Over the last five years I have delved into the power of joy and pleasure to positively transform communities. I have developed a curriculum based on a multidirectional approach – combining Eastern and Western traditions, along with scientific and spiritual approaches. And like all people who stumble across their passion – I am eager to share what I have learned.
I founded the Across Red Lines organization to amplify the findings of my studies, share the curriculum, and to create a community of people dedicated to the power of joy and pleasure rooted in the Islamic tradition. Right here at altM, I will be writing a monthly column to share both my journey and the way to unlock pleasure in a religiously sanctioned manner.
For most of my life, I avoided difficult questions that seemed to pit my gender against my religion. I could not truly wrap my head around various laws for and about women, for example, the idea that polygamy was permissible and men had the right to marry up to four wives. Or the concept of “what the right had possesses,” which has been used to validate concubines and war brides. These were not just theoretical questions. My career in foreign policy, international development, and peace-building landed me in the middle of war zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Northern Nigeria. I developed programs that would attempt to mediate conflict nonviolently, respond to humanitarian disasters, and prevent the rise of violent extremisms in all forms. My questions suddenly became about real life effects on the lives of women and communities.
Over twenty years of working in conflict zones, I would hear some of the most disturbing crimes against women being described in Islamic terms. At the same time, the rising trend of Islamophobia made it harder and harder to question and push back for fear of harming the community.
Yet I knew in my heart of hearts that my love for Islam was stronger than any question I had.
For way too long, I chose not to ask, and to follow devotedly. After all—I would tell others haughtily—that is the very definition of faith (deen). But as I struggled with my deen, I realized that I had hit a religious plateau. I could not enhance my spirituality without going back to the questions that plagued me. I could deny that every turn in our community—from the domestic work in the U.S. to my work in Northern Nigeria with Boko Haram, to my time in Afghanistan witnessing the aftermath of the Taliban—the question around women, and specifically women’s sexuality, was the grand elephant in the room of the Ummah.
For way too long, I chose not to ask, and to follow devotedly. After all—I would tell others haughtily—that is the very definition of faith (deen). But as I struggled with my deen, I realized that I had hit a religious plateau.
It was time to ask the difficult questions. It was time to have faith—in my faith.
Repeatedly, it became clear that for me to truly be the Muslim woman I so desperately strived to be, I needed to look at the shadows within our societies. And for me, the shadows centered around Islam’s view of a woman’s sexuality. I began to devour every book I could find that covers Islamic jurisprudence and women’s sexuality. I studied the neuroscience of the brain at Harvard Medical School, became a disciple of various spiritual teachers, a reiki master in Indonesia, and a student at Sex Coach University in California–I did all this in order to understand sexuality from all angles.
I was not disappointed. If anything, I was rewarded with the knowledge I knew instinctively from birth: any message from the Divine is going to be enlightened and transformative.
And such Islam has proven to be.
Indeed, twenty years in humanitarian work and peace-building across the globe leads me to believe that better times cannot be upon us until we talk about women’s sexuality. We cannot hope to see the changes we want in the world without the power and strength of women, particularly women who are connected to their sexuality and life energy. In fact, my Tedx talk in San Diego was dedicated to this message–why I left the world of peace-building to focus on supporting fully-integrated women through conversations around sexuality.
For women like me, it must be done within an Islamic framework, or there simply is no traction in how it applies to my daily life.
Let me be clear. This isn’t about reformation. This is about an Islamic revival.
Islam has and always will be an enlightened and revolutionary religion for women. Almost every Muslim knows the basic rights afforded to women, many of which were light years ahead of other religious traditions. For example, women have always had the right to vote in Islam, to own property, to divorce and to be financially independent. More fundamentally, Islam was built on the efforts of trailblazing women.
The question of sexuality is no different. In fact, Muslim communities were not only known for their erotic literature, but also for specific Islamic jurisprudence around sexuality and pleasure. My column will explore the journey through ‘Ilm al-Bah (The Art of Coition) which was a deeply rooted Islamic study developed in ninth century Arabia as a multidisciplinary study and description of sexual love, intermingling various religious, philosophical and medical concepts. The column is not merely about the act of sex, but a deeper understanding of the Islamic idea of pleasure as a gift from the Divine to unlock creative life force energy. We will look at the many versus within the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition that emphasize God’s reward of goodness, ease, and pleasure.
Islam is a religion that emphasizes compassion, abundance, and mercifulness as the avenue to God. But somewhere along our spiritual journey, we’ve been told that our faith is about sacrifice and suffering – hardships build character. Correspondingly, pleasure is of secondary importance.
Yet the teachings of Islam show the opposite, especially when it comes to sensuality and pleasure. Islam is one of the few religions that does not emphasize procreation as the primary motivation for marriage. Sexual fulfillment is the primary reason, our early scholars explained. Women were given the right to pleasure 1200 years ago.
My work amid war has shown me the wisdom in God’s focus on pleasure. It is the very heart of resilience. It is the very heart of God’s mercy to mankind, a reminder of the ultimate form of surrender and the bliss that it can bring. When women are fully integrated between their minds, hearts, bodies, and souls—communities flourish and enter into a state of abundance.
I pray that women do not have to struggle and discover their rights on their own. The hope is that through an open dialogue on one of the most essential human subjects, we can create a safe space where women can turn to other women for guidance. The time has come to bring back the traditional rituals where women would support and uplift other women. This by no means replaces the need for a strong communication between partners as they work to build a life together. But the first step is to know yourself, to rediscover our fitrah, or original disposition. I’ll get into that in my next column.
Manal Omar is the founder of Across Red Lines. If you have questions for Manal to address in future columns, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org