Question 66:

Are there today, or have there ever been in the history of Islam movements which recognize the value of celibacy?


Answer: The Quran is in favor of marriage (24:32). It praises monks in general; however, it has reservations about celibacy (57:27). Islamic tradition also knows the saying: There is no monasticism in Islam! or: There is no celibacy in Islam (in the Hadith collection of Abu Dawud). Muhammad, so tradition has it, once said to a Muslim who did not want to marry and had no plausible reason: So you have decided to be counted among the brothers of the devil! Either you want to become a Christian monk, then join them openly, or you are one of us, then you have to follow our way. Our way is marriage.

Despite this and further similar expressions, some ascetics or Sufis have chosen a life without marriage. Those who were married nevertheless stressed the advantages of a celibate life and the difficulties marriage and family life present to an ascetic. It was commented that the married man sees his inner peace threatened and that his search for the face of God is made harder by the worries about his family. Because of this, some ascetics wish to be released from these ties. In some cases, it has even been considered acceptable for them to leave their wives and families, if an ascetic wanted to dedicate himself exclusively to his devotions. Many Muslims have occasionally lived celibate lives away from their families for a while in search of increased closeness to God (taqarrub bi Allah. cf. Sura 56:7-11; 88-94). Sura 3:45 confirms Jesus as one of those who will be among those closest to me. Furthermore, contemporary movements like the Tablighi Jamaat (literally: community of preaching), an important contemporary world-wide Islamic missionary movement) calls on all its active members to leave their families for an average of one month every year to be free to travel in the name of mission.

Some ascetics understood turning your back on the world to mean turning away from all human company. In solitude they searched for the peace that might make it easier for them to carry out their devotions. They were convinced that the company of people would only bring with it external activities and would draw them closer to sinful men. At his very best, the ascetic should lead his life as if he was alone before God and as if other people did not exist. Such views and attitudes are certainly also influenced by pre- and non-Islamic religious schools of thought that are hostile to the world and or the body cf. Tor Andrae, “Islamische Mystik”. 2nd. edition. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1980, p. 56-58). (This answer summarised to a large extent the last contribution „Ascetics” by Th. A. Khoury from Khoury/Hagemnann/Heine, Islam-Lexikon I, p. 85f.)

The virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus – as depicted in the Quran – can help Muslims to understand the Christian option of a celibate life. The Quran teaches that Mary, whose body was chaste, is an example and a model for those who believe (cf. sura 66:11-12). While, according to Muslim faith Jesus was a prophet and Word and Spirit from God, the Quran depicts Mary as a god-fearing, pious woman, in other words, as belonging to those who humbly serve [God] (min al-qanitin) (66:12), in other words: as a woman who trusts completely in Gods message and as a true woman (siddiqa, sura 5:75).) The Quran describes her as someone who withdrew from normal busy life to a remote place, where she could concentrate on prayer. (cf. sura 19:16-17). The great Hadith-collector al-Tirmidhi (d. 892) commented this last Quran reference as follows: „Mary was asked to live in a state of inner prayer, or, the prayer of the God-thinking ones (dhikr), while her heart would be solely focused on God. Thus, He would fill it with love, and her soul would be completely overwhelmed by Him so that He could protect her. And so He would prevent the fading and dispersal of Mary’s pious desires. Mary was asked to live in a state of internal prayer and peace, in the search of the glory of God, completely desirous of remaining in Him.

According to the Quran, God makes Mary into a model for all believers. Christians who, like her, retain their chastity, follow her example from the same attitude of devotion to God. Al-Tirmidhis explanation of Mary’s inner prayer is a good description of what it is that Christian contemplative orders aspire to and try to follow. Other Christian orders, which strive for contemplatives in action, have the same ideal and goal as Mary. In the words of Tirmidhi: to seek without ceasing the glory of God and to endeavor as much as possible to remain with this effort.

It can therefore be said that: the value of singleness and virginity chosen for religious reasons by those who try to exceed what the law requires of them, and who strive for His intimate love – those of whom the Quran says that they are „min al-muqarrabin” – is not foreign to the Islamic tradition. The early Sufis encouraged their pupils to a life without marriage. Some even considered singleness to be superior to the married state, as long as this singleness is dedicated to God and prepares the person especially for Islam, meaning that it helps him to dedicate himself solely to God. In his masterpiece “Ihya ‘ulum al-din” al-Ghazali (d. 1111) cites the Sufi Sufi al-Darani when he says: The sweetness of adoration and the uninterrupted devotion of the heart, which the non-married person can feel, can never be experienced by the married person (cf. Thomas Michel, “The vows of religious life in an Islamic context” in: Encounter (Rome), no. 132. Feb. 1987.)

The famous reformer Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and teacher of Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) never married. In the course of his active and extremely dynamic life, which brought him to all corners of the Islamic world, many admiring pupils and leaders offered him their daughters hands in marriage. Al-Afghani’s reply was always: „Die umma (Islamic community) is my bride. This is comparable to one of the important arguments or motivations for the Christian celibate: the determination to complete, exclusive dedication to the Christian community or the church, which the believer takes to be the mystical body of Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected.

It should not be forgotten that sexual restrictions are also an integral part of some central acts of Islamic worship. Ramadan not only means abstaining from food and drink, but also from any sexual activity during the hours of fasting. The holy period of ihram, which occurs during the hajj also requires complete, if not limited, abstention from sexual activity. What we mean is: Muslims abstain from sex during these holy periods not because they consider sex to be evil, degrading or unworthy, but because God has called upon them to deny themselves this legitimate activity so that they can focus their attention and their hearts purely to God.

In summary it can be said that although Islam stresses the value and goodness of family life, there are elements within the Islamic faith and life which can help Muslims to understand the promise of a virginal life dedicated to God which some Christians make. For some individuals among them, maybe those who tend towards debate and arguments, this possible Christian life choice appears to be unnatural and contradictory to Gods revelation. Many other Muslims, on the other hand, are simply curious. They genuinely would like to understand the motivation behind the Christian option of celibacy, because Muslims feel a natural affinity with "persons dedicated to God. The questions of these Muslims cannot and should not be answered at a theoretical level; the example and witness of real lives dedicated solely to God, according to the gospel virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience, speaks louder than mere words.

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