Sex and the Shari’a

The New York Times had an in depth piece on Sunday about life in Gaza under Hamas and the manner in which religious and secular values battle for hearts and minds in the marketplace.  As always with newspaper articles, the piece was deeply flawed though interesting. (I tend not to read in depth analysis pieces in newspapers about things I know nothing about.  I prefer things I am well versed in.  Yes that means I don’t learn much and find them 30% wrong, but at least I know which 30%).  The article seemed to think this phenomenon of religious sermons lying side by side with Cheryl Tiegs photos was largely unique to Gaza because of its proximity to Israel (which proximity makes Western culture more accessible) and that one of these sides was going to win the culture wars, as if such a thing could be done and as if (apropos US society) the vast majority of people even consider themselves on one side or another of this war as opposed to somewhere in between.  Not necessarily tormented with conflict, as characters in the article were, but happy where they were, and in between, finding that place as natural as any other. 

But instead what caught my attention was the worst mistake in the piece, finding it ironic that even sex manuals could be found in bookstores.   This was really an unfortunate Western bias that can be used to show well the positions concerning sex and law in the Muslim tradition. 

Generally speaking, traditionalists in Islam, as in Christianity, consider it a matter of utmost importance to regulate who you are allowed to sleep with.  Under shari’a, the limitation is to unmarried slave women (for men only), and to spouses, though within Shi’ism there are also temporary marriages, so it would include a spouse under a temporay marriage.  Beyond this, to engage in sex is to commit a crime, the crime of zina punishable by lashing or stoning (if with a nonmarried woman, then lashing, if married stoning).  Homosexuality is generally a capital crime under the discretionary crimes known as the tazir.  I guess it could be thought of as a form of zina as well.  That’s not to say that all of the above is criminal law in most Muslim countries, but that clerics would certainly argue it should be.  They would point to high evidentiary standards, but the point remains–they do think it is justifiable to punish, severely, for the crime of sex beyond particular boundaries.

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