The Christian calling



I. The Muslim View

According to Muslim interpretation marriage between a man and a woman follows the divine order of creation:

And Allah hath given you wives of your own kind, and hath given you, from your wives, sons and grandsons, and hath made provision of good things for you. Is it then in vanity that they believe and in the grace of Allah that they disbelieve? (sura 16:72)

One of the God created and therefore desired “good things“ is marriage and family.

Marriage is the natural place for human sexuality and for procreation. Like Christianity Islam prohibits sex before and outside mariage and restricts the expression of sexuality to marriage, which is the state in which cohabitation (Lebensgemeinschaft) between man and woman and parents and children can flourish. Unlike the Catholic church, which also holds celibacy chosen for religious reasons in high esteem, Islam clearly prefers marriage (cf. sura 24:32)

The Qur’an emphasises the equality of husband and wife. The responsibility for creation – expressed through the word Statthalterschaft– has been given to husband and wife together, not just to the husband.

The relationship of the couple shall be marked by love and mercy:

And of His signs is this: He created for you helpmeets from yourselves that ye might find rest in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy”. (Sura 30:21)

Husband and wife shall complement each other and be like raiment for each other

“They are raiment for you and ye are raiment for them.“ (Sura 2:187)

Nevertheless, some of the statements of the Qur’an give the husband preference over his wife. He is standing a level above her (cf. sura 2:228) and he has authority over and and responsibility for her.

“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women)” (Sura 4:34)

These statements mean: The husband is preferred and placed above his wife in as far as he has responsibilities and duties for his wife and children. This includes the payment of the dowry to the wife, securing their livelihood and protecting his wife and children by representing their concerns.

The husband as head of the household and the family is predominantely responsible for the family income and for the position and interests of the family in society, in the external sphere, the wife predominantely for the domestic sphere and for bringing up the children. The couple do not have the same duties but each has their own.

Islam tends towards a separation of the sexes in society. Consequently, there are certain rules of behaviour for women. Only in her own household, before members of her own family and among other women, is she allowed to act freely. Otherwise, her behaviour must be restrained:

“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment [...]” (Sura 24:31]

This explains the traditional custom of veiling and modesty of women in public life, which intended not to discriminate against women but to protect them.

The husband, too, must display modesty and restraint:

“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. Lo! Allah is aware of what they do.” (Sura 24:30)

The Qur’an therefore determines that husband and wife are equal but that they must observe their role-specific tasks and duties. Every day practice, however, may differ from this. Historic develpments, customs and tradition, however, have often allocated women a subservient role.

Western society also knows a partriarchal structure of society. When looking at the cultures of the Occident and the Orient, religious and social norms must not be confused, although both often refer to the other.


II. The Christian View

The character of marriage

The Catholic church belives: God himself has ordained the partnership of man and wife. God has created people in his image as man and woman and has given them to each other as companions. This is stated in the first biblical account of creation in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament:

“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, [...] So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth [...] “(Genesis 1:26-28)

The second creation account in the bible stresses the partnership between men and women even more clearly:

“It is not good for the man to be alone.”

(Genesis 2:18),

and a little further on:

“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

(Genesis 2:24).

That the state of marriage has been ordained by God is confirmed by Jesus in the New Testament:

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh.

(Gospel of Mark 10:6-8)

These texts form the basis for the doctrine of the Catholic church according to which marriage is aimed at

the benefit of the couple and procreation and the upbringing of children.

According to Catholic understanding marriage is on the one hand A legal good. This means: It is a relationship that is based in law and ordered and protected by law. It is a contract. On the other hand the legal definition is wrapped in the understanding of marriage as a covenant. A contract is established through the declaration of assent of the partners to provide a particular service. This understanding is also part of the understanding of marriage. But over and above the sober word contract the word covenant stresses that marriage is a personal relationship, a living unit, a community of fate between the couple, which is supported by and rooted in faith.


The teaching of the Catholic church includes this and goes further by saying: Marriage is a Sacrament. It is a visible sign of God’s covenant with humanity. It is the responsibility of the couple to make this sign visible, to make God’s love for humanity visible, just as God has shown his love to humanity through Jesus Christ. For marriage this means: The couple shall give each other the love God grants them in the sacrament of marriage and shall pass it on externally into the surrounding community.

Only a validly concluded marriage between Christians is a sacrament in the eyes of the Catholic church. The church respects and protects also marriages between Christians and non-Christians and marriages between non-Christians, regardless of whether they have been entered into according to religious, secular or the local law of a tribe. Because marriage is not instituted by people or by the church but is rooted in the will and the actions of God.

A marriage between partners of Islamic faith concluded according to Islamic law is therefore not a sacrament but nevertheless valid. Nor is the marriage between an Islamic and a Catholic partner a sacrament. (If the Muslim parnter becomes a Christian the marriage becomes sacramental). Nevertheless the church protects and blesses such marriages and recognises their full validity, in as far as the necessary dispensation - here: the exemption from the impediment to marriage of between people of different faiths.


The character of marriage

The Catholic church considers marriage to be a personal life partnership, which excludes any other similar relationship - including impersnal sexual acts - to others. It is not just rooted in the decision of the couple for one another but also in their union with one another through God. According to Catholic teaching every marriage therefore has the character of

unity and insolubility.


Unity means a single pairing, i.e. a marriage between one man and one woman. All other forms of concurrent marriages or subsequent marriages while one of the spouses is still alive are therefore excluded. The marriage of a man to several wifes (polygamy) and of a women to several husband (polyandry) is therefore not possible.

Insolubility means: There is no possibility for one or both partners who have concluded and consumated a valid marriage to dissolve an existing mrariage to become free for marriage with another partner. Neither inner solubility (through the partners) or external solubility (by an external authority) is possible. Only death dissolves the ties of marriage.

(From: Katholisch/islamische Ehen: Eine Handreichung. Hrsg. Erzbischöfliches Generalvikariat Köln, Hauptabteilung Seelsorge. Editor: Referat für Interreligiöse Dialog, 2000, p. 11-14; 35-39.)


Celibacy as a Religious Vocation

I. Muslim Questions

  • Why dont priests and members of religious orders marry?


II. Muslim Perspectives



1. Islam teaches that it is the natural vocation of every man and woman to establish a family and to accept, as a believer, the associated demands and risks. The establishing and the bringing up of a family are thus considered a duty towards the wider community, both human and religious. Muslims therefore suspect that someone capable of marriage who willingly remains single does so out of selfishness, or alternatively because of impotence or deep disappointment following unhappiness in love. Muslims also doubt whether the obligations involved in the oath of celibacy are really observed: they suspect secret relationships between priests and members of religious orders, as well as homosexual relationships. Underlying all this is the general conviction that healthy men and women cannot live without sexual relations.


2. Furthermore, marriage is a basic duty for believers: Marriage is half of the faith (al-zawāj nisf al-imān), in the words of a much-quoted hadith. This is especially so for men, whose duty it is to protect the weaker sex. It is thus understandable why voluntary celibacy is something of a scandal among Muslims and evokes hostile criticism, though this spontaneous and basic reaction appears today to be undergoing certain developments.


3. Cases of voluntary celibacy in the Islamic world, among both men and women, have recently become more frequent. This phenomenon, which can sometimes be on a temporary basis, can arise from the need for dedication to a particular cause, as with older brothers and sisters looking after the younger children in a family, nurses or social workers devoting themselves wholly to their work, or freedom fighters such as the fidāiyyūn and fidāiyyāt of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. It can also arise from personal reasons, such as the desire to seek fulfilment in life outside or before marriage, or from religious reasons, as with unmarried pilgrims (hājjiyyūn) or young widows who have decided to stay in Mecca to pray and meditate, either for a particular period or for their whole life.


4. Those who know priests and members of religious orders and have experienced their daily lives recognize that the vocation of celibacy can genuinely be lived out. Many admire this way of living. This is often the case with Muslim girls who live or work together with nuns, would like to live as Muslim celibates and express their regret that there is no comparable form of religious life in Islam. What are their motives? The desire to escape from marriage, or the longing for a life of dedication? Muslims will often say: That is in order for Christians, but in Islam there is no monasticism(la rahbāniyyat fīl-Islām).



1. With a few exceptions, one can say that celibacy as a vocation is not recognized in Islam, either as a religious or a human ideal. There is practically no trace of it in the Quran. The Prophet was married. There are many hadith which, while explicitly praising marriage, portray celibacy negatively and reject it. For example: Our sunna [tradition, and implying upright character] is marriage (sunnatu-nā al-zawāj); Marriage is half of the faith; If I had one day more to live and was not married, I would take a wife, so that I should not meet God as an unmarried man; it was said to a man who was not yet married: So you have decided to live in Satans community? If you wish to become a Christian monk, then enter their community openly, but if you are one of us then follow our sunna!


One of the greatest Muslim theologians, al-Ghazāli (1058-1111), explains in great detail why marriage is a binding obligation in Islam:

- to beget offspring, in obedience to the clear will of God and the Prophet;

- to strengthen the Muslim community;

- to satisfy ones sensual appetites and to gain a foretaste of Paradise here on earth;

- for the husband: the benefit of having someone to look after the housework, so leaving time free for prayer;

- for the mystic: relaxation through enjoying oneself with ones wife;

- finally, an opportunity to grow in patience through tolerating ones wifes temperament.(69)

Nearly all Islamic mystics were married.


2. However, celibacy is not totally ignored nor rejected in every case. The Quran praises Mary as the perfect example of virginal purity: she guarded her chastity (Quran 21:91; 66:12; cf. 3:39, referring to John the Baptist [Yahyā], who was chaste [hasūr], and hinting at the chastity of Jesus). Monks are praised in the Quran (5:82; 24:36-37 and 57:27; but note also 9:31,34). Some Muslim mystics and ascetics lived as celibates, as, for example, the famous female mystic Rābi‛a of Basra, whose refusal to marry seems to imply an oath of dedication to God. The manuals of some religious orders (e.g. the Rahmāniyya and Bektāshiyya) praise celibacy undertaken for religious motives. In a discussion of Arguments for and against Marriage, al-Ghazāli presents celibacy as advisable only if one is not ready for the expenses and burdens of a family, if the character of the proposed wife is too difficult or if she would prevent the mystic from engaging in the serious practice of meditation. He comes to the conclusion that the value of being or not being married depends on ones circumstances. The ideal is to be able to combine married life with piety and devotion to God, as the Prophet Muhammad did.


On the celibacy of Jesus, al-Ghazāli comments:


Perhaps he was so disposed by nature that being preoccupied with family matters would have exhausted him too much, or it would have become too difficult for him to provide for a family lawfully, or he was unable to combine marriage with devotion to the service of God and chose devotion to the service of God alone.(70)


III. Christian Perspectives


It is not a question here of singleness in a secular context, which is not concerned with sexual abstinence. It is a question of the conscious Christian motivation for celibacy, particularly the celibacy and sexual abstinence demanded of priests and members of religious orders.


1. Catholic Perspective


For the Catholic faith there are three fundamental and complementary motives for the vocation to celibacy:


(i) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12) or (with Paul) for the sake of the proclamation of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9). It is a matter of showing ones total gratitude to and love for Jesus Christ. For those who are called to celibacy, this way of life can deepen inner union with God and increase openness for God. Celibacy can be an expression of expectancy before God and the awaiting of his kingdom;

(ii) the service of others, which is furthered by total devotion to this calling;

(iii) a conscious imitation of Jesus, who lived as a celibate, and of Mary, who is called the Virgin in the Creed. This has inspired and motivated very many Christians who are celibate for the sake of Jesus.


2. Protestant Perspective


Marriage is recommended as being of equal status to celibacy, for which there is no particular preference. Celibacy can be significant for the sake of dedicated service in the proclamation of the Gospel, but it is not demanded of ministers. Celibacy is lived out in some communities, but not on the basis of an irreversible commitment. The celibacy of Jesus is not seen as having any vital function, though Jesus does serve as an example to those who are celibate. The same does not apply to Mary; biblical scholars assume that Mary did not at all live as a permanent virgin, but rather had further children after Jesus (Mark 6:3).


IV. (Catholic) Christian Responses


1. In response to the Muslim suspicion of selfishness as a motive, one can answer that vocation to celibacy is, in principle, motivated by the desire to serve others (li-khidmat al-insāniyya) and by the will to do good (li-l-a‛māl al-khayriyya). This, however, demands of celibates that they are truly available for the service of others. It will not carry much conviction if their way of life is scarcely any different from that of married people. Celibacy can truly be lived out as a Christian vocation only when the whole way of life is pervaded by the spirit of the Gospel.


2. Where emphasis is laid on the religious and moral duty to marry and bring up a family, one can in response point to the fact that celibacy aims at total dedication to God (li-wajh Allāh; aslama wajha-hu li-llāh), and is undertaken for the sake of prayer. This assumes that the spirit of total devotion and prayer can actually be noticed.


3. Where there is the suspicion that disappointment in love lies behind the decision to become celibate, one can point to the value and the beauty of married life, of the Christian family as an ideal, and, possibly, to happily married sisters and brothers.


4. One should neither conceal nor deny the struggles and temptations involved in celibacy, nor give the impression that it is a protection against all crises. One must recognize that many have left this way, finding that it was too difficult for them.


5. When questioned on this subject, priests and other members of religious orders ought to explain how they experienced their vocation as a call, an invitation (da‛wā) from God to grow in love, and also a desire to follow the example of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary. One can describe how this call matured through prayer, reflection and consultation with other believing Christians, with the support of ones family, if this was the case; and of how the idea finally became so clear and pressing that to reject it would have brought about much sadness and distress. This all assumes that in the life of a person genuinely living out the religious vocation to celibacy authentic human and spiritual fulfilment becomes palpable.


  • (69) See Hans Bauer, Islamische Ethik. Nach den Originalquellen übersetzt und erläutert. Volume II. Von der Ehe, Max Niemeyer, Halle, 1917, see esp. pp. 3-48; also photographically reprinted, Olms Verlag, Hildesheim, 1979. (This is a translation of the 12th book of al-Ghazālis major work Ihyā ‛Ulūm al-Dīn [The Revival of the Religious Sciences].)
  • (70) Ibid., p.48.

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