Is masturbation lawful in Islam?

I received an anonymous text from a compatriot of mine. He wrote to ask for my opinion on masturbation. He wanted to know whether masturbation is a grievous sin that is punishable by the Almighty on the day resurrection. Just before I sat down beside my computer to do this piece, I thought I needed a professional input. I then put a call across to a medic friend and brother of mine. I asked him: ‘Brother! What is the medical position on masturbation?” He responded: “You know what Prof! I do not know of any negative medical implication that could result from indulgence in masturbation. What I do know however from interactions with those who practice it, is that masturbation does not guarantee maximum sexual satisfaction. Those who practice it usually experience hallucination. Instead of the act providing sexual succour and gratification it only usually makes the desire for sex stronger…”

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In other words, when the text message to me asking about the position of Islam on masturbation, I resisted the urge to send a reply to him the moment the message came my way. I thought I needed to widen the geography of the enquiry further to include other prohibitions that Muslims are aware of and which are recipes for healthy life and living. I therefore sought that medical opinion on masturbation not in anticipation of a response that would give the practice a ‘clean bill of health’. Rather, I did that with the intention to argue that hardly is there a prohibition in Islam that reason or medical practice would contradict. For example, a thousand four hundred and thirty nine years ago, Islam forbade the consumption of alcoholic drinks and beverages. I do not know, as at today, of a medical opinion which says alcoholism is good for your body. “Do not go near fornication” so says the Quran (17:32); tell me of a culture or civilization that says illicit sexual practice is a virtue.

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Now a reader of the Quran would not see an equivalent in Arabic for masturbation which is al-Istimna. The latter in English refers to sexual stimulation of one’s own genitals for sexual arousal or other sexual pleasure, usually to the point of orgasm. The stimulation may involve two hands, fingers, everyday objects, sex-toys such as vibrators, or combinations of these. It is not only men who engage in this, women equally do. The last time I visited a shopping mall in the United States, I saw various sexual equipment on sale; in America you do not need the opposite gender before you pleasure yourself to hell! Now at least three perspectives are available in Islamic jurisprudence in regard to masturbation: the permissive, the prohibitive and the ambivalent. Scholars who consider the act permissible do so based on necessity. They have argued that when a married or unmarried person experiences sexual urge and he finds no legal avenue to assuage his desire he could turn himself to both the “actor” and the “acted upon”. In other words, masturbation is a lesser evil in comparison to fornication and adultery. Scholars who hold this opinion would also argue that there are no verses of the Quran which explicitly forbids masturbation; to them the Law-Giver is silent on the permissibility or otherwise of self-pleasure.

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Another group of Muslim jurists consider masturbation as Makruh (something detestable in Islam). Actions that are considered to be Makruh straddle the ‘dangerous’ space between the lawful and the unlawful. To them it may be permissible in certain circumstances particularly where temptations to commit fornication and adultery are very high. At other times it may be forbidden. I consider this position ambivalent.

However, a larger group of Muslim jurists, exegetes and legists consider masturbation as completely forbidden. It is their opinion that the Quran (Q 23:1-11) explicitly lays down avenues from which the believer is permitted to seek sexual gratification, namely their spouses and the slaves (during the time when slavery was in vogue). These scholars therefore argue that since “’masturbation is excluded by the Almighty from the list of the lawful, an indulgence in it becomes an infraction of the divine will”.

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Further, the conclusion jurists have drawn from the following verse: ‘And those who do not find the means to marry should remain chaste until the Almighty gives them resources by His grace’ (Quran 24: 33) are the following: Firstly, in this verse the Almighty has given the command of chastity and, according to the principles of Fiqh, a command (an imperative) denotes incumbency and obligation. Hence to remain chaste is compulsory and to refrain from that which is contrary to it, for example, adultery, fornication, and sodomy is equally compulsory. This is due to the fact that obligatory chastity will not materialize except by complete abstinence from all that which is contrary to chastity.

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To be continued next week

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