Asexual Fiqh

Coercion, violence, and queerness in the context of Islamic orthodoxy

Note: This was originally published in f-ace-ing silence, issue 4.

Content warning: This post discusses coerced sex and domestic violence and systems that give religious sanction to these actions.

I have never experienced coerced sex or any other form of sexual or domestic violence. I chose the path of isolation 22 years ago and have strenuously avoided any kind of relationship, especially with cis men, where there might be any pressure on me to provide sex.

Since discovering online asexual communities three years ago, and especially since beginning to write about Islamic orthodoxy from an asexual perspective in the last year and a half, I have thought a lot about the likelihood I would have experienced one of those forms of violence had I chosen to marry.

When I claimed queerness for myself in March 2014, it was not on the basis of same-sex attraction, although I am exclusively emotionally attracted to other women. Rather, it was on the basis of my rejection of sex with men and the way that Islamic orthodoxy marks me as deviant because of that.

Living in a context of Islamic orthodoxy as a woman who rejects sex with men means being marginalized, isolated, and excluded from communities when I choose to reject marriage, or facing the potential of entrapment, coercion, and even violence if I marry. Traditional Islam offers no third choice.

Starting around 800 CE (about 150 years after the establishment of Islam as a religion), Islamic legal scholars began to construct marriage as a contract for exclusive sexual access to a woman. Her sexual availability at nearly all times became a necessary condition for the validity of the marriage.

Framing marriage in this way allowed these scholars to justify the husband’s control of his wife’s ability to leave the house and even her voluntary religious observance. If she engaged in these activities without his permission, traditional Islamic law deemed her disobedient and subject to punishment.

The Quran itself grants husbands the right to take disciplinary action against wives they consider to be “recalcitrant”. Disciplinary action can include verbal admonishment, separation from the marital bed, and hitting.

Islamic feminists and other progressive Muslim scholars today have argued that the normative example of the Prophet Muhammad, who never hit a woman, should be taken as the definitive interpretation of the Quran.

However, the consensus of the traditional scholars is that hitting is allowed and that a wife’s refusal of sex constitutes recalcitrance and thus is worthy of punishment.

In addition to the options of verbal admonishment, separation from the marital bed, and hitting, traditional legal scholars also allowed a husband to cut off the financial maintenance (housing, food, and clothing) that he is otherwise legally required to provide to his wife. (This financial coercion has no basis in the Quran.)

On top of all of this, the traditional legal scholars placed significant limits on a wife’s ability to seek divorce when she feels she cannot fulfill the role expected of her, or in cases of the husband’s mistreatment.

Taken together, these rules create a regimen where an asexual woman would have little to no ability to construct a celibate marriage and where she can be subject to measures of entrapment, coercive control, and even physical violence if her husband deems her asexuality a form of “recalcitrance”.

The stories of Sawda bint Zam’a and Rabi’a bint Isma’il, two potentially asexual women from early Muslim history, illustrate the vulnerability of the asexual wife and her dependence on her husband’s willingness to refrain from using his patriarchal authority against her.

Both Sawda and Rabi’a sought to avoid sex with their husbands. Sawda’s husband (the Prophet Muhammad) accepted this and sought to fulfill his sexual needs through polygamous marriages with other women. Rabi’a’s husband, by contrast, persistently sought to coerce her into sex despite having initially agreed not to.

My own decision not to marry is based primarily on the fact that I think I’m much more likely to end up in Rabi’a’s situation than in Sawda’s. I just don’t trust most men when they have that much power over me. The extremity of my vulnerability in an orthodox Muslim marriage gone bad scares me.

I want to be able to talk about these issues in Muslim spaces and add to the growing Islamic feminist dialogue on domestic violence and the legal tradition.

I also want to be able to talk about coerced sex and domestic violence as asexual issues and as queer issues.

The topic of whether asexual individuals can or should use the label “queer” for themselves is one that come up in recent years in some online spaces such as Tumblr. I believe this debate is based on overly narrow definitions of what it means to be queer.

When we understand queerness solely as the experience of same-sex desire, asexuality is not queer in and of itself. But if we consider queerness to include the absence of cross-sex desire and the failure to adhere to the norm of heterosexual behavior, then we open up the possibility for asexuality to be queer on its own terms.

And when we recognize my experience as an asexual woman who rejects sex with men as queer, then we must also recognize that some queer experiences are distinctly gendered. In Islamic orthodoxy, asexual men would face few of the issues I have described here, because of the patriarchal authority that this orthodoxy grants to men.

Much of the discourse about queerness that I have seen in these online debates seems to be rooted in the experiences of men (specifically of gay men) and I do not believe it sufficiently takes into account the distinctive issues that queer women may face.

That I am not only asexual but socially classed as a woman under patriarchy matters to how I understand my queerness. That I could face coerced sex and domestic violence because of my queerness matters. I want a discourse that acknowledges that.

Without such acknowledgment, I feel erased and silenced, unable to articulate my experiences in a language that others recognize. That I am not straight has had a profound effect on my life and I need to be able to talk about that.

Creating an asexual jurisprudence in Islam

It took me awhile to decide what to write about for this Carnival. Not because I don't know what I want to say, but because I've already written so much on the topic. Not including this post, my asexuality and Islam tag includes 14 original posts.

I've written a few posts (1, 2, 3) on hijab (the Islamic modest dress) and how people's perceptions of that intersects with my asexuality. I've written about belonging (and not belonging) to communities and about compulsory sexuality. I've written tips for straight Muslims and other allies. But the topic I've written about most extensively is marriage.

The (so far) eight posts in my "Asexuality, Islam, and Marriage" series tend to be the least-read of all my asexuality and Islam posts, which doesn't surprise me. They're dense and they also discuss topics that are foreign to most asexuals on Tumblr - both because Islam is not well-known to most non-Muslims and because most online aces tend to be secular or atheist.

However, these posts are the ones that I most hope that other asexual Muslims will read and benefit from, and they're the most important to me. They're the result of 15 years of independent study of Islamic jurisprudence as it relates to sex and marriage.

Although only one of the posts explicitly proposes a new framework, I see all of them together as constituting a fledgling asexual jurisprudence. Why is an asexual jurisprudence needed? Because traditional and orthodox jurisprudence doesn't work for asexual Muslims, especially those who cannot, do not, or will not engage in sexual activity. For asexual Muslim women especially, the traditional jurisprudence of marriage can result in oppressive and harmful outcomes because it tends to consider such women as inherently deviant.

Whether asexual Muslims are seeking to enter a marriage with an allosexual Muslim, and need safeguards if the relationship falls apart, or if they want to legitimize a queerplatonic or other non-sexual relationship with another asexual Muslim, they will need to go beyond the orthodox jurisprudence of marriage, even in a cross-sex relationship. And, yes, asexual Muslims may need to create a jurisprudence of same-sex marriage too.

In practice, there are many obstacles to implementing asexual jurisprudence, which to me emphasizes just how unorthodox it can be - and why asexual Muslims need it.

Presenting any kind of challenge to orthodoxy, whether it is Islamic feminism or queer theology*, can evoke a strong backlash. Moreover, I have no formal Islamic scholarly qualifications (let alone the advanced ones many traditionalists claim are needed to engage in independent reasoning). This is often very difficult for women to obtain, and I have extremely limited access to any kind of Islamic learning from where I live, except online. Right now, my fledgling asexual jurisprudence is too obscure for anybody to have had much of a reaction to it. And it may only ever be a niche interest.

But for me it's about leading a livable life as an asexual Muslim, and that's why I've embarked on this. I claim the right to do it out of sheer necessity.

*I could also have called my work an "asexual theology" in the broader sense of "religious discourse" but in Islam the term "theology" (kalam) tends to refer to discourse about the nature of God, so "jurisprudence" is a more precise term.

An Asexual Muslim Perspective on Arranged Marriages

demigrayspeaks recently wrote about issues facing aces in India. This is an excellent post and I recommend reading the whole thing. I want to add my own perspective to the specific issue of arranged marriages, since if I were to marry (I don't plan to), my marriage would likely be to some degree arranged. I am defining an arranged marriage as one in which a person other than a party to the marriage selects the spouse; most commonly this is done by older family members.

Muslims who follow strict rules of gender interaction do not date in the way that is common in Western culture today. This is the main reason that many Muslim marriages are arranged. Family members (or others) who are of the same gender as the prospective spouse may investigate and interview potential spouses then present one or more options to the person who wishes to get married. The prospective couple will often have chaperoned meetings to get to know each other and to determine compatibility before they agree to the marriage. They will likely not know each other deeply and are relying heavily on the judgment of their family members (or whoever is arranging the marriage) that this person will be a good spouse for them.

Stepping back to look at the larger context, in Islam, marriage is considered a private contract between the two parties. It is not a sacrament and is not required to be performed in a mosque. Historically, it was not registered with the state or with any religious body, so it does not require anybody to officiate. Instead, the only requirements are two parties who are able to make the contract according to Islamic jurisprudence, and two witnesses. (It is considered recommended for the couple to publicize the marriage within their community, such as by holding a wedding party with invited guests.) Many Muslims in the West do marry in a mosque today, or with the imam (prayer leader at the mosque) officiating at an off-site location. Since most imams are authorized by the appropriate state or local government to officiate at marriages, the couple can have a religious marriage and a civil marriage at the same time. However, it would be entirely valid for a couple to marry privately and have a separate civil marriage when they wish to register with the state.

According to three of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, a woman is not authorized to contract a marriage on her own behalf, but must delegate this to her agent (wali) who serves as her proxy. It is not uncommon in some Muslim cultures for the contract to be made at a private ceremony attended only by the groom, the bride's wali (usually her father), and the two witnesses (both of whom have to be adult males), then later there is a big wedding party when the couple will be establishing their residence together.

The school of jurisprudence that I follow is one of the three that require the woman to delegate to a wali. There are detailed rules for which male relatives can serve as wali in what preference order. However, this does not apply to me since the wali must be a Muslim and as a convert I do not have any Muslim relatives. In such a situation, it is preferred but not required for the woman to ask the imam of her local mosque to serve as the wali. As an alternative to the imam, she can designate any adult male Muslim that she wishes to be her wali.

The three schools that require a wali give greater power to the father when he is serving as the wali for a daughter who has not previously been married, in that she does not need to give her consent to the marriage contract. In effect, the not previously married daughter is treated as if she were a minor or legally incompetent. This is despite the fact that the Prophet stated that it is required to obtain the consent of such women. (Ah, patriarchy!) If the daughter has been previously married, or if the wali is anyone but her father (including another male relative), then the marriage is invalid without her consent. The school I follow is unique among the three that require walis in stating that if the not previously married daughter presents a suitable husband candidate (where "suitable" is defined as being religiously committed; other schools have stricter rules defining suitability, usually based on income/profession or social class), the father cannot refuse to contract the marriage as wali, even if he has another candidate that he wants her to marry instead. This rule allows her to take the initiative to marry whoever she has chosen, despite the legal power given to her father. (In the other two wali-requiring schools, the father can arrange the marriage that he wants even if another candidate has been presented.) All three wali-requiring schools affirm that non-paternal walis cannot refuse to contract a marriage to a suitable candidate (however this is defined by the school) and that, if they do, they lose their right to be a wali and it passes to the first person on the preference list who will contract the marriage. (The fourth school, which does not require the wali in most circumstances, only allows a woman to contract her own marriage if the husband is suitable in terms of both religious commitment and profession, otherwise her wali can annul it. So this isn't exactly a feminist position either.)

The requirement for the wali is not necessarily the same thing as an arranged marriage as the wali is only legally necessary for the marriage contract itself. This can be seen in the example given above where the woman presents her own choice of suitor and the wali (incuding a paternal wali, in the school I follow) has no choice but to contract the marriage. Instead, as noted above, the preference for arranged marriages comes out of the rules for gender interaction. What the wali requirement means is that if the marriage is arranged, the wali (whoever he is) will be the one doing the arranging.

So how would all of this play out in my own personal situation? Here's the key passage from my local mosque's marriage guidelines:

The bride should be represented by a Wali (male guardian), usually the father. If he is not present, a blood relative of the bride will take permission from the father to represent the bride. If no blood relative is available, written consent must be obtained from the father prior to the marriage.

What this means is that the father or other designated wali has to be physically present to act as the bride's proxy; if he is not present, he should delegate another male relative to serve this function and if no such relatives are available, he must submit a written consent that authorizes the bride to act on her own behalf.

The guidelines don't go into detail about how to proceed if the wali is not the father, much less if the bride has no male relatives at all to serve as the wali. Apparently these situations don't come up very often; I know for a fact that there are very few converts in my local community. Presumably, I would need to contact the imam and explain my situation and he would designate a wali who would be physically present.

At this point, I can't help but note that because of the gender separation that is observed at my local mosque, I have never actually met the imam or even seen him in person. I am mostly unmosqued and largely isolated from the community. When I go to the mosque for big community prayers like Eid (described in the linked post), I go directly to the women's building where we listen to the imam via loudspeaker, pray, then leave again. Although many women are much more involved in the community than I am, I would guess that unless they specifically volunteer at the mosque or its attached school, they have little or no interaction with the imam either. Strictly in terms of making use of the limited facilities that are available, having a separate women's building is probably the least-bad solution, but it is very far from ideal and leaves women isolated. (I could write a lot more about my struggles with this situation, but that is far beyond the scope of this post.)

At the same time, my isolation means that I do not have a lot of contacts with the men in my community (or with the women, for that matter) so arranging a marriage within the community but outside the mosque isn't really a feasible option.

All of this would be daunting enough for me (as a sometimes socially awkward introvert) if I were looking for a standard marriage. But in fact I'm not. As I've written about before, sex is not an option for me. The only kind of marriage I could enter would be a celibate one. This would require a highly unorthodox marriage contract, one that the traditional schools of jurisprudence do not consider valid. In my earlier post, Reconciling Asexuality with Belonging to a Muslim Community, I talked about the difficulty in having to turn to the orthodox establishment in my community (i.e., the imam at the mosque) to contract an unorthodox marriage. I honestly don't see any way at all that I could do this except by having found a potential husband on my own that would agree to a celibate marriage and then hope that the imam would agree to contract the marriage without asking questions.

But that then brings me back to the issue of gender interaction, as this makes it very difficult to find and get to know a potential spouse on one's own. For many allosexual Muslims, matrimonial banquets and online matrimonial services aimed specifically at observant Muslims are an answer. However, that would hardly seem to be an effective way of meeting an asexual Muslim man, and in fact the idea of going through a speed-dating experience or trying to get to a serious conversation about asexuality or celibacy from there fills me with dread and even horror.

I actually kind of like the idea of having someone that I trust be able to really investigate and evaluate potential spouses and of having a more business-like approach rather than presenting marriage as some great romantic dream (I'm aromantic and would not be able to "fall in love" with any potential spouse). This might make it easier to bring up things like celibate marriage stipulations. This is why I think that if I were to seek marriage, I would probably want it to be arranged to at least some degree, because I would need someone's help in being able to construct the kind of marriage that I would need.

I need to conclude this post by reiterating that in fact, given all of the many barriers I've discussed in this post and elsewhere, and the fact that even being in a celibate or queerplatonic relationship with an asexual man somehow doesn't compute in my mind, I am not planning to marry, whether in an arranged marriage or otherwise. The purpose of this post is to describe a hypothetical situation where I might, in order to illustrate the thought process that I've gone through in the past before ruling the whole thing out, and to give an idea of how an asexual Muslim woman who is also a convert might choose to approach the question of arranged marriage.

My "no" is not a passive "yes": Patriarchy and the conflation of non-autonomous sexuality with non-sexuality

I think the assumption that sex-indifferent aces are open to sex/having sex/etc. is an expression of compulsory sexuality. I did not grow up in a culture of of compulsory tennis-playing, so if I say that I am not interested, people understand that I probably do not want to play. But under compulsory sexuality, if I do not have some kind of obstacle like sex-aversion/sex-repulsion, then of course I am OK with participating in sex … huh? (Sara K, Why Are Sex-Indifferent Aces Assumed to Be Open to Sex?)

Earlier this year, I looked at sex-normative discourses in Islam in regard to marriage. Across a series of posts, I explored how a combination of compulsory sexuality and patriarchy would make it difficult, if not impossible, for an asexual Muslim (especially an asexual Muslim woman) who is not able to provide sex to survive in a marriage where a mutual agreement of celibacy had broken down (I also looked at the many obstacles that stand in the way of making such an agreement in the first place and how this can affect asexual Muslims who wish to legitimize non-sexual relationships through the legal structure of marriage).

In these posts, I argued that both partners in a marriage are considered to have a "right" to sex, and that these rights are a mirror of each other, but that women are disadvantaged in that the consequences for us in withholding sex are more severe, and in that we have a more difficult time leaving a failed marriage. This is an accurate representation of most contemporary Muslim discourse on marriage that I have seen.

This summer, I read Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, by Kecia Ali. This book takes us back to the 800s CE as Islamic jurisprudence was first being systematized. Ali shows how scholars at this time developed a framework in which the primary purpose of marriage was understood as a man gaining sexual access to a woman (since sex outside of marriage is considered religiously prohibited or haram in Islam). Because sexual access was what he "owned" through the marriage, the wife was expected to make herself potentially sexually available to him at all times except when the rules of the religion itself designated her as unavailable (such as during the fasting day in Ramadan, or during her menstrual period, post-partum bleeding, or illness). This framework was then used to justify requiring a wife to obtain her husband's permission before leaving the house (in reality, the Prophet stated that women were always permitted to go out for their needs, and he specifically prohibited men from preventing their wives from going out to the mosque) and to give a husband control over certain of his wife's voluntary religious observances like fasting. All of this was because these activities would make her sexually unavailable to her husband for a period of time. Even making herself potentially sexually unavailable without permission, not just declining a specific sexual advance from the husband, was considered nushuz (recalcitrance or disobedience) that justified disciplinary action.

Needless to say, this is patriarchy taken to a blatant, horrifying, extreme of male dominance. These early scholars did recognize that the Quran and Sunna granted wives a reciprocal right to sex, but Ali shows how they went out of their way to minimize any ability for the wife to seek legal recourse if her husband withheld sex from her, or indeed for her or anybody else, even a judge, to place any expectation or obligation on a man to do anything that he didn't want to do (I'm reminded of this quote by Andrea Dworkin).

So what does all of this have to do with Sara K's quote with which I opened the post?

Precisely because the patriarchy here is so blatant, with so little attempt to cloak itself in any justifying rhetoric, I believe that examination of it can offer us insight into how compulsory sexuality operates. In particular, I feel that it clarifies the difference between a non-autonomous or passive sexuality, and non-sexuality. I read Sara K as saying that her sex indifference is a default "no" to sex, a "not interested", and that it shares with sex aversion a preference for a non-sexual life, but that it is being read by others as a passive yes which is then taken to be similar to the active yes of the sex-favorable asexual.

When we look just at the question of women's sexual rights within the framework I am discussing, it might seem that women were not considered to have sexual desires of their own (independent of their husband) that were worthy of being fulfilled. In some feminist discourse, this is described as, "women* were expected to be asexual" (here understood as meaning "non-sexual" rather than the more narrow sense of "does not experience sexual attraction").

And yet in this same framework, the woman is expected to literally be continuously sexually available at all times to her husband. That sure doesn't sound like any non-sexuality or asexuality that I've ever heard of!

The reality is that in the framework I described above, the wife is expected to have a passive or non-autonomous sexuality. It exists whenever her husband wants it to. When he wants sex, she must willingly submit, and make sure to show him that she enjoyed it. But when he doesn't want sex, then she shouldn't have any desires that it would inconvenience him to fulfill. The sex-positive feminist discourse of "women were expected to be asexual" somehow manages to erase the whole "when he wants sex" part of the framework. The example I'm discussing here is from the pre-modern Muslim world (specifically the regions that are now Saudi Arabia and Iraq), but I'm pretty sure that there is no patriarchal society where "submit when he wants sex" hasn't been part of the wife's expected behavior. The non-autonomous sexuality that patriarchy constructs for wives thus includes the expectation of passive yes as part of its very definition. Women as wives are still expected to be willing for sex, to take part in it, and to enjoy it. They just aren't supposed to actively seek it out on their own initiative.

Given this fact, it appears to me that the type of sex-positive feminist discourse I am referring to must define "sexual desire" purely as the active or initiating role, and that receptive willingness (the passive yes) doesn't count as "real" sexual desire or real sexuality. This is the only way it would make sense to describe a receptive willingness for sex as "asexual". In this case, how are allosexual women defined? As those who take the active, initiating role? Is there any space in this discourse for the active no and the always no? I don't see it. The implications of this kind of discourse impute a compulsory sexuality to me against my will. They distort my self-definition and deny my agency. They replace my NO with a passive yes. I will even go so far as to call this a manifestation of rape culture and an act of patriarchal violence against me, and against other asexual women in the same position. A feminism that does this to me is a feminism that is inimical to my interests as a sex-averse asexual woman and that participates in my oppression. I must reject it. I hope that sex-positive feminists who engage in this discourse will recognize the implications of their use of the label "asexuality" and of their understanding and depiction of non-autonomous sexuality, and that they will reject it as well.

Finally, to return to the question of 9th century Islamic jurisprudence, the framework I mentioned above has thankfully been replaced by a more equitable one, even if it is still overly (and unjustifiably) patriarchal. However, some of the rules developed under the earlier framework persist, particularly in conservative discourse. The value of Ali's book for Islamic feminists is in showing where such rules came from and how they were constructed by patriarchal men, which can help us to dismantle them.

*The original article linked here makes this claim about white women specifically. What I am arguing is that patriarchy has never had an expectation of total non-sexuality for women of any race or social status. Even white or class privilege has historically not protected most women from compulsory sexuality (or, as Lisa Millbank puts it, for women these privileges can often be a shitty lemon). These privileges may limit the expectation of a woman's sexuality to her husband alone, but the expectation still exists and, since we're discussing marriage here, privileged women are in their weakest position. It's worth noting in this context that the implicit subject of the pre-modern Islamic legal discourse I am examining is an upper class woman, though the rules are to be applied to all women including slaves (hence the title of Kecia Ali's book). My post should also not be understood as an attack on the original article (which is excellent overall and makes many good points) or on its author, as I have seen similar claims in a number of other pieces and consider its assumptions to be pervasive in much sex-positive discourse. I used it as an example because I couldn't let the use of "pure asexual virgins" pass unremarked. Trust me when I say that as an asexual virgin, I am not actually the societal ideal because I am also a 41-year old sex-negative spinster.

Same-Sex Marriage in Islam: Notes for Asexual Muslims

In my post, Why marriage? Issues for asexual Muslims seeking to legitimize non-sexual cross-sex relationships, I explored some reasons why a cross-sex asexual Muslim couple might wish to marry in order to legitimize a non-sexual relationship. The argument in that post is limited to the situation of asexual Muslims who partner with people of a different assigned sex. More broadly, my entire discussion about marriage in Islam (1, 2, 3, 4) takes for granted an assumption that I might be interested in or be willing to have a non-sexual relationship with an asexual Muslim man, if I could just surmount the obstacles that patriarchal interpretations of Islam place in the way of this.

In fact, this assumption is not correct, and this is something that I have come to realize as I have explored asexual discourse in the last few years.

I am aromantic as well as asexual. I have absolutely no positive gender preference, even in terms of aesthetic attraction. However, I do seem to have a kind of “negative preference”, in that my sex-aversion is much stronger in regard to men than in any other direction. I have come to realize that this extends even to a non-sexual relationship even with an asexual man.

Prior to discovering the asexual community and asexual discourse, I had assumed that sexual/romantic relationships were the only real kind. Since I'm not interested in these, and in fact would experience major difficulties in navigating them, I assumed that having a long-term relationship that might ever be fit into the box of marriage was out of the question. Learning about the concept of queerplatonic relationships opened my mind to a new understanding of what is possible for me and I now am interested in exploring this as a potential in the future (at the current time, it is not more than a distant possibility).

However, when I try to imagine myself in a queerplatonic relationship with an asexual man, somehow it just doesn't compute and it begins to trigger what I have learned to understand as my aversion response. I confirmed this to myself again as I explored the intersection of asexuality and Islam and developed the ideas I'm now publishing in this series of posts. Figuring out how to make such a relationship work within the Islamic framework is good, but I still don't want to actually do it.

By contrast, the idea of a queerplatonic relationship with another asexual woman does make sense in my mind and doesn't trigger the aversion response. In fact, I've become fairly certain in the last year or so that if I ever do enter into a queerplatonic relationship, it will be with another woman.

So, what's the situation for a same-sex asexual Muslim couple? First of all, traditional and orthodox Islamic jurisprudence does not support same-sex marriage at all. This should not come as a surprise to anybody.

It's not simply that marriage is defined as between a man and a woman. The very way that marriage is structured in Islam establishes two distinct gender roles in the marriage. The man makes the marriage by offering the bride-gift or mahr (Quran 4:24), the woman accepts or rejects. She can initiate the process by inviting a particular man to propose to her, or by inviting a number of suitors to present their cases to her and she will choose among them, but she does not herself offer the mahr to a man.

Within the marriage, the man provides complete financial support (maintenance) and in return* has the right of qiwamah or leadership (Quran 4:34). The woman is expected to follow his leadership (this can be understood as anything from accepting his decision as final after their consultation to patriarchal ideals of unquestioning obedience) and rejecting his leadership is an instance of recalcitrance (nushuz). I have already discussed at great length how this framework affects asexual Muslim wives who are unable to provide sex.

The man is also able to make a divorce completely on his own initiative, for any reason that he chooses. While women have a range of rights to divorce in Islam, a wife does not ever make the divorce herself, but rather the husband agrees to, or is ordered to, make the divorce at the time or in the circumstances she has requested or previously designated. The most sweeping divorce right for women, delegated divorce, still recognizes that the authority of divorce rests with the man and in that situation is being exercised by the woman acting as his proxy.

Progressive scholars have begun making cases within the framework of Islamic jurisprudence for allowing same-sex marriage. In my opinion as a non-scholar, these arguments are very important, but only a first step, because they don't address how a same-sex couple would deal with the gender role structure of Islamic marriage.

Does one of the partners agree to take on the "other" gender role within the marriage? If there is no offer and acceptance of mahr by persons in the appropriate gender roles does it even count as marriage according to Islamic jurisprudence? If the marriage is not considered legitimate, this can have serious negative consequences for the couple within the community (a topic I explored from a different angle even in the context of cross-sex marriage).

The ace-positive framework I discussed previously could be very helpful here, by stressing the centrality of the mutual agreement that the couple make (indeed, by making tranquility rather than regulation of sexual desire the purpose of marriage, it establishes a sound basis for same-sex marriage in Islam).

For the sake of argument, we'll assume that a same-sex couple have made a mutual agreement that one of them will take on the "other" gender role in the marriage and that each partner will follow all the rules and responsibilities set out in traditional Islamic jurisprudence for their gender role.

Such an agreement would enable the partners to receive financial benefit from the marriage, particularly in the case of the partner in the "wife" gender role (the partner in the "husband" gender role taking on the responsibility of maintenance). This is one of two reasons I gave why a cross-sex asexual couple might wish to legitimize a non-sexual relationship as an Islamic marriage.

The second reason I suggested is to uphold community standards in the regulation of social interaction. Traditional Islam strictly regulates interaction between men and women who are not married to each other, to the point that even the activities that a couple in a queerplatonic relationship might engage in (sharing a residence, being comfortable with each other in private, cuddling, holding hands in public) should only be allowed within marriage.

The thing is that the Islamic discourse around social interaction is utterly embedded in compulsory heterosexuality. One might argue, based on principle, that people should observe these rules with those people whom they are attracted to, or who are attracted to them (thus, asexual Muslims would get an exemption from most of the rules), regardless of the designated sex of the people involved. However, in practice, the rules are stated as between men and women** and are not applied to same-sex interactions.

What this means for asexual Muslims is that most of the "queerplatonic activities" discussed above would likely fall into the zone of what is acceptable between same-sex friends (especially since many Muslim cultures are more accepting of displays of homosocial affection, even between two men, than are Anglo-American cultures).

It may be that a same-sex asexual Muslim couple who have a queerplatonic relationship would not need to marry to legitimize their relationship in this way. Given that any such marriage would be highly unorthodox and require a large number of special arrangements and agreements, it would probably be easiest to not seek an Islamic marriage but to present as "roommates". This is an odd case where compulsory heterosexuality actually benefits asexuals in same-sex non-sexual relationships, an admittedly very narrow loophole.

For right now, this discussion is entirely theoretical for me, but there's a lot to think about should I have the opportunity of a queerplatonic relationship at some point in the future.

*Because this verse is phrased that men are given this right because they have more money and they spend it, some Islamic feminists have argued that if the woman has more money and agrees to provide maintenance to the man, she should get the right of qiwamah. However, this interpretation is not accepted by most Muslims.

**In my understanding, traditional Islamic jurisprudence is focused on the sex to which a person is designated, not to their gender identity. Thus, if you are designated as female because of the type of secondary sex characteristics you have, you should wear hijab because it is intended for people with those body parts regardless of their gender identity. A discussion of transgender and intersex rights in Islam is far beyond the scope of this post.

Why marriage? Issues for asexual Muslims seeking to legitimize non-sexual cross-sex relationships

Across a series of recent posts, I explored whether it is possible to have a celibate marriage within the framework of marriage in Islam, the obstacles an asexual Muslim may face in securing for themselves such a marriage, and a possible way forward.

Why bother? If an asexual Muslim wants to have a non-sexual relationship with a person of a different assigned sex*, why try to fit it into the box of marriage?

For one thing, marriage in a civil context brings a package of legal benefits that are not obtainable any other way, and asexuals may want to obtain these benefits. Asexuals, including aromantic and wtfromantic asexuals, can and have gotten married. People who are getting married for the civil benefits, and who are observant Muslims, might wish to have a religious marriage along with a civil one.

There are also some benefits, within the context of living one's life according to the rules of Islam, to a purely religious marriage.

The most obvious of these are financial benefits. A husband and wife inherit from each other if the other spouse dies. Additionally, the husband is obligated to provide the wife with a bride-gift (mahr) upon the marriage (Quran 4:24; according to Quran 2:237, she is entitled to keep half even if the marriage is never consummated), to provide complete financial support (maintenance) during the marriage** (Quran 4:34), and to provide a gift (mat'a) upon divorce (Quran 2:241). The financial benefits for a woman may thus be substantial. (As a side note, it is the husband's expenditure on his wife that is stated in 4:34 as the reason he gets greater power within the marriage, a topic I discuss at length here.)

The second set of benefits relates to the regulation of social interaction, specifically between men and women who are not related to each other, that observant Muslims typically try to adhere to.

According to traditional Islamic guidelines, a man and woman who are not related to each other should not be alone together in private, they should not engage in unnecessary physical contact (according to the strict rule followed by many devout Muslims, even shaking hands is strongly discouraged), they should lower their gazes around each other, and they should dress modestly (the woman's hijab or headscarf is thus part of a much larger code of conduct whose rules are nearly identical for both men and women, except in the specific form of modest dress).

Because of these rules, if we imagine an asexual man and woman who wish to have a queerplatonic (non-sexual, non-romantic) relationship but they would like to share a residence, be comfortable around each other, and perhaps engage in cuddling in private and holding hands in public, according to the orthodox rules of interaction, they would not be able to do this unless they were married to each other. Yes, these rules are very strict.

The regulation of social interaction is intended to guard against illegal sexual intercourse, and some of the rules will sometimes grant an exemption where sexual desire is not present (this is most commonly encountered in the discussion of shaking hands). One might argue based on this principle that asexuals do not need to adhere to those rules that are predicated on the assumption that they experience sexual desire (there are still some rules they might choose to follow, such as hijab, given that others may experience sexual desire towards them).

Nonetheless, if they wish to uphold the community standards in this area, or if they don't wish to have to explain their asexuality all the time (or indeed if they do not wish to disclose it at all), then marriage provides a way to legitimize a queerplatonic relationship under Islamic social guidelines.

To sum up, then, an asexual woman and man who have a non-sexual relationship such as a queerplatonic relationship may wish to seek a religious marriage for several reasons, including upholding Islamic guidelines on social interaction, financial benefits, or religious recognition of a marriage made to obtain civil benefits. My arguments in support of making celibate marriages within the Islamic framework are intended to make a space for the religious legitimation of such non-normative relationship types for the benefit of asexual Muslims.

*Because orthodox Islam does not support same-sex marriage, I have limited the discussion in this post to cross-sex relationships in order to explore how these, specifically, can be legitimized under orthodox rules.

**According to some traditional interpretations, if the wife is in a state of recalcitrance (nushuz), the husband is not obligated to provide maintenance. However, the Quran rejects this reasoning in 4:19 and 65:1. As and when this rule is followed, it makes the situation of the recalcitrant asexual wife even more dire. This is why the ace-positive framework I have proposed is so essential.

Towards an Ace-Positive Framework for Marriage in Islam

Standard Islamic discourse on marriage assumes that its purpose is the regulation of sexual desire, and this is how I presented it in my post, Islam, Patriarchy, and the Recalcitrant Asexual Wife. However, it is worth noting that the Quran never states this in any place.

Given how detrimental the consequences of this sex-normative assumption can be for asexual Muslims, is there an alternative way of conceptualizing marriage in Islam that is less oppressive to asexuals?

I am definitely no scholar and cannot offer any definitive answers to this question. However, I would like to offer the following suggestion.

I believe that the following verse is the clearest statement in the Quran about the purpose of marriage:

And from [God’s] signs are that He created for you from your souls, spouses, that you may be tranquil with them, and He decreed between you all love and gentleness. Surely in that are signs for a folk who contemplate. (Quran 30:21)

The early Sufi authority Abu Talib al-Makki took a very similar position:

God has decreed neither marriage nor celibacy… But he has decreed integrity of heart, preservation of faith, a soul at peace, and the execution of commands needed for these… And if one’s healthful condition, integrity of heart, and peace of soul reside in celibacy, then that is better for him, since these are the things that are desired of marriage. If one can reach these without marriage, then celibacy causes no harm.

I would go a step further and suggest that we recognize that any relationship that brings tranquility, love, and gentleness fulfills the purpose set out in Quran 30:21 for marriage, even if the relationship does not involve sex.

Another passage that I feel is important comes as part of a verse that sets out the basic procedure of marriage:

...And there is no fault on you in what you make for mutual satisfaction by it after the required [bride-gift]. (Quran 4:24)

(The earlier part of the verse establishes the requirement for the husband to provide a gift (the mahr) to the wife as part of making the marriage.)

Rather than designating a spouse as recalcitrant because they don't meet an externally-imposed standard of providing sex in the marriage, why not let the partners agree together on the terms that will give them mutual satisfaction, and only invoke recalcitrance (nushuz) if their specific agreement is violated? If the couple have made a mutual agreement to not have sex in their marriage, then under my proposed interpretation, this becomes the standard against which their relationship is judged, rather than a special exemption to a uniform rule of compulsory sexuality.

This is not so much a change to any of the rules governing marriage as it is a change to the conceptual framework in which marriage is understood. By changing this framework, we can avoid making sex-normative assumptions that end up stigmatizing asexual Muslims who are unable to provide sex and opening them up to potential harm.

Incidentally, the above understanding about the purpose of marriage and the priority of the couple's mutual agreement would not just be liberating for asexual Muslims, but would offer greater freedom in marriage to allosexuals as well. Everybody benefits when we give people greater autonomy rather than imposing uniform assumptions on them.

Islam, Patriarchy, and the Recalcitrant Asexual Wife

In my post Asexuality, Islam, and Queerness, I wrote that marriage is out of the question for me because I am not willing or able to have sex due to my asexuality, aromanticism, non-libidoism (lack of sex drive), and sex-aversion.

Marriage in Islam is understood primarily as a means of regulating sexual desire. Since sex is forbidden outside of marriage*, the marital relationship is considered the only legitimate outlet for sexual desire. Each partner is thus considered to have an obligation to meet the sexual needs** of the other partner and to not withhold sex from them to the degree that it would cause them to seek it outside the marriage.

For this reason, most scholars of Islamic jurisprudence believe that setting a stipulation in the marriage contract that the marriage will not involve sex is contrary to the purposes of marriage and is invalid. The one fatwa (scholarly opinion) that I've found that specifically mentions asexuality basically says that if an asexual does enter marriage, they need to disclose their orientation to their partner and (although the wording is a bit odd in this part) they can't then withhold sex because that would be unfair to the partner. It therefore recommends asexuals to not marry and says that the usual Islamic recommendations to marry don't apply in this case. As I noted in my earlier post, this is the conclusion I had come to myself long since, and is why I have not married and do not plan to marry.

Having said this, I've done a good deal of thought and research into how I would navigate a Muslim marriage if I had chosen to enter one. Are there ways it would be possible to have a celibate marriage by mutual agreement? And what would happen if that agreement fell apart? The second question led me to confront some very challenging questions about Islam and patriarchy and to delve deeply into Islamic feminism. If you are interested in these questions (and have the patience for a long read), follow me below the fold.

Before I start, a few disclaimers:

  • This post explores Islamic jurisprudence in some detail. While I have tried to make it as accessible as possible, not all the references may be familiar to non-Muslims.
  • Muslims may choose whether or not to follow the rules of Islamic jurisprudence. Many do not; we are not robots controlled by our religion or culture. However, the rules I discuss do shape the expectations that many devout Muslims seek to live by.
  • This post discusses some challenging texts in the Islamic sources. As well, some parts of this post may be taken as critical of some Muslims or interpretations of Islam. I do not in any way authorize the use of this post by Islamophobes or others to stigmatize Muslims.

To address the first of the two questions I mentioned above, while the marriage contract itself should not stipulate celibacy, most scholars also believe that a mutual agreement of the two partners during the course of the marriage to no longer have sex is valid. This is usually understood in the context of changing circumstances such as illness, injury, or advanced age.

There is precedent for a mutual agreement in the Prophet Muhammad's marriage to Sawda. Sawda was an older widow whom the Prophet married after the death of his first wife, and who helped him to care for his young daughters. At a later time, when the Prophet had taken additional wives, Sawda told him (according to the biographer ibn Sad) that she had no interest in sex or in men, but that she wished to continue being his wife. Although he had been thinking to divorce her, they instead agreed that he would spend the nights formerly designated for her with another of his wives. (Interestingly enough, polyamory is a solution that some contemporary asexuals have considered when in relationships with allosexuals.) Since in this case, the sexual needs of the allosexual partner (here, the Prophet) can be met through another lawful means, scholars have generally held that a mutual agreement to not have sexual relations that does not harm the interests or rights of either partner is permissible.

For me, this could open up the possibility of marriage to an asexual man, or to an allosexual man who has one or more additional wives. The mutual agreement could be made unofficially near the start of the marriage, to avoid the rule against stipulations. So there's more flexibility here than there might appear at first, if I were willing to enter into a somewhat unconventional marriage.

But what if the mutual agreement fell apart? To explore this, I am going to step back from my specific situation and consider two cases, an asexual man married to an allosexual woman and an allosexual man married to an asexual woman. We'll assume for the sake of this discussion that the allosexual partner initially agreed to celibacy because they thought they could handle it but they subsequently realized they could not.

Because sexual relations are considered a right of each spouse, to withhold that right is classified as nushuz. This might be rendered literally as "rising up against the rights (of the spouse)" but I am going to translate it as "recalcitrance". Nushuz or recalcitrance covers a wide range of marital problems, not just withholding sex, and implies an unwillingness or inability to change the behavior that is causing the problem. The Quran discusses recalcitrance on the part of the husband in 4:128 and on the part of the wife in 4:34. Additionally, 4:35 commands arbitration or mediation when a breach is caused in the marriage by either party.

Up until this point, our two cases (ace husband, allo wife; allo husband, ace wife) appear to be equal. Indeed, the Quran says to men (2:187): "Your wives are garments for you and you are garments for them," while 30:21 says, "And from [God's] signs are that He created for you from your souls, spouses, that you may be tranquil with them, and He decreed between you all love and gentleness. Surely in that are signs for a folk who contemplate." Islamic marriage has a strong basis of mutuality that is often not recognized.

However, Quran 2:228 also says, "And for [the wives] is the mirror image of what is asked of them. But the men have a degree over them." The husband's degree over the wife can be seen in the differing power each spouse has to deal with recalcitrance from the other spouse and that is what I will now discuss.

Our first case is the asexual husband with the allosexual wife. If the allosexual wife feels that her husband's withholding of sex constitutes recalcitrance, then under 4:128, she can seek arbitration for any mutually-agreed solution up to and including divorce. The divorce must be agreed by the husband or ordered by the arbitrators or a judge (the latter would only be the case in a country with a Muslim personal law code).

Interestingly, if his avowed withholding of sex continues for four months, then she is automatically guaranteed a divorce under Quran 2:226-227.

However, the asexual husband can divorce his wife at any time, for any reason, if he has determined that he can no longer continue in the marriage. For him to not do this would most likely in fact be an act of recalcitrance and a rising up against his wife's rights.

Now we get to the second case of the allosexual husband and the asexual wife. If the allosexual husband feels that his wife's withholding of sex constitutes recalcitrance, then 4:34 directs him to admonish her, to separate from her in bed, and to hit her.

Wait, what?

4:34 has been described as "the DNA of patriarchy in Islam" and as one of the most controversial verses in the Quran, and with good reason. Do Muslims believe that God has authorized domestic violence?

Islamic feminists have taken a variety of approaches in dealing with 4:34. I recommend the following resources for further reading:

For me, an equally important text is this:

It was narrated that 'Aishah said: "The Messenger of Allah [the Prophet] never beat any of his servants, or wives, and his hand never hit anything."

At one time, the Prophet had a major dispute with his wives. According to a well-known narration, he first admonished them (i.e., gave a verbal explanation why he believed their conduct was wrong), then separated them for a period of one month. Then, rather than hitting any of them, he offered them a divorce option.

The Prophet's way of living, or Sunna, is considering a binding source of Islamic law and jurisprudence alongside the Quran. Indeed, the Quran itself says that the Prophet was sent to explain the Quran and is to be obeyed by Muslims. Most of the specific details of how Muslims live, from the exact way we pray, to how we dress and what we eat, even specific methods of purification and cleansing, are based on the Sunna and are only mentioned in general terms in the Quran.

If the Prophet's understanding of 4:34 was to not take the permission to hit his wives, and to instead offer them a divorce option, how is this not considered binding on all Muslim husbands? Since when do Muslim men boast about disregarding the Sunna of the Prophet to take what he refrained from? He even told men that, "The best of you are the best to their wives," and that he himself was the best example of this, and that men who hit their wives are not the best. So now Muslim men are taking pride in doing what the Prophet told them is not good?

I see this as an instance where the patriarchal beliefs of scholars led them to take the worse of two possible courses, but that a feminist Islam can take the better of the two courses.

Whether the "recalcitrant" asexual spouse is a man or woman, if they are unable to provide sex to an allosexual partner, the same thing should result: divorce. The exact path taken in each case is slightly different but in both cases involves verbal discussion (either the wife and her arbitrators under 4:128 or the husband's "admonition" under 4:34) and a separation period that may last one to four months and which leads into the divorce. If we followed the Quran as the Prophet understood it, this is what our Islam would be like.

Having addressed the question of 4:34 and domestic violence, I will now look at some of the other options available to the asexual wife who is unable to provide the sex that her allosexual husband expects.

Khula is a woman's no-fault divorce. Set out in Quran 2:229, khula requires the woman to return the bride-gift (mahr) she received from her husband at the time of the marriage. Thus, the woman's right of no-fault divorce is not equal to the man's, as she has to "ransom" herself. The Prophet established the no-fault nature by allowing a woman to seek khula who had no complaint against her husband but felt that she could not be a good Muslim while married to him. In some Muslim countries today, khula may require the woman to convince a judge the she has just cause.

`Ismat is a condition placed in the marriage contract that guarantees a divorce for the woman in specified circumstances. `Ismat could be used to ensure that an asexual wife can leave the marriage if she finds that she is unable to provide sex that her allosexual husband expects. It should be noted that most schools of jurisprudence require a woman to have an agent (wali; this is usually her father) to negotiate the marriage with the prospective husband, so she would need to convince her wali that such an `ismat condition is reasonable and fair. Historically, `ismat and other conditions in the marriage contract have been the most effective way for Muslim women to secure their rights in marriage.

I already mentioned 4:128 above. If the asexual wife is able to convince her arbitrators that it is unreasonable to keep her in a marriage where she is unable to provide sex, then they can negotiate a divorce without "ransom" for her.

Something we see in common in all of the above options is that a Muslim woman is dependent on the good will of men in some way to achieve her rights. Whether it is her husband's adherence to the Sunna in offering a divorce option under 4:34, having her wali or arbitrators advocate on her behalf for divorce if she is unable to provide sex, or making her go to a judge for khula, she may not be able to act completely on her own. Most of this is due to patriarchal interpretations, not to the Quran and Sunna themselves.

We can also see from the Prophet's example in the instance of khula mentioned above that he did not believe in trapping women in marriages where they were unhappy. Instead of lecturing the woman in this case on her duty to submit to her husband, as many male scholars would do today, he respected her wish to leave the marriage and helped her to arrange it. Why do Muslim men today not follow this example either?

To bring the discussion back finally to my own situation, I feel that in deciding whether to make a Muslim marriage, I need to consider what would happen if things went wrong, especially in marriage to an allosexual man, what I would likely be told by other Muslims I need to do in my situation, and what my chances are of getting the help I would need from others to obtain a religious divorce.

I need a feminist Islam to open any way at all for me to marriage. In a time when patriarchal interpretations abound and patriarchal mindsets are all too common among Muslim men, I don't feel that I can take the chance. Especially when asexuality is hardly known and people believe the only way a person could ever not want or be able to provide sex is some type of physical illness or advanced age. In the worst case scenario, I could be trapped in a situation of domestic violence.

In a patriarchal Islam, the reality is that because of my asexuality, aromanticism, non-libidoism, and sex-aversion, as a wife I would innately and always be in a state of recalcitrance (nushuz) unless I had made special arrangements in advance, and if those arrangements fell through, then I would revert to being in a state of recalcitrance. I am not able to be a "good Muslim wife" and there is no way for me to become one.

*In pre-modern times, men were also allowed to have sex with slave women they had taken as concubines. I do not discuss this here, but Sexual Ethics in Islam and Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam by Islamic feminist Kecia Ali explore these questions in great detail and I recommend these works to those who are interested in understanding the issue.

**It's worth noting that the Prophet specifically stated the wife's rights to foreplay and orgasm (see also here). Pre-colonial texts are often quite explicit, including discussions of oral sex in the form of stimulation of the clitoris and when during the sexual encounter this should best take place.