Sex and the Ummah Series: The Hadith of Jabir
The following article is a collated summary of a series of emails sent to those who registered for the LikeAGarment online email course.
Jabir b. Abdillah is one of the most famous Companions of the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam. He was from the Ansar, and accepted Islam as a young boy. His father was the famous warrior Abdullah b. Haram. Jabir was perhaps the youngest Companion to witness and participate in the blessed ‘Treaty of Aqaba,’ before the hijra of the Prophet. He was also blessed to live an extremely long life. Because of this, Jabir became one of the most profuse narrators of hadith, earning his name in the top five Companions in terms of quantity of hadith narrated.
Jabir married young – he was probably seventeen or eighteen when he got married. His story is mentioned in most books of hadith, including the two Sahihs. It is a story that tells us much about how Islam views sexuality.
The hadith is as follows:
Jabir b. Abdillah reported that once he was on an expedition with the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam, and when they were close to the city of Madinah, he sped on his mount. The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam asked him why he was in such a hurry to return home. Jabir replied, “I am recently married!” The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam asked, “To an older lady or a younger one?” [the Arabic could also read: “To a widow or a virgin?”], to which he replied, “A widow.”
The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam said, “But why didn’t you marry a younger girl, so that you could play with her, and she could play with you, and you could make her laugh, and she could make you laugh?”
He said, “O Messenger of Allah! My father died a martyr at Uhud, leaving behind daughters, so I did not wish to marry a young girl like them, but rather an older one who could take care of them and look after them.” The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa salam replied, “You have made the correct choice.”
Jabir continues, “So when we were about to enter the city, the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam said to me, ‘Slow down, and enter at night, so that she who has not combed may comb her hair, and she who has not shaved may shave her private area.’ Then he said to me, ‘When you enter upon her, then be wise and gentle.’”
[Reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim, with various wordings, in their two Sahihs]
This is only part of a much larger hadith, known as (not surprisingly!) the ‘hadith of Jabir’. It is a hadith full of benefits, and in fact separate treatises have been written by our scholars just on this one hadith. In this article, we are concerned with how this hadith sheds light on intimacy and marriage in Islam.
What first strikes us is the frankness of the Prophet’s salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam question. He is encouraging Jabir to find a playful wife, and wants the both of them to enjoy each other. Clearly, the words of ‘playfulness’ and ‘laughter’ indicate that what is being encouraged is the couple’s romance, foreplay and, generally, ‘having fun’ with one another.
This shows that it is one of the primary goals of a marriage that each party find satisfaction in the other. The connotation of being sexually playful is clearly implied, without any direct reference. From this, and many other references, we see that the Quran and Sunnah are frank about sexuality, but never vulgar. This should be our attitude and tone as well. It would do us well to contrast this straightforwardness of our Prophet with the ultra-reserved Muslim culture that we find around us, where even the words ‘love’ and ‘romance’ are considered filthy and are never be uttered in public!
Also, the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam explicitly mentioned that both parties should be satisfied with each other (‘…so that you may play with her and she may play with you…’). In most Muslim cultures, women’s sexuality is sidelined or even suppressed. Not only is a woman’s sexual feelings ignored, some cultures even cut off a part of a woman’s sexual organ in order to minimize her sexuality (through barbaric practices such as FGM – female genital mutilation). Women’s sexuality is no less important than men’s, and it is essential that a woman also be given her due right.
One phrase in this hadith that many men concentrate on is the encouragement to Jabir that he should marry a young woman. However, they ignore the context of the hadith and also the response of the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam. Jabir himself was a young man, and that is why he was asked why he would marry an older lady. Typically, a young man marries a young lady. When Jabir gave a legitimate reason for choosing an older lady, he was informed that he had, in fact, made the correct decision. One should always remember that even our Prophet first married Khadija, a lady senior to him in age, and remained with her for all of her life. Khadija was the most beloved wife of our Prophet, and even Aisha could not compete against that love.
The command to Jabir not to enter the city until nightfall was because the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam did not want Jabir to surprise his wife. At a time when there were no cell phones or other means of informing the family when a traveler would return, the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam would send a crier into the city, announcing that the caravan was returning. Hence, he told Jabir to wait for this crier before proceeding into the city. The crier would alert the inhabitants of the city (including Jabir’s wife), and they would then prepare themselves to great the returning travelers.
From this, we learn that spouses should physically beautify themselves for one another. Combing the hair is but one way to beautify; anything that increases the beauty and handsomeness of one spouse in front of the other is something to be encouraged. The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam told the impatient Jabir that it was better for him to delay his arrival in order that his wife could prepare herself for him.
The explicit command to shave the pubic area is an amazing phrase! We all know that a part of our Islamic tradition is that one must shave one’s pubic area; in this tradition, this command is put in the context of the sexual act. In other words, the husband is told to be patient so that his wife may beautify her private area in order to increase the aesthetic pleasure and gratification of sex. A husband and wife should make sure that even around their private areas, they look attractive to each other! Again and again, we see the frankness of the prophetic traditions and contrast this to the ultra-conservative attitudes predominant in many Muslim cultures.
Some people erroneously believe that a husband and wife should never look at each other’s private area. This belief is not based upon any authentic textual evidence – in fact, there are numerous evidences (including this one) that clearly state otherwise. If a husband will not enjoy the body of his wife, who else will he enjoy?! And the same applies for a woman with her husband’s body.
The last phrase of the hadith is translated as ‘…then be wise and gentle’. The Arabic is ‘fa-l-kayyis al-kayyis’, or, in another wording, ‘zafar al-kayyis.’ The word ‘kayyis‘ primarily means wisdom, but it also has the connotation of gentleness. Scholars have understood this phrase to be an indirect reference that Jabir should approach his wife in a gentle and ‘wise’ manner.
Imam al-Bukhari, Ibn Khuzaymah, and Ibn Hibban all narrated this wording, and they all understood the reference here to be an indirect reference to the sexual act. Once again, the wording is frank without being vulgar. What is meant by ‘al-kayyis‘ is that Jabir should act in a wise manner; he has been gone for some time, and is newly married. Therefore, both parties are missing each other, and it is a sign of wisdom that they gratify themselves and do not delay this unnecessarily. Also, there is a connotation of gentleness as well; Jabir should realize that he is a young man, and therefore he should not act in a manner that might be painful to his wife.
The fact that the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam is instructing Jabir what to do at this time shows that he instructed his Ummah even about such personal matters. In one hadith, which deals with the etiquette of the restroom, the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam said, “I am to you like a father, I teach you [what you need to know]…” [Reported by Abu Dawud]. Since Jabir did not have any older brothers, and his father had passed away, the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam took on this responsibility, and even advised him about sexual conduct. From this, we may extrapolate that people of knowledge, or elders of the community, should likewise not be shy when it comes to teaching Muslims about sexual etiquette.
The Islamic attitude towards sex is completely at odds with those of many Christian thinkers. St. Augustine, who is perhaps the single most influential theologian of early Christianity, viewed sexual desire as something ‘foul’ to be guilty and ashamed of. His writings had a profound impact on all future Christian notions of sex (and were also used to justify the prohibition of priests getting married). That is why, to this day, even many non-religious Christians are baffled by Islam’s attitude towards sex. It is mainly due to such notions that Islam has been viewed by many Westerners as being a ‘licentious’ religion. Such hadiths like this one of Jabir are mocked and ridiculed (one website I read commented, “How can a prophet of God command his followers to enjoy their wives?”). This shock stems from the basic Augustinian notion of sex being inherently evil. We must be aware of these psychological underpinnings when discussing Islam with others. For us as Muslims, sexual desire in and of itself is never associated with evil; it is only the misuse and abuse of such desire that is evil. Rather, quite the contrary, sex is quite clearly implied in the Quran as being a blessing from Allah, to be thoroughly enjoyed between spouses.
There are many evidence that clearly demonstrate Islam’s realistic and pragmatic view of human sexuality. Sexuality, like all human emotions, is a natural instinct that should be satisfied in a permissible manner. The emotion itself is not evil or filthy; abusing it and trying to satisfy it outside of the permissible bounds of marriage is evil and filthy.
The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam himself said, “From this world, women and perfume have been made beloved to me, but the coolness of my eye comes from prayer” [al-Bukhari]. And in the famous hadith, “This whole world is an enjoyment, and its best enjoyment is a righteous wife” [Muslim].
A righteous wife (and, by analogy, a good husband) is the best enjoyment of this world. Pure, halal, encouraged enjoyment! Even the blessed Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam found comfort in his wives, but the comfort that prayer and turning to Allah gave him was obviously the most sweet and pure.
In another tradition, we are advised “If one of you approaches his wife, and then wishes to repeat, let him do wudhu, for it will make the recurrence more energetic” [Abu Dawud].
In all of these hadiths, we see once again the clear encouragement to engage in passionate and fulfilling sex with one’s spouse. The frank advice given makes it crystal clear that we should aim to have healthy sex lives. No less a figure than our beloved Prophet informed us of ways to increase our love and make the act of intimacy more fulfilling. Washing oneself after a first act invigorates the body and rejuvenates the soul, and thus helps in repeating the act again.
What is truly amazing is that while the message is crystal clear in each and every one of these traditions, never is the wording vulgar, nor is the language crude. Similarly, we should be frank in our teachings, but there is no need to employ unbefitting language.
Let us conclude this article by mentioning a quote from one of the most famous medieval scholars of our religion. Imam al-Ghazali (d. 505) mentions in his famous work The Revival of the Religious Sciences that scholars have mentioned many blessings of sex, such as protecting one’s chastity and increasing one’s progeny. But he also mentions a blessing that might surprise many Muslims. One of the blessings of sex that our scholars have mentioned, al-Ghazali says, is to experience some of the pleasures of the afterlife. He continues:
“And I swear, what they have said is absolutely true! For indeed, in this pleasure [of sex] – a pleasure that cannot be compared to any other pleasure – if only it were to persist, it would indeed be a sign or signal for those pleasures of the next life that have been promised to us. To entice someone regarding a pleasure that he has never experienced is of no use! If an impotent man were to be enticed with sex, or a young child with power, there would be no temptation. Therefore, one of the blessings of the sexual experience and pleasure in this world is the hope of its perpetual existence in the next, so that this can be used as a motivation for the worship of Allah.
Marvel, therefore, at the wisdom of Allah, and His Mercy, for look at how He has placed in one desire two lives: an external life, and an internal life. So the external life is the preservation of a man through his progeny and children. And the internal life is the life of the next world. For the pleasure of sex is diminished in this world because it must remain temporary, and is swiftly terminated, but by experiencing it, one’s desire to have such a pleasure remain everlasting becomes firm, and this encourages one to persist in deeds of worship that would allow him to experience such pleasures.”
What an amazing testament, regarding an amazing blessing, from an amazing scholar!