

Sexuality is an instinctive, intrinsic, and nature for all sexes, male and female. Sex as a part of sexuality is a central inside the human life. It defined the existence of men and women as well as which created life. But, as long as the civilization of the human history, women’s sexuality is always reduced its meaning on a large scale. Women’s sexuality is always put in disgraced position in one hand, and exploited as the men’s please in the other hand. This is a face of patriarchic trasition which is always maintained up to now through various ways and interests. 

In the muslim world, women’s sexuality is discussed in the ambiguity situation. It can be discussed appreciatively but at the same time very closed and conservative. While the idealization of Islam required equal relation, justice, and respect, because it appreciates sexuality as a nature of human being, male or female which should be maintained well and healthily. In the word of religion, sex is a gift of God. Islam does not suggest the celibate and asceticism, therefore the sexual desire must be fulfilled as long as the human being need it. Even though, Islam only legalize the sexual intercourse through marriage ritual so that it never justify the promiscuity (free sex). All of the sky religion committed to this agreement. 

One of the Quranic verses which is often quoted to answer on how Islam give its appreciation to the sexuality is : “And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought.”  (QS.Ar Rum/30 : 21) 

There are some purposes which will be achieved through the marriage. First, as the human way to channel his or her libido/sexual desire to obtain sexual pleasure or satisfaction. Second, as human efforts to conserve the human life on the earth. Third, become a media for a human to find their tranquility and beautiful place. Through marriage, human anxiety and heart sorrow can be channeled. 

Islam then expressed that men and women in their sexual relation are the same. Quran said “Hunna Libaasun Lakum wa Antum Libasun Lahunna “/ “they are (the wives) is the cloth for you (the husbands) and you (the husbands) is the cloth for them (the wives).” (QS. Al Baqarah/2 ; 187). Ibn Jarir al-Thabary, The Great Master of the mufassir (Quranic interpreters)  come with several interpretation regarding this verse. First, that it is a metaphor for the meaning of  unification of two bodies interactively  (indhimam jasad kulli wahid minhuma li shahibih).1.Second, quoting another mufassir, Mujahid and Qatadah  that it means that both of the spouses gave the tranquility one to another (Hunna sakanun lakum wa Antum sakanun lahunna).In a legal marriage, the sexual intercourse can be done freely. The Quran said : 

“Your wives are a place of sowing of seed for you, so come to your place of cultivation however you wish and put forth [righteousness] for yourselves. And fear Allah and know that you will meet Him. And give good tidings to the believers.” (Q.S. al Baqarah [2]:223).

Based on the explanation from one of Prophet’s hadith, all of the mufassir (Quranic interpreters) committed that sexual intercourse by husband and wife can be done freely, except the anal sex. 

It is interested that Prophet Muhammad PBUH encouraged that the sexual intercourse between husband and wife should be begun with warming up or foreplay. He said, “Don’t be like animal. Do by flirting and sweet talking initially”.  While Ibnu Abbas, one of the Prophet’s companion said the Prophet’s hadith, “I want to perform so being interested for my wife, as same as I want her perform her beauty for me.” 3

The simple explanation above showed on how Islam giving appreciation to sexuality in the same quality for men and women. Even though, there are some sexuality problems in the domestic sphere which reduced the women’s sexuality by justifying it with the Islamic classical texts. Some of them about the wife’s obligation to serve her husband sexual desire whenever and wherever he will. One of the hadith text said, “If a husband have a sexual desire to his wife, so give him although the wife is still being in the kitchen or on the back of  a camel”. Another hadith also warned the consequence if the wife refused, “If a husband wants a sexual intercourse and his wife refused him, then she (the wife) will be accursed by the Angel until the coming of early morning”. Whereas, the same situation will not be implemented for the husband, because there is no single hadith which can show the reciprocal norms explicitly. 

The simple understanding of the such hadith text created a general perception that Islam had reduced women’s sexual rights and treat them discriminatively. In some cases, the hadith is used as weapon for a husband to actualize his sexual desire from his wife with no compromise.  This kind of understanding of course is very simplistic and conservative. It is also not in line with the Quranic verses which had been mentioned above. This kind of understanding may be accompanied by gender bias assumption that women’s sexual desire is lower than men’s, as similar as assumption which is built for the polygamy issue. 

Regardless with this assumption or another reason, the hadith mentioned above however can’t be apart from the Qur’anic text in the Surah An Nisa/4 : 34. This Theological text informed as about the subordinate status of a wife (women). According to this verse, a man is a qawwam which is often interpreted in the different ways : leader, educator, protector, or another term which showed the superiority meaning of men over women. Women, based on the literal reading of this verse were perceived by most of muslim society as the secondary creation. As mentioned in the first part of the article, the such Islamic texts actually is a text which talk in the social history, namely the Saudi Arabia situation in the past 6th Century.

The Arabic culture, as happened in other world culture at that time was a patriarchic culture, which for some cases the misogynic culture. In another words, the such texts was not justifying the women’s subordination system at that time, but accommodating and talking about social reality. 

There is no clear indication which is found from the text regarding the factors that emphasized male superiority over female. But the mufassir (Quranic interpreters) mentioned for example reason and intellectuality. They also mentioned that this superiority are general and absolute. This kind of understanding of course is too simplistic. Because the text precisely that the superiority is a relative thing (several people over several other people). So, it is an absolute (interpretation). If the superiority of men over women because of he is a breadwinner, so it is not a nature thing, but merely a functional matter. 

The more critical analysis will bring us to a conclusion that the texts were playing its transformative roles. Specifically, the Quranic texts was still in the dialogue process themselves with the socio-cultural reality to be idealized. It must be learned with the sociological analysis and must be connected with other texts. This analysis is needed to meet  a harmonization point with the universal texts. Without considering this approach,  the muslim society will always faced the contradictory situations in the God’s words which face to face with the reality. This situation should not happen. 

Women’s Sexuality in the Public Space

Women’s sexuality in the public space also faces the same problem with her sexuality in the domestic space : appreciative but at the same time exclusive. There are so many Islamic texts which appreciate to the women body, her expression and self actualization in the public space. Women in Islam is a free existence who had also been given responsibilities to solve social, economic, culture, and political problems. As mentioned in the Quran, women are requested to cooperate with men in such aspects of life. 

One of the Quranic verses for example, mentioned, “Men and women should cooperate together in to enforce goodness and to remove evils.” In the modern language, the text showed that women and men are requested to play role on the social, economic, politic and cultural transformation.When the Prophet was still alive, women also often involved in the open debates with men in the mosque and in other public space to discuss social problems. Women in the Prophet era even did their personal religious rituals  (worship) in the mosque together with men. The Prophet said, “ Don’t prohibit women to go to mosque.”

In the early Islamic era, women also participated in the political armies struggle with men and dressed up with the clothes that are provided to go to war, their face, hands, and feet were open. They moved, gathered in a meeting and discussed with men to plan the strategies in a room space without curtain. There was no problem with their body movement. Imm Bukhari narrated that during the Uhud war, when many people left the Prophet behind, Siti Aisha and Ummu Salim rolled up their cloth so that their calf open. They brought water and poured it to the thirsty soldiers. 4 Khansa bint Amr, a prominent Arabic women poet, stood in front of the Prophet and read her poems with all expressions. The Prophet admired and praised her. 5 Therefore, it does not make sense and deny the facts if later women’s voice is seen as ‘aurat’,  a must be hidden, covered, and furthermore excommunicated thing. 6

There were more stories which narrated the social facts of the Saudi Arabia in the early Islamic era on the women involvement in the social, political, and cultural space. They can expressed freely and actualized their existence without stigmatization which assassin their character. Nawal, a contemporary Arabic feminist said, “ It is definitely right, that Prophet Muhammad’s perspective and Islamic principles on sexuality obtained the such high appreciation exceeded other civilizations. The enjoyed the rights as same as they can express the rights both in the domestic sphere and public sphere.

The sexuality issues become unending debates regarding the use of two terminology Aurat and Fitnah. The two words appeared in several Islamic religious texts with the various interpretations. There are 2 (two) verses which discuss the concept of aurat in a more detail. Namely  Q.S. al Nur/24 :30-31. The two verses gave guidance for the believing men and women  to control their sexual expressions. According the text, the self control is needed to maintain the self respect. For women, the Quran gave additional guidance for them not to appear their “jewelery”, except “what is usually visible from parts of their body”.  

The “jewelery” and “what is usually visible”, is a two crucial words which did not show the clear meaning. The mufassirs (Quranic interpreters) interpret  the word “jewelry” differently. Some of them interpret it literally, namely jewelry which is usually attached to the body such as bracelet in the hand or feet, necklace, earrings, or ring. Some others interpreted the words with the metaphoric meaning,  namely face and arms or neck. While other people interpreted as mascara (or eye shadow), lipstick, and fingernails polish. 8

While “what is usually visible” is also unclear. The Prophet did not give the single explanation. The dominant perspective until today said that “what is usually visible” are face and palms. This is referred to the Prophet’s hadith, therefore according to them women must cover all parts of their body, except face and palms.  But, Ibnu Jarir mentioned another hadith that in addition to face and palms , also half of legs and further more all parts of legs. The three parts of the body can be open. Al Syaukani (1250 H), informed that feet until half parts of women’s calf are not aurat, so that it shouldn’t be covered.9 The most strict perspective raised by Ibnu Hanbali, the pioneering figure of literalist school (fundamentalist). He said that all part of women’s body, without exception, including finger nails are aurat.10

Many of the interpretations in turn to reflection of the various perspectives of the Islmic jurist. In addition to, there is a different interpretation of the terms, the various perspective of the Islamic jurisprudence also because of the differences of their social contexts. 11

The different limitation of the aurat, based on the next verses, apparently did not apply to all people. The Quranic texts except several people. Those are 1) husband, 2) father, 3) father in law, 4) sons,  5)the husband’s sons,  6) the male siblings, 7)nephews, 8) another women, 9) the male slaves, 10) male servant who is not passionate against women, and 11) the boys who had not understand yet about the aurat of women. So, if it’s hould be grouped, then 1)The groups of  family relatives (number 1 until 7), 2) male slaves (no.9), 3)the group of them who  doesn’t have sexual desire against women. 

Based on the such text, a woman is not obliged to cover her aurat in those several parties. This exception shows clearly that the Quran does not generalize that all women should cover their ‘aurat’ in front of all men. Our critical question then how Allah make a distinction between one to another woman? In many analysis, the distinction is more caused  by the factor that the people who live in Arabic tradition at that time, is not a threaten, interference, or sexual seduction. This factor in a more popular words are called “does not create any defamation (fitnah)”. In another words, they are the people who are able to guarantee the security over women’s body. Another factor was the prevention from inconvenience and difficulties (raf’an li al haraj wa al masyaqqah) in doing works or in another words for the purpose of the ease of movements (li al hajah).

From here, it is clear that the restrictions regarding aurat was so influenced ny social, traditional, or culture of a society. Some parts of women body might be seen as aurat for a society in one certain era or location, but it may be not seen as aurat for a society in another era or location. This case is quite similar with the “pornography” or “porno-action” case which had been triggered  a strong controversy up to  these days. The ‘porn’ terminology is very difficult to be formulated in the definitely and single concept. It can be interpreted ambiguously and relatively. The porn is neutral for personal context. But it will become a serious  thing when it turned to the public. Regardless of the debates about this issue, but the most important issue to be considered as the main issue of the religion that women’s (and men’s) body should be respected, should not be abused, disgraced and furthermore exploited for one certain interest. 

Women’s sexuality also face the serious problems in the issue of Jilbab. The dominant perspective in the society said the Jilbab is a religious obligation based on QS. Al Ahzab/33 ; 59. The verse mentioned : “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.”

It is a little difficulties for us in Indonesia to explain the meaning of Jilbab. Jilbab is not a term which show the meaning of women’s clothes as we see every day nowadays, or what people say as “muslim women clothes”. Jilbab is an accessories/ certain characteristic features which was added to the Arabic women’s clothes at that time. While the clothes which cover all part of the hair and bodies, except face and palms (just let call it with women muslim clothes) actually was the daily clothes of Arabian women, regardless their religious or ethnical identity. The non muslim women from  many ethnics in Arabia, wore the “muslim women clothes”. So, actually it was not really a muslim women specific clothes. The God’s command to for women to wear Jilbab (accessories or characteristic features) was addressed for the free women in order to be distinguished with the slave women. The purpose is in order (the free women) will not be easily disgraced or disturbed by the “naughty” men, as easy they behave to slave women. 


I consider that the perspective on women’s sexuality above will be difficult to be accepted by muslim society in general nowadays. The general and popular views in the muslim society regarding the women’s sexuality is against the such discourses. The majority of muslim still perceive that women’s body can’t move freely and easily in the public space. Women’s sexuality only can be expressed in the domestic space. If only they can move in the public space, their existence must be accompanied by “mahram” (the male guardians) and without performance which is seductive to the sexual desire. The religious discourses which still be considered by majority of muslims in all over the world is that women become the source of fitnah (defamation). This is a term which will describe that women become subject who are able to trigger the chaos and social disruption. This kind of signification actually had changed from its genuine meaning. Namely a trial or exam which can be addressed to all people, men or women. 12

The sexuality issues in Indonesia nowadays is facing the tense period. If the efforts to the direction of the religious formalization especially on the issue of women’s sexuality though the state regulation can be implemented, then it will create serious problems for the future of the nation. The Indonesian women in the next time will face state interventions agains their privat rights. Then,  how the Indonesian women and Indonesian women’s emancipations supporters will face this serious problem? [Husein Muhammad]


1   Ibnu Jarir al Thabari, Jami’ al Bayan ‘an Ta’wil Ayi al Qur’an, III, h. 489

2   Ibid, h. 490

3  Syeikh Nawawi, Syarh Uqud al Lujain, Attamimi, Cirebon, tt. H. 3 

4   Bukhari, Shahih, Hadits No. 2880

5   Ibnu Hajar al Asqalani, Al Ishabah fi Tamyiz al Shahabah,VII, 613

Aurat literally means blemish, disgrace, taboo, ashaming or bad thing to be seen by other people. An Nawawi, a prominent Syafii jurist said that aurat is part of the human bodies which is seen as a bad or ashaming thing if it is shown to other people, and if it is shown wil create fitnah (defamation). (See : Muhammad bin Abu Bakar al Razi, Mukhtar al Shihah, II, p. 345; Ibrahim Anas, Al Mu’jam al Wasith, p. 636; An Nawawi, Majmu’ Syarh al Muhadzdzab, III, h. 168).

Nawal elSa’dawi, Wajah Telanjang Perempuan (The Naked Face of Women), h. 71

Read Tafsir Surah al Nur [23]:31dalam ; Jalal al Din al Suyuthi, Al Dur al Mantsur fi al Tafsir bi al Ma’tsur, and Ibnu Jarir al Thabari : Jami’ al Bayan

9   Al Syaukani, Fath al Qadir Baina Fannay al Riwayah wa al Dirayah Min  ‘Ilm al Tafsir, Maktabah Syamilah, Vol. V, h. 208

10 Ibnu al Jauzi, Tafsir Zad al Masir fi ‘Ilm al Tafsir, Maktabah Syamilah, Vol. IV, h. 442 

11 The wider explanation regarding the perspective of this Jurist ulama, see Husein Muhammad, Fiqh Perempuan, Refleksi Kyai atas Wacana Agama dan Gender, LKiS, Yogyakarta, cet. II, 2007.

12 The terminology of “fitnah” originally means trial or exam. The trial or exam can be addressed to whoever and whatever. The Quran said : “Innama Amwalukum wa Awladukum fitnah” (Actually your property and children are fitnah/ trial or exam). The perspective which said that women are fitnah (defamation) referred to the Prophet hadith ,”I don’t leave after death, a fitnah (defamation) which harmful for men except women. (HR. Bukhari). The general public understanding regarding this issue is very gender biased. Woman is almost always attached as a dangerous existence against man. The word “fitnah” in the terminology of Indonesian society is more terrible. It can be mean : a lie, incitement, and other similar meaning. 


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