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New Publication: Sexual Ethics in Islam and the Western World

Sexual Ethics in Islam and the Western World by Ayatollah Murtada Mutahhari


Ayatollah Murtada Mutahhari was born in 1919 to a clerical family in the village of Fariman near the holy city of Mashhad. As a child, he attended the traditional maktabkhaneh, but when he reached the age of twelve, he began his basic training in the Islamic sciences at the seminary in Mashhad. In 1937, he left for Qum to commence his advanced training in Islamic sciences in the seminary there. During his fifteen_year stay in Qum, he attended the lectures of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Burujerdi on jurisprudence and the principles of Islamic jurisprudence; the lectures of Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini on Mulla Sadra`s philosophy, mysticism, ethics, and principles of jurisprudence; and the lectures of `Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba`i on philosophy, the Elahiyyat of Avicenna, and other subjects. Before Grand Ayatollah Boroujerdi moved to Qum, Mutahhari used to visit the Grand Ayatollah`s hometown of Burujerd to attend his lectures. He also attended the mystical and ethical discussions of Ayatollah Haj Mirza Ali Aqa Shirazi and was influenced by him spiritually. His other teachers included Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Hujjat (principles of Islamic jurisprudence) and Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Muhaqqeq Damad (jurisprudence).
In addition to his studies, during his sojourn in Qum, Mutahhari was involved in socio_political activities. For
instance, he was in touch with the Fada`iyan-e Islam group headed by the charismatic young cleric Navab Safavi. In 1952,
Mutahhari moved to Tehran and continued his scholarly activities at the Marvi Seminary. Three years later he began teaching at Tehran University in the School of Divinity and Islamic Sciences.
Mutahhari`s serious involvement in politics began in 1963with the popular 15th of Khurdad uprising which was brutally
suppressed by the Shah`s regime. He was detained and imprisoned numerous times afterwards. Mutahhari was also the religious guide of Hay`at-ha-ye Mu`talefe-ye Islami, a group formed under the guidance of Ayatollah Khomeini. Later, Mutahhari played a pivotal role, along with a number of other activists, in establishing the Husayniyyeh-e Ershad. After a dispute with the leading figures of the Husayniyyeh-e Ershad, he decided to offer his lectures elsewhere in Tehran, including at the al-Javad and Ark mosques. In the months leading to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Mutahhari was among the closest confidants and advisers of Ayatollah Khomeini, who appointed him to form the Revolutionary Council.
Almost three months after the victory of the revolution, Mutahhari was assassinated by a shadowy anti-clerical group called Furqan that staged a campaign of terror and assassination against leading clerics after the revolution.
Mutahhari was one of the most outstanding Muslim thinkers in our era who was able to formulate novel and impressive theories while remaining rooted in authentic Islamic traditions. He was committed to principles of belief in Shi` a Islam but fully informed of modern social and philosophical theories and the ideas of modern Muslim intellectuals. Consequently he was able to influence the intellectual currents in Iran. He was a critic of not only Marxist thought, but also western secular liberalism. He responded to many critiques of religion emerging from the Eastern Bloc and the West. However, he also criticized superstitious beliefs and un-Islamic conduct among Muslims.
Mutahhari is one of the most prolific writers and Islamic scholars of our era. To date, more than ninety of his works on
various fields of Islamic scholarship have been published. Most of these works were originally delivered as lectures during his life and later compiled as books and articles after his assassination. Some of these works are his personal handwritten notes which he himself did not have the opportunity to publish. Hence, it can be said that some of the published works were bound to have been published with a degree of haste. If his productive life had not been so tragically cut short by the bullets fired on that spring night in Tehran three decades ago, these works would have been fully edited and the content and the form would have been different. At any rate, despite all this, what Ayatollah Khomeini said about his works stands true even today: `All the works of Martyr Mutahhari are beneficial and valuable without exception.`
It can be said that despite his vast encyclopaedic knowledge of fields such as jurisprudence, Qur` anic sciences, and hadith, Mutahhari should be remembered as a theologian-philosopher. His philosophical works and his commentary on classical philosophical books clearly show his mastery of Islamic philosophy. But we must note that he is most impressive when he provides convincing theological apologetics for the principles of faith in Islam. He maintained this theological approach in his writings on society as well. A review of his works shows his keen interest in social issues, and the issues of the youth and Shi`a academicians, clerics, and thinkers. Mutahhari was active in improving the affairs of religion and reforming the clerical organisation and the institution of the marja`iyyah. He was one of the contributors
to the famous compilation of articles called Marja`iyyat va Rawhaniyyat which was published in 1961 after the death of Grand Ayatollah Burujerdi. Mutahhari also fought against the chauvinistic propaganda of the Shah`s time that attempted to
create a rift between Iranians and their Islamic roots. His seminal work, Khadamat-e Mutaqabel-e Islam va Iran (Mutual Contributions Between Islam and Iran) was a collection of articles that he published in a pseudo-feminist Iranian magazine called Zan-e Ruz. At a time when a wave of pseudo¬feminism was being propagated by the Pahlavi regime, Mutahhari did not have any compunction about writing in a magazine that was hated by religious groups as the preeminent pseudo-feminist rag of its day. Mutahhari`s concern with women`s issues resulted in the publication of two very important works: Nezam-e Huquq-e Zan dar Islam (The System of Women`s Rights in Islam) and Mas`aleh-ye Hijab (The Issue ofHijab).
Mutahhari`s theological writings aimed at debunking Marxism and atheism and destroying the sway that they held over the Iranian intellectuals at the time. `Elal-e Girayesh beh Maddigari (The Causes of Attraction to Materialism) was a pathology of the roots of materialism in Iranian society. His philosophical works include a commentary on Usul-e Palsafeh
va Ravesh-e Realism (Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism), a voluminous work written by his teacher, `Allamah Tabataba`i; Sharh bar Manzumeh (A Commentary on Haj Mulla Hadi Sabzevari`s Manzumeh); and Dars-ha-ye
Elahiyyat-e Shifa (Discourses on the Elahiyyat Section of [Avicenna`s] Shifa). Such works attempt to explicate the philosophical dimension of Islamic thought for researchers and those interested in the rational sciences. His insightful and meticulous commentary on the statements attributed to Prophet Muhammad (S) and Imam Ali (A) appears respectively in Sayri dar Sireh-ye Nabavi (A Glance at the Prophet`s Life) and Sayri dar Nahj al-Balaghah (A Glance at Nahj al-Balaghah). Both works show a great mind at work, displaying his commendable efforts at understanding the vast wisdom of the Infallibles (A).

Mutahhari was also a leading reformist of his time. He was not a reformer who would do away with the traditions, fall into the trap of eclecticism, or become overwhelmed and consumed by a faddish new trend. Mutahhari masterfully utilised all the Islamic sciences; Islamic teachings; and philosophical, mystical and ideological challenges to enrich religious knowledge and provide solutions for some of the social and intellectual challenges of his time. In this effort, the most important characteristic of his reformism was that he attempted to present a clear and enlightened understanding of Islam in a bid to end malicious misinterpretations of Islam. This book, Akhlaq-e Jinsi dar Islam va Jahan-e Gharb (Sexual Ethics in Islam and in the Western World), contains a series of articles that Mutahhari published in Maktab-e Islam, the leading religious journal in pre-revolutionary Iran. During Mutahhari`s lifetime, a rogue publisher compiled these articles and published them as a small pamphlet without securing his permission. Of course, this happened much to the chagrin of Mutahhari because the articles need to be edited, updated and revised before they appeared in a book form. Moreover, Mutahhari had plans to include them in his Nezam-e Huquq-e Zan dar Islam and was planning to publish them himself. Despite all this, he did not prevent the publication of the book. All this also explains why the work does not contain a preface by the author and why the tone of the book is for general audiences. The discussions are meant to remove the misunderstandings promoted among the intellectuals, university students, and young men and women by feminists and secular writers who enjoyed the full backing of the Pahlavi regime. Although Mutahhari intended to respond to the prevailing misunderstandings of Islamic beliefs on the subject, he also clarifies principles on gender, sexuality, and women`s rights. Mutahhari masterfully explains why the Islamic approach to marriage and morals differs from traditional negative moralizations as well as the negative sexual attitudes that, for centuries, had affected credulous people, leading to misconceptions about sexuality and irrational attitudes towards women - particularly among some ancient peoples and some Western modernists. Mutahhari clearly explains the Islamic perspective on human sexual relations and their boundaries. He explains that the Islamic approach has well-known guidelines which lead neither to sexual deprivation and frustration, nor to repressed or inhibited sexual desire. He demonstrates that, from the Islamic point of view, sexual desire is not only compatible with human intellectuality or spirituality, but is also part of the nature and temperament of the prophets. Quoting various traditions, he shows that the prophet of Islam and the pious Imams all explicitly demonstrated love and regard for their wives. At the same time, they strongly disapproved of celibacy or monasticism.
In clarifying the Islamic perspective, Mutahhari engages in a critique of Marxist and Western views on sexuality - views rooted in the Western philosophical tradition. He is staunchly opposed to liberating human sexuality from the traditional moral restraints and social prohibitions, and believes that doing so is bound to lead mankind towards self-destruction. According to Mutahhari, the only school of thought still capable of guiding humanity towards a moderate sexual lifestyle is Islam.
It goes without saying that a brief overview of Western philosophers cannot serve as a full critique of Western philosophy - especially since Western philosophers obviously hold a diversity of opinions on any subject, including this one. Mutahhari himself does not claim that all Western philosophers held Russell`s view. However, for the sake of argument, it is justifiable to choose representatives of a certain intellectual current and, on this basis, critique their views. What is important here is that the principles which Mutahhari critiques - such as individual freedom and its conflict with social rights, physical and spiritual happiness, the innate nature of a human being and human instinct (especially with regards to the sex drive), sexual freedom and limitations, and religious views on sexuality - are openly discussed in the works of such thinkers. Mutahhari relied on the existing translations in Farsi (and perhaps Arabic, which he had mastered as an Islamic scholar) to become familiar with the views of these Western philosophers and provide a robust Islamic critique of Western approach to sexuality.
The style of argumentation in this book was popular during Mutahhari`s era, and some of what he was discussing was controversial at that time. However, the topics Mutahhari chose are still relevant. He skilfully applied the clarity that he is renowned for in the numerous useful discussions on subjects which can be sensitive even in academic circles. I hope and pray that the readers, especially the younger generation, will benefit from this book.

S. KHALIL TOUSSI London, 2 March 2011

The book is available in our book store at 140 Maida Vale, London W9 1QB