“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.
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:
- Look up to a shaykh
- Become attached to the shaykh whose da’wah or lecture may have helped them find, or re-find Islam
- Trust a shaykh and hold him in honor
- Be influenced, which is a consequence of being held in honor
- 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 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.
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.
10 Tested Ways To Overcome Porn Addiction
By Ahmed J.
A well-meaning religious counselor once advised me to consider getting married in order to overcome my porn addiction. After no luck giving it up, I considered marriage and pursued a courtship – only to realize half way in the process that I was still watching it. If I couldn’t stop while I was in a relationship with a real woman, who’s to say I would stop if we got married? I knew at that point that my behavior wasn’t just a bad habit; it was an addiction that had a life of its own – I was completely powerless over it and I couldn’t stop no matter how bad I tried.
It’s a common misconception that providing a halal avenue to carry out ones’ sexual needs will get rid of one’s desire to watch pornography. I realized that wasn’t the case for me and didn’t’ go through with the marriage. I turned to religion and spirituality for help, sought sacred knowledge and the company of scholars. I even travelled abroad and spent time studying in Africa; I thought if I’d cut myself off from the world and immersed in spirituality, I’d be cured. People started calling me a ‘student of knowledge’ and seeing me as a pious person because I was around old religious men all the time. Little did they know that I was around the scholars because I was in a far greater need of them than anyone else; were it not for their company, I would have gone completely astray.
Unfortunately, none of this directly helped me cure my addiction to pornography. Yes, I gained beneficial knowledge and I believe it was the blessings and prayers of the righteous that eventually put me on the path to recovery. However, my addiction to pornography remained and I continued to indulge in it by night. The feeling of guilt and hypocrisy only grew with time. I almost lost all hope as I had tried everything in my will to cure this problem. And then it hit me, the most obvious thing which I had never bothered trying, and the one thing that has made all the difference: getting help from another person.
The embarrassing nature of this addiction had meant that I never honestly confided in anyone the true nature of my problem. I was relying on myself to give it up, I never turned to another person to ask for help for this specific problem. Wonderous things happen when you swallow your pride and accept your powerlessness.
I am a recovering sex addict, and here are the steps I took to achieve sobriety from pornography, compulsive masturbation and other unwanted sexual behaviors:
1) Get help from other people
This addiction thrives in secrecy and isolation; you must end this secrecy to start the process of recovery. For years I made the mistake we all addicts make: trying to quit it on our own. After realizing I needed help, I started with the obvious things: self-help websites and online programs that cater to Muslims, like Purify Your Gaze. While these helped me get an understanding of my problem and gave me a guide that I could potentially follow to sober up, it ultimately did not work. Why? Because I still had to rely on myself to stay sober and follow through with the regimes they laid out. Online programs give you access to a web forum where you can chat with other addicts, seminars to listen to and the occasional call with a councilor which comes with a hefty price tag. However, at the end of the day, you are still alone and stuck with a computer and the internet – these are the very things I was trying to get away from!
This is when I started looking for off-line recovery; somewhere I could find local people who I could work with towards sobriety. I started exploring anonymous 12-step programs designed for sex addicts. I was hesitant at first and my ego kept getting in the way; I thought I wasn’t as bad as ‘those addicts’, but since nothing had worked, this was my only hope. There are several 12-step sex recovery programs out there with various definitions of sobriety and cater to different audiences. I finally found one that works for me and I believe it will for most Muslims. It is called SA: Sexaholics Anonymous
SA is a fellowship of addicts who admit to being powerless over their lusts and work together to overcome addiction to things like pornography, masturbation and illicit relations. They define sobriety as having no form of sex with one-self or with partners other than the spouse; “spouse” is defined to be one’s partner in a marriage between a man and a woman. Given this strict definition, most people that attend SA meetings have a religious background. Luckily for me, the fellowship in my neighborhood is made up almost entirely of strict Hassidic Jews! It is ironic that of all the religious company that I sought, it is the company of an orthodox Jew, my current sponsor, that finally put me on the path to recovery from pornography.
In the SA fellowship, I’ve found all that I was looking for in a recovery program. It is completely free of cost and has introduced me to committed people within my neighborhood who I can work with. Since I live in a big city, we have several anonymous meetings a week that I can attend at my convenience; they are held in churches, synagogues and in rented community centers. Most recently, a fellow Muslim member of SA started meetings at an Islamic community centre as well. The program has forced me to physically get out of the isolation of my dark room and has given me a support network of some incredible people I can rely on. SA has worked for me, and the remaining wisdoms I share below will be based on my experiences in the program.
2) Find a sponsor and call them daily
A sponsor is someone who holds you accountable for your sobriety and helps you work through the 12-steps. Two months of attending weekly SA meetings, I found they alone were not helping me stay sober. I had to find someone who I would commit to working the program and building a personal relationship. In SA meetings, senior members who’ve accumulated decent sobriety usually volunteer to take on new members. If you choose not to join SA, find someone from your social circle you can rely on: this can be a friend, Imam, spouse, family member etc. I highly recommend getting the White Book and Step-into-Action and working through these with your sponsor.
In early stages of your recovery, you must call your sponsor every day to check-in with them. Checking in means to give them a call and let them know how you’re holding up that day and if you’ve stayed sober. If you’ve lost sobriety, you MUST tell them what happened. You can’t recover unless you start being honest. Your sponsor is supposed to talk you through what triggered you and figure out how to avoid it again. If you don’t share with them that you acted out, you’ll never recover. This step of sharing with another human being my darkest secret was the hardest thing for me to do – and it is the one thing that helped me stay sober. Every time I wanted to act out, I would think about the embarrassing experience of telling my sponsor that ‘I did it again’. I could no longer keep acting out in secret; this crucial change has made all the difference for me.
3) Set a sobriety date and take it one day at a time
SA’s matra of being sober is: one day at a time. It is one of the most powerful concepts I have found in my recovery. While we must intend that our long-term goal is to give up pornography for good, as someone who’s deeply addicted, it is foolish to set a ‘quit date’ where you decide to give it all up and pretend like you’ll never return to it. Truth be told, our claim of quitting is often insincere because part of us can’t bear the thought of never watching porn again. I pretty much vowed never to return to porn on a weekly basis for seven years; I would relapse with a far greater sense of guilt and depression every time because I felt I had betrayed a promise I made to God. Forever seems too long for us and never is just too hard. Like they say in SA, ‘Stopping is easy. Staying stopped is the hard part’.
Taking it ‘one day at time’ means your goal is to stay sober for just one day – only 24 hours. No long-term sobriety targets of going for two weeks, a month or six months without porn. You just have to stay sober for a day. At the end of the 24 hours you are free to choose: do you want to stay sober for another 24 hours or no? If you decided yes, then you put your energy into staying sober for another 24 hours. Going through the daily sobriety renewal with your sponsor during your daily call is an excellent practice. The practice of taking it one day at a time means you’re never under the illusion that you ‘quit porn’. You’re always on thin ice and you’ll fall right back to where you started if you don’t actively work on taking care of yourself. To track your progress, you should set a ‘sobriety date’. This is the date you last acted out and it should be renewed every time you relapse. With God’s grace, you will see that the period of time between each relapse will grow longer and longer as you progress in your recovery.
4) Define Sobriety: Don’t try to separate pornography and masturbation
One of the biggest mistakes I was making when trying to give up porn on my own was that I defined staying sober as ‘staying away from porn’. But porn and masturbation are inherently related for most addicts – one eventually leads to the other. Masturbation is always accompanied with lustful fantasizing which either leads to pornography or other forms of unwanted sexual behavior. You should instead use the following definition: staying sober means no sex with one-self or others except the spouse. This technically means you could watch porn and stay ‘sober’ but that is just being dishonest and there is only so long before you end up masturbating. If you are the rare breed that is only addicted to watching porn (and not masturbating), you should modify your sobriety definition with your sponsor to include pornography in it as well.
5) Read this prayer when lustful thoughts come to you
One of the spiritual sages I met advised me to recite the following prayer of the Prophet :
O Ever-Living, O Sustainer! I call upon Your mercy for and I seek refuge from Your punishment. Rectify all my affairs and do not entrusts me to myself or to any of Your creation for even the blink of an eye.
Yā Ḥayyu yā Qayyūm, bi-raḥmatika astaghīth, wa min ʿadhābika astajīr, aṣliḥ lī shaʾnī kullah, wa lā takilnī ilā nafsī wa lā ilā aḥadan min khalqika ṭarfata ʿayn.
Another very useful prayer is the following:
My Lord! I seek Your protection against the insinuations of the devils and I seek your protection against them approaching me. (23:97-98)
I recite these repeatedly whenever I am triggered or lustful thoughts enter my mind. I have found consistently that these thoughts go away and I get distracted by something else after reading the prayers. These prayers can be found in many collections of daily supplications. I personally recite it from the collection of Imam al-Haddad called Wird-al-Latif. If you don’t already have a routine of reciting supplications, I highly recommend incorporating this collection in your daily routine. It has all the important prayers the Prophet advised for daily recital and takes only a few minutes to complete.
6) Install the K9 Web Filter on your computer
Of all the filters I experimented with, this is the most effective one and comes free of cost. I installed it on my machine, set a jumbled-up password I couldn’t remember and then put my parents email as the recovery account. There’s no way I am calling them in the middle of the night to recover my password; the time I am usually most vulnerable.
7) Your smart phone has to go; ideally, the internet in your house too
I resisted this for the longest time; I thought I could manage to hold onto my smart phone. I tried all kinds of filters, locks and productivity applications. I would find a loop hole every time and ultimately realized that my sobriety mattered far more than being able to use google maps, check my emails or respond to WhatsApp groups. Plus, these phones provide access to non-pornographic material such as YouTube and Instagram which can act as triggers. So, the smart phone went away and I got an old-fashioned phone (I managed to find one with a keyboard) which I only use to make old-fashioned phone calls. After I made progress in my recovery, I only allowed myself a smart phone at work and I still only use the non-smart phone when at home.
In addition, for the first several months into the program I did not have internet at my house. It was challenging but necessary, as I simply couldn’t be alone with the internet at that time. My house then became a safe space and I was completely off the grid: no internet, no smart phones and no distractions. After accumulating some sobriety, I did allow myself cable internet. However, I still don’t have a Wi-Fi connection at home as I fear I might use handheld devices to act out.
8) Stop feeding your lust
‘I’ll act out this one last time and get it out of my system so I can focus again’, this was a common justification I would use to give into my cravings. There’s no ‘one last time’. The more you feed your lust, the stronger the cravings will be the next time the temptation returns. Imam Busiri’s words in his famous Burda are the best piece of advice in this case:
Don’t attempt to break the desires by indulging in disobedience
For food only strengthens a glutton’s craving
The self is like a child -if you leave it, it will grow up
wanting to suckle
But if you wean it, it will lose its desire for the breast
Once you stop feeding your lust through hardcore porn and masturbation, you will incline towards feeding it using other means. This could include activities such as: voyeurism, stalking people both off-line and on social media, engaging in virtual sex and fantasy, watching ‘softcore’ material, visiting strip clubs and seeking out illicit relationships. So, after getting a degree of sobriety from the hardcore pornographic material, you must slowly work towards achieving sobriety of the mind by eliminating these behaviors. If you don’t fix these, you will slowly fall back into the hardcore material and will return to square one.
9) Work on purifying your heart and removing your character defects
Attaining physical sobriety is only the beginning of the recovery process. Years of exposure to pornography has deeply damaged our hearts and spirits. We have to purify our hearts by increasing our zikr and prayers on the Prophet. Like other forms of addiction, the nature of this problem has only intensified our preexisting poor character. We must confront our selfishness, dishonesty, pride, anger, inconsiderateness and arrogance. Steps 4 to 9 of the program our designed to help us take a moral inventory of our actions, address our shortcomings and make amends with those we’ve wronged. This is the heart of recovery; so be sure to work through these steps slowly and carefully with your sponsor.
10) Don’t be fooled by early success; sobriety is a lifelong commitment.
Once I attainted some decent sobriety, I stopped going to meetings and working the program. Why put all that effort in when I no longer watch porn? I could go on for months without watching it now. I thought I was ‘cured’. All I had to do now was just get married and I won’t have to work so hard on staying celibate.
So, I went out looking for a spouse again thinking I was cured. I relaxed the strict rules I had imposed on myself, allowed myself masturbation periodically and stopped keeping track of my sobriety date. I soon realized after going ‘out there’ that getting married isn’t a simple business and it doesn’t just happen with the snap of a finger. I grew frustrated, I stopped taking care of my recovery and slowly but surely, I fell right back to the dark place where I started. For us addicts, ‘reduction’ is simply not an option – we allow ourselves ‘one drink’ and that’s enough to get us back to square one.
Don’t make that mistake. I had to pick myself up again, recommit to sobriety and started taking active care of myself. While reasons for committing to sobriety are obvious when your life is out of control, this becomes more challenging as you progress and your temptations are not as intense as they used to be. I am sober today for different reasons. I am sober because I’ve come to accept that I might never be ‘cured’ and I need to keep track of my sobriety to ensure I don’t go back to where I started. I am sober because I know it takes time to find the right person and I must learn to control my desires – lest I rush into a marriage for lowly reasons. More importantly, it is because I realize I have to exercise control over my lust even after marriage. I am no longer under the illusion that marriage is some form of unrestricted access to sex which will satiate all my base desires. If I can’t control my desires as a single person, I won’t be able to control them after marriage either and will end up engaging in sexually unwanted behaviors. Ultimately, my sobriety is for God’s sake and to earn His pleasure – these practical reasons outlined are simply a functional tool, for those of us weak in faith, to make the connection to our motivation more accessible.
My fellow addicts, don’t give up on your recovery. Sobriety is possible and it is a beautiful thing; I am living proof of that. Follow what I have outlined above and you will see that change is in fact possible. It will take time: I spent seven years struggling on my own and have been on the SA program for almost three years now with real results. Don’t make the mistakes I made; get help and work with someone to overcome this sick addiction. There’s hope for all of us and with God’s help, all is possible. I remind myself of the words of Imam Busiri when I am short on hope, I pray you find comfort in them as well:
O soul, do not become despondent due to your grievous sins –
When God forgives, even mortal sins become mere blunders.
Perhaps the mercy of my Lord when handed out,
Would be distributed in proportion to one’s sins.
My Lord! Don’t make my hope in you deterred,
And don’t leave my expectations unfulfilled!
Ahmed J. is a porn addict in recovery and a member of Sexaholics Anonymous. He blogs about his experiences in recovery at Jihad Against Porn
Heart Soothers: Fahad Niazi
Qur’an Contemplations: Openings of Timeless Truths | Sh Abu Aaliyah Surkheel
More Baby, Less Shark: Planning For Kids In The Masjid
Etiquettes of Praying For Your Brother And Sister | Imam Omar Suleiman
Lesson 12 From Surah Al-Kahf
#UnitedForOmar – Imam Omar Suleiman Smeared by Right-Wing News After Opening Prayer at US House of Representatives
How To Build People Up, Not Destroy Them While Teaching Faith
Ben Shapiro Gets Wrecked on the BBC for Racism Against Palestinians and American Jews
What Does Sharia Really Say About Abortion in Islam
Potential Retrial In Sight For Imam Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown)
#Current Affairs2 weeks ago
#UnitedForOmar – Imam Omar Suleiman Smeared by Right-Wing News After Opening Prayer at US House of Representatives
#Islam4 weeks ago
How To Build People Up, Not Destroy Them While Teaching Faith
#Current Affairs2 weeks ago
Ben Shapiro Gets Wrecked on the BBC for Racism Against Palestinians and American Jews
#Islam5 days ago
What Does Sharia Really Say About Abortion in Islam