We would categorise the sex and marriage-related books we came across in the course of writing “Sex, Soul, and Islam” and “Tranquillity, Love, Mercy” as follows:
a) The classics
Nowadays, classical writings like the “Books of Marriage” in hadith compilations to Ihya ‘Ulumuddin by al-Ghazali to later day compilations of classical rulings like Fiqhus sunnah by Sayid Sabiq have been translated into English and are increasingly available to the general Muslim public. Anyone looking for authoritative guidance on sex and marriage ought to be referring to these sources. The problem is that the average Muslims, like those preparing for marriage, or veteran couples trying to keep the fire burning, or even the average non-Muslims curious about the Islamic way of life, would find them laborious heavy reading with no start nor end in sight. Priceless as they are, these are really only palatable to those with career or schooling in Islamic studies – or those trying to retell the classic story of sex and humanity like us.
b) Modern orthodox scholars
Here, we are referring to scholars known to uphold traditional or largely accepted interpretations of Islam, who had framed their analysis of Islamic marriage viz-a-viz modernity, one way or another. These are the likes of Fazlur Rahman Ansari with his intellectual exposition of the Quranic principles of marriage in opposition to the forces within and beyond the fold of Islam trying to refashion it along modernistic thought (1973); Hamudah Abdul ‘Ati with his use of social science to dissect the family structure as envisioned in Islam and expose Muslim society’s deviation from it due to parroting of ossified traditions blamed on Islam (1977) and Abdelwahab Bouhdiba with his honest appraisal of Arabo-Muslim sexual history and how Islamic teachings have been abused to sustain male-serving sexual mores and ethos from its golden age to his lifetime (1985) – all of which are listed in our bibliography.
Such works show that for the ideals of Islamic marriage to materialise in modern marriages, the general Muslim public sorely needs the ability to see the spirit behind the letter of laws and the essence of its teachings beyond the forms that helped perpetuate it so as to embody its ideals in whatever socio-politico-cultural realities they find themselves in. Unfortunately, together with the classics, such authoritative works are too intimidating to the general masses – heavy reading, in other words. But to be fair, such works are not targeted towards them either; hence our interest in rendering their message relatable to the average Muslim “in the street”.
c) Muslim progressives and liberals
As far as leanings go, we would not call ourselves Muslim progressives and liberals. We regard their philosophical rejection of classical opinions on grounds of the changing of times, social values and whatnot rather akin to throwing the baby with the bath water. We have no doubt of their good intentions to help modern Muslims fit in into their modern environment. Our discomfort is with their militant disdain of specified marital roles and their advocacy for their complete overhaul along modern egalitarian ideas. Unfortunately, we routinely see the crippling impasse between couples who had unwittingly attempted but failed miserably to “reinvent the wheel” of marital roles – including in their conjugal rights.
Like the proverbial baby, the average Muslim couples need the security of the traditional bath water. As minders, we need to help couples keep the water free from filth or if need be, replace the water without having themselves thrown out with it. Specifically, our attempt at this process is in the form of Chapter 2, preparing readers for the continual process of purification and nurturing expounded in Chapter 4.
d) Non-Muslim writings
Being primarily English-western educated, we are naturally exposed to non-Islamic sources of information. This exposes us to modern thinking, culture, norms, approaches, methods and such, hence allowing us to see Islamic marriage through modern-western lenses of anthropology, sociology, and social work studies, as well as clinical intervention disciplines like marital and sexual therapy. One discipline we can confidently say has never been explored by Muslim researchers is empirically observed sexological responses in humans, for better or for worse. But be that as it may, the treasure trove of sexual knowledge there is too valuable for us to ignore and much has gone into this book. All in all, this group of writings helped us explain the Islamic concepts, laws and ethics of sexual relationship in terms which modern readers are likely to relate to.
e) Guide books
Today there are seriously countless titles in English alone providing guidance on sex for Muslims ranging from its dos-and-don’ts to its ethics to the sex manual genre. Guide books serve a much-needed function of translating grand concepts and big solutions offered by Islamic literary luminaries into understandable guidance and tips for the general masses to implement.
Our assessment is that the majority of these guide books are written from the perspective of fiqhi (jurisprudential) prescriptions of right and wrong during sex. Even those promising the akhlaqi (relational) angle of sex usually end up dwelling into its adabs or prescribed etiquettes, instead. And the sex manual genre is as prescriptive as it promises. In other words, there is this enduring tendency to prescribe. Perhaps, practical, implementable guidance is what modern Muslim society needs today. Perhaps there is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach, except that too much of a good thing can be bad.
However, there are several guide books that help to expand the general masses’ outlook on marriage and sex. Works by the likes of Ruqayyah Waris Maqsood from UK and Suzy Ismail from US, invite the masses to ponder over the emotional, relational and sexual issues that plague modern Muslim couples. (These are also listed in our suggested reading list). These works display a street-smart awareness of what’s going on in contemporary Muslim marriages as they write from a viewpoint of someone from the helping profession who have actually tended to the muck in broken marriages. And they offer a much-needed balance to the glut of prescriptive legal approach to marital and sexual guidance.
The latter types of guide books are closest to our proposed book. But we baulk at seeing them as competition because we wish for such writings to flourish and ours to be an addition to their contribution.
f) What do we add?
Like the hundreds of guidebook writers, our aim is to help Muslim couples cope with modern life challenges on their marriages, but not with another instructional guidebook. We have already written Tranquil Hearts – including a chapter on sexual relationship – as a guidebook in 1998 which is still being used as a textbook in marriage preparation courses in Singapore.
Instead, in addition to prescriptive guidance, the general Muslim public can do with a little bit of reflections on why these are what they are in order to have an inkling of the ideals, aims and goals behind them so as to know what to focus on as they implement these prescriptions. In addition are the skills to discern and make necessary hands-on relational adjustments when Quranic sexual ideals are not quite successfully embodied within their marriage (which is what Chapter 4 is about).
Linking Islam’s marital and sexual teachings intricately with the three elements of Islamic development (iman, amal, ihsan) and between them into one holistic message is an approach we frankly have not seen in any writing before. But God Knows best.