Question: There is a lot of confusion and misinformation viz a viz what is allowed in Islam regarding husband and wife intimacy. Please clarify in the light of Qur'ān and Hadīth.
Answer: The issue of sexual intimacy between a husband and wife has given rise to a lot of confusion. It needs to be appreciated that in this regard as per the Qur'ān and its dictates, three things stand prohibited:
1. Intercourse during menses
2. Anal intercourse
3. Oral Intercourse (both fellatio and cunnilingus)
These restrictions are mentioned in the following verse of the Qur'ān:
وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْمَحِيضِ قُلْ هُوَ أَذًى فَاعْتَزِلُواْ النِّسَاء فِي الْمَحِيضِ وَلاَ تَقْرَبُوهُنَّ حَتَّىَ يَطْهُرْنَ فَإِذَا تَطَهَّرْنَ فَأْتُوهُنَّ مِنْ حَيْثُ أَمَرَكُمُ اللّهُ إِنَّ اللّهَ يُحِبُّ التَّوَّابِينَ وَيُحِبُّ الْمُتَطَهِّرِينَ(2: 222)
They ask you concerning women's courses. Tell them: "They are an impurity. So keep away from women in their courses and do not approach them until they have cleansed themselves from blood. But when they have purified themselves after taking a bath, approach them in the manner the Almighty has directed you [in your instincts]. Indeed, Allah loves those who constantly repent and keep themselves clean." (2:222)
While the words فَاعْتَزِلُواْ النِّسَاء فِي الْمَحِيضِ (so keep away from women in their courses) explicitly mention the first of the above prohibitions, the words فَأْتُوهُنَّ مِنْ حَيْثُ أَمَرَكُمُ اللّهُ (approach them in the manner the Almighty has directed you [in your instincts]) implicitly mention the second and third of these prohibitions.
This means that, barring these three restrictions, everything else has been left to the taste and inclination of the husband and wife. The freedom they have in this regard is very aptly expressed in the following verse:
نِسَآؤُكُمْ حَرْثٌ لَّكُمْ فَأْتُواْ حَرْثَكُمْ أَنَّى شِئْتُمْ وَقَدِّمُواْ لأَنفُسِكُمْ وَاتَّقُواْ اللّهَ وَاعْلَمُواْ أَنَّكُم مُّلاَقُوهُ وَبَشِّرِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ(2: 223)
These women of yours are your cultivated land; go, then, into your lands in any manner you please [and through this] plan for the future [of both this and the next world] and remain fearful to God. And bear in mind that you shall necessarily meet Him [one day]. And [O Prophet!] Give good tidings [of success and salvation] to the believers [on that Day]. (2:223)
The portion of the verse: فَأْتُواْ حَرْثَكُمْ أَنَّى شِئْتُمْ (go, then, into your lands in any manner you please) refers to the liberty and freedom with which a person is allowed to come close to his wife. It is similar to how a farmer approaches his land. While explaining this expression, Amīn Ahsan Islāhī writes:
[This] alludes simultaneously to two things: On the one hand, it refers to the liberty, freedom and free manner with which a farmer approaches his land, and on the other hand refers to the responsibility, caution and care which he must exercise in approaching his land. The word حَرْثٌ refers to the latter and the word أَنَّى شِئْتُمْ to the former. It is both this liberty and caution which ascertain the correct behaviour of a husband with his wife in this regard.
Everyone knows that the real bliss of married life is the freedom a person has in intimate affairs barring a few broad restrictions. The feeling of this freedom has a great amount of euphoria around it. When a person is with his wife in intimate moments, Divine will seems to be that he be overcome with emotion but at the same time it is pointed out to him that he has come into a field and an orchard; it is no wasteland or a forest. He may come to it in whatever manner and in whatever way whenever he pleases, but he must not forget that he has landed in his orchard. The Qur'ān has no objection on the discretion, choice and majesty with which he approaches his field if he knows full well where he is going and in no way is oblivious of this reality.
One aspect of the husband and wife relationship is that while fulfilling many other needs, it is also a means of satisfying the sexual urge. If this urge is satisfied between them, it secures their modesty and curbs sexual anarchy. However, if this urge is not quenched between the two, it might lead to grave deviations. It is because this relationship shields a husband and wife from any deviations that they are called each other's robes:
هُنَّ لِبَاسٌ لَّكُمْ وَ أَنْتُمْ لِبَاسٌ لَهُنَّ (2 :187)
They [your wives] are [like] a robe for you and you [like] a robe for them. (2:187)
In this regard, there are some issues which require further clarification. They include:
i. Extent of intimacy during Menses
ii. Intimacy without Nudity
iii. Refusing Sex to the Husband
Here are some clarifications regarding these issues:
i. Extent of intimacy during Menses
As far as intimacy during menses is concerned, it needs to be appreciated that only sexual intercourse is forbidden as is evident from 2:222 quoted earlier. Other forms of sexual intimacy are allowed.
Some Ahādīth and the practice of the Prophet (sws) also elucidate this fact. It is narrated about 'Ā'ishah (rta) that during her menstrual cycle she would comb the hair of the Prophet (sws) when he would be offering i'tikāf in the mosque.
It is further narrated from her that the Prophet (sws) would read the Qur'ān while placing a pillow in her lap.
In another Hadīth narrated from her she says that when any of the wives of the Prophet (sws) would be undergoing her menstrual cycle and the Prophet (sws) wanted to be intimate with her, he would direct her to tie a loin cloth on the lower part of the body and he would then approach her.
She further narrates that when she would drink water in her menstrual cycle and then give the same water to the Prophet (sws), he would put his lips on the same place [on the vessel] from which she had drunk. Similarly, when she would chew and suck on a bone and then give it to the Prophet (sws), he would place his lips on the same part of the bone where she had placed them.
Anas ibn Mālik(rta) reports in the al-Sahīh of Imām Muslim that amongst the Jews, when a woman menstruated, they did not dine with her nor did they live with her in their houses. So the companions of the Prophet asked him and Allah revealed ... (See 2:222 above). The Prophet then said: "You can do everything except having intercourse with her."
ii. Intimacy without Nudity
On the basis of a Hadīth, many people believe that spouses should not be nude before one another and they must cover themselves during sexual intercourse. Following are the words of this Hadīth:
حدثنا إسحاق بن وَهْبٍ الْوَاسِطِيُّ ثنا الْوَلِيدُ بن الْقَاسِمِ الْهَمْدَانِيُّ ثنا الْأَحْوَصُ بن حَكِيمٍ عن أبيه وَرَاشِدُ بن سَعْدٍ وَعَبْدُ الأعلى بن عَدِيٍّ عن عُتْبَةَ بن عَبْدٍ السُّلَمِيِّ قال قال رسول اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم إذا أتى أحدكم أَهْلَهُ فَلْيَسْتَتِرْ ولا يَتَجَرَّدْ تَجَرُّدَ الْعَيْرَيْنِ
'Utbah ibn Sulamī reports from the Prophet (sws): "When you want to be intimate with your spouse do not be naked the way donkeys are naked when they are intimate."
It may be noted that not only is this narrative unsound and unreliable and hence nothing can be construed from it, it is also against the Qur'ānic words: فَأْتُواْ حَرْثَكُمْ أَنَّى شِئْتُمْ (go, then, into your lands in any manner you please).
iii. Refusing Sex to the Husband
On the basis of the following Hadīth, it is understood that if a wife refuses sex to her husband she will be cursed by the angels:
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ رَضِيَ اللهُ عَنْهُ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِذَا دَعَا الرَّجُلُ امْرَأَتَهُ إِلَى فِرَاشِهِ فَأَبَتْ فَبَاتَ غَضْبَانَ عَلَيْهَا لَعَنَتْهَا الْمَلَائِكَةُ حَتَّى تُصْبِحَ
Abū Hurayrah reported that the Prophet said: "When a husband calls his wife to bed, and she refuses and [as a result] the husband spends the night in anger, then angels curse the wife all night till dawn."
In order to understand this Hadīth, the following points need to be understood:
Firstly, a husband and wife safeguard the chastity of one another by providing one another a legitimate means of satisfying the sexual urge. This protection of chastity is essential for the preservation of the family unit – the very institution on which the stability of a society hinges. Hence anything which puts chastity in jeopardy is disliked by the Almighty.
Secondly, a man is equally an addressee of the directive mentioned in this Hadīth. This is evident from the directive of īlā mentioned in the Qur'ān (2:226-7) in which the Arabs of the pre-Islamic period would swear to sever sexual relationship with their wives because of anger. Although the husbands were prescribed a period of four months to decide the fate of their wives by either resuming these relations or divorcing them, it is evident from the directive that in normal circumstances a husband is not allowed to sever sexual relations with his wife without a valid reason. So much so, if a person swears such an oath, he must break it. Such relations are the right of a wife and if a husband does not fulfil them, then he can be regarded a criminal both in the eyes of the law and before the Almighty in the Hereafter.
Thirdly, the basis of refusal by the husband or wife must also be taken into consideration. If either of them is tired, sick or simply not in the proper mood and in the appropriate frame of mind, then this does not entail any wrath of the Almighty. It is only when a spouse starts to deliberately evade such natural needs of the other that the attitude becomes questionable.