Islam and pornography

The Philosophy of Pornography and Masturbation

Why is it wrong to watch pornography? Even if a person is not religious, they will still feel guilt and shame about a porn-watching habit. Where does this come from? Even the most free-thinking and atheistic person will have reservations about watching pornography with their family, even if everyone in the family is an adult. They are consenting adults, and no one is harmed in the film (it can be a computer-generated film). So where does the wrongness come from?

This was one of the most difficult questions I have had to answer for myself. My diaries contain many entries over the years where I argued why watching pornography is wrong only to defeat my own arguments. Being religious, I did not need to justify the wrongness of pornography to myself in order to avoid it. I already knew it was wrong; I just wanted a good intellectual argument for why it is so.

They key that opened this mystery to me and many other mysteries about sexuality was Roger Scruton’s 1986 book Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. Finally I found arguments that could satisfy my skeptical self.

A popular argument against pornography is that people are harmed in its creation. This is true, but it does not cut to the root of the problem. Imagine if thousands of yours in the future a person discovers a computer hard drive filled with pornography. All of the people in the films or pictures are dead. Surely whatever harm was associated with the creation of those films or pictures would no longer be relevant. Enjoying them would be similar to enjoying visiting the pyramids in Egypt. We know thousands greatly suffered in those projects. But that does not prevent us from enjoying the sight of the pyramids; their magnificence and beauty.

Or imagine an artificial intelligence system that can generate pornography that is better and more realistic than the real thing. No one is harmed in the creation of such pornography. So what is the right moral approach to it?

Evolutionary psychology and the uniqueness of humans

The root problem with pornography is not the way it is created. It is also not the erotic enjoyment it creates in its consumer. It is also not exactly the way it is supposed to cause a person not to enjoy real sexual intimacy or to become lazy and disinterested in seeking out real-life partners.

The problem goes deeper.

The basic problem is that humans are not animals. Enjoying pornography means breaking a moral rule that is tied to our basic humanity; it is our humanity that is damaged in the process.

A main attraction of the evolutionary study of human psychology since Nietzsche and his Darwinian influencers has been the sense of perspective and knowledge that we gain over fellow humans when we view them as mere bags of matter controlled by built-in biological instincts; our relationships become so simple if we look at them solely through Darwinian eyes. My mother loves me because she has genetic instincts that make her love me. If she is just a mere collection of matter who is configured to be nice to me then that takes away all of my duties and responsibilities toward her. I may still be nice and dutiful toward her because I have genetic instincts to be this way toward her, but I will not pretend that there is anything to this relationship between selfish genes using us for their own ends. Looking at humans this way, we feel like our eyes have been opened. We see the cold, harsh reality of existence and have at least taken a first step toward dealing with it, a step that (we think) most of those around us cannot even conceive of taking.

And yet, our actual, lived human experience proves the utter falseness of the above way of seeing the world. My mother is not just a mere collection of matter; she is also a person. Persons possess self-consciousness, inviolable dignity and infinite worth. A single uninteresting and “average” person is worth more than any amount of money you can imagine; all great moral philosophers would agree that even if a country could gain trillions of dollars by killing a single innocent person, it would be evil and morally unjustified for it to do so. Somehow a single person is worth more money than the entire world can offer.

We live between two completely opposed views of humans. One of them is only too happy to reduce humans to mere collections of atoms. The other one accepts nothing less than infinity as the worth and dignity of each and every human.

If were to commit genocide by eradicating an ant colony, most people would not think the worse of me. Yet genocide against humans is widely agreed to be a terrible crime. There is something unique about humans that makes it inappropriate to treat them like insects or animals. There is no agreement on where this uniqueness comes from. Science can only view humans as clever bags of matter, so it cannot enlighten us about why humans are special. According to some religions humans possess a soul, breathed into them by God, that makes them unique and unlike other living creatures.

Whatever the source of the uniqueness, what concerns us here is that most thinkers agree on the fact that such uniqueness exists.

Being human

Knowing the uniqueness of our humanity, we are pushed to ask how this relates to our conduct toward others. How do you treat something that has infinite worth?

The German philosopher Kant proposed the famous principle (or categorical imperative) that humans must be treated as ends rather than means. This idea nicely encapsulates the basis for all of our modern thinking about human rights and dignity.

To treat a human as an “end” means to not treat them as a means, instrument or tool for one’s own benefit. The word “end” here is being used in the sense of “final aim”, “goal”. A human is an end when you view them as an inviolable entity that cannot be used, dominated, sold, raped or killed for another’s benefit. While we can pick up a rock, lump of wood or some other object and use it as a tool, humans, by the mere virtue of being human, are excluded from this category of “objects”. Humans are subjects, inviolable entities that look out into the universe while somehow being independent of it. Humans can use anything they want as a tool, except for other humans.

Humans possess what I call personhood; personhood refers to our uniqueness. Persons are not objects. Treating persons morally has its own universe of rules that have nothing to do with the animal world. Yes, we have a natural or evolutionary genetic inheritance; we are animals and a study of our genes and hormones can easily show our closeness to other animals. But we are not just animals. We are also persons. We have a dual nature: both the animal and the person.

The problem with pornography is that it is only concerned with the animal in us.

Obscenity

Obscenity is anything that treats or depicts humans as if they were mere animals. A picture of one’s parents naked is obscene because it stressed upon us their animal nature to the exclusion of their personhood. We are forced to see them as animals; their personhood is not in the picture.

A picture of a dead loved one who has suffered a terrible accident that mutilated their faces and bodies is also obscene. It shows them as a mere collection of atoms that has been turned into chaos by the physical world. The world has turned them into an object. We do not want to see our loved ones as objects. So we turn away from such a picture with disgust, try to forget it, and continue to imagine them as they were when they still lived.

Pornography is obscene because it depicts humans as reduced to mere bodies. It does not capture the personhood of the humans; they might as well be corpses that are animated to perform the sex act. And enjoying pornography makes us feel guilt and shame because we join this partying of corpses. In a small way we become like the great tyrants of history, happy to watch humans reduced to animals that can be used for our pleasure. In that world that we join during the watching of pornography these humans become mere objects. If during the pornographic scene we watch an explosion tear these humans apart, it is merely an interesting data point. The corpses are rearranged in a new way and nothing fundamental is lost, because they were already corpses when we were enjoying their flesh to the exclusion of their personhood.

Hentai and erotica

If online forums are to be believed, many young men progress from viewing erotic pictures to “hardcore” pornography, to watching the genre known as hentai (Japanese-inspired cartoon pornography). Hentai has no rules and it is famous for its depiction of extreme violence during sex acts. It depicts beautiful females torn apart by tentacled monstrosities. The viewer is surprised to find that they actually enjoy seeing this. That is because the tearing apart of humans in cartoon pornography does not break any moral rules of pornography. When humans are reduced to mere objects, as if they were corpses, it is only the next logical step to explore what can be done to corpses.

The same applies to erotic novels like Fifty Shades of Grey. Erotic novels are merely pornography intended (mostly) for female use. The intense violence does not feel wrong because it is not being done to human persons but to depersonalized humans, virtual corpses.

Since pornography breaks the first rule of morality toward other humans and objectifies them and takes away their personhood, in the moral universe of pornography violence and death are merely the logical extension of taking pleasure in the objectification of humans.

Moral self-creation

I think it was Christopher Hitchens who said that he cannot see an American woman without imagining her lips around his own penis. This is a good illustration of what pornography does to our psychology.

Moral self-creation refers to the fact that every time we treat a fellow human in a certain way, this reflects back on us and changes who we are. Every time you treat some cruelly, this feedback into your own internal universe and changes you. You create yourself morally by the way you treat others.

We cannot treat other humans in a moral vacuum. Every choice we make toward others is always associated with a moral cost or benefit. You can justify to yourself that a particular person deserves cruelty; they have done you harm and they have no sympathy or mercy toward you. Yet the moment you perform an act of cruelty toward them, you feel yourself lessened and damaged by this. The Islamic theologian Ibn Taymiyya took note of this when he said:

No one has ever taken revenge for himself except that it created in him a degradation and humiliation in his psyche, because revenge looks like strength and power on the outside but on the inside it is degradation and humiliation, while forgiveness creates strength and power both on the inside and out.

By harming us, a person damages their own internal universe. Taking revenge on them only causes damage in the other direction; in our own internal universe. Revenge can taste sweet to the animal in us, but to the person in us, it is always a degradation.

I call this moral self-creation. You create yourself morally by the way you treat others. Every one of your actions feeds back into yourself and changes you. And if the action is immoral; if you break Kant’s categorical imperative and treat other humans the way you do not like to be treated yourself, you degrade yourself. No reasoning or pretense can undo this damage. The person in you only knows and recognizes itself according to the way it treats other persons. You cannot say to yourself, “I utterly damaged this person but I cut off myself from the consequences.” The very knowledge that you damaged a person makes you recognize yourself, see yourself and feel yourself as the person who did that damage.

This is why our guilt follows us around and does not leave us. The guilt is the recognition of the damage you have done to yourself. You mutilate your spirit by every damage you do to another person. The mutilation remains and cannot be erased except by treating other persons in a better way. Every treatment of others creates you morally. You are the architect of your spirit by the way you treat others. Your guilt is the recognition that you damaged this architecture. And the only way to undo it is by doing what is necessary to rebuild it and improve it. Reasoning to yourself and justifying things to yourself does absolutely nothing to your spirit’s architecture. It will lay in tatters and ruins until you learn that you have no access to this architecture. You have no key to it; it is closed to you. It is only open to others: only others can take away your guilt by the way you treat them. Other persons are the only key to our spirit; the way we treat them feedback into it and changes it.

Pornography involves treating other humans as if they were merely animals. It is the worst degradation of a human’s personhood that can be imagined. We tear apart their dual nature, the animal and the person, throw away the person, and enjoy the animal. Since pornography generally involves pictures and videos taken by others, we can delude ourselves into thinking that there is no harm in it; the wrong was done by others, not us. Pornography can even be computer-generated, so where is the harm in that?

The problem is that the process of moral self-creation is always in force in us. Even if you reason to yourself that no one is harmed in that picture or video, you are harmed. You recognize yourself as a user and degrader of other humans. You are willing to treat other humans as animals and this knowledge feeds back into you. Your spirit does not understand your reasoning that no one is harmed and has no use for it. It only recognizes that you are a human who uses other humans. You are willing to enjoy the tearing apart of humans from their personhood, you are willing to objectify and use them. The treatment of other persons in pornography, even if computer-generated, makes the architecture of your internal universe open up and take in the damage.

Afterwards you feel guilt. You recognize that you have been lessened and degraded. Your guilt is the pain you feel at the damage you have done to yourself. You have gone from a person existing in the warmth and dignity of human society to something less. You recognize the infinite worth and dignity of other humans, and by transgressing against this recognition, you feel that you are unworthy of human society. You feel that the persons around you, your mother and father for example, are giants, whole universes, but you yourself, by partaking in a dehumanizing, dirty and furtive pleasure, are something less. You are a damaged and polluted universe that cries out to become whole again.

Sinking into obscenity

A pornography addict will one day discover that they live in a new world. They may have a memory of the warmth and innocence of the world of their childhood. But everything is now harsh and cold. They feel alienated from their fellow humans and from their societies. Family life, love, the beauty and solemnity of classical literature, all these things seem to them to exist in a different reality that is closed to them.

By making it a habit to depersonalize other humans, the pornography addict can no longer relate to other humans with solemnity and seriousness. They feel that we are all animals pretending to be something more. They daily experience of pornography constantly reinforces this animal view of humanity. Morality starts to feel like a pretense. They become cynical and in social situations such as family gathering they feel that they are only playing a part assigned to them by “society”.

This cynical view also pervades their relationships. The male pornography addict cannot enjoy the innocence of love; of treating a woman as if she is the most important person in their world. She is just a body and personality with various failings and annoying habits. Opening his heart to her and treating her as if she is more than an animal feels strange and unusual.

Pornography equalizes all humans into a new world order of bodies. One body can be as good as another for satisfying one’s needs. But love and romance require treating a person as if they are infinitely worthy and irreplaceable. The “morality” that pornography teaches is entirely opposed to the morality of love. The two cannot coexist.

Lust and erotic love

Lust is obscene while erotic love is beautiful–even though they both involve sexual desire. Lust is depersonalized sexual desire; lust directed at someone does not care for their uniqueness and personhood. A man who lusts after Elizabeth can be be satisfied with an equally attractive Jane. But erotic love is directed at a specific person; a man who is in love with Elizabeth and desires her will not be satisfied by any other woman of equal attractiveness.

Erotic love allows us to engage in sexuality while remaining fully human. We continue to see the other human as a person even during sexual intimacy.

But lust is inhuman and bestial. It is the fact of one animal desiring another. Obviously pornography can only stimulate and celebrate lust. It is impossible to connect with the depicted person on human terms, person-to-person. And by training us to relate lustfully to fellow humans, this becomes the rule in our minds. Like Christopher Hitchens, we see every attractive person as a potential actor or actress in a pornographic scene.

Masturbation

Masturbation is one of the obscene pleasures that is very often associated with pornography. I consider masturbation obscene for two reasons. First, it nearly always involves the fantasy of using another human for one’s own pleasure–a human that cannot answer back. It lacks the aspect of the union of two conscious and willing first-person perspectives that is the gold-standard of non-obscene sexuality.

Second, it involves the aspect of a first-person perspective turning to itself; using its own body as if the human is merely a body. The is no respect for personhood involved; the human and its personhood turns to its own body, treating themselves as if they are something to be used. It is a form of self-use that is quite similar to, if not the same as, using another’s body for pleasure without respect for their personhood.

This then brings us into the strange reality that a person’s own body is forbidden territory to themselves. This is strange, but even if you reject the above argument, you can still feel the reality of it: masturbation is always associated with a sense of shame, loss and degradation once the pleasure is over. It is a form of lusting after one’s own body: a body with no humanity, a body that cannot answer back; a corpse.

Masturbation is therefore an attack on a human’s personhood. It makes no difference that in this case the attack is against oneself.

Recovering from obscenity

I have heard Western men say that they see themselves as mere children in comparison with their grandfathers and ancestors. Looking at pictures of these solemn ancient men, they cannot help but feel their own inadequacy.

I believe that it is our pornographic culture that has filled the West with men who feel degraded in comparison to their ancestors. There can be no sense of solemnity and greatness in a person who has habituated themselves to obscenity.

It is only by following the iron rule of Kant’s categorical imperative in our lives that we can maintain a sense of our infinite worth and dignity as humans. And this means turning away from the obscene in all things. By treating fellow humans as infinitely worthy of respect, this treatment feeds back into our own internal universe and rebuilds its architecture into something solemn and beautiful.

A man who follows this rule in his life will feel no inadequacy in comparison to his ancestors. He will in fact feel in a position to critique them as his equals. Through moral self-creation, a man has the chance to enlarge himself until he towers over all of his ancestors.

Should a person watch erotic videos to avoid sex outside of marriage?

Salaam,I'm 19 years old,I hope this is not sounds dirty or weird but I don't wanna do zina and I don't want to marry,but I have to do something so I'm watching erotic videos,is it sin? But if I don't watch these I know I will do some bad things,so I'm rather watching erotic videos,is it sin? If it is what can I do?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

Please see the following answer where I discuss the philosophical reason why watching pornography and reading erotica is wrong and should be avoided. The reasoning is not merely Islamic, it transcends religion and applies to all people: Is reading erotica permitted in Islam?

As for what you should do: do your best to avoid obscene pleasures. Islam does not ask you to do the impossible. If you fail and give in to your desire, move on as soon as you can and do something good to make up for it (such reading Quran and other acts of worship). There is no final solution for this as long as you are young and have strong sexual urges. But giving in to these urges will always have a negative on your character. There is no way to normalize this so that you can enjoy obscene pleasures while also remaining a deeply spiritual and self-respecting person. The two are opposed and cannot coexist in a person. If you want to maintain your dignity and self-respect, do your best to enhance your spiritual side by dedicating an hour of every day to extra worship (such as by performing tahajjud or reading Quran). The stronger your spiritual side becomes the easier it will become to resist temptations.

But even if you do that you will likely still fail sometimes and give in to the temptations. But what makes the difference between an admirable young Muslim and a failed one is that the admirable one continues to resist and does not let their character be defeated. With every failure they will work to rebuild their character through working to reconnect with God.

Best wishes.

Catching a child watching pornography as a Muslim parent

What should I do if I catch my children watching pornography?

I assume you were speaking of adolescents. Two things about adolescents makes it especially difficult for them to resist looking at pornography even if they know it is wrong and even if they wish to avoid it; they have poor impulse control. The brain’s ability to control impulses does not fully mature until after the age of 25. The other thing is that adolescents have very high levels of sex hormones which makes pornography especially attractive to them.

There are good reasons to limit their access to pornography as you already know. But if they manage to bypass you one day and get to look at some, it is best to forgive and forget it. No good can be achieved by punishment if they are well-behaved children otherwise. Desire and curiosity overcame them and punishment will not stop this desire or curiosity. Instead of making a big deal out of it, it is best to make sure they cannot do it again without humiliating them about it.

Our aim should not be completely control their lives so that watching of pornography may never happen. There will likely be occasions when it happens despite our best efforts, and making a big deal of it may only increase their curiosity and their desire for it. Rather, we should have sensible policies in the home (such as no unmonitored Internet browsing) that make it habitual pornography-watching impossible. Beyond that, there really is not much we can do. Most Muslim children grow up to be decent humans even if they succumbed to their desire to view pornography a few or many times in their youth. As long as the pornography watching is not habitual and as long as the parents do make sure they do not have so much freedom that they can easily watch it, then it is not a big problem to worry about.

The two salvations: How erotic beauty is a false category of beauty

In his 2009 book Beauty, the wonderful British philosopher Roger Scruton says many insightful things about beauty. His book inspired me to create my own Islamic theory of aesthetics in which I assert that a beautiful thing is nothing other than that which brings us face-to-face with God. The reason that the most beautiful and picturesque scenes of nature and architecture bring tears to our eyes and make us feel morally uplifted is because beautiful things, in order to be beautiful, must point to God. Beauty is not some independent ideal or standard. Beauty is the power of an object to point the human soul to God. Nothing that is ugly is morally uplifting, and nothing that is beautiful fails to morally uplift us, to make us feel God’s presence and offer us a door to salvation.

This theory applies to music as well. Bach says:

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.

Whether a composer of classical music seeks God or seeks beauty, they are seeking the exact same thing. All beautiful music has the power to cause mystical experience in us because what makes music beautiful is the fact that it can cause mystical experience in us. This is in opposition to pop music, which celebrates bodily desires and human weaknesses rather than striving toward the Creator. Some types of music can of course blend elements from both categories.

To experience beauty is to experience God in some small way. Beauty is morally uplifting because it connects us with the source that gives life meaning: the Creator. (See my essay Beauty as Pointer: An Islamic Theory of Aesthetics for more on this.) You can verify this theory on your own by looking at a set of beautiful pictures and doing your best appreciate their beauty while keeping your mind free of distractions. As you continue doing this, you will start to feel a mystical connectedness. You will get a feeling of goodness and wholesomeness, as if you are becoming a better, more admirable person.

You may realize that you are seeking some sort of climax. Each picture seems to bring you closer to something you need and desire. And that thing which beauty brings us closer to is God. If you are religious, the experience of beauty always brings with it the desire to praise God. If you are irreligious and do not believe in a God, you can still feel the mystical connectedness. Beauty will be like an open door to God that you will refuse to step through.

This essay is on the issue of erotic beauty. Scruton speaks of erotic beauty (think nude paintings of women) and its special nature. He mentions the “fall” that an observer experiences if he allows himself to become sexually aroused by the painting (as opposed to appreciating it solely for the “beauty” contained therein). For Scruton and many others, erotic beauty is a special category of beauty. It involves something that has the power to sexually attract, but that the observer can appreciate without sexual attraction.

Below I explain why I am highly skeptical of the concept and consider it a false category, or at least something to be categorized separately from ordinary beauty.

Erotic art at its most basic level is a genre of art in which mostly male artists draw sexually attractive females in meaningful and beautiful contexts. It is not the mere beauty of the human form that draws artists to erotic art. If the human form was so beautiful, we would have expected to find a very rich genre of depictions of children and anonymous males. But there is no such genre. This closely parallels the fact that while on the Internet there are thousands of websites dedicated solely to pictures of anonymous nude females, there are almost none dedicated solely to pictures of anonymous nude males. It is not the appreciation of the beauty of the human form that draws artists (and consumers of pornography) to nude females. It is the male sex drive. A man can enjoy himself for hours inside a gallery that only has paintings of nude females. But he will very quickly tire of a gallery that hosts only paintings of nude prepubescent children or nude males (assuming he only finds women sexually attractive).

All beautiful things are morally uplifting. There can be such a thing as a morally uplifting painting that includes a nude person, but the uplift always comes from something else. The painting might depict a very dramatic scene from a story that would be morally uplifting even if one took the trouble to paint clothes over the subjects. The nudity is not essential. The reason that men have created the category of erotic beauty is because of a mistake of the male brain. A nude woman does not merely represent something highly desirable (as in an expensive car). She represents salvation. Speaking biologically, a man’s highest achievement in life is to have a female give him her sexual approval through acting sexually open towards him. And a nude female in a painting is registered as that by the male viewer, because she is nude. Women are not normally nude, they only are during the prelude to sexual union.

A woman’s sexual approval (i.e. her attraction to him and her expressing that she is willing to mate with him, her nudity representing just such an approval) represents millions of years of evolution patting the man on the back, telling him he is a good and worthy male specimen. Perhaps nothing else in the world has such a power to cause a man’s ego to inflate. A woman’s sexual approval means that everything about a man is right, good and proper. He is good-looking, his social status is desirable, he is admirable, he has so much worth that a woman, despite her intense scrutiny of his weaknesses and failings, is willing to put her life and her future in his hands by accepting to procreate with him and become dependent on him.

In short, female nudity is registered by the male brain as female sexual approval, which is registered by the male brain as an invitation to the highest possible achievement in biological life.

A painting of a nude woman is intensely interesting and captivating to a male because for him a nude woman is an offer of biological salvation. A nude female is more interesting to a man than a planet full of treasure. Treasure is nothing more than a means of attaining biological salvation–of attracting a woman’s love and procreating with her. A nude female represents the end result of this process–she is more fundamental than treasure; she is the end result of treasure. Speaking from an evolutionary biology perspective, treasure is only a means toward securing her companionship.

That beautiful nude female, if only she looks at you and accepts you, can make you the happiest man on earth. The same way that beautiful architecture takes us into God’s presence who offers us otherworldly salvation, a nude painting of a female offers us worldly salvation.

Erotic art is interesting only because of a false promise; it misleads the male brain into thinking it is being promised salvation. Just as a religious man may be captivated by the hope of salvation represented by a cheap pilgrimage package to Canterbury or Mecca, any man can be captivated by the promise of biological salvation that attractive females represent (and the less dressed, the more captivating, because less dress means more nearness to the goal). The attraction for females is not a simple desire for sexual enjoyment. The reason why females are so incredibly attractive and why they are used everywhere in marketing to sell things to males is that females represent salvation and immortality because they represent an opportunity for a man’s to pass on his genes, in this way accomplishing his primary purpose in biological life.

You do not have to lustfully glance at a nude painting in order to experience this promise of salvation. Even if you try to stay classy and do your best to avoid the “fall” that comes from sexually objectifying a female, your brain registers the female promise of sexual/biological salvation perfectly: it is only the fact that a fertile-looking female is depicted in the artwork that makes the art interesting as “erotic” art.

When artists draw nude females, they seek salvation. She is the worldly deity who can forgive us our faults, make us happy and give us all that we desire. She is the ultimate aim of existence once we ignore God. It is for this reason that all irreligious male artists are partly obsessed with drawing sexually attractive females (and almost no artist is willing to paint a nude old woman, unless he is the type of person who also likes to draw pictures of unsettling things).

Religious and spiritual artists, on the other hand, focus on nature, architecture, historical scenes and other asexual things that are going to be rather “boring” to males who have fully embraced their animal nature and believe in no higher ideal than salvation through women.

Many irreligious artists worship at the foot of women. They seek salvation, but since they have closed their hearts to mystical salvation, they become enamored of earthly salvation through the female. The desire for this salvation turns the female into an infinitely powerful and infinitely worthy goddess for the male. He places her on a pedestal and prays to her day and night. Turn toward me and give this humble, worthless servant some worth!

There are, of course, artists who believe in God yet also seek salvation through female nudity, mixing their worship of God with their worship of the female.

If you look at a picture gallery that hosts a random selection of images, some of which are beautiful nature scenes and others beautiful, half-naked females, you will instantly feel the extreme conflict between appreciating a nature scene and appreciating a nude female. The female calls you to a wholly different experience compared to the nature scene. And if you give in to her call, the nature scene becomes infinitely boring because the accomplishment of your biological salvation is right before you. Your earthly goddess captures all of your attention so that you have no interest in connecting with the heavenly God. The presence of a nude or half-nude female in a gallery on a website is a very jarring element (at least for males) that can totally ruin his enjoyment in the non-erotic pictures. Classical nude paintings are better in this regard because they are not so obnoxiously sexualized, allowing a man to continue to see a woman as a person rather than an object despite her nudity. However, no matter how well the artist manages to prevent us from sexualizing his nude subject (as Botticelli manages in his Birth of Venus), the fact remains that the painting is made up of two elements: the non-erotic beauty that points to God, and the eroticism that points to biological salvation.

To put it another way, had Venus been properly clothed, the painting would have been a better conduit of beauty. Her nudity conflicts with the moral uplift. It is a jarring element that causes a confusion in the male brain between his desire for spiritual salvation and his desire for biological salvation.

Below is Botticelli’s Venus with an abaya on, probably done by a Persian artist. Once you get over the comical aspect of adding hijab to a nude painting, you may realize that this painting lacks nothing compared to the nude version. It is just as beautiful and meaningful. Not just that, but it is actually better, because now the jarring element of the call for biological salvation is removed. One can appreciate it solely for its beauty, its real, morally uplifting beauty.1

For these reasons, as a Muslim I feel justified in considering nude art an improper and unnecessary category of art. It is merely the expression of the rather banal activity of males seeking salvation through the female body. It is true that eroticism is incredibly captivating. But for a spiritual person it is a dead end. It points away from God. It invites us to engage in fantasies of biological salvation that at best have nothing to contribute to our mission in life and at worst cause us to fall into seeking a false deity through female-worship.

This is not an expression of some sort of moral outrage about nude art, nor is it a call to destroy existing erotic art. But as civilized, self-respecting and God-fearing men, once we realize that nudity is merely a call to biological salvation, we should give preference to the higher salvation by avoiding nudity, whether in its production or consumption, and by seeking God through seeking beauty that lacks the jarring erotic element.

To experience beauty is to experience God. To experience eroticism is to experience your body’s desire for immortality through biological reproduction. To experience erotic beauty is to experience a beautiful thing with eroticism added on as a distraction. Removal of the eroticism removes the distraction without removing the beauty.

This essay is written from a male perspective since the key driver behind erotic art is (or so far has been) the male sex drive. It will be interesting to read a female philosopher’s take on the issue.

Porn is destroying my life, I’m not able to control the urges

Porn is destroying my life, I'm not able to control the urges. It has lead me to do things that I can't even say. My life is being destroyed and I'm just not able to control myself in those moments. Slowly I feel like I'm falling into an abyss of depression likes the one I've never felt. I've don't know what to do anymore. I know Allah SWT is with me and he'll forgive me if I sincerely repent and stop doing this but that's the problem and I just can't control myself when the urges hit me.

The best way to avoid sin is to develop a close relationship with God. The closer you are to God, the easier it is to stay away from sinful things. Start praying tahajjud for an hour every night before bed. This is not difficult if you are eager to improve yourself. For more on tahajjud please see the section on the avoidance of sin in my new article: Mysticism without Sufism: A Guide to Tahajjud, Islam’s Meditation Practice

If you are young, then as you get older avoiding pornography will become easier for you. The brain does not fully mature until the age of 25, it is only at this age that we get good control over our impulses. And from this age onwards sexual desire slowly subsides (if you are male), so that the attraction of pornography becomes weaker.

You may also benefit from the discussion of pornography in this article: Is reading erotica permitted in Islam?

Is reading erotica permitted in Islam?

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 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 persons, but as bodies. Pornography is obscene, and watching it is an obscene act, because in it we see humans not as honored persons, 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, they also know 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. There is something “gross” about a family doing that even if no one is harmed in production of the film (if it is an animation) and even if they all get sexual pleasure from watching it. The grossness comes from the fact that we humans are subjects, rather than objects, and we have a natural tendency to find it repulsive when other humans, even imaginary ones, are treated as mere bodies, commodities to be enjoyed rather than persons to be interacted with and respected.

Sexual pleasure is only wholesome when it is between two subjects who continue to respect each other as persons during the act, with neither person using the other as a merely instrument of pleasure. Wholesome sexual pleasure is interpersonal, it is between two persons who respect one another. Enjoying pornography is not interpersonal, it is lust aimed at an object that cannot answer back.

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.

In the example of the family that sits down to watch pornography, what they are engaging in is voyeurism. They are subjects who take pleasure in something that does not look back at them. The all-important interpersonal element is taken out of the sexual act. The result is that the family members cannot respect each other anymore. When they all, together, take sexual pleasure in dehumanized human bodies, in humans treated like animals used for pleasure, it is only a very small leap of the imagination to transfer this way of thinking to each other. The son will no longer respect his father, his attitude toward him will be, “Why should I consider myself bound by an duty toward you when you and I treat other humans as mere bodies? You too are merely a body. For me to respect you, prove to me that you are more than a body. But you yourself treat other humans as mere bodies, therefore you cannot prove that to me.” Such thoughts would of course take time to develop. The family’s feeling at first would be that they are only keeping up a pretense by respecting each other like before. Slowly the respect will break down. This does not only apply to sexual morality but to all forms of morality; a family involved in any form of crime that objectifies and dehumanizes people (say a kidnapping business) is going to suffer an equal break down in respect for one another. Many Hollywood films glorify that lives of criminals, telling us that they are really good people on the inside. That has nothing to do with reality. A person who commits crimes against people is dehumanizing them, and by extension dehumanizes everyone around him. A mugger is much more likely to also be a rapist, as statistics show, because the two crimes come from the same mindset: the mindset of seeing other humans as instruments for gain and pleasure, rather than as honored persons. A mugger who dehumanizes a man by forcibly taking his wallet from him is equally capable of dehumanizing a woman by violating her sexually. In both cases, he is simply treating other humans not as subjects to be honored, but as objects that can be acted upon.

The problem with obscene pleasures is that they degrade us, taking us from the world of humans to the world of animals, from the warm world of wholesome society to the cold, harsh underworld of the criminal. 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. 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. That person who has been enjoying humans as objects for the past 30 minutes is now going to feel like he is only maintaining a pretense by treating the humans around him as subjects.

It will require a long essay to fully clarify the conflict between high human society and the underworld of 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. The point of an erotic book is to help you gain sexual gratification by imagining that you are looking at other humans having sex. It is pornography without pictures, and everything that applies to pornography applies to it. Taking pleasure in erotica is a disguised form of voyeurism.

Voyeurism is evil because it is a violation of the sanctity of the human. In voyeurism a person takes pleasure in only part of a human; a full human is a subject who can look back at you, who is free and who is honored by God. But the human that is the object of voyeurism is a human that is cut apart; we are no longer interested in their souls but only in their bodies and their physical sensations. The sanctity of human life requires that we treat them as subjects and only take pleasure in them with their consent. In voyeurism, this sanctity is violated, the human is taken pleasure in without their opinion being asked, without their involvement as free-willed partakers in the act of the voyeur’s sexual gratification. The voyeur looks at a woman and takes sexual pleasure in her without caring whether she is a murderer or a good person, that part of her is destroyed by voyeurism, she is no longer really a human. And she cannot look back at the voyeur, for the voyeur she is an object. Now in production of erotica no one is harmed. The harm is to the reader alone, because by engaging in fantasy voyeurism, he sinks more and more into the underworld of obscenity where humans are mere objects and where all morality and respect and duty are mere pretenses.

You meet many such people on the Internet. They have no respect for their families because to them each family member is like an animal in human form. They do not consider their father or mother intrinsically worthy of respect; they have to earn that respect by titillating this sunken person’s ego and desires. They do not believe in duties, they believe that they should do anything they can get away with to get the maximum pleasure they can get. I believe that the whole culture of the West is experiencing this sunken-ness to some degree. You cannot mention social duties and responsibilities to most people without them becoming almost violently hostile. To a sunken person society is just an ATM to take resources from and has no rights of its own. For them society is just a collection of objects who should be used for the maximum pleasure and profits. It is not a collection of subjects who have to be honored as sacred and inviolable persons.

There is no punishment specified for engaging in voyeurism as far as I am aware. A person who engages in it 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 greatly 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 and with God. 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, and even worse, we start to believe everyone around us is also just pretending. For a person seeking a meaningful life, engaging in obscenity leads to a sense of loneliness and disengagement with those around them. The warmth of human society leaves their lives; sex in its physicality becomes paramount, they start to see the humans around them as objects rather than persons. It becomes difficult to respect even their own parents when they start to see them as mere animals with sex organs rather than seeing them as honored persons. Obscenity forces an animalistic, sunken worldview that is directly in conflict with maintaining a human society in which people are honored.

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.

On fighting desires when alone

How do you fight desires when you're alone?

There is no guaranteed way to control desires if the desire is strong and one has the privacy to engage in it without suffering material consequences. A person who wants to lose weight will almost certainly not be successful if they have a freezer full of ice cream. Regardless of their will power, when the desire is strong enough and the desired thing is easy enough to get, people succumb sooner or later.

What one should do is rearrange their life so that engaging in that desired thing becomes more difficult. A person who seriously desires something can come up with all kinds of creative ways to get over obstacles to get what they desire. You have to do the same thing but in the opposite direction, coming up with creative ways of making it more difficult to get the desired thing.

For more on planning against desires see the following answer, it suggestions can be generalized to any kind of desire: Dealing with an addiction to pornography

Dealing with an addiction to pornography

Assalamu'alaikum. I'm a girl and I'm struggling with my porn addiction. Most of my friends assume that I'm such a religious person just bc i graduated from Islamic boarding school. They just don't know the fact that I'm addicted to porn:( I feel guilty for everytime i watched it, ask for His forgiveness then stupidly watch it again and again. I just can't handle the pleasure that i got from watching it. I pray 5 times a day too, recite the Holy Qur'an and practiced some small examples of Ruqyah Syar'iyyah to protect my self from that vicious circle. But i keep doing it:( I can't stop myself from it.... how to get rid of those addiction? I know it's written in the Qur'an "and those who keep their private parts...." But i still can't stop myself:( I keep asking for His guidance to guide me to the right path but my inner desire always won

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

If you are younger than 25, then your brain has not completed its development. As we mature, our ability to control our urges increases. Therefore if you have difficulty controlling yourself now, each year that passes will likely make you more capable of it. Do not lose hope but do good deeds to make up for it, such as reading the Quran or reading books about Islam in order to increase your knowledge.

For an addict, controlling an urge is impossible if the thing they are addicted to is easy to obtain. What you should do is make it more difficult for you to engage in it, for example by spending less time alone (find hobbies, join clubs and societies, volunteer at charities around you, etc.).

Trying to control your urges is likely going to be hopeless (the way it is for an obese person who wants to lose weight and who has ice cream in the freezer, even if they resist the urge for hours, they will likely still fail many times a week). Instead of thinking of controlling yourself, you should plan against your addiction. Come up with ways of making it difficult or impossible for you to engage in it, such as by spending less time alone as mentioned. If there is a time of day when you have the strongest urges, make it a habit to go out to a coffee shop, library or park for a few hours during this time.

Developing the right plan is going to be the most important part. Reading more Quran and praying more (such as performing the voluntary prayers) is going to also help. And if despite all of these things you continue to fail occasionally, instead of fretting about it just get back on track and know that as time passes things will get easier.

Perhaps everyone’s life contains an ‘unsolvable’ problem. It can be having a disabled child that requires much time and energy to take care of, it can be having a demanding elderly parent who lives in one’s house, it can be extreme poverty or a mean and cruel boss that one is forced to work for for years on end. Your unsolvable problem might be your addiction to pornography. It is a test of your faith and patience to suffer from a problem you cannot fix. Instead of giving up and thinking that God has abandoned you (which is what Satan wants you to think), continue to do as much worship and as much prayer as you can, always seeking God’s forgiveness and trying to think the best of Him.

Islamic Strategies for Escaping a Sinful Life

19 year old boy here. It's a serious issue but I'll keep it short. I was exposed to pornography at a very young age and I still haven't been able to get over it. And then came the time when I could mingle with the opposite sex and actually do things and since then I haven't been able to stop myself from committing zina. I've barely started to learn Islam but my imaan was a little stable in a few days and I did not do it in a long time. But it ate me from inside. Please help me

Continuing from above, I fear Allah swt but it does not remain constant to me. I’m very helpless and I do not know what to do. I keep doing it. My sexual desire overcomes it and I feel guilty then as usual. I know I’m doing a very horrible sin but I’m really in a position of a porn addict. And if I haven’t asked you the previous thing anonymously then please don’t answer to that? I’m in deep trouble and want my sins to be discreet obviously. Please help me. Jazakallahu khair

I cannot look at myself in the mirror. I desired to be a very influential Muslim and truth in my heart but this major sin inside me is eating me. I’m very frustrated and unable to do anything and I feel horribly ashamed to offer my namaz. Please help me. I’ve asked you around three questions cuz there was a word limit and I hope I get help from Allah swt through you!

No matter how great your sins are, God’s mercy is greater. The greatest sin of all is to lose hope in His mercy and to stop offering the obligatory prayers and performing other obligatory deeds. Regardless of how you feel, this is a duty you cannot ignore. Continue asking for His forgiveness. Even if you fail ten thousand times, He has the power to forgive you more times than that.

At the age of 19 your brain development is not complete. It only completes after the age of 25. What this means is that you have poor impulse control, because of no fault of your own, because the prefrontal cortex of the brain has not completed developing, which is the part of the brain that enables us to control our emotions and impulses.

Trying to make yourself stop engaging in those sins while they are easily available, and while your brain development has not completed, might be asking the impossible. It is like putting a child in a room full of candy and asking them not to eat any. It is an unfair test, because they haven’t developed the ability to control their impulses yet. The same may apply to you.

Think of your desires as an enemy. You cannot defeat it directly, because you do not have the power yet. You must defeat it indirectly. Instead of putting yourself in a test that you are unable to pass, you must avoid the test altogether. This is done by making it impossible to engage in those sins. If you live somewhere where you have easy access to women to sleep with, move somewhere else. Move to a different country if you have to.

If you are sincere in wanting to win this battle, you must do what it takes, even if it requires much work and hardship. Consider it your hijrah. You do not yet have full control over your desires, therefore you must not put your hopes in learning a magical way of overcoming them. You must instead use your intelligence and planning ability to find ways of making it impossible to engage in those sins. Since I do not know your exact situation, I cannot tell you what the best plan for you is. Any plan that requires you to have significant control over your impulses will most likely fail. The plan must take impulse out of the equation by making the sins impossible. For example, if you could join an Islamic educational establishment in a faraway country or area that does not have internet or cell phone coverage, then in that situation avoiding sinning would probably become very easy for you, and you would be able to focus on worshiping God and getting yourself educated about Islam.

Part of the solution could be to get married, even if your family think you are too young, since avoiding major sins is more important. Ibn Masud (companion of the Prophet, peace be upon him) says that even if he had ten days to live in this world, if he was afraid his sexual desire would cause him to sin, he would do his best to get married. You may be able to find a woman who understands your problem and helps you find ways of overcoming it.

You could also go to a pious person at a local mosque, perhaps the imam, and share with them your problem. Maybe they will be able to help you by getting you involved in certain activities, or helping you move somewhere where you can fight your desires more easily. Sharing your problem with others is difficult, since it will go against your pride and self-respect. But you must give more value to avoiding your sinful life, even if this requires that you expose yourself to highly uncomfortable situations.

If you are unable to find a successful plan for making it impossible for yourself to sin, then know that as you grow older your ability to control your impulses will grow. After 25 it will become much easier for you to avoid sins related to sexual desire. Therefore this should be your back-up plan; if everything else fails, hold on to your faith until it becomes easier to resist your sins. Continue to read as much Quran as you can, try to memorize it, perform all the voluntary prayers including tahajjud, constantly read Islamic books, and if you sin, repent, purify yourself and go back to worship as soon as you can, thinking of it as a temporary interruption in your life of worship, until God helps you completely avoid it.

Continue planning against your desires and praying day and night for God’s help, until He gives you a solution sooner or later. If you sincerely ask of Him and seek Him with everything you have, then He will forgive you and answer you.

Satan will constantly tell you that you are worthless and that you should give up hope. You must fight his whispers and know that there is no solution for you in this world except to seek God, regardless of how sinful and worthless you feel. It is only He who forgives sins.

There is no safety from [God’s punishment] except through taking refuge in Him. (The Quran, verse 9:118)

God knows you better than yourself, and He understands what you go through. If you are sincere in seeking a solution, then He will reward your sincerity and forgive you your past and future sins as you continue to seek His pleasure.

You must consider it your duty to perform sufficient worship and Quran-reading on a daily basis that the afterlife starts to feel as important as the present life to you. This seems to require about an hour of extra voluntary deeds a day, whether it is Quran-reading, supplication, praying at the mosque or performing extra prayers. Once you achieve this state and maintain it for weeks and months, it becomes far easier to resist sins.

You already believe in God and the afterlife. This is only an intellectual belief. Through worship, you can turn it into an emotional belief as well, so that God and the afterlife feel real to you. Once your faith is not just an intellectual belief, but an emotional state, then this will have a powerful effect on your state of mind and on your actions. This is the state that every Muslim must seek to achieve, and it is the state of the prophets and the greatest believers.

The best help I have found toward maintaining such an emotional state has been to perform every prayer at the mosque, to perform dhikr and supplication after every one of them, and to perform all the related voluntary prayers. If there is a mosque near you, then this should be one of the first things you try. Even if it is 10 or 15 minutes away, consider it part of your war against your sins to go there, and God will reward you for your time and effort.

Consider going to the mosque part of your job, as if you earn an hourly wage for it. It is just another job, perform it, and you will get its rewards.

Planning against your sins and doing the work necessary to avoid and overcome them is not going to be easy. It is going to require difficult and perhaps boring and repetitive work. But for this you will be greatly rewarded.

If you want to have a successful career in this life and the next, if you want to be a leader like you said, then do the daily work needed for this. A career requires work, your work is to do worship and to go to the mosque. No matter how unrewarding you find this work, if you do it, you will get its fruits. Worshiping and obeying God is not meant to be fun. It is work, sometimes hard work, sometimes boring work, we do it because we want His rewards. If you do not get any uplifting feeling from your worship or mosque attendance at first, continue doing it for weeks and months, and you will eventually feel it inshaAllah.

When we try to seek God and renew our allegiance to Him, He may withhold His help until we prove our sincerity. If we try to worship Him ardently for a week, then give up hope when nothing happens and we feel no difference, it shows that we do not truly have faith in Him, that we are not sincere in our servitude. We prove our sincerity by constantly working toward Him whether we feel good or bad, whether we feel appreciated or abandoned. This is true worship of God, that we love Him regardless of what He decrees for us. Everything else is mostly self-worship.