The Secret Lives of Muslim Husbands
I am confronted on a regular basis with the growing phenomenon of pornography in the lives of Muslim husbands. Though it may come as a shock to many, according to concerned wives, pornography is becoming an increasing phenomenon for some Muslim men. It raises many questions, beginning with the most basic one: What is pornography an outlet for, specifically? Why are so many men turning to the "lesser adultery" or the adultery of the eyes despite their knowing - and not seeming to care - that both Allah and their wives are aware of their pastime? How can we better understand a Muslim adult male's desire to indulge in viewing pornographic material despite its illicit nature?
This article aims to explore some of these questions. Although no scientific data is available to make any formal claims about the topic at hand, I will attempt to provide some possible key underlying factors that contribute to the use of pornography by some Muslim husbands. To begin, I will frame my approach to understanding this issue in the context of the marital relationship.
It is narrated by Anas (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said, "When a man marries, he has fulfilled half of his religion, so let him fear Allah regarding the remaining half." (At-Tirmidhi)
According to Abdur Rahman Doi, "The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) considered marriage for a Muslim as 'half of his religion' because it may shield him from promiscuity, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, and a life which ultimately leads to many other crimes including slander, quarrel, homicide, loss of property, and finally the disintegration of the family system on which so much stress has been placed by the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)."
This well-known hadith is often used to stress the importance of marriage within the life of Islam. The Prophet of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) taught that marriage is one-half of one's religious life. This is obviously because there are so many responsibilities within the marital relationship that one must fulfill. The responsibility of caring for one's spouse, for the spouse's property, dignity, and honor is all found within the marital relationship; not to mention what comes with the addition of children, family, and property. Thus, to begin to understand the problem of Muslim husbands' use of pornography, we must first look at what is happening within the marriage relationship and what needs are not being met within this institution.
Intimacy and Marriage
Marriage in Islam is meant to be an intimate relationship defined by love and the selfless fulfillment of each spouse's needs, as Allah tells us in the Qu'ran:
[And one of His signs is that created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest in them, and He put between you love and compassion; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.] (Ar-Rum 30:21)
[They are an apparel for you and you are an apparel for them.] (Al-Baqarah 2:187)
Clothing provides physical protection and covers the beauty and the faults of the body. Likewise, a spouse is viewed as a protection. Each protects the other and hides their faults while complementing the characteristics of the spouse. Thus the apparel referred to, according to our erudite scholars, is one reflecting intimacy and support between the husband and wife. The husband and wife are meant to be each other's confiding friend, intimate companion, and trustworthy ally throughout life. If we take the Prophet's relationship with his first wife, Khadijah (may Allah be pleased with her), as a primary example, we will find many illustrations that reflect these elements, such as the manner in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) turned to the comforting arms of Khadijah after being confronted by Jibreel (peace be upon him) for the first time with the revelation of the Qur'an.
The intimacy does not stop at only physical or sexual compatibility but also includes emotional, spiritual, psychological, material as well as intellectual intimacy and support. It is a holistic closeness that is brought about by two individuals sharing a sincerity and bond in relation to each other's ultimate goal - closeness to Allah through surrender to His will. This shared goal becomes the basis for intimacy within the marriage, as the intention is not to please the other, but to please Allah, as one strives to fulfill the rights, needs, and desires of the other. From this joint effort, a synergy is achieved, a mutual affection, respect, and fondness for each other that can be called intimacy, and the selfless desire to support each other on the path to Allah, through times of both difficulty and ease.
This spirit of generosity and love becomes the basis for the marriage and acts as a tireless stream of energy and mutual attraction. The result is two people content with the will of Allah in regard to the spouse He has provided for each, and the taqwa (piety and fear of Allah) that prevents each from violating the marriage contract and Allah's Law.
In this ideal situation - a marriage grounded in taqwa, love, mutual respect and affection - contentment and devotion act as protection against negative outside influences. Each spouse is content with the other in terms of their needs, and over the conscience of each presides the knowledge that Allah is all-knowing. The relationship is based on love and a desire to provide for and serve the other, for Allah's sake. Although this might sound like an idealistic type of marital situation, it is not unrealistic.
When Allah becomes the center and focus of the marriage, rather than the center and focus being the mere fulfillment of selfish desires, happiness is more than achievable. The shift to align one's personal will with the will of Allah is what takes away from the incessant seeking of sensual gratification. Without this alignment, one seeks gratifications elsewhere than marriage, and, depending on one's level of taqwa, one might resort to avenues like pornography.
Women as Objects
It appears that too often wives in our communities are seen as nothing more than glorified servants. I am reminded of one young Muslim couple from the country where I reside. Upon marrying, the husband "demanded" sex from his young wife five times a day. It became so difficult for the young woman - emotionally as well as physically - that she lodged a formal complaint with the Department of Religious Affairs.
Such stories help us to understand how women are sometimes viewed by many men. The status of women in Islam is a common topic used by Western critics of Islam who try to show that women are inferior to men within the body of Islamic teachings and its worldview. Although even a superficial study of Islamic teachings is sufficient to rebut the attacks made by most critics of Islam, it is often difficult to defend Muslims themselves who, by their own actions, blatantly violate the tenets of Islam in relation to the treatment of wives and women in general. This disregard for Islamic teachings is often due to the influence of culture and ignorance, and the inability to discern between divine knowledge and cultural practice.
The tendency to treat women as mere objects or, in the more extreme cases, as second-class, is real and does exist within our Ummah. This dark reality is an aspect that shadows the self, refuses to go away or be dealt with in a real way. Ignorant males often twist religious teachings to support oppressive cultural norms that justify their treatment of women as mere objects. Perhaps if it were not for Western critical assaults, the issue would remain undisclosed.
The objectification of women is a major contributor to the use of pornography. Men who view women as little more than sexual objects are more likely to delve in pornography than those who see women as equally valued, feeling, thinking human beings.
Escapism and Meaninglessness
Related to objectification is the phenomenon of escapism. Escapism can take the form of drugs, alcohol, mindless entertainment, and other forms. Escapism is often sought out when reality is unsatisfying, anxiety-provoking, or even unbearable in the most extreme cases. For many Muslim men today, the world is a highly unfriendly place. Rather than working to improve their situations in whatever way they can, however, many choose to escape by indulging in activities that take them out of their reality. Pornography is undoubtedly a form of escapism. It allows men to enter a world of free sex and unbridled pleasure, though it is limited to the eyes and whatever the mind can imagine. It gives men a few minutes of relief from a harsh and sometimes oppressive reality that even their own wives and families cannot assuage.
Spiritually, escapism can stem from a feeling of disconnection with Allah. When Allah's presence is not truly felt, reality can become unbearable. At such times, Allah seems so far away and His mercy unaccessible. It is truly a dark place that many men go when their hearts lose the ability to realize the divine gifts that are always at hand. This state of affairs, caused by a sense of meaninglessness, reaches a point where the vicious cycle of addiction becomes reality.
Thus, escapism through pornography reflects a life void of meaning. Alternatively, a meaningful existence provides perspective where life is seen as an endless opportunity to contribute, give, help, support and act from a selfless heart for Allah's sake. In such a state, it is difficult to fall into the temptations of pornography and other forms of escapism, for there is nothing to escape from; everything we could want is right before us. One shifts from a mentality of "what I am not getting out of life" to one of "what am I contributing?"
This is the simple difference between the mentality of the one who is slave to his lower self and the one who is the true slave of God. The lower self is always taking because it is never fulfilled, never satiated. The `abd (servant), on the other hand, is always content and wishes to share that contentment with others by being charitable and thus inviting others to share in it with. As the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us,
The merciful are shown mercy by the All-Merciful. Have mercy to those on earth, and the Lord of the Heavens will have mercy upon you. (At-Tirmidhi)
Meaning is that which is arrived at in the soul and is, therefore, highly linked to man's ability to see the inherent interconnectedness of life. As Muslims, that means relating everything in our lives back to the Source of everything, Allah. Hence, constant effort and ability to see Allah's work and wisdom behind all aspects unfolds into daily life. With this perspective, nothing can ever be considered mundane. Quite the opposite, such a worldview makes life meaningful in a way that is unique to those who believe in God's total oneness. However, without looking through the lens of tawheed, there is a void inside of us that has room and fuel to grow. Thus, time is wasted, and there is a lack of desire to engage in anything of real value. We fall prey to pleasure-seeking behaviors to distract us from this sense of meaninglessness.
Out of Meaninglessness Comes Pornography
In my experience as a counselor, I come across many sisters trying to deal with husbands who are consumers of pornography. Below are two examples of the pain and frustration these women experience. What often compounds the problem is that many women assume their husbands are pious when they first meet them, only later to discover that they are consumers of pornography.
Case #1. One sister wrote the following:
Respecting that he was more of a practicing Muslim than I was, I tried to better myself as a Muslim, praying more regularly, wearing hijab, etc. This continued for about 2 years. I was the model wife and mother, and I built my life around the home and my family. Slowly I started finding pictures of other women, semi-clad, and some disgusting images on the computer. I asked him about it, and he said this was from before we met. … Though we shared the same bed, I was unable to be with him, after knowing and seeing the pornography, his text messages, his staring at semi-dressed woman, and whatever else he was secretly doing.
In the above case, the sister was forced to deal with not only pornography, but with a secret double life of her husband that included a possible affair with another woman. Despite her commitment to her husband and her family, the pain caused by her husband's secret double life, which included pornography, was too much for her to bear. It is not rare to find pornography going hand in hand with extramarital affairs and secretive double lives. Especially after many years of marriage, children, and a cooling off in a husband and wife's intimacy, men who turn to pornography in regular doses will sometimes succumb to the temptation of adulterous relationships. Pornography has a powerful suggestive effect on the mind, which is why many men who view pornography seek to imitate what they see in adult films with their wives.
Edward Marriot wrote about men and porn in the Guardian:
Extended exposure to pornography can have a whole raft of effects. By the time Nick Samuels had reached his mid-20s, he was altering his view of what he wanted from a sexual relationship. "I used to watch porn with one of my girlfriends, and I started to want to try things I'd seen in the films." … Married for 15 years, he admits he has carried the same sexual expectations into the marital bedroom. "There's been real friction over this: my wife simply isn't that kind of person. And it's only now, after all these years, that I'm beginning to move on from it. Porn is like alcoholism: it clings to you like a leech.
Case #2. In another case, a sister wrote to us believing that her husband was a hard-core pornography addict:
I've been married for almost 6 years and in all those years I've had to deal with my husband's addiction to pornography on the Internet. Well ... that's as far as I know. So far, I have no evidence to suggest that he engages in any haram activities outside the home. We've talked about this problem over and over, but it does not seem to stop. I've reached a point where I can no longer take this mental and emotional abuse from him. I've been a good wife to him but clearly he does not love me or appreciate me. We have two children and I'm ashamed that they have a father like him. To the rest of the world, he shows himself to be a good Muslim, religious and a good person overall. Only Allah knows the true him, and how much I suffer due to this problem which is increasingly causing more and more harm to our marriage and family.
In this case, her husband's pornography addiction leads to mental and emotional abuse. The pain and suffering the woman has experienced due to her husband's ongoing use of pornography can be compared to that of an actual adulterous relationship. David Morgan, consultant clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who counsels men with a history of sexual violence states that
the more time you spend in this fantasy world, the more difficult it becomes to make the transition to reality. Just like drugs, pornography provides a quick fix, a masturbatory universe people can get stuck in. This can result in their not being able to involve anyone else. (Mariott)
The wide availability of porn in the information age has made it an easy outlet. With its growth on the Internet alone, porn has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Not ironically, its growth has run parallel with increases in relationship and sexual dysfunction. Though establishing any kind of causal relationship between these variables is way beyond the scope of this paper, even a superficial examination of the topic will bear out the multiple negative aspects and outcomes of pornography on the lives of individuals and families. It is now entrenched in the Muslim community as well, as our counseling questions indicate.
A Need for Understanding and Honest Investigation
The reason why men in our community are succumbing to pornography is uncertain without a serious attempt to study the issue. At this point we can only speculate from what we hear from our concerned sisters who are living with this problem every day, and seek to understand what is happening in Muslim marriages and families. Ultimately, the existence of any perversion in the lives of Muslims stems from the simple fact that Islam is not being realized in the way that it needs to in order to keep us away from what is unlawful as well as harmful to our selves, our families, and our community.
It has been said that there is a spiritual remedy for every ailment. I believe that it is no different in the case of pornography and that the true cure lies, like everything, in turning back to Allah with a sincerely surrendered heart. When Allah's greatness, mercy, and omnipotence are not realized because He is not known and remembered, we open ourselves to many negative possibilities. The cure thus begins with a changing of priorities, values, and focus.
Pornography happens to be popular today due to its availability, accessibility, perceived harmlessness, and the fact that it can be done in the privacy of one's home without others knowing about it. As such, it is assumed to be a trail-less crime until a heartbroken spouse or a child stumbles upon it accidentally. It is for these reasons that we can defeat this enemy only through spiritual means. In order to do so, however, we must first understand ourselves and our spouses, and how we can best support each other on the path in, with, of, and to Allah.