I wanted to know if it’s haram to read smut and if so what are the punishments for it.
The seeking of any form of sexual pleasure outside the context of erotic love between married couples is either forbidden or in a gray area in Islamic law. The Quran says, in its description of pious people:
29. And those who guard their chastity.
30. Except from their spouses or those whose right hands possess, for then they are free of blame.
31. But whoever seeks to go beyond that—these are the transgressors.1
For a person who seeks to please God to the utmost, “whoever seeks to go beyond that” would be sufficient to make them stay away from all forms of sexual pleasure that is not within the context of marriage. However, it could be argued that reading erotica is merely a pleasure of the mind and has no connection with one’s chastity.
The Quran also contains many admonishments regarding the avoidance of fāḥshāʾ (as in verses 7:28, 16:90 and 24:21), which is usually translated as “indecency” by Arberry, “all that is shameful” by Muhammad Asad and “lewdness” by Pickthall. Personally I prefer to translate it as “engaging in obscenity”. To engage in obscenity, according to the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton in his Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation, is to engage in any act in which humans are not treated as individuals, but as bodies. Pornography is obscene, and watching it is an obscene act, because in it we see humans not as honored individuals, but as mere bodies that one looks at for pleasure. Pornography reduces humans to zoo animals that we enjoy looking at; their humanity is taken away from them. Humans know naturally that pornography is obscene, and that obscenity is harmful and repulsive. Even the most irreligious and progressive families would not find it acceptable to sit down as a family to watch a pornographic film, even if every member of the family is an adult.
If it can be agreed that something constitutes fāḥisha, then this would make it one of those things forbidden by the Quran. In Scruton’s view voyeurism (taking pleasure in watching others engage in sexual intimacy) is obscene, because it does not involve the interpersonal, social aspect that is present in sexual intimacy between a married couple. Reading an erotic novel or story is voyeurism through text, one takes pleasure in imagining others engage in sexual intimacy.
The problem with obscene pleasures is that they degrade us, taking us from the world of humans to the world of animals. A person who has been watching a pornographic film or reading an erotic novel for 30 minutes will feel out of place, like a stranger, if they were to go sit down in a social gathering. The reason is that obscene pleasures always involve dehumanizing others, while in society we are supposed to treat others as humans. There is a deep conflict between these two modes of interaction. It is impossible to maintain a warm and wholesome human society when everyone engages in obscene pleasures; the warmth of social interaction comes from seeing others as individuals of infinite worth, while obscene pleasure reduces other humans to mere bodies, instruments for one’s pleasure.
It will require a long essay to fully clarify the conflict between human society and obscenity. Those interested can read Scruton’s book. Back to the question of erotic writings, personally I consider it an obscene pleasure. It contains an element of fāḥshāʾ (obscenity), meaning that the general Quranic prohibition on engaging in fāḥshāʾ applies to it.
There is no punishment specified for it. It is similar to a man admiringly looking at a woman he sees on TV. He is doing something degrading to himself, and he is harming his relationship with God by doing something He disapproves of. The enjoyment of any form of obscene pleasure goes against true piety and fear of God. But if someone is overcome by desire (as in the case of someone who cannot avoid masturbation) into doing it, then it is not a big deal. They can repent and go on with their lives. God does not ask us to be have super-human self-control. But those who have sufficient self-control to avoid an obscene pleasure, and who know full well that it is something God disapproves of, then if they do engage in it, they degrade themselves in the sight of God.
There is no obvious harm in a man admiring a woman’s picture, or in a person reading a sexually suggestive story. The harm is not in the act in itself, but in its effects on the person’s relationship with the humans around him/her. It is a slippery slope whose harms can take years to become appreciable. The more we engage in obscenity, the more anti-social we become, the more we feel as if we are merely pretending to be moral and upright in society. This leads to horrible sense of loneliness and disengagement with those around us. The warmth of human society leaves our lives; sex in its physicality becomes paramount, we start to see the humans around us as objects rather than individuals. It becomes difficult to respect even one’s own parents when we start to see them as mere animals with sex organs rather than honored individuals. Obscenity forces an animalistic worldview that is directly in conflict with maintaining a human society in which people are honored.
So reading one or five erotic novels may have no appreciable harm on a person. But they shouldn’t be surprised if this makes them less honoring and respectful towards those around them, and if those around them start to develop a dislike for them in return. And they shouldn’t be surprised if they start to feel as if they are living a lie, as if they are only pretending to be moral. It is impossible to maintain one’s inner sense of moral dignity while engaging in obscenity in private, because the two things contradict one another.