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Sex and the Ummah

Hijab and Sex: Does Islam Respect Free Choice?




“Is it then other than Allah’s religion that they seek (to follow), and to Him submits whoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him shall they be returned?” (Surat Ali Imran: 83)

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Everyone from my nation will enter Paradise except those who refuse.” They said, “O Messenger of Allah, who will refuse?” The Prophet said, “Whoever obeys me enters Paradise and whoever disobeys me has refused.” (Bukhari)


In this day and age, we hear a lot about the importance of choice, autonomy, and all the other values associated with personal agency that make liberty and freedom so great and wonderful. But what if these concepts when examined more closely were not all that meaningful?

The Challenge of Choice

Islam is often portrayed as a religion that does not acknowledge free choice or sexual autonomy. Critics of Islam claim, for example, that Muslims do not have a choice in terms of how they can dress. Also, Muslims do not have sexual autonomy since Islam has strict constraints on sexual behavior.

How can Muslims respond to these charges? Given the importance with which modern society views these concepts — namely, free choice and autonomy — Muslims need to be able to speak to such concerns.

The temptation that Muslims face is to respond with straight denial, i.e., to insist that Islam does acknowledge and, in fact, champion free choice and sexual autonomy in the sense that these terms are deployed in liberal secular discourse. But this would be in many ways dishonest. We do not find concepts like free choice and autonomy as independent values as such in the way they are meant in the modern context within the corpus of Islamic ethical and legal thought.

A more honest and intellectually compelling response would be to question the coherence of these concepts on their own terms. Undermining these concepts allows Muslims to throw a wrench in the motor that drives the intuitions behind these attacks on Islam.

The Hijab as Choice

First let’s consider the question of dress and free choice. Can Muslim women, for example, freely choose to wear the hijab or are they coerced to do so?

Critics of Islam claim that Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab and therefore it is not a free choice in the slightest. What is problematic to these critics is Muslim women’s lack of agency. They have no choice in certain aspects of their dress.

Against this, many Muslims argue that, as a matter of fact, there is a choice when it comes to hijab. Those women who do wear it are exercising free choice by doing so, and that choice is empowering. Some even go so far as to claim that, in the age of Trump, wearing the hijab is an act of defiant resistance against tyranny, and what could be more free and liberating than that?

So who is right? What we can notice is that both sides take the notion of “free choice” for granted. This is a mistake.

Consider the distinction between the following kinds of choices.

You are at the ice cream parlor and you can choose what flavor ice cream you prefer. That seems like a benign choice. This is a scenario where the concept of choice seems perfectly suited. It is a preferential choice and our intuition is that preferential choices ought to be “free” in the sense that to restrict them is nothing more than an arbitrary exercise of power. The idea is, if someone prefers vanilla, why force them to get chocolate? What reason would there be to coerce a choice in this case other than malice?

Here is a second scenario. You are at a red traffic light and you can choose whether to stop or to pass through the red light. This is a choice that is available to you. But this is not about preference. In contrast to the preferential choice, this is a choice that has to do with obeying the law. And since obedience to the law of the land has moral implications, we can call this a moralistic choice.

Along those same line, imagine you are at home and you have just changed your car’s motor oil. You could illegally dump the old oil down your drain even though that would be illegal and cause considerable environmental damage by contributing to the pollution of the water system. Local environmental authorities would never know if you did it, but you have that choice. Again, this is not a preferential choice. Rather, it is a moralistic one.

The Ambiguity of Choice

Even though these scenarios can be described as involving personal choice, the two kinds of choices are in no way analogous. We do not understand the choices that involve following the law or doing the right thing as “free choices.” There is a moral and ethical obligation to do what is right and what is just. And though we do describe a person as having the ability to “choose” to do what is wrong, unethical, and unjust, clearly that is not the same thing as saying that a person has the “free choice” to completely ignore, forego, or violate the moral code.

It is this ambiguity between preferential choice and moralistic choice that causes a great amount of confusion when discussing Islamic ethics and law. Equivocating between the two kinds of choices allows critics of Islam to attack the religion and characterize it as intolerant and dogmatic. In reality, Islamic law is as “intolerant” and “dogmatic” as all other ethical systems and legal codes which, by definition, require and obligate people to behave in certain ways and refrain from behaving in others despite what they may choose to do otherwise.

We all seem to have an aversion to the idea of constraining and using coercion in the realm of people’s preferential choices. We should also note that, while it is obvious to many that curtailing preferential choice is an illegitimate use of power, it is equally obvious that moralistic choice ought to be subject to restriction. People ought to obey the law, which is to say, people ought to choose to obey the law, people ought to choose to do the right thing, etc., and if they fail to do so, there ought to be some sort of consequence.

The Illusion of Choice

The existence of such consequences for disobedience means that moralistic choices are not truly free choices per se. Yes, in one sense, a person has the choice to obey the law and the requirements of morality. But in another sense, no real choice is available since disobedience will be met with repercussions.

The driver behind the red light certainly can choose to run the light, but that could result in a hefty fine if he is caught. And the person who has changed his motor oil certainly can choose to dump the oil down the drain, but that could result in a fine as well and if others were to find out about this dumper’s selfish behavior, that could result in social opprobrium. So these cannot be meaningfully described as “free choices” at all.

Besides these examples, we all are faced with countless moral choices in our day to day lives. We technically can choose to act against the requirements of morality. We can choose to act out in wrong and detestable ways. But those choices have consequences, sometimes severe, sometimes not, sometimes tangible, sometimes social, sometimes worldly, sometimes otherworldly, etc. Unlike our preferential choices, our moralistic choices are not free. And we all recognize that that is a good and perfectly natural thing.

The same considerations apply wherever Islam is charged with not respecting “free choice.” Yes, technically Muslims have a choice to abide by the religious code, but these are considered moralistic choices, not preferential ones. As such, it is a category mistake to charge Islam with restricting free choice. In the case of hijab or any other aspect of Islamic dress code, it is true that Muslims have a choice, but it is a moralistic one. All else being equal, going against the law has consequences, e.g., the requirement for the violator of the law to repent. Ultimately, when it comes to hijab, both those who argue that Islam does respect free choice as well as those who argue that Islam does not respect free choice are incorrect in that they are making a conceptual error.

Rhetoric that Masks Substance (or Lack Thereof)

Claiming that “Islam violates free choice” is merely rhetorical bluster. Similarly, claiming some other religion or ethical system “upholds free choice” is equally vacuous since, as we have seen, all ethical systems permit free choice in the matters that fall squarely within the preferential domain. Of course, the boundaries between these two domains, viz., the preferential and the moralistic, are subject to debate.

And this is what the conversation about Islamic dress vis-à-vis “conventional” standards of dress really boils down to. What about the way we dress and present ourselves to others should be up to personal preference and what should be determined by larger ethical considerations outside of that and who gets to decide?

This is a deep ethical question that requires delving into a host of metaphysical and quasi-religious considerations. In its rejection of all things metaphysical and religious, liberal secularism does not have the conceptual resources even to begin to wrestle with these issues. But this crippling inadequacy of liberal secularism is masked behind a facade of “free choice.” Appealing to this empty concept allows secularism and its proponents to pretend to have an intellectually and morally compelling perspective on issues such as dress, when in reality, they have only constructed a house of cards.

To complicate matters further, this is not a straightforward question to answer for those who mistakenly believe that, as a matter of principle, all dress should be a matter of personal preference. But how could all dress be solely a matter of personal preference? The existence of dress codes, standards of dress at different social functions and in different cultural contexts, and even indecent exposure laws found in every single nation on earth all belie this silly idea that people in the “free world” exercise full, unfettered choice in their clothing decisions in contrast to those in the Islamic world who must submit to “draconian Islamic regulations.” In reality, no respectable person in the history of God’s green earth has ever made a truly “free” choice about what clothes to wear in public, “free” in the sense of “without significant outside influence.” All such “choices” are inescapably influenced by social and cultural norms. For Muslims who abide by the Islamic dress code, these choices are influenced by what are held by Muslims to be guidelines set by God. Within those guidelines, Muslims have historically cultivated a great diversity of fashions. But for the wider non-Muslim culture, there are also strict standards and guidelines of dress, but it is not clear from where those standards originated other than the unmoored ebb and flow of mass infatuation and, in recent times, commercial interests.

Islam and Sexual Autonomy

The notion of autonomy is as vacuous as free choice and for much the same reasons. No one believes in an autonomy that permits one to break the law and violate moral principles, whatever those may be. Autonomy is not conceived of as a license to be a vile person. But if people want autonomy within the boundaries set by ethics, then all religions and ethical systems guarantee this sort of autonomy. So again, the notion of autonomy is empty.

Autonomy as a concept rides on what ethical commitments one subscribes to. If an adult believes that having sexual relations with 16- or 17-year-olds (i.e., individuals just under the legal age limit) is morally acceptable, then anyone who hinders that person from having that kind of sex is violating that person’s autonomy as far as that person himself is concerned. But according to those who deem sex with minors immoral, this is not an issue of autonomy because, according to them, sex with minors ought to be criminalized regardless of what any particular individual believes to be his sexual right.

Islamic law restricts and prohibits certain kinds of sexual behavior in this way, and for this, many have branded Islam as blind to people’s right to sexual autonomy. But, again, this is fundamentally confused. If we recognize the hollowness of the notion of autonomy, then it easily can be claimed that Islam fully grants sexual autonomy to all. It is Islam’s definition of sexual autonomy that is really what people have a problem with. Here again, we reach a moral and metaphysical question: What is correct, moral sexual behavior and what is indecent and immoral and who gets to decide that? Secular thought simply does not have the ability to give a compelling story for all the complicated sexual norms the average secular Westerner dutifully abides by in the course of life.

(And no, the notion of consent is not very helpful either, by the way, given that there are plenty of sexual behaviors that are fully consensual but are still considered immoral and illegal within major strands of liberal secular thought, e.g., sex with minors, prostitution, incest, among others. Philosophers and legal scholars, such as Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld, have also problematized the notion of consent and its adequacy in accounting for common contemporary moral intuitions regarding permissible sex. But this is a larger topic beyond the scope of this essay.)

This inability on the part of secularism to justify satisfactorily its sex norms is overlooked because the notion of sexual autonomy is put on a pedestal as the ultimate good we must all strive for. This allows liberal secularism to criticize the sexual mores of Islam (and Christianity and Orthodox Judaism) for the crime of not adequately respecting sexual autonomy in the way that liberal secularism does. All the while, secularism’s deficiencies go unnoticed and unaddressed. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

These deficiencies ought to be brought to light and openly discussed (as I have done in past articles that can be read here and here, on zina and homosexuality respectively). In the meantime, critics of Islam, especially those invoking empty liberal secular concepts of free choice and autonomy, need to find better arguments to make their case against the religion.

Daniel Haqiqatjou was born in Houston, Texas. He attended Harvard University where he majored in Physics and minored in Philosophy. He completed a Masters degree in Philosophy at Tufts University. Haqiqatjou is also a student of the traditional Islamic sciences. He writes and lectures on contemporary issues surrounding Muslims and Modernity. Email Daniel here .



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    March 27, 2017 at 10:14 AM

    Boring and out of touch.

    A) “You have to wear hijab. Morality. Does free choice even exist? Bla, bla, bla.” As though none of us have heard this stuff before. Any article by a man in 2017 going on about Hijab hasn’t been around the Internet very long – I could’ve hit up Tumblr and found this exact discussion in 2011, and responses to the assumptions in it. The cheap shots might make writers feel all warm and fuzzy for having “enjoined the right and forbidden the wrong” and getting a lot of surface level “likes”, but they totally ignore the actual hard questions of sexual ethics being actually asked by many Muslims and nonMuslims today, like the presence of forcible marriage of free women in the mathahib (which you’ve interestingly decried elsewhere as totally wrong, without addressing that Malik endorsed it), many denying the moral (not even legal) existence of marital rape, as well as the forcible marriage and selling of slave women (whom certain ahadith portray literally being bedded whilst their actual husbands were alive) and the endless examples of truly messed up mathhab opinions that many were made to live with that work to the exact opposite of what this writer has defended elsewhere as “the sake of marriage” (E.g. defining marriage as a type of slavery, and zina with family slavewomen often going without a hadd punishment, and rape often having been near impossible to prove.)

    B) “Liberal secularism” is a social contract, not necessarily a replacement for morality – be clear about what you are critiquing. Many believe in liberal secularism without believing that it should be the be all end all of morality – including critiquing nation state constructs and how they limit this. And from this article it’s pretty clear you’ve never lived somewhere where your religious decisions have been entirely made for you – and no, I don’t equate paying taxes whilst freely writing and believing and wearing what you wish and critiquing others and the government for their beliefs and actions, with being arrested and beaten and sent into exile for doing the same.

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      March 27, 2017 at 1:51 PM

      To clarify, because this comment will probably be dismissed as “irrelevant” – the issue with people asking about hijab and sexual autonomy isn’t their issue with people making a moral choice such as, say, choosing to abide by the law of paying zakat or not gossiping (which is how you frame it here). Their issue is questioning whether Muslim women are actually free to make this decision for themselves, as opposed to being excommunicated or physically persecuted or beaten by others into making the decision (which would imply invalidating their commitment to hijab). Virtual Mosque (formerly Suhaib Webb) had a fantastic article by a woman who WAS physically forced to wear hijab, talking about how this affected her sense of iman. An article that doesn’t recognize this, misses the point of the social question being asked. The reason I bring up the other questions of sexual ethics and autonomy is because those are the social issues that are the thrust behind these questions of sexual autonomy – not that consent is the ultimate arbiter of all sexual morality, but questioning a system in which it is hardly present. Maybe living a sheltered life as an American Muslim male who doesn’t interact with many women, you are simply unaware that these other questions are not outlandish but are often suffered by women both within the US and without (whose experiences are often dismissed due to their poverty or lack of community authority). An article that actually wants to help Muslim women stay in the faith needs to take this into account, as opposed to being entirely reactionary against the American left.

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        Daniel Haqiqatjou

        March 27, 2017 at 2:39 PM

        Thanks for the comment. I’ll just say that to address those “hard questions” that allegedly everyone’s asking (and by “everyone,” I mean a handful of Muslim grad students who read Kecia Ali in a seminar and it blew their minds), the question of choice and how the concept is constructed in liberal contexts and selectively deployed to further a liberal secular vision of Muslims is central and that is what this article briefly explores.

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          March 27, 2017 at 5:20 PM


          Your claim that its just grad students is foolish and ignoring the problem. Most of the people asking these questions are normal practicing Muslims who, after encountering some sheikh talking about sexual slaves or reading about the right of a husband to beat their wives(however “lightly”), are genuinely concerned about whether or not they can successfully reconcile their moral consciousness with the ethical code of their religion.

          Your passive aggressive tone is going to tick people off, even if you have something worthwhile to say. Btw I think it shows up in all of your writings(that I read), not just this one comment.

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            Daniel Haqiqatjou

            March 27, 2017 at 5:59 PM

            They should rename the red herring fallacy the slavery fallacy in context of discussions like this. It doesn’t matter what the topic at hand is because: “Slavery!”

            Is it passive aggressive when, instead of addressing the substance of my article, you pooh-pooh it and then proceed to assert, implausibly and without evidence, that your particular set of concerns is more important and anything that doesn’t address your particular set of concerns is “missing the point”?

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            March 27, 2017 at 6:10 PM

            This is a very intellectual and well thought article. Not sure why people are hating? Responses here are pure emotional, and lack any respect. Brother Daniel is talking about a specific topic, yet the responses here are judging him because he didn’t address other questions. Why does he have to? That’s not the topic! Also, I have followed the brother for a while, never thought he’s passive aggressive. In fact, he is very fair and always engages in respectful intellectual discussions. If you have some deep insecurities about the work he does, then it’s not his fault.

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          Dr. Miriam Batul

          April 15, 2017 at 10:09 AM

          Thanks brother for explaining lucidly moral laws versus legal laws.
          Yet, I feel that if some of our pained Muslim brothers or sisters have some urgent questions; even if not directly connected, with your article. you should not summarily dismiss their concerns.
          These people want to remain Muslims and we must help the to do that.
          These sad emergencies are arising because Muslims now grow up gaining full knowledge of the dominant culture, without studying their own deen first. We spend nearly two decades or more to acquire a professional degree; but we hardly dedicate any number of years for organized authentic study of our own!
          Therefore, Muslims as we are, we think, feel and act as an outside critic, putting Islam in the dock… on the basis of sketchy Islamic knowledge, little love or devotion as a result of low priority treatment of Islam in our lives…wearing liberal and western tinted glasses on our Muslim eyes…
          identity crisis…

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      March 27, 2017 at 7:32 PM

      Sigh. I doubt that the plentiful non-academic ex-Muslims or anguished questioning Muslims online have ever even heard of Kecia Ali, yet you find article after article online questioning Islam and the Muslim community on issues of sexual autonomy such as forcible marriage, and yes, sexual slavery (this is highly prevalent on Muslim websites and forums). If you think that the first time that someone reads these issues is by sitting in an academic seminar, then you’ve had the luck to never have been exposed to shaykhs who quote this stuff, or been an interested teenager who read Muwatta Malik on, or a horrified person reading about ISIS, or even so much as pressed “google” and had the countless Muslim and ex-Muslim articles on these topics come up.

      It’s telling that you think that “slavery” is a red herring in relation to a discussion of AUTONOMY, when the very definition of slavery usually is related to the removal of types of autonomy. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect you to take larger questions such as slavery into account when talking about the “Islamic” conceptualization of autonomy, including regarding sexual ethics (which you brought up yourself) – especially since one of the first things anyone who reads influential Western “liberal” thinkers such as Locke does is take into account their ideas (and double standards) about slavery and consent.

      Call it a red herring until the cows come home, it’s what’s making other Muslims lose their religion – which is why I commented as I did. I understand that you read this and you see “what does this have to do with my writing, I’m refuting a point about hijab and the assumptions of autonomy in liberalism in a useful way and a random person is talking about slavery, which has nothing to do with this” – but in your article you mis-conceptualize the concern behind the question of consent and hence attack a strawman, which isn’t helping anyone.

      Hence, acting like the “issue” of sexual autonomy that is making Muslims all worried and on the defensive is “is it okay to tell women to make the moral choice of wearing hijab”, and that once the liberal conceptualization of this and of “moral choice” is thoroughly attacked, then everything is okay and Muslims have no problem with questions of sexual autonomy – rather than Muslims having much deeper problems that they and others are asking of themselves – leaves you not fulfilling what you purport to set out to do in terms of “answering liberalism”. You can refute a question of hijab and liberalism and triumphantly wave a flag over how you’ve felt yourself to have destroyed a moral assumption used over Muslims in particular ways, but what’s the point if you build your argument up in such a way that it messes up other questions of sexuality and autonomy that people are asking? (And if your statements have already been made before online, making it obvious that people’s problems with this rhetoric are deeper?)

      You personally recognize, for example, that it’s problematic for Muslims to respond to questions about hijab by saying “yes it’s all by consent and therefore it’s fine” because in your eyes this leaves them in a quandary of looking at how they ask people to bow their wills to loads of other moral issues without talking too much about consent. In a similar way, it’s problematic for you to respond to questions about hijab by saying “liberal consent is next to meaningless” without looking at what all the “Islamic content” has to say about consent, since this leaves you having deconstructed liberalism very well and built up little actual Islamic response.

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        March 27, 2017 at 8:02 PM

        Since you’re seemingly going to take the path of arguing that “liberal consent is nearly meaningless”, then I am extremely serious in asking, what is this alternative meaningful conceptualization of consent? I have yet to see the thinkpiece that can convince me that “choice is an illusion” whilst straight-facedly claiming that God is going to punish us all for the choices that we make.

        If you’re going to claim that the only meaningful consent is a “rational” one that is made to accept Islam, and that any other claim is irrational (and that bodily consent is also next to meaningless), then please just say so as fast as possible so that your readers can recognize the double standards of lambasting Muslims for not having strong religious autonomy whilst also calling autonomy meaningless.

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          Ahmad B.

          March 27, 2017 at 9:47 PM

          Salam Sr. Sarah,

          You lost me there at the end when you said how can Daniel claim that “choice is an illusion” when we know that Allah may punish us for making immoral choices. The whole point of the article was to distinguish between “preferential choice” and “moral choice.” When people talk about “free choice” (as opposed to “free will”) in contemporary society, they always use it in reference to matters *they* regard as preferential choice, not matters they regard as moral issues. Everyone still has free will with regard to the latter, but exercising that will in the wrong manner entails consequences. So it is with Allah’s punishment of us for “choosing” (i.e., exercising our free will) to break His moral law. I’m afraid I don’t see where the inconsistency lies.

          I understand your point about instances where Muslim women, you say, are not given the ability to choose to exercise their free will either in obedience or disobedience of the command to wear hijab because it is literally forced upon them by others. But that’s a different point that doesn’t detract from Daniel’s actual argument, does it? Also, don’t all societies enforce whatever they understand to be decent dress by force (not necessarily random beating, etc., but some sort of sanction)? In Boston in 1905, a woman was arrested for wearing knee-length shorts on the beach and exposing her arms up to the elbows. In the U.S. today, a woman can still get arrested for going topless in public, where that is uneventful in most of Europe, where in many places full nudity on beaches and sometimes even in public parks is totally okay.

          Finally, I don’t get what you mean by “zina with family slave women going without a hadd punishment.” Are you talking about the actual owner of the slaves? If so, how is that zina (as it’s explicitly allowed in the Qur’an and sharply distinguished from zina)? Or are you talking about other males in the household taking advantage of them even though they have no shar’i right to them?

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          March 27, 2017 at 10:23 PM

          I also get the feeling he could have stated his point far more clearly if he wasn’t afraid of the backlash. Now Muslims will look at this article and go,”Wow, this sounds smart. I think I got the argument, maybe…maybe….And it cleared ALL my doubts, so I guess its fine.” When in reality if he condensed the article to maybe two paragraphs and the reader didn’t gt lost in all of the rubble, they would surely have disagreed.

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            Ahmad B.

            March 27, 2017 at 10:29 PM

            Salam Majnoon,

            Disagreed with what? The distinction between preferential choice and moral choice? And the fact that it’s not a question of Western society allowing preferential choice while Islam suppresses it, but rather, that each society defines differently what behaviors fall into preferential choice and which into the moral realm? This seems pretty obvious (once you think about it) and uncontroversial to me. As Daniel says, the real discussion is: how do we decide on specifics of what falls in the moral realm and what falls in the preferential realm? As Muslims, we do that on the basis of our religious texts, tradition, teachings, etc. In modern Western society, there isn’t much rhyme or reason to it and moral fashions change almost as quickly as the winds. Is that the part you’re disputing?

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      March 28, 2017 at 7:09 AM

      To be fair, Imam Malik never approved of forced marriage, neither did the people of Madina or even the Zahiriyyah, who were very literal in reference to textual evidence. I’ve only seen ex-Muslim claims this or crazy Saudi website like Islamqa.

      As for the slavery issue, I believe Prophet Muhammad pbuh’s response to that social ill was the most empowering. You may want to check out Omar Suleiman’s “Slavery: A Past & Present Tragedy” ==>

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      March 28, 2017 at 10:22 PM

      Boring verbose nonsense. No counterpoints to the actual substance of the article. Let me guess, you’re a “progressive” Muslim?

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        March 29, 2017 at 12:15 AM

        My impression of Daniel Haqiqatjou’s work is exactly the opposite. He makes solid arguments against many modernist/progressive “reinterpretations.”

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          March 31, 2017 at 2:10 AM

          I agree with you! I think Daniel’s doing a great job. I was being critical of Sarah comments, which are just bitter verbose secular screeds. I really don’t any see constructive criticism or counter points to Daniel’s arguments.
          Colonized minds are such a waste.

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    March 27, 2017 at 10:19 AM

    Very nicely written. Jazakallahu Khair. Just as an example of your first point about moralistic preferences, just today I saw a news where United airlines enforces dress code (no legging) on young women just because they get a heavily discounted price as relatives of United employees.

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      Daniel Haqiqatjou

      March 27, 2017 at 2:44 PM

      Wa iyyakum. Thanks for the reference. Dress codes are ubiquitous but few care to explore what a dress code could possibly be for. The only legitimate reaction to dress codes, as Twitter arguments have aptly demonstrated, is to decry them as categorically invalid, a “tool of patriarchy,” a path to the sexualization of women, etc.

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    March 27, 2017 at 10:03 PM


    Excellent article.

    I started reading the comments, but couldn’t follow the tangents or see the relevance of some of them. As far as the actual topic pertaining to “free choice,” I found this article extremely helpful. I plan to incorporate these ideas into my own “talking points,” insha’Allah. Thank you.

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    March 27, 2017 at 10:18 PM

    Could you please list the resources you used to write this article? I would like to read up further on it. Thanks

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    March 28, 2017 at 12:30 AM

    Salam Ahmad B.

    My problem is that saying that “consent is nearly meaningless because every society makes its choices about what to constrict and allows the exercise of choice only within that spectrum” skips over many of the real-life moral concerns that are actually at hand from those who ask about consent. One can problematize consent as the be-all end-all of morality (I’ve read feminists themselves doing this), without denying its existence and implying that it is vacuous and that there is no difference between a choice made under physical duress without the ability to even voice dissent (as was the experience of the woman who wrote at Suhaib Webb), and a choice made under a social contract that gives space for people to voice their will and make arguments for how to best live together without infringing on each other and how to assert the truth from their hearts/wills – otherwise truth itself ends up being in danger of just being whatever the person with the most social power can physically forcibly assert (and Islamic interpretation is not free from this by virtue of having a solid religious text – the endless differences of opinion by past scholars over moral questions are very real).

    Imagine how if a religion was physically forced on non-believers (who were told that they have the “free will” to disbelieve “in their hearts”) and maintained by physical violence, it would be nullified in the ability to make an argument for itself as the ultimate truth that is “naturally” recognized by all who hear it – since it would have shown that actually, it would go completely unrecognized if people hadn’t been forced into following it. I’m sure some silver-tongued person can sit at a desk and argue that this is all actually perfectly fine, but is that really what the average Muslim believes? Is it a form of reasoning that would actually work during dawah, or is it just something used to make people feel good about themselves without thinking about the logical endpoints of such arguments? Is it an argument that would convince someone who in their heart asks themselves whether they’re just following their religion because their ancestors imposed it on them?

    I think that the phrase “choice is an illusion” is being too breezily thrown around without thinking about how physical coercion affects society – e.g. in the examples of sexual autonomy that I brought up, whereby many people would take Daniel’s arguments to their logical conclusion and argue that consent is nothing but a made up issue of modernity and hence the ISSUES behind consent simply don’t matter. These aren’t abstract questions, even if they seem unrelated – they’re ones playing out on the bodies of fellow Muslim women who’ve actively spoken about their pain. Are women who fall into depression as a result of living lives of forcible marriage, simply “Westernized” and being “infected by ideas of consent”? I’ve noticed that many like to make these arguments when it comes to female social autonomy, but I’ve never in my life seen someone argue that there is no difference between the experiences of being kicked out of your house as opposed to moving out, or leaving university as opposed to being expelled, because “society shapes your choices anyway” and “choice is an illusion”. Consent isn’t just the Western liberal argument about a concept as made by secular humanists – it hits at deeper ethical concerns about violence and the nature of the truth itself.

    But I’ve been rambling for a while now – those unconcerned with wider issues of consent won’t see this conversation as relevant here. TLDR; would like to see what this proposed “better idea of consent” actually is and what it means for Muslims’ lives.

    (The zina example is of certain past jurists having waived the hadd punishment for men who committed zina with their wive’s slavewomen – justifying this by giving the slave to him.)

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    March 28, 2017 at 1:20 AM

    The only way to please Allah is by leading our lives according to how Rasoolallah (pbuh) led it. We have to dress, eat, drink, sleep, wakeup, hold our functions, spend our days and nights in all spheres of life exactly as He (pbuh) did. Rasoolallah (pbuh) is our model no man or man made norms.

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    Jamilah Alia Baz

    March 28, 2017 at 3:51 AM

    may Allah guide us,wash away our sins. ameen. Beautifully written.

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    March 28, 2017 at 10:53 AM

    Beautiful article. May Allah bless you.

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    March 29, 2017 at 2:43 AM

    I live in Palestine and I have personally never met a sister who has been forced to wear hijab. I am sure there are some, but it’s definitely not the majority. Even within one family unit, you will see the mother, sisters, aunts, etc….all wearing hijab in their own style, and even some not wearing hijab. Chapter 10 verse 94 states:

    So if you are in doubt about that which We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you. The truth has certainly come to you from your Lord, so never be among the doubters.

    Like I said, I live in Palestine and the observant Jewish women and Catholic nuns are all covering their hair and dressing modestly and really it is a sign from Allah.

    My dear Muslim sisters it is time for us to wake up! Our lives are so short, there is so much good that can and needs to be done on this planet. 10 year old children in Yemen are in diapers because they are too weak to walk to the bathroom, and meanwhile women are wasting their time and money making sure their shoes match their bags and headscarf, chasing after the latest trend….why????? To get an approving look from people around you?? These people will not benefit you my dear sisters on Judgement Day! What about the hadith that says Muslims are like one body??? Is it just talk? Are you a slave to consumerism and materialism, using your body as a billboard for some corporation?! We have polluted our precious planet because of over producing all this STUFF that we don’t need! Wallahi it is Ghuroor and Lahwa dear sisters!! Allah has made it easy for us, but we insist on the hard way!!! If outward beauty is what keeps a man, then why are there so many divorces in Hollywood?? Allah says in the Quran, Sabran Jamil, “Beautiful Patience”…it is Patience and Perseverance that is true beauty my dear sisters!!

    I put on my hijab at 25, it was a stylish hijab, and I would still spend so much time trying to match clothes, and making sure they were loose, too much time shopping trying to find appropriate outfits…then as I approached 40, I just became so sick of the materialism and greed, its never enough! I started wearing a plain black jilbab with a plain white hijab and I have never been happier to leave all that GARBAGE behind me. I have 4 outfits I wear in my home to look decent in front of my husband and relatives.,,,but I have never received so many condescending looks and comments from fellow Muslims who ask me “What happened to you???” “Why are you dressed like that??” “Your husband is going to marry a second wife” hahaha I swear I laugh!!! Wallahi when you do something to gain Allah’s Pleasure, the whole world can spit in my face and I will be the happiest person on this planet!!!

    People actually go into debt and ribaa….they max out their credit cards chasing useless STUFF they don’t need!

    Sisters!!!! Go out their and make a positive change in this world! Go and find an underprivileged child and help them with their homework, have a food drive or bake sale to help raise money for the poor, go and visit your grandmother, memorize a page of the Quran, volunteer in a senior’s home, clean the Masjid, etc…etc….

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    March 29, 2017 at 8:49 AM

    Trust me it is more often that a sister wants to wear hijab but she is too shy or afraid to. When I wore my hijab at 25 my Muslim parents were horrified. They had spent thousands on my university education and they thought hijab would get in the way of a good job. I was living in the West at the time and had an internship in a downtown business district. I realized that even on the hottest days men were expected to wear a business suit and tie and women always wore skirts and heels. A man is professional when he covers and a woman when she uncovers??!! A woman willing to go through the pain of high heels so other people can enjoy looking at her? I will keep my hijab thank you.

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    March 31, 2017 at 12:55 AM

    This kind of academic debunking is all good and well but does nothing to help women who are physically beaten, forced etc because of hijab. I know y’all just gonna say “but that’s a differnt issue” and it is but it almost never gets addressed by “proper” muslims. Only the progressives address it. I would like an orthodox muslim to address it for once. Of course they’d just say “why would you assume that orthdox muslims condone such things” etc. Well it sure seems like they do. I’ve seen so many people brush off child marriages with “marriage =/= sex” as if that’s what’s actually happening. In my opinion it’s much more useful to write or do things that can actually help people than make this intellectual seeming arguments.

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      March 31, 2017 at 2:04 AM

      You have no counter arguments to the content of the article so you’ve resorted to distractors instead. So called progressives don’t care about Islam, they’re trying to twist the religion into a western secular mold. You’ve engaged in one strawman after another.

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      April 1, 2017 at 1:41 AM

      SMH…it’s sad to see Muslims falling into the OLD tricks of Islam haters. Dear Cass: A woman who is being beaten because of her hijab, will also be beaten because her cooking doesn’t taste right, the kids are too noisy, or she is 5 minutes late coming back from visiting her mother….do you get it? Any man who has the anger and violence in him to beat a woman, doesn’t need “Hijab” as an excuse, he will do it for whatever reason. So please stop with the “beaten and forced to wear hijab” thing. I am 40 years old. I have lived in the USA and now I live in Palestine and I have never met any young lady forced to wear hijab, but I have met many young women who have been forced NOT to wear hijab.

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      April 1, 2017 at 1:56 AM

      And you mentioned child marriages as if it is a Muslim problem, no sir, child marriages is a poverty problem. It happens in the Philippines, in China, Russia, Yemen, etc….When a parent feels that the only option for their child to survive is to give them away into marriage, really its something that rips your heart out! My friend works with an aid organization in Yemen and the horror stories coming out of there are something you and I have never seen or heard of. Wallahi we will be asked by Allah, the most High, what did we do to help these desperate people?? They are laying in their own waste, too weak to even go to the bathroom, eating bugs and thorns off of bushes, and we are questioning Islam’s mercy????? We need to question our own mercy, selfishness greed brother!!

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        April 16, 2017 at 8:21 PM

        If you say that child marriage is not a Muslim problem, then you don’t know your own religion very well. It is true that it’s not a Muslim problem exclusively, but Islam certainly condones it. I mean, wasn’t Prophet Muhammad’s last wife Aisha 6 years old at the time of marriage? It is totally disingenuous to claim that child marriage is not a Muslim issue when the Prophet you all follow is known to have married a young child. It doesn’t take a genius to realize why people in the Muslim world think it’s acceptable to marry children…

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A Word On Muslim Attitudes Toward Abortion

Dr Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, Guest Contributor



The Qur’an describes Muslims committed to its mores as “a moderate nation,” and that sense of balance qualifies them to stand as “witnesses over humanity” (Q 2:143). Contemporary Muslims revel in this assertion, especially when it seems that “Islam” proposes a via media solution to a highly polarizing subject as abortion. What currently constitutes “Islam” on a given topic, however, often reflects the personal prerogative apparently offered to the average Muslim by a list of diverse legal perspectives. In other words, the mere fact that multiple legal opinions exist on one or more topics is now taken as license to appropriate any one of them, without any deep ethical reflection on the implications of the opinion, however anomalous it may be.

“Islam is the golden mean between all ethical extremes” is what certain Muslims would assert. So if one extreme bars abortion under all circumstances and the other seeks to allow it throughout the duration of the pregnancy, one would assume that Islam must land somewhere in the middle, both forbidding and allowing abortion in certain circumstances. This moral assumption isn’t far from the truth. However, the mere existence of multiple opinions on a topic does not mean that each opinion has equal validity, nor does it mean that every opinion is valid for one to adopt. Similarly, “Islam” or “Islamic law” cannot be summed up into a simple formula like “majority rules” or “when in doubt about prohibition or allowance, the action is, therefore, merely disliked.”

Legal positivism plagues both religious and secular-minded people. Just as an act does not acquire its moral strength simply because it is legal, morally appropriate opinions are not always codified into law. If it is true that any unjust law is no law at all, where is the injustice and to whom is it being perpetrated against in the debate between pro-lifers and pro-choicers? Is it deemed unjust to prevent a pregnant woman from disposing of an “insignificant lifeless part of her body” that no one other than herself should be able to decide what to do with? Or is one “depriving a helpless growing person” of the opportunity and right to exist after its Creator initiated its journey into the world? Does a law that prevents a woman impregnated by a family member or rapist from an abortion oppress her? Or does such a law protect the life of a vulnerable fetus, who, like other weak members of society, is expected to be protected by the strong? Does it do both or neither? And if one is taking the “life” of this fetus, what proof is there that it is a living creature?

While these are all extremely important questions, this missive is neither intended necessarily to answer them nor to resolve today’s raging political debate. The main goal here is to offer ideas that should be on the minds of Muslims when deciding to join such debates or promoting the idea that their “religion” provides the best solution to social polarization, when by “religion” we mean the opinion of a small minority of scholars in some place and time in Muslim history.

Islamic law is very sophisticated; the legislative process is not facile, nor is it a place where any Muslim is entitled to pragmatically select the opinions that he/she finds attractive and accommodating. It demands knowledge of particular aims, the ability to properly realize those aims in the lives of people, and understanding the epistemic and metaphysical foundations that ensure that judgments conform to coherent rationale. In other words, the laws of Islam and the opinions of jurists cannot be divorced from their philosophical and evidentiary underpinnings. Otherwise, the thread holding the moral tapestry of Islam together falls apart completely at its seams.

Is Abortion Lawful in Islam?

Many past and present have written about the Islamic view of abortion. The ancient scholars prohibited it at all stages of the pregnancy and made practically no exception. Some would later allow for it only if the mother’s life was in danger. That notwithstanding, six popular legal opinions exist regarding abortion:

  • Unlawful (haram), in all stages of the pregnancy.
  • Permitted (ja’iz), during the first 40 days but unlawful (haram) afterwards.
  • Disliked (makruh), before the passage of 40 days but unlawful (haram) afterwards.
  • Permitted (ja’iz), if it is from illicit intercourse (zina).
  • Permitted (ja’iz) without conditions, before 120 days.
  • Permitted only for a legitimate excuse.

The late mufti of Fez, Morocco, Shaykh Muhammad Al-Ta’wil (d. 2015) said,

The first opinion forbidding that during the [first] 40 [days] and beyond, regardless of whether or not it is due to an excuse, even if from illicit intercourse, is the view of the supermajority [of jurists].[1]

The Qur’an is a Book of Ethical Teaching

The reasons for the cavalier attitude among contemporary Muslims about abortion are multiple. The most significant reason may be that at times Islam is seen as a synonym for shariah. The truth, however, is that the shariah is only part of Islam. Islam covers law (fiqh), creed (aqidah), and ethics (akhlaq). Even though the Qur’an consists of laws, it is not a book of law. It is a book of ethical teachings. Merely 10%–12% of the Qur’an relates to legal injunctions. It is not characteristic of the Qur’an to enjoin upon Muslims to command what is “compulsory” or “recommended” and to forbid what is “unlawful” and “disliked.” What is common though is for it to command us to do what is “ma’ruf” and to avoid what is “munkar.”

“Ma’ruf” and “munkar” can be translated respectively as “what is socially commendable” and “what is socially condemnatory.” This is in spite of the fact that social acceptability and unacceptability are often subjective. This does not mean that the Qur’an is morally relativistic. It is quite the contrary. What this means, however, is that the Qur’an’s aim is not merely to teach Muslims what one can and cannot do. It means, rather, that the Qur’an has a greater concern with what Muslims “should” and “should not” do. For this very reason, the companions of the Prophet seldom differentiated between his encouragement and discouragement of acts by the juristic values of disliked, unlawful, recommended, and compulsory. Rather, if the Prophet encouraged something beneficial, they complied. And, if he discouraged from something potentially harmful, they refrained.

The Qur’an permits many actions. However, to permit an act is not equivalent to encouraging it. It permits polygyny (Q 4:3), the enslavement of non-Muslim war captives (Q 8:70), and marrying the sister of one’s ex-wife (Q 4:23). Similarly, some Muslim jurists validate marriage agreements wherein the man secretly intends to divorce the woman after a certain period of time known only to him.[2] This is the case, even though the average Muslim man is monogamous; practically no Muslim today believes it is moral to enslave a person; the vast majority of Muslims find the marriage of one’s sister-in-law upon the death of one’s wife to be taboo; and they chide men who marry with a temporary intention of marriage. If the mere existence of permission or legal opinion permitting a socially condemnable act is a legitimate reason to adopt it, why would Muslims be uneasy about these cases but inclined to take a different stance when it comes to abortion?

The proper Islamic position on any given issue of public or private concern should not only consider what the law or jurists have to say about the topic. Rather, one should also consider how theology and ethics connect with those laws or opinions. That is to say, one should ask, “What wisdom does God seek to realize from this injunction or opinion?” assuming that such a wisdom can be identified. Secondly, one need ask,

“Who and how many will be helped or harmed if this action is undertaken?”

The Qur’an is the primary source of Islam’s ethics. And, one often observes a major difference between its morality and the morality validated by certain jurists, often lacking a clear connection to Qur’anic and prophetic precepts. That notwithstanding, a juristic opinion can sometimes masquerade as one that is authentically Islamic, especially when it aims to appease or assuage a social or political concern. Consequently, one finds some contemporary scholars championing opinions simply­ because they exist, like that of mainstream Shafi’is who traditionally argued that the reason for jihad was to rid the world of unIslamic doctrines (kufr); or certain contemporaries who validated taking of the lives of innocent women, children, and other non-combatants in suicide bombings; those who endorsed the execution of Jews for converting to Christianity and vice versa;[3] or others who classified slaves as animals rather than human beings?[4] For, surely, there are Muslim jurists who validate each one of these opinions, despite their evidentiary weakness. Hence, simply because there is an opinion allowing for abortions does not necessarily mean that it is something Islam allows, even in cases of rape and incest.

When Does Life Begin?

Medieval Muslim scholars, naturally, lacked the scientific tools that we have today to determine whether or not the fetus growing in its mother’s womb was actually a viable creation and a living creature from conception. Other than when the fetus first showed signs of movement in its mother’s belly, scholars took their cues from the Qur’an and prophetic tradition on when the fetus possessed a soul or if it did so at all. For this reason, very few scholars have offered clear answers to the question of when human life begins, while they agreed that upon 120 days, the child is definitely a living person.

According to the Andalusian scholar of Seville, Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1148),

The child has three states: 1) one state prior to coming into [material] existence …, 2) a state after the womb takes hold of the sperm …, and 3) a state after its formation and before the soul is breathed into it …, and when the soul is breathed into it, it is the taking of a life. [5]

Al-Ghazzali (d. 1111) said,

Coitus interruptus (‘azl) is not like abortion and infanticide (wa’d) because it [abortion] is a crime against an actualized existence (mawjud hasil). And, it has stages, the first being the stage of the sperm entering into the womb, then mixing with the woman’s fluid, and then preparing for the acceptance of life. To disturb that is a crime. Then, if it becomes a clot (‘alaqah) or a lump (mudghah), the crime is more severe. Then, if the soul is breathed into it and the physical form is established, the crime increases in gravity. [6]

These are some of the most explicit statements from Medieval Muslim scholars; they deemed that life begins at inception. The Qur’an states, “Does man think that he will be left for naught (sudan)? Was he not a sperm-drop ejected from sexual fluid?” (75:36-37). In other words, the “sperm-drop” phase is the start of human existence, and existence is the basis for human dignity, as with other living creatures. The human being was a “sperm-drop.” If that is so, this strongly suggests that meddling with this fluid, even before the fetus begins to grow and develop limbs and organs, would be to violate the sanctity of a protected creature. The Qur’an further says, “Did We not create you from a despicable fluid? And then, We placed you in a firm resting place, until a defined scope” (Q 77:20-22). The use of the second person plural pronoun (you) in these verses strongly suggests that the start of human life begins at inception. This is not to mention the multiple verses forbidding one from killing one’s children due to poverty, fear of poverty, or out of shame or folly.

The Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) similarly offers sufficient indication that even though the fetus is not fully formed, it is still an actualized existence and living creature. The Prophet reportedly said, “The miscarried fetus will remain humbly lying with its face down at the gates of heaven saying, ‘I will only enter when my parents do.’”[7] Similarly, it is reported that when the second caliph ‘Umar b. al-Khattab ordered that an adulteress discovered to be pregnant be stoned to death, the companion, Mu’adh b. Jabal, said to him, “Even if you have a right to punish her, you do not have a right to punish what is in her belly.”[8] The Prophet and his followers after him never executed a pregnant woman guilty of a capital crime until she gave birth and someone had taken on the care of the child. In addition, they imposed a hefty fine on those who were directly responsible for a woman’s miscarriage.[9] All of this indicates that the fetus is to be respected from the time the male’s sperm reaches the ovum of the woman.

Imam Al-Razi’s Ethical Reflection on the Qur’anic Verse, 6:140

God says in the Qur’an, “Ruined are those who murder their children foolishly without knowledge and forbid what God has provided them with while inventing falsehoods against God. They have strayed and are not guided aright” (6:140).

About this verse, Imam Fakr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1210) comments,

Many issues relate to the verse: the first issue is that God mentioned, in the preceding verse, their murder of their children while depriving themselves of the sustenance that God provided them with. Then, God brings these two matters together in this verse while clarifying to them all that is a logical consequence of this judgment, such as ruin, folly, lack of knowledge, the deprivation of what God has provided them, false statements against God, straying, and the privation of guidance. So these are seven characteristics, each of which is an independent cause for censure. The first is ruin (khusran), and that is because a child is an immense blessing from God upon a person, so when one strives to terminate its existence, he/she suffers great ruin and especially deserves great censure in life and a severe punishment in the hereafter due to terminating its existence. Censure in life is warranted because people say one has murdered one’s child out of fear of it eating one’s food. And there is no censure in life greater than such. Punishment in the hereafter is warranted because the closeness resulting from childbirth is one of the greatest sources of love. Then, upon achieving it, one sets out to deliver the greatest of harms to it [the child], thereby committing one of the gravest sins. As a consequence, one of the greatest punishments is warranted. The second is folly (safahah), which is an expression of condemnable frivolousness. That is because the murder of the child is only committed in light of the fear of poverty. And, even though poverty is itself a harm, murder is a much graver harm. Additionally, this murder is actualized, while the poverty [feared] is merely potential (mawhum). So enforcing the maximum harm in anticipation of a potential minimal harm is, without doubt, folly. The third regards God’s saying, “without knowledge.” The intent is that this folly was only born of the absence of knowledge. And there is no doubt that ignorance is one of the most objectionable and despicable of things. The fourth regards depriving one’s self of what God has made lawful. It is also one of the worst kinds of stupidity, because one denies one’s self those benefits and good things, becoming entitled by reason of that deprivation of the severest torment and chastisement. The fifth is blaspheming God. And it is known that boldness against God and blaspheming Him is one of the cardinal sins. The sixth is straying from prudence (rushd) with relation to the interests of the faith (din) and the benefits found in the world. The seventh is that they are not guided aright. The benefit of it is that a person might stray from the truth but may return to proper guidance. So God clarifies that they have strayed without ever obtaining proper direction. So it is established that God has censured those described as having murdered children and denied what God has made lawful for them, with these seven characteristics necessitating the worse types of censure. And that is the ultimate hyperbole.[10]

The Ethical Contentions of a Moroccan Mufti

We have already quoted Shaykh Muhammad Al-Ta’wil of Morocco. Like the medieval scholars, he maintained a very conservative opinion on abortion, allowing it only if the mother’s life was at risk. The following is a list of his nine ethical contentions against abortion and those scholarly opinions allowing it. The bulk of what follows is a literal translation of his views. Regarding why abortion is immoral, he says:

  • Firstly, it is a transgression against a vulnerable creature who has committed neither sin nor crime, a denial of it from its right to existence and life that God has given it and Islam has guaranteed as well as the taking of a life in some situations.
  • Secondly, it is a clear challenge to God’s will and a demonstratively defiant act meant to stubbornly contend with God’s action, creative will, and judgment. And that manifests itself in the murder of what God has created, the voiding of its existence, and a commission of what He deems unlawful.
  • Thirdly, it a decisively demonstrative proof of hard-heartedness, the absence of mercy, and the loss of motherly and fatherly affection or rather the loss of humanity from the hearts of those who daringly undertake the act of abortion with dead hearts and wicked dark souls.
  • Fourthly, it is the epitome of self-centeredness, selfishness, narcissism, and sacrifice of what is most precious¾one’s own flesh and blood, sons and daughters¾to gratify the self and enjoy life and its attractions far away from the screams of infants, the troubles of children, and the fatigue resulting from them.
  • Fifthly, it is a practical expression of one’s bad opinion of God, the lack of trust in His promise to which He decisively bounded Himself to guarantee the sustenance of His creation and servants. It also shows ignorance of His saying, “And, there is not a single creature on earth except that God is responsible for its sustenance, just as He knows its resting place and place from which it departs. Every thing is in a manifest record (Q 11:6); as well as His saying, “And do not kill your children due to poverty. We will provide for you as well as for them” (Q 6:151); in addition to His saying, “And, do not kill your children out of fear of poverty. We will provide for them and for you” (Q 17:31). This is in addition to other verses and prophetic traditions that indicate that all provisions are in God’s control and that no soul will die until it exacts its sustenance in full as the Prophet said.
  • Sixthly, it is a bloody war against the Islamic goal, introduced by the Prophet and to which he called and strongly encouraged, of population growth and increase in posterity.
  • Seventhly, it undermines the aims of the Islamic moral code that considers the preservation of offspring to be one of the five essentials upon which the sanctified revealed moral code is built.
  • Eighthly, it goes against the nature to which God has disposed both animals and human beings to of love of children, childbearing, and the survival of progeny….
  • Ninthly, it is the grossest display of bad manners towards God and the epitome of ingratitude towards a blessing and the rejection of it. And that is because both pregnancy and children are among God’s favors upon His servants and among His gifts to the expectant mother and her husband.

These are some important matters of consideration. Every Muslim, woman, and man, will ultimately need to decide what burdens he/she is prepared to meet God with. While abortion is an emotionally charged matter, especially in Western politics, emotions play no role in the right or wrong of legislation. Although our laws currently may not consider a fetus aborted before its survival outside of the womb to be viable, the Muslim who understands that legal positivism does not trump objective or moral truths should be more conscientious and less cavalier in his/her attitude about the taking of life and removing the viability of life.

[1] Al-Ta’wil, Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Qasim. Shadharat al-Dhahab fi ma jadda fi Qadaya al-Nikah wa al-Talaq wa al-Nasab. Hollad: Sunni Pubs, 2010, p. 148.

[2] Muhammad b. ‘Abd Al-Baqi Al-Zurqani quotes Ibn ‘Abd Al-Barr as saying,

They unanimously agreed that anyone who marries without mention of a particular condition while having the intention to remain with her for a period that he has in mind is permitted (ja’iz), and it is not a temporary marriage. However, Malik said this is not an attractive thing to do (laysi hadha min al-jamil). Nor is it part the conduct of moral people (la min akhlaq al-nas). Al-‘Awza’i took a solitary view saying that it is a temporary marriage. And, there is no good in it (la khayra fihi). ‘Ayyad stated it.

Al-Zurqani, Muhammad b. ‘Abd Al-Baqi b. Yusuf. Sharh al-Zurqani ‘ala Muwatta’ al-Imam Malik. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, (no date), 3/201.

[3] Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani said about the prophetic tradition, “Kill whoever changes his lifepath”, “Some Shafi’i jurists clung to it concerning the killing of anyone who changes from one non-Islamic faith to another non-Islamic faith (din kufr)…”

Al-‘Asqalani, Ahmad b. ‘Ali b. Hajar. Fath Al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari. Muhammad Fu’ad ‘Abd Al-Baqi Edition. Riyadh: Al-Maktabah Al-Salafiyyah, (no date), 12/272.

[4] Al-Ra’ini, Muhammad al-Hattab. Qurrah al-‘Ayn bi Sharh Waraqat al-Imam al-Haramayn. Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Kutub al-Thaqafiyyah, 2013, p. 78.

[5] Al-Wazzani, Abu ‘Isa Sidi al-Mahdi. Al-Nawazil Al-Jadidah Al-Kubra fi ma li Ahl Fas wa ghayrihim min al-Badw wa al-Qura al-Musammah bi Al-Mi’yar Al-Jadid Al-Jami’ Al-Mu’rib ‘an Fatawa al-Muta’akhkhirin min ‘Ulama al-Maghrib. Rabat: Wizarah al-Awqaf wa al-Shu’un al-Islamiyyah, 1997, 3/376.

[6] Al-Ghazali, Muhammad Abu Hamid. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din. Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, p. 491.

[7] This is how Qadi Abu Bakr b. al-‘Arabi relates the report as related by Al-Wazzani in his Nawazil 3/376. In the Musnad of Abu Hanifah, however, the Prophet reportedly said, “You will see the miscarried fetus filled with rage.” When it is asked, “Enter Paradise”, it will respond, “Not until my parents come in [too].” Al-Hanafi, Mulla ‘Ali Al-Qari. Sharh Musnad Abi Hanifah. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985, p. 252.

[8] Ibn ‘Asakir, Abu al-Qasim ‘Ali b. al-Hasan. Tarikh Madinah Dimashq wa Dhikr Fadliha wa Tasmiyah man hallaha min al-Amathil aw ijtaza bi Nawahiha min Waridiha wa Ahliha. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1997, p. 342.

[9] Among the fines due for causing the miscarriage of a fetus are: 1) prison or flogging; 2) the penance for murder (kaffarah), which is the freeing of a slave, fasting two consecutive months which is compulsory for Shafi’is and recommended for Malikis; and 3) the gifting of a slave to the woman who lost her child.

[10] Al-Razi, Fakr al-Dina. Tafsir al-Fakr al-Razi al-Mushtahir bi Al-Tafsir Al-Kabir wa Mafatih al-Ghayb. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1981, pp. 220-221

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Shaykh Power © – Righteous Leaders, Superheroes, Shallow Celebrities or Hungry Wolves?




“With great power, comes great responsibility.” -Uncle Ben.

Clergy -or shayukh-  in Muslim communities hold sacred power in that their positions symbolize a representation of character and religious authority in their community.

The role of a shaykh is complex in that community members can turn to their him for financial advice, marital counseling, matchmaking, conflict resolution, religious classes, youth engagement, and pretty much anything else a community needs. You name it and a shaykh is approached for it. In most communities, the shaykh is a critical component of a healthy community, but in some cases – the great power is used to facilitate great abuse instead.

Understanding Shaykh Power©:

Shaykh Power© doesn’t mean the ability to bless or forgive,  it simply means the effect a shaykh can have on the general public for the very reason that he preaches about religion.

People subconsciously associate their spiritual growth with the shaykh, building a bond of love, respect and trust. It’s perfectly natural – someone who has helped you, taught you, or supported you through a difficult time is likely to become dear to you regardless of their position. As a result it’s natural for people to:

  1. Look up to a shaykh
  2. Become attached to the shaykh whose da’wah or lecture may have helped them find, or re-find Islam
  3. Trust a shaykh and hold him in honor
  4. Be influenced, which is a consequence of being held in honor
  5. Giving him a place of authority in their lives

Again, it is natural for people to attach themselves to a shaykh, and it is completely okay for a shaykh to be respected and trusted to that level. It is a relationship built on faith, in which the shaykh earns trusts by demonstrating trustworthiness, fearing Allah in the relationship with his congregants, and maintaining a consciousness of his actions and consequences with God.

There is no conflict in this trust when viewed alongside human fallibility. No one is sin-free, not even a shaykh. They are humans and humans are weak. A healthy community is not one with a sin-free shaykh. However, the line is between fallibility and abuse is crossed when the shaykh’s sins or inherent weakness start hurting others, and the authority they hold is abused to give into those weaknesses.

What is Abuse of “Shaykh-power©”

The abuse of a shaykh’s power happens if a shaykh uses his position, authority, or religious knowledge to manipulate people into compliance or obedience to his sin.

A very simple example of a shaykh using all three – position, authority, and knowledge – to manipulate someone into compliance came from a woman who covers her face. During a Skype call related to business -and not marriage at all- a well-known shaykh diverted from the agenda to convince her to remove her face-veil as he was a “shaykh” and it was okay for him to see her face. The shaykh tried to establish a religious basis for his exception to the rule and made his female student believe that as a shaykh he had “special privileges”.

There are common patterns of “special privileges” that emerge.

The Secret Marriage

Secret marriages occur where the shaykh uses his authority to wrongly legitimize a marriage without witnesses. Please be aware, there is no marriage valid without 2 witnesses, and in majority of the fiqhs, marriage is not valid without a woman’s wali (representative guardian) present.

While the term “marriage” is used, what happens in secret marriage is not what Islam recognizes as marriage. Rather than entering a serious, long-term commitment in which each party agrees to honor the rights and terms decreed by Allah, a secret marriage is usually the culmination of grooming and manipulation. The victim is led to believe that the shaykh is sincere in his pursuit of their marriage and future together, but cannot go public for whatever reason. He convinces the victim that their secret marriage is valid by manipulating Islamic information is his favor, and the result is that the victim consents to what is an otherwise shady arrangement.

After the “marriage” is consummated, the women are divorced – also in secret and without due Islamic process. They have no legal recourse – since they were not legally married. They don’t even have Islamic recourse since oftentimes there are no witnesses to the secret marriage.  Some shayukh misinform the women that they don’t need witnesses because as a person of knowledge, a shaykh is sufficient as a witness to finalize his own marriage contract.

Consider the difference between marriage as a communal celebration, a public declaration, and a legal protection of the rights of both spouses – and compare it to a verbal agreement with one man in a hotel room. Consummation followed by divorce, with no intention to sign a marriage-contract or honor the woman as a wife, is not a valid marriage.

The impermissibility of secret marriages has been discussed in detail here.

Some argue that women who are legally adults and gave their consent to the secret marriage have no claim to victimhood. It is true that secret marriage and serial marriage are not rape, but secret marriage is an abuse of the trust that our community places in a shaykh.

Women are deceived into marrying by means of the shaykh’s authority. The shaykh – a person of religious credibility with community trust – implies that something halal, lasting, and keeping with the Islamic sanctity of the family will happen. What happens instead is a woman falling victim to the shaykh’s pattern of marrying a variety of women to satisfy carnal curiosity, and then divorcing women once the desires are satisfied.

The abuse of women goes beyond just the women- the entire community is deceived when a shaykh abuses their religious credibility. They trust that the man committed to the spiritual betterment of their families will act in keeping with that trust. There is no way to legitimize the secret wooing, secret wedding, and immediate, premeditated divorcing of anyone in the community.

Divorce can happen under completely normal circumstances, just because a man is a shaykh doesn’t mean he has to stay in a bad marriage. However, when a pattern is developed to frequently marry and divorce, sometimes after a week or less, and a shaykh does so knowing that the position and reputation will help him replace the wife soon enough-  then this is not what either marriage or divorce is for. This is abuse.

A man on the podium, delivering the Message of God and helping people connect with their Lord holds enormous spiritual power over his community. Unfortunately, some shaykhs can and do use that power to satisfy their desires in religiously inexcusable ways.

Misuse of Polygamy through “Shaykh Power”:

Polygamy itself is not the issue here. Polygamy itself becomes abused when it is used to justify secret marriage and divorce of multiple women, without having any sincere intention or giving any marriage or divorce it’s due Islamic rights or process.

Shayukh who abuse polygamy paint a glamorous picture of polygamy, making it a special mission to “revive the sunnah”, and practicing polygamy almost a measure of a woman’s level of iman.

The delusional idea of becoming more religious under the wings of a shaykh as his wife is also used to entice women seeking closeness to Allah. A more intimate relationship to the shaykh is directly conflated with a more intimate relationship with Allah.

What the shayukh are luring women into is not a revival of polygamous marriage, as much as it is a revival of temporary marriage – without the decency of telling the women up front what they are consenting to. The woman believes she will be the shaykh’s second wife. Instead, she is third, or fourth, or fifth ex-wife.

Do We Have a Solution?

The first step towards resolving an issue is to acknowledge that problem exists. As a community, we have tried to conceal our dirty laundry in the name of gheerah and satr, only to suppress ‘adl instead. As an ummah, we need to address the harmful behavior of shayukh who abuse their our religion and their power to manipulate and use women – leaving them emotionally and spiritually broken in the name of a religion that is mean to protect them.

Stopping sisters-only sessions with shaykhs or banning sisters from contacting shayukh for personal or Islamic questions is not a foundational solution. Women have to consult knowledgeable men for a variety of issues: spiritual and marital counseling, for Islamic rulings on life matters etc.

Stricter segregation between shayukh and women, or building physical barriers in the masajid is a suggested preventative measure but not a solution either. Frankly, many shayukh have the dignity to respect their boundaries with women without a barrier in their masjid, while many have crossed all lines despite physical barriers.

It is women’s religious right to have access to a religious scholarship for knowledge and seeking verdicts, and the mistakes of few cannot outweigh the virtues of many.

1400 years ago, we– Muslim women — were given protection from a society that sold their daughters in exchange of money and loaned out their wives to other men.  Our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) taught and showed us how to treat women with honor, and he then entrusted the knowledge of Islam to his inheritors– the shayukh.

Consider the gravity of that abuse, when our scholars are trusted to carry forward the Prophet’s legacy, and instead weaponize the Prophet’s words to abuse us instead.

Needless to say, not every shaykh is abusive of his congregants. Alhamdulillah, the abuse is the exception and trust fulfilled is the norm. However, that doesn’t mean that silence should be the norm as well. As a community, we are responsible for each other, in standing up to our oppressors and standing up for our oppressed.

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Sexual Abuse: Crime or Sin? | Shaykh Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi




Sexual abuse, whether of women, men, or children, cannot be prevented by law. At most, law agencies can punish abuse after the fact when it has already done the terrible, lasting psychological and social damage that it does.

Over the last seventy years, in the Western world any notion of ‘sin’ attached to sexual behaviours traditionally regarded as abhorrent has been dissolved. Steadily, over this period, the notion of ‘sin’ has been replaced by a legal concept, namely the concept of ‘consent’. This fits well with the Western cultural ideal of ‘personal autonomy’, the ideal that anyone should be free to behave as they please so long as their behaviour is not harming any other’s right to the same autonomy. In sexual relations between people, ‘abuse’ is recorded only when any of the partners involved has not freely given consent. For children, of course, the concept of legal minority applies, meaning that a child can never give consent. Otherwise, anything that any consenting adults do is legally ok.

This should mean that sexual abuse, as a legally defined crime, is no more of a problem for society than other crimes such as assault, theft, fraud, murder, and so on.

The problem with this approach is that sexuality (abusive or non-abusive) is not limited to the act of sexual intercourse itself. The relevance of consent to the actual performance of sexual acts is accordingly rather limited. Sexuality is an expression of desire, and (among humans) desire can arise even when there is no external stimulus for it, even when there is no possibility of contact or conversation with any potential sexual partner. Both biologically and religiously, sexuality is understood to be something connected with the appetite and need to reproduce. The need for reproduction is carried among human beings by the engine of desire. This engine can be active, fueled up, and running, in the absence of any object of desire and any conscious will to reproduce. In the present time, human consciousness is overwhelmed by super-intense audio and visual images (especially by highly repetitive multimedia advertising in private and public spaces and on hand-held devices at any time of day or night). As a result, the engine of desire is never allowed to settle into idling mode, never allowed to quieten and slow down.

All religious traditions strive to inhibit and regulate sexual desire by connecting it to the responsibility of parenting, so that sex is associated not only with mating and producing children, but also with nurturing them and making them fully competent social beings. This is a very long process (some twenty years), and requires a huge expenditure of psychological, social, and economic effort. The only context in which this effort can be sustained, especially for the benefit of the children, is marriage and family life. All the moral and religious-legal inhibitions surrounding sexuality are concerned with building a strong, stable bond between sexual desire and responsibility for others.

Modern Western cultural norms, which encourage the indulgence of short-term personal preferences over any long-term goals (personal or social), have combined with advances in the technology of contraception and with the legalisation of abortion, to dissociate sex from reproduction, which necessarily dissociates sex from responsibility to oneself and others.

As I have said, sexual desire is the engine of a fundamental need, the need to reproduce. It is a fierce, powerful energy, cruelly strong in youth and early maturity, but one that persists at some level throughout life. Sexual desire is mixed with other impulses and behaviours that characterise animal behaviour generally, and human behaviour most conspicuously. Notably, the desire to mark out and protect a territory (home) where the children can be raised and the desire to mark out and protect the values (identity, belonging, customs and practices, etc.) that are inculcated in the children and, through them, transmitted through time – all of these desires are mixed up inside the need to reproduce. This mixture also affects sexual behaviours and the norms that grow around them. Rivalry, domination, possessiveness, jealousy, envy – the desire not to possess some object of desire for its own sake but to prevent someone else from possessing that object – negative emotional states like this can intervene in sexual behaviour and make it exploitative and destructive regardless of consent. And how, in any case, does one legally determine consent? Is it really possible to determine when consent was given, and to what precisely, and for how long?

There is no law imaginable, no force of coercion or persuasion, which can control desire itself. Only the one who carries (or is carried by) desire can, from within, control or discipline it for the sake of being responsible and unselfish. This is a matter of interior discipline, not exterior discipline.

The role of religious teaching (and of the various cultural-legal traditions based on religious teaching) is to provide an environment in which self-discipline and self-control are more highly valued than their opposites – self-indulgence and control of others. This environment usually consists of conventions of dress and speech, and special rites (such as weddings) which mark out the boundaries between the persons and occasions where sexual desire is allowed and those where it is not.

It is possible, as with any convention, to appear to follow it, without really following it. In other words conventions, just like laws, can only work to the extent that people believe those conventions to be right and beneficial. People must believe that they are doing the right thing because it is the right thing. Equally, they must believe that disregarding the conventions is wrong, a sin, which threatens harm for both individuals and society. In religious perspective, consenting to a wrong does not make it right.

It is not possible, in my opinion, to build within a culture so massively dedicated to self-indulgence, self-serving, and non-stop distraction, any sustained practice of self-discipline and service to others. That requires regular reflection and regular presentation of oneself as answerable to other human beings and to the judgement of God. The habits of self-inspection and self-control are reliably matured and improved through prayer and other religious practices like fasting.

There is no regime of exterior rules and punishments that will serve to deter sexual abuse in a society. If, and only if, such rules and punishments are universally and impartially applied – which is nowhere the case – it may be possible to drive sexual abuse out of sight, so that it is not always in the news. But it will still go on: celebrity actors and actresses may not have to suffer it, but ordinary men, women, and children among the poor and unnoticed of society, and people in places far removed from the countries which control the flow of news, will go on being vulnerable to sexual abuse. There is no legal substitute for an ethical determination to control oneself and to never hurt the person and dignity of another human being. There is no substitute for the concept of sin. Whether it is definable as a crime or not, sexual abuse is a sin.

For Muslims, there is a duty to help one another in steadfastness and righteousness, and not to help one another in selfishness and wrong-doing. This means that we must be ready to condemn, privately and publicly, those who commit sexual abuse. We must be willing to rescue those who are victims of such abuse, and willing to help them recover psychologically, emotionally, and socially. That entails providing from one’s resources (of time and money) to assist those groups (usually women and usually ex-victims) who are active in providing the necessary shelters and comforts to abuse victims. It also entails a vigorous campaign to help our communities admit that abuse goes on, to recognise the sin of it, and to convince them of the effectiveness of prayer and fasting in defeating sinful impulses and behaviours. This is a roundabout way of saying that Muslims must help one another to re-connect sexuality and parenting and the role of good parenting in teaching self-control and the ability to distinguish right from wrong.

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