There’s a widespread problem among men that needs addressing. This problem exists among women too, but since I’m a man I’ll speak to my fellow brothers. I don’t expect to solve the problem but if even a handful of people make some improvement after reading it, I’ll consider that a success.
The problem is that a lot of men harbor sexual thoughts and fantasies about women who they’re not married to. These are often people they know and interact with, such as their colleagues and coworkers, or are from the internet such as Instagram and Facebook, and so on. Celebrities and pornography can also be considered an extension of this problem.
In this post I will first argue that harboring these sexual thoughts is bad in and of itself, and shouldn’t be seen as something that only becomes bad if they’re “acted” upon, e.g. by masturbating to them, or not lowering one’s gaze, or engaging in physical contact. Then I will give 3 good ways to help fix this problem, and 2 bad ways to try to fix this problem.
It’s Evil By Itself
Some people might say, “the nafs constantly commands towards evil, we were created this way, there’s nothing we can do about it, it’s not sinful unless we act on it.” Technically, this is correct: the thought by itself is not haram, and only becomes haram if acted upon with words or actions.
However, it’s simply a fact that harboring sexual thoughts about someone leads to masturbating to those thoughts, or not lowering one’s gaze, or worse. If something leads directly to sin in such a strong and obvious way, it’s something we should avoid as much as possible. Maybe the thought enters one’s head inadvertently, but it becomes deliberate if it’s allowed to fester (I’ll expand on the distinction in a bit), and it will definitely turn into some type of action after that.
What I’m describing here can be seen as a disease of the heart, and we need to purify ourselves to combat these diseases. In his book Purification of the Heart, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf mentions in the chapter titled “Fantasizing” that the diseases of the heart include “lustful fantasizing about the beauty of a person one is not married to. In essence, if an action is forbidden, reflecting on that action is also forbidden” (emphasis mine).
In addition, one’s mind wandering in this way can have negative consequences long-term. For example, it affects one’s attraction to one’s wife. Sure, you can marry a good-looking woman and have an enjoyable first few weeks or months of marriage. But she will eventually get old, and you will get used to seeing the same person every single day. If your mind still has a habit of wandering and thinking such thoughts about other women, it will accelerate your lack of attraction to your wife and will lead to unhappiness in the marriage. You could end up as a married man who’s unable or unwilling to have sex with his wife, and just satisfies himself by masturbating to thoughts of other women, or even to porn. Don’t think of yourself as immune.
It also has negative societal consequences. Think of the “#MeToo” movement for example. There are many women whose careers and lives have been damaged because the men around them couldn’t keep to themselves. We see the end result – that the man sexually harassed or assaulted the woman, or approached a subordinate/colleague in a way that was inappropriate and made her feel uncomfortable. But think about what might have been going on his head before that, for days or even weeks or months or years. If they had avoided thinking those kinds of thoughts, or if they had buried them as soon as they came up, perhaps they wouldn’t have even ended up harassing the woman at all.
With all that said, it’s important to identify some fixes for this issue which we can all act upon.
Three Good Ways to Fix This
First: be mindful. Monitor yourself, be conscious about what’s on your mind, and think deliberate thoughts. According to Islamic scholars, being mindful is one of the keys to becoming a better person. Malik Badri writes in his book Contemplation: An Islamic Psychospiritual Study:
[Islamic] scholars gave genuine advice to those who wanted to perform good deeds, urging them to watch their notions and internal ideas, to remember God constantly, and to meditate on and contemplate the creation of the heavens and the earth. They also said that a person should try to change harmful notions and internal ideas before they become desires and drives, because changing a drive or motive is easier than stopping a consequent action, and removing an action is easier than trying to uproot it after it has become a habit.
Islamic scholars also explained the difference between inadvertent passing thoughts and thoughts that are allowed to fester. Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah terms the former a khatirah (plural khawatir) and the the latter a shahwah (plural shahawaat), which is also a well-known term for lusts and desires. Again from Malik Badri:
Ibn al-Qayyim explicitly says that anything a person does begins as an inner thought, a concealed speech or an internal dialogue, for which he uses the Arabic word, khawatir… [He] details the exact process by which fleeting thoughts, particularly negative ones, develop into human actions and observable behavior. He warns that a lustful, sinful, or emotionally harmful khatirah, if accepted and not checked by the person concerned, can develop into a strong emotion or lust (shahwah). If this emotion is entertained or given credence, it may generate so much cognitive strength that it develops into a drive or an impulse for action. And if this impulsive drive or emotional motivation is not neutralized by its opposite emotion or resisting drive, it will be acted out in reality as external behavior. Furthermore, if this behavior is not resisted, it will be repeated so often that it becomes a habit.
While this article is mainly about sexual desires, the above is also applicable to other feelings such as jealousy and envy. In the desires case, the pattern is clear. It starts out as sexual attraction for good-looking women (again, speaking from the normal male perspective here), which is normal and not inherently sinful. Sexual thoughts about a particular woman may enter a man’s mind, at which stage they’d be classified as khawatir. If he doesn’t banish them immediately, they become shahawaat, and they lead to a strong drive for sexual pleasure from that woman. Eventually this drive leads to external action, which can be anything from failing to lower one’s gaze to masturbation to “making a move” on someone.
This pattern can be seen as analogous to a trickle of water which becomes a stream which becomes a river. If you want to block the flow of water, your best bet is to do so upstream. This is where the importance of mindfulness comes in: by controlling your thoughts, you can do a better job of preventing bad actions than by letting your thoughts roam free and trying and failing to prevent bad actions downstream. For more tips, make sure to check out this guide by Yaqeen Institute on being a mindful Muslim.
Second: emphasize the importance of routine. Fill your heart with the recitation of the Quran and the remembrance of Allah – and the morning and evening adhkaar are an excellent place to start. Follow the Prophetic advice and fast outside of Ramadan as well, such as on Mondays and Thursdays. Routine is extremely important: before you know it, these good habits will become normal for you and you’ll be trying to add onto them.
Third: limit your interaction with non-mahrams of the opposite gender to that which is strictly necessary. I know this has been said before, and I’m probably among the most guilty at not following this. But it needs to be said again and again and again and again until we get our act together. This article by br. Tareq is especially geared towards Islamic organizations, but contains wisdom we can all benefit from and implement in our lives, so do check it out.
Two Bad Ways to Try to Fix This
Do not advocate trying to erase women’s existence because of our own inabilities and weakness. Some brothers unfortunately engage in this type of discourse, where they think it’s OK to basically erase women and make them invisible from society. This wasn’t how the Prophet (SAW) and sahaba lived, and it’s not the proper solution to our problems today either. At best it’ll bury the problem further underground, and at worst it’s incredibly unfair to the women who are having to face the consequences of our own shortcomings as men.
Yes, it’s true that many women dress inappropriately these days, in a way that’s much worse than anything seen before in human history, let alone Islamic history. Our own ancestors would be shocked walking in the streets of Cairo or Lahore or Istanbul, even at many of the “hijabis.” Unfortunately this is beyond our control at this point, and it’s probably only going to get worse from here. Especially with the rise of Instagram-based vanity culture, which has enabled women to display themselves online even in countries that have laws about how you can dress in public, e.g. Saudi Arabia.
At the end of the day, you have a decent level of control over your mind, but you don’t influence how women dress except a little. Taking some inspiration from Stoic philosophy, you should focus mainly on what you can control. Also, as a side note, it’s possible and quite common for a man to entertain inappropriate thoughts about a woman who was dressed modestly, so at the end of the day the dress is perhaps a side issue.
Another bad way to try to fix this issue is to think marriage will magically solve all your problems. Nothing could be further than the truth. Like I said above, not fixing this problem will have negative consequences on your marriage. Your first few weeks or months might be fine but everyone reverts to their normal habits eventually. Don’t think you’re any different.
Allah does not burden someone more than what they can bear. In Sha Allah we will all adapt, improve, and become better Muslims and thus people. If you’re dealing with this problem currently and follow the advice in this article, with Allah’s help, before you know it, you will be surprised you even suffered from this issue at all!
31 July 2019