Concept of marital rape in Islam

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

Until yesterday a woman was considered man’s property after marriage and sexual gratification with her was considered his absolute right. She could not deny her husband this right whether she wanted or not. In early eighties of the last century Sisters in Islam, a women’s organization in Malaysia sent me a query whether there is anything like concept of ‘marital rape’ in Islam.

I went through all available traditional Islamic literature and found nothing of the kind and reluctantly replied that such a concept does not exist. I also studied literature on women’s movement in various countries and found that no such concept exists in western laws too. But then I came across a judgment of a British court which came out with this concept and pronounced husband of a woman guilty for forcing himself on an unwilling wife.

This set me thinking and urged me to study Qur’an from this perspective. As we all know most of the Qur’anic verses revealed over a period of 23 years were in response to some or the other problem which arose in the Prophet’s (PBUH) life. It seems no such problem arose as women in those days also considered it as their duty to surrender quietly to their husbands’ sexual demands. If not husband who else could make such demand? For the same reason hadith literature was also silent on this question.

But mere silence does not mean approval. Qur’an is also silent about punishment for drinking. Does it mean drinking could be allowed? Not at all. The punishment for drinking was prescribed through analogical reasoning. Also, the Prophet (PBUH) was strongly in favour of ijtihad based on Qur’anic values and values of sunnah(Prophetic traditions). It is also important to note that it would amount to injuring basic spirit of Qur’an to assign fixed meanings to its verses.

If Qur’an is a book of eternal guidance specially in new situations arising from time to time, one must have freedom to rethink meaning of its verses in these novel situations. Also, what is more important to note is that Qur’an was not meant for guidance of one or two generations of Arabs but was meant to guide entire humanity of all times to come. It is true the Qur’an addresses some specific problems of immediate relevance to the Arabs of the time.

But Qur’an is much more than that. It gives certain eternal moral and ethical values and a transcendent vision going much beyond the time it was revealed in. Only persons of great future vision could capture this spirit of Qur’an. Again it was for this reason that its verses, ever dynamic and pregnant with meaning were interpreted in different ways. Also, if we confine Qur’an to Arab culture, customs and traditions, Qur’an will loose much of its relevance for the coming ages.

What Qur’an prescribed by way of women’s rights was revolutionary enough. It gave to women what no woman could have imagined at the time. Yet because of severe constraints of time and extremely low consciousness of women themselves its revolutionary character was greatly diluted. Now times are changing fast and women’s consciousness is not what it was when the Ulama of the time were formulating Shari’ah laws. The whole approach to the divine text has to change in keeping with the transcendent vision of our own times.

This requires not only the study of Qur’an in great depth but more than that its real vision. In the past ulama, in keeping with spirit of their own times considered women, above anything else, a reproductive agent and also, means for gratification of men’s sexual desires and sadly even interpreted verses on polygamy and possession of slave girls in this light and even contemporary ulama talk of polygamy as necessary as women go through menstrual cycles and pregnancy and hence need more women than one to gratify their sexual desire. Nothing could be more absurd than this.

Even a cursory study of Qur’an makes it clear that a woman is as much a spiritual entity with dignity of her own and in no case lesser in dignity than that of man. Qur’an repeatedly advises men to treat women in all matters including marriage, divorce and even weaning of children, with utmost sensitivity, compassion and mercy. The Prophet gave her greatest respect both as a mother and wife.

It was for this reason that when women asked the Prophet (PBUH) about their status the verse 33:35 was revealed and gave women most exalted spiritual status. How can then be they treated as mere object of sexual desire as most of our ulama reduce them to? Sexual desire is not the end but means of perpetuating human species and women has more exalted status in this respect as they fulfill the reproductive function and but for them, human species would be extinct. Men thus cannot treat women as an object of sexual desire but most noble means of perpetuating human race.

Thus any attempt to force women to merely fulfill men’s lust would be un-Qur’anic in spirit and against her dignity and would amount to marital rape. What is rape after all? To force oneself on her injuring her human dignity be it within or outside marital frame-work. Love and tenderness are most fundamental for going near women. It is these feelings according to Qur’an which creates strong marital bond. If there is no love and tenderness such a marriage is nothing more than legal fiction for rape.

Asghar Ali Engineer is author of Rights of Women in Islam. Sterling Publishers, 1992.