As couples the world over celebrated Valentine’s Day last week, many no doubt recalled the great Muslim love stories: Romeo and Juliet and Fatima and Dalia and Naima; A Midsummer Night’s Stoning; the movies Veiled Woman and When Harry Beat Sally – so many.
Right-thinking people today would find such quips “Islamophobic” and distasteful; far more distasteful, however, is the grim reality they represent. When Valentine’s Day rolled around last week, Muslim leaders rose to oppose it with a fervor they have seldom mustered against the jihad terrorists who have supposedly twisted and hijacked their peaceful religion.
The Malaysian Islamic Development Department thundered that “social ceremonies such as this are a stepping-stone towards greater social ills such as fraud, mental disorder caused by alcohol, abortion and baby-dumping, and other negative ills that can invite disaster and moral decay among youths.” The Indonesian Ulema Council declared that “celebrating Valentine’s Day is against Islam.” Saudi Arabia’s feared Islamic religious police banned Valentine’s Day and hunted for people toting suspicious roses and candy boxes. A Saudi cleric who has said that “devotion to jihad for the sake of Allah, and the desire to shed blood, to smash skulls, and to sever limbs for the sake of Allah and in defense of His religion, is, undoubtedly, an honor for the believer” dubbed Valentine’s Day “immoral.”
In Uzbekistan, Muslim clerics preached against Valentine’s Day in their Friday sermons. In Kashmir, Mohammed Akram Wani, a student at Srinagar’s Institute of Arabic and Islamic studies, declared: “The event is anti-Islamic and Muslims are not allowed to celebrate the day because in Islam the day has no importance.” And at Pakistan’s Peshawar University, devout Muslim students decided to celebrate February 14 as Haya (Modesty) Day, which consisted of stoning students who were celebrating Valentine’s Day, firing on police who intervened, and setting several rooms of their hostel on fire.
This hostility to Valentine’s Day, some Muslims explain, is because celebrating it is bid’a – innovation, an unacceptable concept in a religion that Allah has “perfected” (cf. Qur’an 5:3), and because it has roots in Christianity and has become an excuse for drunkenness and promiscuity. But there is a deeper reason as well: Islam is hostile to romance. “Asking a Moslem about his women,” the heroic journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote back in 1964, “is like asking him about a secret vice.” The condition of those women, and the state of Islamic romance, has hardly improved since then.
A few of the principal ways in which Islam is a romance-killer:
Polygamy destroys romance. Is she the one, the only one, who has captured your heart, delighted your eyes, put a spring in your step and filled your heart with joy? No, she is just one in a series. The Qur’an tells Muslim men to “marry those that please you of women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then one…” (Qur’an 4:3). It seems fair: a man who cannot be just with multiple wives should restrict himself to just one, but in such matters, what constitutes just behavior is all too subjective and elusive. Islamic authorities have generally understood this to mean equal economic support and equal time in the beds of each.
Yet even if all this were scrupulously managed, an equal distribution of affection wouldn’t be possible. Even Muhammad favored his child bride Aisha over all of his other wives. A hadith has a Muslim making bold to ask him, “Who is the most beloved person to you?” Muhammad answered with one word: Aisha. (Bukhari 5.62.3662) What might his other wives have thought of this?
But the human heart longs to love and be loved uniquely, and this desire cannot be extinguished. In Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453–1924, Philip Mansel’s elegantly written history of Constantinople after the Muslim conquest, he offers a moving case in point involving the daughter of the sultan of the Ottoman Empire:
Yet even these most powerful and privileged of Ottoman might be tortured by jealousy. Adile Sultan, daughter of the great nineteenth-century reformer Mahmud II, married an army officer, Mehmed Ali Pasha. They were in love. One day at the fashionable meeting-place in the Golden Horn called the Sweet Waters of Europe, she attracted his attention. Since she was thickly veiled, he did not know who she was. He dropped a scented handkerchief at her feet. That night the Pasha found the handkerchief on the pillow beside his sleeping wife.
One day, according to Mansel, Adile Sultan traveled to a mosque far from her home. Taking advantage of the celebrated Oriental hospitality, she stopped for a rest at a mansion that was on the way. While enjoying coffee and sherbet set out by her hostess, she was astonished to find that her hostess, too, was the wife of Mehmed Ali Pasha!
She said nothing, however, and returned home — where, Mansel says, “thereafter she lived in seclusion, writing poems of increasing sadness. When she died in 1898, she was buried beside her husband. They never referred to his infidelity.” In Islamic terms, it wasn’t infidelity at all. But nonetheless, it gnawed at Adile Sultan’s heart.
It doesn’t take much knowledge of human nature to recognize that it’s a story that has been repeated and is still being repeated in polygamous households the world over.
2. Female genital mutilation
Muhammad is said to have justified the cutting of women’s genitals: “A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.” (Sunan Abu Dawud 41.5251) The problem with this is that the distinction between cutting and cutting severely is subjective.
There is also justification for the practice in Islamic law: “Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) (by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr ‘clitoris’ [this is called khufaadh ‘female circumcision’]).” — ‘Umdat al-Salik e4.3, translated by Mark Durie, The Third Choice, p. 64
While female genital mutilation is by no means universally practiced in Muslim countries, it is not hard to find Islamic authorities around the world today justifying this barbarity on Islamic grounds. The idea behind it is that it reduces a woman’s sexual response, thus making her easier to control. The implications of this for romance are obvious. What should be a joyful celebration of mutual self-giving becomes the painful duty of a slave.
3. Sex on demand
“Slave” is indeed the apposite word. Islamic tradition has Muhammad saying: “If a husband calls his wife to his bed [i.e. to have sexual relation] and she refuses and causes him to sleep in anger, the angels will curse her till morning” (Bukhari 4.54.460) and “By him in Whose Hand lies my life, a woman can not carry out the right of her Lord, till she carries out the right of her husband. And if he asks her to surrender herself [to him for sexual intercourse] she should not refuse him even if she is on a camel’s saddle” (Ibn Majah 1854).
Clearly Islamic marriage is not a relationship of two human beings to each other, a community of love, but a relationship between a servant and her master. Servant/master romances may be the stuff of bodice-rippers and bad period weepers, but they can only work in real life if on some level the two parties are equals. In Islam, a husband and wife are never equals unless they ignore the various Islamic laws that ensure that they aren’t.
This is the worst of all. The Qur’an says:
Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. (4:34)
Islamic apologists routinely claim that the Qur’an’s command to beat disobedient women must be applied only with the most harmless of implements — i.e., a toothstick, as per a weak hadith. However, Muhammad’s example is normative for Muslims, since he is an “excellent example of conduct” (Qur’an 33:21) — and according to a canonical hadith, Muhammad’s favorite wife, his child bride Aisha, reports that Muhammad struck her. Once he went out at night after he thought she was asleep, and she followed him surreptitiously. Muhammad saw her, and, as Aisha recounts: “He struck me on the chest which caused me pain, and then said: Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?” (Muslim 2127) Aisha herself said it: “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women.” (Bukhari 7.72.715)
Domestic abuse is found everywhere, but only in Islam is it given divine sanction. And of course, it is inimical to romance. The woman who lives in fear of it cannot love. She cannot even relax. The threat of it places her relationship with her husband on the basis not of love, but of fear.
5. Child marriage
Few things are more abundantly attested in Islamic law than the permissibility of child marriage. Islamic tradition records that Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, was six when Muhammad wedded her and nine when he consummated the marriage:
The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death) (Bukhari 7.62.88).
Given Muhammad’s status as the supreme example for Muslims to imitate, it is not surprising that child marriage is widely practiced in Muslim countries, and many Muslim clerics justify it. But telling your wife to finish her homework or not talk back to her elders – it’s not the stuff of moonlight walks and candlelight dinners.
6. Sex slaves
The Qur’an actually allows for the owning of sex slaves, in the same verse that allows for polygamy:
And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then one or those your right hand possesses (4:3).
The twentieth-century Qur’an commentator Maulana Bulandshahri explains the wisdom of this practice, and longs for the good old days:
During Jihad (religion war), many men and women become war captives. The Amirul Mu”minin [leader of the believers, or caliph — an office now vacant] has the choice of distributing them amongst the Mujahidin [warriors of jihad], in which event they will become the property of these Mujahidin. This enslavement is the penalty for disbelief (kufr).
He goes on to explain that this is not ancient history:
None of the injunctions pertaining to slavery have been abrogated in the Shari’ah. The reason that the Muslims of today do not have slaves is because they do not engage in Jihad (religion war). Their wars are fought by the instruction of the disbelievers (kuffar) and are halted by the same felons. The Muslim [sic] have been shackled by such treaties of the disbelievers (kuffar) whereby they cannot enslave anyone in the event of a war. Muslims have been denied a great boon whereby every home could have had a slave. May Allah grant the Muslims the ability to escape the tentacles of the enemy, remain steadfast upon the Din (religion) and engage in Jihad (religion war) according to the injunctions of Shari’ah. Amen!
This is by no means an eccentric or unorthodox view in Islam. The Egyptian Sheikh Abu-Ishaq al-Huwayni declared in May 2011 that “we are in the era of jihad,” and that as they waged jihad warfare against infidels, Muslims would take slaves, including sex slaves: “You go to the market, look at the sex-slave, and buy her….All scholars agree on this point–there is no disagreement from any of them….When I want a sex slave, I just go to the market and choose the woman I like and purchase her.”
And on May 25, 2011, a female Kuwaiti activist and politician, Salwa al-Mutairi, also spoke out in favor of the Islamic practice of sexual slavery of non-Muslim women, saying: “Sex slaves are not forbidden by Islam. On the contrary, sex slaves are under a different law than the free woman. The free woman must be completely covered except for her face and hands. But the sex slave can be naked from the waist up. She differs a lot from the free woman. While the free woman requires a marriage contract, the sex slave does not–she only needs to be purchased by her husband, and that’s it. Therefore the sex slave is different than the free woman.”
Imagine a romantic dinner, the lights dimmed, a slow sweet dance – and then a husband going off with his topless slave girl into the next room. Somehow, the romantic mood is broken.
7. The veil
Islamic apologists, including many women, insist that the veil is freely chosen (although there are numerous incidents in which Muslim women have been threatened or even killed for not wearing it), and that it enhances their dignity as a precious jewel that is only seen by her husband.
Reality is more prosaic: the clear implication is that the female body is shameful, and to be hidden away. Even worse, the idea behind the veiling of women is that they enflame male lust by appearing uncovered, and therefore must cover themselves, because it is their responsibility, not men’s, to control that lust.
All this tends to make feminine beauty not an object of wonder and joy, but of fear and contempt. But fear and contempt are not what a man feels for his beloved – which is why it is so hard to call to mind any great and celebrated Muslim romances.