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Beyond Repression: Muslim Sexuality On Campus


muslim sexuality on campus

Every time he walks down the dimly lit corridor toward his dorm, Isa crosses the room of the Residential College Advisor—an upperclassman whose role is helping first-year students like him acclimate to life at Princeton. A faded Wawa plastic bag with a handful of condoms dangles from the doorknob. “Please help yourself,” nudges a yellow sticky note pasted on the door. Isa walks past this offer of self-help. Though sex on campus has been normalized—last Valentine’s Day, Princeton had even invited students to a condom art contest and exhibit—Isa, like thousands of Muslim students in colleges across the US, strives to avoid sexual activity on campus. What animates this resistance to a pervasive feature of modern college life?

Media portrayals of young Muslims’ sexuality have tended to focus on less insightful but more eye-catching questions. The hijab’s alleged repression of Muslim women continues to make headlines, and to inspire rebuttals championing Islam’s purported liberation of women from their objectification in Western capitalist societies. Until recently, mainstream media was captivated by stories linking the supposed sexual repression of Muslim men to religious violence. The hottest issue now is the question of Islam and homosexuality, especially the perceived conflicts between Islamic scripture and progressive politics. Implicit in much of this media coverage around Islam and sexuality is an underlying assumption: young Muslims are sexually repressed, ever-burdened by the disconnect between their other-worldly aspirations and their sensual present.

Of course, there are other stories too, such as those about the long tradition of explicit sexual discussion in Islam, or the much-discussed New Yorker piece exploring one way that Muslim college students are addressing their sexual desires: secret marriages. But such well-meaning articles risk reinforcing the notion that the many Muslims not giving in to their sexual desires—outside or inside marriage—are sexually repressed. In my own experience, and through extensive conversations with Muslim students and chaplains from different campuses across the US, I find a far more complex picture of Muslim sexuality. Young Muslims resisting sexual interactions make meaning of their choices in ways that disturb the neat links between desires, actions, and identities conceived in secular imaginaries. In resisting sex, Muslim students transcend the binaries of repression and liberation, the sexual and the spiritual. 

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Given that most Muslim communities in the US disapprove of sexual relations before marriage, many Muslim students never have the opportunity to explore their sexuality—until they enter college. (I have obscured the identities of the students who spoke with me for this piece, for obvious reasons.) 

“The parental oversight is gone, you’re living in mixed-gender dorms, you have hormones raging inside you—it’s hard not to be tempted,” admitted Maryam. “You have freedom like you never had before.” 

For international students coming in from Muslim-majority countries, the contrast is dramatic. “There are literally no restrictions here,” reflected Wakeel, a graduate student. “Anyone can be in anyone’s room at any time. In my country, miles separated the gender-segregated hostels, and students attempting to cross the distance faced disciplinary action.” 

With logistical ease come the ideological challenges that make college life harder for Muslim students wishing to adhere to Islamic limitations on premarital sex. Many residential universities require all incoming students to attend safe-sex sessions. According to Sana, a sophomore at an Ivy League university, the takeaway is clear. “If you want to have sex—and who doesn’t!—only two concerns matter: one, is it consensual, and two, is it safe? Nothing else matters,” she said. “These lessons soften the moral question of premarital sex, so it starts to become more like an Islam problem than an ethical one.” 

Perhaps the biggest temptation is the pervasive party culture across campuses. For Muslims going to places renowned as “party schools,” the challenges are even harder. 

“When all your friends—including some Muslim friends—are going out every Thursday and Saturday night to have some fun, sooner or later there comes a point when the FOMO hits you hard,” said Zeeshan. 

He invoked a narrative that recurred frequently in my conversations: the story of Prophet Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) (the biblical Joseph). In one of the most evocative scenes in the Quran, a young, dashing Yusuf finds himself alone with the beautiful wife of the minister who purchased him. She locks all the doors before inviting him: “Haita lak (come on).” To some students, the cool breeze blowing across campus on party nights still carries that faint but unmistakable echo: Haita lak.  


sexuality on campus

Haita lak – [PC: Saif71 (unsplash)]

Dealing with one’s desires is difficult enough, but communicating your choices to others can be a challenge of its own. 

“I could avoid going to a party on campus—I’d just steer clear of the street where I knew there was trouble,” shared Ayhan, who graduated last year. “The bigger problem was when the dorm next door would have a party, and I’d get a text from my neighbor: Hey come over. It’s hard to say no because they know you’re in the room and they know you’re not doing problem sets Friday night at 9 pm.” 

Saying no can be a particularly thorny issue because some Muslim college students do attend parties—and have sex. Zahra, a junior, attends a large public school in which fraternities host events “where the entire point is to get drunk and get laid.” Invoking her Muslim identity to turn down these events is hard because there are other students—Muslims—who do attend such events. 

“I’m then in the awkward position of saying ‘sorry, I can’t come because Islam prohibits these,’ which indirectly sounds like I’m holier-than-them,” she said. 

But if she believes that Islam does prohibit sexual interactions outside marriage, isn’t that an accurate judgment? Zahra disagrees. 

“Look. There could be someone who goes to these events and commits many haram acts but is still dearer to God than me. ‘He knows better who is more guided’, the Quran tells us. So only God can judge individuals. But I can judge actions, because the same Quran has established a clear moral compass to distinguish between the permissible and the prohibited.” 

In practice, however, judgments are hard to avoid, and expressing one’s feelings, even to other Muslims, can be difficult. Muhammad grew up in a conservative Muslim-majority country, where religious gatherings—and many other public spaces—were segregated by gender. He was told that this promotes modesty. But even same-sex spaces can have their temptations.

“In my all-boys madrasa, there were one or two guys who I just couldn’t stop staring at,” recalled Muhammad. I would get goosebumps when they spoke to me or when our hands met. I couldn’t understand these feelings; they thrilled and frightened me.” 

Confused, Muhammad began frequenting a larger madrasa nearby, where many students lived on campus. The scholars there would openly warn against the temptations that other young boys could arouse—hence the madrasa’s policy, for instance, of prohibiting two students from sleeping under the same blanket. 

“I realized now that my own feelings were nothing unnatural but simply one version of the different trials through which Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) tests His slaves,” reflected Muhammad. “The temptations remained, but since they were acknowledged as temptations, I was able to better deal with them.” 

But when Muhammad came to the US for the first time as a college student, he experienced a shock. He shared his struggles with same-sex desires with some Muslim friends, at which “one of them jumped back, gasping ‘You’re gay!’” 

Here was Muhammad’s first introduction to the sexual culture of the US. 

“It’s a strange culture, where your feelings define your very being,” he said. “Unfortunately, Muslims are affected by such ideas too, so that the moment they hear you have certain desires, they put a label on you. And if you refuse that label, they think you’re closeted or something.”

Muhammad eventually found solace through an online support group. But his first few years of college life tested him to the brink, as he recalled:  “So many guys and girls around me were exploring their sexuality, and there were times when I wondered if I would get through with my chastity intact.”

For Muhammad, as for many of his peers, being in college is a bit like being Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) in the house of the minister: hearing the same invitation, facing a similar challenge—mustering the strength to refuse the call. 


How does one deal with powerful sexual desires without fulfilling them? For some students, the necessity of exercising caution in entering physical relationships comes from observing those who, as they perceive it, don’t. 

“You hear so many girls in physical relationships complaining about an overwhelming emotional emptiness, about feeling neglected and used,” said Fatima, a member of a peer counseling team on campus. “Even as you support them, you feel grateful that Islam protects you from such relationships.” 

To Ahmed, who admitted being envious of his friends in high school who were dating and pursuing romantic relationships, the experience of living with some of them as roommates brought a realization: “You know what, these guys aren’t actually happier than I am; in fact, many of them are pretty miserable!” 

Other students commit to avoiding intimacy in hopes of what they see as a more wholesome relationship in the future—marriage. “I strive to ensure I don’t do anything that I wouldn’t want my future spouse to have done,” was an ambition frequently echoed, as was the related goal of keeping oneself “pure” for the “one.” According to a Muslim chaplain at one Ivy League institution, this reasoning is particularly salient among Muslim men who are all too aware of the double standards that Muslim (and non-Muslim) communities have generally applied to male sexual relations as compared to female.

And the double standards are certainly prevalent. Most American Muslim families and communities avoid discussing female sexual desires, focusing on general discussions of modesty and “virtue.” The latter can sometimes be taken to unhealthy extremes, according to Rachel, a graduate from a college in NYC. 

“I had roommates who had boyfriends who would spend the night at our dorm,” she said. “I had a burning desire to explore that [sexual] side too. But I had so much fear. It was drilled into me that, if I sinned, my future husband would find out; I would be divorced, my life ruined, my family humiliated. I just wish someone had acknowledged my desires positively, or at least reminded me that no amount of past sins are greater than Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) Mercy.”

Even amongst her friends, noted Nura, a graduate from an elite private institution, female sexual desires could be taboo. Though some of her Muslima friends openly discussed strategies like running on a treadmill to cope with intense feelings, others shied away from any mention of them—even if it pertained to religious teachings. 

To illustrate, Nura recalled a time when she and some friends made wudu (a ritual washing of the hands, face, and feet; which is a prerequisite to performing the five daily prayers mandated on Muslims). On their way to the multi-faith prayer room on campus, one of them met a male friend and they hugged. She then asked the other girls to return to the bathroom so she could make wudu again. Nura was surprised for, per her understanding of Islam, nothing had transpired that would break the wudu. Her friend explained that Nura’s knowledge was correct according to the school of Islamic jurisprudence followed by Nura. However, the friend’s family had raised her in a different school which considers the wudu void if you touch a na-mahram, a person from the opposite gender (such as a friend or cousin) who you could legally marry. 

Upon hearing this, another girl rejoined that, actually, the wudu is void only if the touch arouses an intense bout of passion accompanied by fluid discharge. Controversy ensued.

“The other friends who were with us suddenly became visibly agitated and exclaimed that we shouldn’t be talking about such shameful things,” Nura recalled. “But the Quran itself mentions female desire!” 


The open acknowledgment of sexual desires in the Quranic account of Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) surprises some modern Muslims—the discussion appears to them a bit too explicit, perhaps even erotic. For centuries, however, Muslims across the world have celebrated the narrative, versifying it in poetry and illustrating it in manuscripts. This is partly because these Muslims recognized—as do many Muslim students today with whom I spoke—that powerful desires are a gateway to God.

sexuality on campus

Resistance through worship [PC: Ashkan Forouzani (unsplash)]

“In resisting his desires, Prophet Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) became closer to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He),” reflected one student. “Living on a campus with all these temptations is likewise an opportunity for me to get closer to God. But like Prophet Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), I must be humble. When faced with the seductive offer, he sought refuge in Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) —and then ran to the door. So I have to ensure that even as I’m seeking Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) help, I also don’t put myself in spaces that I know are seductive.”

For Siddiq, the relationship between desire and spiritual growth was revealed during his sophomore year. Infatuated with a fellow Muslim student, he experienced heartbreak when she chose to remain his sister-in-faith. The experience, however, transformed him. 

“Until that moment, I had never tasted true love—love as an obsession, where you can only see this one person and everything else ceases to be visible, even to exist, [where] all that matters is to speak with her, to be near to her,” he recalled. “This, I realized, is a glimpse of how the lovers of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) see Him,” he said. 

In terms of the Muslim profession of faith, La ilaha illa Allah (No god but Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)), Siddiq now had experiential knowledge of that first negation: la

In his struggles with same-sex desires, Muhammad, too, has reached the conclusion that unfulfilled desires can lead to God. The way he sees it, “this world was never meant to be a place of ultimate fulfillment.” When Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) (Moses), out of his overwhelming love for God, desired to see Him, God replied: “You cannot see Me.” According to the reported sayings of Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), the ultimate blessing in Paradise will be to gaze at God.

“This life, however, is not— cannot—be the place where the veils are lifted between the lover and the beloved,” said Muhammad. “So I strive to channel my insatiable feelings toward getting closer to Him, hoping for union in the next life. It’s not a solution for everyone, certainly, and it doesn’t always work for me, But it gives me strength, at times, and hope.”

Even to those students whose desires may find a permissible outlet in this world, the spiritual is not out of sight. For Urooj, fantasies of a fulsome sexual relationship after marriage are made more meaningful in spiritual terms: “The pleasure of sexual intimacy is a taste of the flavors of Paradise, according to our scholars. It’s something to enjoy together with one’s spouse, so that both may be grateful for the blessing bestowed by Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).” 

Thinking about marriage has also transformed the very meaning of sexual intimacy for some Muslim students. Witnessing what he saw as the strained, sometimes broken, marital bonds of some of his close friends, Ahmed felt his rosy image of marriage wilting—until he spent time with what he described as more stable Muslim families. The peace and meaning he experienced in their homes alerted him to a new way of conceiving sex. 

“I realized that, in Islam, sexual intimacy is situated within a wider cosmic space of a much deeper relationship,” he said. “In contrast, for some of my friends who were sleeping around in college, the act had lost meaning. It seemed that they felt a post-climactic emptiness, like you feel after a binge watch, or when you devour a lot of dessert. On the other hand, these Muslim couples—even though they too would fight and quarrel—seemed to be basking in the pleasure, close to each other, closer to God.”

For Aysha, the realization that your relationship with your spouse could be a metaphor for your relationship with God came through reading: “I was perusing a 17th-century text on Islamic mysticism and came across the line: ‘does not every lover desire to be near their beloved in the darkness of night?’ I thought the author was describing marriage—he was talking about tahajjud (the voluntary night prayers).”

The seductive echoes of haita lak are thus not the only ones reverberating through the campus air; the morning breeze also rings with hayya ala al-salat (come to prayer), hayya ala al-falah (come to success)—the words of the azan recited in mosques across the US. To some, the two calls can often be heard simultaneously. Together, they symbolize the temptations and aspirations that college life presents for many Muslim students in America.



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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Hasan Hameed is a historian of Islam, gender, and Persian literature in South Asia. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. Prior to coming to Princeton, Hasan earned a Master’s degree from the University of Oxford, where he worked on Muslim political thought. He earned his undergraduate degree in liberal arts from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in Karachi. Hasan is passionate about communicating scholarly research to public audiences. Drawing on his dissertation research, he has conducted workshops on Gender & Sexuality in Islam for the Princeton Religious Literacy Program and for the Muslim Life Program at the University of Pennsylvania. As a fellow for the Center of Culture, Society and Religion (CCSR) at Princeton, he has organised events, authored essays, and helped produce videos that make academic works relevant to a broader audience. Throughout his academic career, Hasan has engaged with various campus groups, for instance, conducting a session with the feminist society at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) on Muslim masculinity, and another session with the religious society at LUMS on interrogating selfhood in popular Hollywood movies. He has also lectured extensively at different Muslim Students Associations (MSAs), mosques, and community centres across the US, the UK, and Pakistan. In his free time, Hasan loves travelling with his wife and daughter to see parks, share Urdu and Persian poetry, and build community over homemade food.

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