Recently there was a discussion on Premier Christian Radio between Beth Grove of Pfander and Ed Husain, author of The Islamist and co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation on whether or not Islam can overcome sexism and violence? (It’s from the Unbelievable? series with Justin Brierley, which is essential listening for anyone interested in apologetics.)
They covered a range of topics, but Ed Hussein’s take on sexuality and Islam were particularly intriguing. This is what he said around the 38 min mark:
One of the reasons the West increasingly becomes more and more liberated is this constant contrast with how sexually joyous and liberal and free, whether it be homosexuality or polygamy or even lesbian and gay relationships were and documented in Muslim literature for 1000 years. The Qur’an talks about in Paradise having access to young boys! All of that’s the Muslim norm. But when I go to Mecca and Medina today what troubles me is that freedom, that individual liberty to be, and to have sexual relations with whoever you wish as long as your conscience is clear – that was the Muslim default in the past, despite what Scripture says and the reality is we don’t always live our lives according to Scripture so I have difficulty with Scriptural literalism, be it Christian or be it Muslim, it’s just human life..
It was a surprise to hear a Muslim talk so enthusiastically about a sexual licentiousness that goes beyond what is socially acceptable today – particularly when Ed mentions Allah’s ‘paradise’ involving ‘access to young boys’ in the context of the ‘joyous’, ‘liberal’ and ‘free’ sexuality of the Islamic world. Does he think ‘access to young boys’ is a good thing? Why does Allah celebrate in heaven what today carries a hefty prison sentence? And what does Ed mean when he says “you have sexual relations with whoever you want as long as your conscience is clear?” So if a Muslim man has sex with a young boy or girl, as long as his conscience is clear – and it might be, as Muhammad did the same -does that make it OK? Though I don’t think he means to, Ed is a short hop from justifying rape gangs. What standards are there for sexual morality in Islam?
Earlier he talks about the harem in the same glowing terms. I wonder if the women who lived in them also thought of their situation as liberal, joyous and free? Perhaps Ed should interview some of the women from Sub-Saharan Africa sold as sex slaves in Libyan markets or the Yazidi women bought and sold into ISIS harems for their take on things. And while criticising Wahabbis for their prudishness – he recalls a horrible incident when his wife was beaten round her feet for showing her ankle on the hajj-he seems to confuse prudishness with modesty. Because, for all their modest attire, if Ed were to dig around in Mecca and Medina, he might find a harem or two. (He doesn’t even have to dig that hard – you can read about a former Vogue model’s life as one of a Saudi billionaire’s twelve ‘pleasure wives’ here.) And why are harems culturally acceptable to Saudi billionaires? Could it have anything to do with the fact sex-slaves are permissible according to the Qur’an ( Sura 4:24)?
Ed was keen to stress that he was “not a literalist:” in other words, he doesn’t take the Qur’an at face value, but through the lens of human reason and human experience over time. But the difficulty with this logic is that it ignores how the Qur’an self-defines (Sura 85:21-22) and how the vast majority of Muslims perceive it, as the eternal word of Allah himself. So according to Ed’s hermeneutics, he doesn’t have to deal with the actual words of problematic verses like Sura 4:34 (which sanctions wife-beating) or Sura 2:223 (which sanctions marital rape) or Sura 76:19 (which describes the heavenly boys in Paradise as “pearls”), because he can either appeal to reason, which tells him these things are disturbing (in which case the words must be wrong) or appeal to context and claim that these things were acceptable in 7th century Arabia, just not today. In either case, he is by default either claiming that a) Allah’s words are flawed or b) Allah’s words can’t be eternal because they are limited by history. In other words, what Allah really needs is someone like Ed to make himself understood. So to build his case for a reformed Islam, Ed needs to appeal to radical Muslims based on Allah being a weak god who cannot make himself clear without human beings to help him. No wonder Islamic reformers are having such little success. At least within an Islamic world view, the literalist position makes sense.
But Ed is more of a literalist than he makes out. He says in the same quotation that “we don’t always live our lives according to the Scripture, so I have difficulty with Scriptural literalism.” His difficulty it seems, is not so much what the Scripture says, but its application. So if you can’t apply it, throw it out – not ‘the Scripture is wrong.’ That said, his list of ‘joyous’ sexual freedoms is not so deviant from what Islamic tradition actually teaches. Harems? Sura 4:24. Polygamy? Sura 4:3. Young boys? Sura 76:19 (Paradise only.) Having sexual relations with whoever you wish? Sounds like Muhammad, who had sex with a 9 year old child, had at least 11 wives, an indeterminate number of concubines and even took his adopted son’s wife – Muhammad had to unadopt him in order to marry her -even though his conscience wasn’t clear at the time (Sura 33:37). (Allah assured him not to worry about it.) Muhammad, who recommended his followers marry young girls so they could fondle them. Disturbing? Not at all, says Ed. “The Prophet relished in sexuality!….He was a feminist of his age.”
Towards the end of the discussion, Ed was aghast at Beth’s assertion that Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same god. She’s right of course. Christians don’t worship a god preoccupied with male sexual pleasure, (note ‘polyandry’ didn’t make his list of ‘delights’), but a Bridegroom – Christ – who is sworn in faithfulness forever to his Bride, the church (Revelation 21) . Earthly marriage – one man, one woman for life, with sex as the bond that unites them- is an imitation of this divine relationship. It is exclusive, committed and loving – from a God committed to us enough to die in our place.
That said, Ed still deserves credit for taking on his fellow Muslims for the atrocities they commit in the name of Islam. He puts himself at personal risk when he bravely asserts “the house of Islam is on fire.” But he’s wrong to think it’s a fire that can be put out from within.