Issue in Focus: Islam celebrates sex - Julia Suryakusuma

The common perception is, however, that Islam (like most other religions), views sex negatively. Sex is linked with sin: it is a wild horse that needs to be blinkered and tightly reined in, lest we frail humans fall by the wayside. This is a curious position to take (so to speak) – after all, none of us would be here without sex! Sex is thus the source of life, not to mention pleasure – another area that we don’t necessarily usually relate to religion.

Julia Suryakusuma

A year ago, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the head of the hardline Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah considered responsible for the Bali bombs, said that Indonesian TV shows that feature scantily dressed women are a threat more dangerous than bombs. Speaking for Islam, as he claimed to be, Ba’asyir seemed disapproving of sexuality – to put it mildly. 

Around the same time, vice-president Jusuf Kalla proposed promoting (sex) tourism for oil-rich Middle Eastern men. He wanted to facilitate their access to attractive janda (widows or divorcees) in Puncak, a hill resort outside Jakarta by using the Shia tradition of mutah (fixed-time marriage) to legalise them. Like Ba’asyir, Kalla claiming to be speaking from an Islam perspective but he seemed a lot more enthusiastic about sexuality – well, male sexuality, at any rate. 

So, where does Islam stand on sex, really? That’s not an easy question to answer, because the underlying question is, ‘which Islam?’

There are many ‘Islams’ – different traditions and interpretations – rather than a single, monolithic institution, just as there are many different interpretations of ‘democracy’. And then within these ‘Islams’ there are millions of Muslims, all individuals with their own inclinations, yearnings, desires, quirks, sexual preferences, orientations and ideas (including kinky and perverse ones!), leading to interpretations and practises by the multitude. 

The common perception is, however, that Islam (like most other religions), views sex negatively. Sex is linked with sin: it is a wild horse that needs to be blinkered and tightly reined in, lest we frail humans fall by the wayside. This is a curious position to take (so to speak) – after all, none of us would be here without sex! Sex is thus the source of life, not to mention pleasure – another area that we don’t necessarily usually relate to religion. 

According to ‘Nana’, a close Muslim girlfriend, the discourse of sexuality in Islam is, in reality, very broad and open. In the classical tradition, it is certainly not a taboo subject, but covers a broad range of topics, up to the most technical aspects of sex. In fact, ‘Nana’ who hails from a pesantren (Islamic boarding school), said, ‘In pesantrens, we are used to talking about such matters’. Indeed, that is one of the reasons I was able to be close friends with her, because we’re able to talk about so many things, including our personal sexual lives. Wearing a jilbab (headscarf) certainly does not make her asexual, or reluctant to discuss sex. 

So, what does Islam have to say about what goes on when the clothes come off? What I found may be as surprising for you as it was for me! Yes, I found (to my relief) that Islam is actually very positive and affirming of sex. It even recommends it as one of the most enjoyable aspects of life – so much so that Islam forbids celibacy, as it does monasticism and castration. Sex is seen as yielding essential health benefits: for men, it is believed, semen retained for an extended period can cause ‘illness and infirmities, including obsession, habitude, lunacy and even insanity’.

The Qur’an recognises human beings as sexual: sexuality is an intrinsic part of being human, and is not at all opposed to spirituality. It says, for example ‘In the sexual act of each of you there is a sadaqah (charity or gift).’ Naturally, this is in the context of nikah (marriage), which literally means, ‘to have sex’.Nikah is a contract never to seek sexual satisfaction outside the marriage bond and Islam therefore commands both the wife and the husband to be aware of each other’s urges and needs. By depriving his wife of sexual pleasure, a husband would be committing a sin.

In Indonesia’s Muslim tradition, sex within marriage is callednafkah bathin – income for the soul – implying clearly that physical, bodily need is ultimately something that nourishes and supports the growth of the soul. Companionship and enjoyment of the spouse are extremely important in married life, to be carried on into old age, including sex, when having babies is no longer possible. In many Islamic traditions, the inability of either spouse to fulfill her or his sexual duties (or not produce offspring) may be grounds for a deprived party to file for divorce, or in the case of a man, to take on a second wife. That’s the unfair bit, especially since polygyny (polygamy for males) is actually restricted, although men violate these restrictions only too often. 

Like the Bible, the stress in the Qur’an is on procreation as one of the functions of sex, mostly affirming masculine heterosexual sexual experience and male patriarchal dominance. There’s polygamy for men, and the mu’tah (literally, to have sex for satisfaction) that I mentioned earlier. This is basically a legal marriage built solely on sexual desire, to avoid fornication and prostitution. Some scholars argue it was originally intended to assist men who could not afford a traditional and cultural marriage because of the expense involved. Mu’tah is also allowed for men who travel on foot for hundreds of miles – to prevent them from committing rape or homosexual acts, or so it is said. Well, maybe, but if many Shias are okay with mu’tah, Sunni traditions usually forbid it (can someone tell our Sunni vice-president, please?) 

And what about women? Ah well, that’s another matter altogether. For them, unfortunately, there is usually confinement, covering up, strict gender role-playing, and certainly no polyandry (polygamy for girls!). Serial monogamy is a possibility though, and is commonly practised – rife even – in Indonesian villages.

Is this affirming stance to sexuality a reflection of doctrine? TheQur’an waxes lyrical about the joys of paradise, with rivers of milk and honey flowing, beautiful nymphs ready to grant your every whim, including sexual pleasures. In fact, in Islamic discourse, paradise is sometimes referred to as ‘the eternal orgasm’ (for both sexes, because the soul is genderless).

Sex in Islam is usually understood as sexual intercourse in heterosexual, monogamous marriages. But is all sex really just about sexual intercourse? Perhaps Bill Clinton is a Muslim at heart – after all, he claimed he did not commit adultery with Monica Lewinsky because although they had sex it was only oral, and he was passive to boot! So much for technicalities: most people nowadays would certainly not consider sex to be confined to intercourse. Were it otherwise, there would be none of thefatwas that exist condemning oral sex – tacit acknowledgement surely that it is indeed sex! The issue is not clear-cut, however. 

Some streams of Islam say that there is no clear prohibition. Many jurists argue simply that although the fluids of both male and female sex organs are najis (impure), and shouldn’t touch the mouth, they are not haram (forbidden), just makruh(disliked/offensive). 

Ditto with masturbation. The majority frown upon it, but some scholars consider semen as an excretion of the body like any other, and according to Ibn ‘Abbaas`, ‘it is nothing but rubbing one’s private parts until a fluid comes out’. The Hanbali jurists permit it under two conditions: the fear of committing adultery, or not having the means to marry. Only when it comes to zina(adultery), prostitution, anal sex, and intercourse during menstruation do all jurists say that it is haram

What about homosexuality? The Qur’an explicitly forbids all same-sex sexual activity and Islamic jurisprudence has often prescribed dire punishments for it. This is, of course, no different from the Bible, and traditional Christian doctrine. So it’s taboo – and, absurdly, some even go so far denying that gays, lesbians and bisexuals have ever existed at all!

But social and historical reality says otherwise, and same-sex sexual expression has been more or less a recognized aspect of Muslim societies for many centuries, as can be seen through literature, belles-lettres (like adab, a literary genre developed during the heights of the Abbasid culture from the 9th century, distinguished by its broad humanitarian concerns), and copious amounts of erotica. These discuss same-sex sexual activity frequently and explicitly and in Aceh, the northern-most province of Indonesia, there exist homoerotic poems not unlike those in Urdu literature from northern India. 

This same openness is reflected in the flexibility traditionally exercised towards homosexuality in Indonesian pesantren. After all, homosexuality is common in many homosocial communities (like prisons), and boarding schools are no exception. While officially condemned, in practise, homosexuality is institutionalised in orthodox pesantrens. It even has a name:mairilan, the relationship between a young student and an older student who acts as a mentor.

Lesbianism in pesantrens is equally common, as the pairing system applies to girls as well. The name for a unique sexual practise is sihaq – rubbing the labia against the hipbone, which makes thin girls very popular. And when the pesantren students learn the Kitab Kuning (the classical text books used inpesantren) it helps to do it in pairs – easier to memorise.

After they graduate from the pesantren in their late teens, and work in society, pesantren couples – male or female – usually retain a bond of friendship, even after they marry. Some choose to continue their homosexual relationships, but they are very few in number. 

Homosexuality is considered a lesser evil than premarital or extramarital sex, so even where there are female sex workers, some Muslim men prefer to have sex with waria, or other men, in East Java especially. Why is this? Well, it’s because unlike extramarital or pre-marital sex with a woman (which is considered zinah – adultery – and a very serious offence) homosexuality is considered a minor infraction (fahisyah), easily cancelled out by doing good deeds like zakat (alms)! That’s handy! 

Islam in Indonesia specifically – sensual, erotic and raunchy people that we are – is ‘tropical Islam’, and very far from Islamic traditions of the Middle East. It’s blended in with local pagan, pre- Islamic customs and traditions, which have less duality between spirituality and sexuality, and where sexuality can indeed, often be an expression of spirituality.

Last year, there were attempts by Islamic hardliners to push for the so-called anti-pornography Bill (apparently failed, although technically still before the legislature), aimed at stamping out alternative and more liberal traditions deemed unacceptable by more conservative Muslims. Take traditional attire, for example. Much of it is downright sexy, from the low-cut kebaya, to the skimpy koteka (penis sheath) in Papua, which leaves little or nothing to the imagination. The reality is that our ancient cultural practises are much more diverse and bizarre – and much more fun – than the bits that the State, conservative Islam or event organisers select for national promotion as Indonesia’s collective identity. 

So, for example, there’s the custom of sexual swapping among peasant couples in Central Java, ritually copulating in rice-fields to bring about fertility. And there’s spouseswapping in some Papuan ethnic groups, again to bring fertility. In Gunung Kemukus (Kemukus Mountain) in Central Java near Solo, there is a tomb considered sacred. People make a pilgrimage there to seek blessings for good fortune, a work promotion, to win the lottery or get a good marriage partner. One of the conditions, however, is sex with a stranger. It’s not supposed to be with sexworkers, but prostitutes have cashed in.

Gunung Gangsir is similar to Gunung Kemukus, southeast of Surabaya. Married couples still go there on certain days of the Javanese calendar. Each then goes their own way and finds someone else’s spouse for sex, before reuniting, with renewed luck for business. As in Gunung Kemukus, female prostitutes have made this ritual profane by making themselves available, and, of course, some men go there without their wives, as do unmarried couples. The sex now is more varied: heterosexual, homosexual, men and waria (transgenders). The ritual takes place in a cemetery near a revered Hindu-Buddhist ruins (Candi Gunung Gangsir), and smacks of orgiastic Tantric rituals. Not surprising, given that Singasari – the ancient dynasty that once ruled the area – was Tantric. 

Then there’s Ponorogo, a small town in East Java, the home of the warok, a man who stages ritual dances in order to bring good fortune to the community. His dancers, called gemblak, were once attractive boys aged 10-16, with whom he had sex to maintain mystical powers: institutionalised paedophilia really. No wonder the government told the warok to change his ways. Now girls make up the dance troupe and the gemblaks all went off to gay communities in the big cities.

Recently, I heard a true story about A, a suburban minivan driver in his late 30. He goes around one of the Surabaya suburbs picking up and dropping off passengers, aided by his assistant, B, a gay man in his 20s. A has two wives, being a good Muslim and all, and his relationship with B is friendly as typical between a driver and his assistant. One quiet evening their minivan was empty before they got to the terminal, and suddenly A pulled up, somewhat to B’s surprise, since there were no passengers in sight. B was sitting on the passenger seat next to A. Suddenly A said to B, ‘Unzip your pants,’ this time to the latter’s utter surprise. B said, ‘But Mas (big brother), what’s this all about?’ A said, ‘Just do it.’ So B did it (well, he’s always kind of liked A’s masculine, handsome look anyway), and A proceeded to perform fellatio on B. After B climaxed, A carried on as if nothing special had happened. B picked up his courage and asked, ‘But Mas, I thought you were happily married to your two wives?’ A replied, ‘Of course, I love them both dearly, but from the moment I met you, I’ve always wanted to do that to you.’ Just goes to show, human passion is unlimited, and its target very varied indeed! 

Being a pious Muslim, and wearing jilbab, doesn’t even prevent you from having a penchant for S & M sex (so long as it’s with your husband), I was informed. Dédé Oetomo, the founder of GAYa NUSANTARA, Indonesia’s leading gay organisation, recounted a story about a married merchant couple who have gone on the haj (several times!) who enjoy having a threesome with a beautiful waria (transgender) once a month when they come to the big city to buy supplies for their shop!

So, does this all turn your perception of Islam and sex on its head? It did me! I made me realise there may be a third way for Islam and sex – not the condemnatory intolerance of Ba’asyir or the sex tourism of Kalla, but a more joyous, tolerant and frank acceptance of the centrality of sexuality in our lives.

This essay is an expanded version of a column published in TEMPO Newsmagazine, English language edition, 3 July 2007

Julia Suryakusuma is the author of Sex, Power and Nation. She can be contacted at