In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender and Sexuality

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Masculinity
  • Premodern Subversion of Gender/Sex Binaries
  • Modern and Contemporary Subversion of Gender/Sex Binaries
  • Same-Sex Sexuality
  • Prayer
  • Issues in Sufism and Shiʿism
  • Bodily Purity and Menstruation
  • Modern and Contemporary Discourses on Sexuality
  • Modern and Contemporary Advice Literature
  • Contraception and Abortion
  • Circumcision and Excision
  • Rape, Domestic Violence, and Honor-Related Violence
  • Sexual Segregation and Veiling

Islamic Studies Gender and Sexuality
Aysha Hidayatullah
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0208


The study of gender and sexuality in Islamic contexts is complicated by the modern historicity of these concepts and the danger of projecting them anachronistically onto contexts in which they did not exist as categories of thought. A further challenge is that there is no uniform referent for the concepts of gender and sexuality across Islamic contexts. Muslims’ notions of gender and sex (and their premodern antecedents) are subject to immense variation in understandings of the human person, body, and psyche, as well as the tremendous ruptures in their conceptions brought on by modernity and colonialism. Sex, gender, and sexuality differ not only in their “versions” or “expressions” across time and space, but also according to what might be meant by these concepts at all. Bearing in mind the instability of notions of sexuality and gender in Islamic contexts, the study of sexuality in Islam as it is understood here is concerned with Muslims’ understandings of designations of biological sex; reproduction; sexual desire, pleasure, behavior, relations, and expression; social mores and legal prescriptions/proscriptions; and modern/contemporary notions of sexual identification, discursive practices, and ethics. The study of gender in Islamic contexts is distinguished from the study of the related field of “women in Islam.” The latter field frequently treats the distinction between men and women as a given, and when it addresses gender, it most often does so from a social constructivist view of gender based on unquestioned designations of biological sex, while also neglecting the study of men. In contrast, following on the work of Joan W. Scott, here the study of gender is understood not simply as the study of the social construction of roles assigned to one’s stable and biologically defined sex, but also as the study of power-imbued relations and discursive practices in Islamic contexts whereby both gender and sex resist fixed identifications. It concerns not only women and femininity, but also men and masculinity, as well as the relational formation and subversion of those designations. Therefore, this article includes works on “women in Islam” only when directly relevant to gender in the sense understood here. Those interested in Muslim women broadly should consult the Oxford Bibliographies: Islamic Studies article on Women In Islam.

General Overviews

A small handful of works cover multiple topics on gender and sexuality across premodern, modern, and contemporary periods. The most highly recommended among these is Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics and Islam (Ali 2006). An abbreviated discussion of many topics discussed there appears online on the Internet sites of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project (Ali 2003) and the Muslim Women’s League. A more dated and less reliable source is Abdelwahab Bouhdiba’s Sexuality in Islam (Bouhdiba 1985). General reference guides are also found in two entries in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures; Harris, et al. 2005 surveys mostly contemporary, regionally specific sexual practices, while Lagrange 2003 focuses on unresolved epistemological questions in researching the field as a whole.

  • Ali, Kecia. Feminist Sexual Ethics Project: Muslim Sexual Ethics. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University, 2003.

    Provides very brief introductory discussions of marriage, divorce, and same-sex sexuality from a jurisprudential orientation. Also features a helpful topically organized bibliography.

  • Ali, Kecia. Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qurʾan, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

    An instant classic and the foremost guide on contemporary debates regarding the most pressing concerns about sexuality among Muslims today, all discussed accessibly and critically in relation to premodern understandings of the Qurʾan, Hadith, and Islamic law. Major topics covered include marriage, divorce, concubinage, illicit sex, same-sex sexuality, and circumcision.

  • Bouhdiba, Abdelwahab. Sexuality in Islam. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge and Kegal Paul, 1985.

    Originally published as La Sexualité en Islam in 1975, this source centers on Arab Muslims and is heterocentric, outdated on contemporary sexual dynamics, and prone to ahistorical generalizations, apologetics, and essentialist judgments about sexual oppression in Islam. Even so, it makes interesting observations about the sacred dimensions of sexuality in some veins of Islamic thought, covering key works of medieval scholarship and erotic literature, and providing a doorway into a wide array of interesting topics.

  • Harris, Colette, Parvaneh Hooshmand, Dror Ze’evi, Sabina Faiz Rashid, and Signe Arnfred. “Sexualities: Practices.” In Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures. Vol. 3, Family, Body, Sexuality and Health. Edited by Suad Joseph, 383–389. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.

    Documents an uneven mix of sexual practices in the Ottoman period and contemporary Central Asia, Iran, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, but helpful in acquainting researchers with a sampling of regionally specific concerns and sources unaccounted for in other general references.

  • Lagrange, Frédéric. “Sexualities and Queer Studies.” In Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures. Vol. 1, Methodologies, Paradigms and Sources. Edited by Suad Joseph. 419–422. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

    Raises key epistemological concerns in constructing the field of sexuality/queer studies in Islamic contexts: constructionist and essentialist approaches, relational development of Western and Islamic notions, the challenges of terminology, and the tendency to equate premodern and contemporary phenomena. Concentrates on Arabic sources, but also lists some general and region-specific titles.

  • Muslim Women’s League. Sex and Sexuality in Islam. Los Angeles: Muslim Women’s League.

    Centering on the concerns of women and girls, and framed by an activist agenda to reform harmful dynamics, this source is subject to questionable generalizations and interpretations. Still, it raises essential issues related to a wide variety of topics on sexual development, roles, and regulations in Muslim societies.

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