Spouse in the bed; someone else in the head

The earlier blog piece Real world actions vs virtual or simulated actions in fiqh mentioned the issue of thinking about someone other than one’s spouse during intercourse. This issue comes up with enough frequency to warrant separating it into its own entry so that it can be found without wading through a longer piece (and to help ensure that comments on it do not drown out comments on the other issues).

If you find the topic offensive or of no use to you, or if you’re worried that it will lead you to the unlawful, please move on to something beneficial. Married couples, people who offer them guidance, and students of knowledge may find it useful. Otherwise, it’s probably best to move on.

The piece mentioned the issue of thinking about someone other than one’s spouse while engaging in intercourse in three consecutive paragraphs. Although the paragraphs focus on rulings for men, analogous rulings apply to women. Readers were expected to produce the analogous rulings on their own, just as they would do when reading the fiqh of looking at members of the opposite sex, or understanding the legal implications of Q4:23.

With that out of the way:

Classic books have discussed issues involving fantasy and the imagination. An early example of this is found in Imām al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn where the author states that imagining a woman based on what one has heard about her has the same legal status as looking at her in real life. When it is unlawful to look at her, it is unlawful to imagine her; when it is lawful to look at her, it is lawful to imagine her.1 Imām al-Ghazālī explains that imagining a woman who is unlawful to look at brings one to think about things that are themselves unlawful and incline one to seek what is not lawful to obtain.2

The Shāfi‘ī scholar Qāḍī Ḥusayn formulated this as a legal maxim: Just as it is unlawful to look at what is unlawful, it is unlawful to think about what is unlawful, because of the verse “And desire not the thing in which Allah hath made some of you excel others” (Q4:32), the import of which has been seen to have applications to cases such as coveting what someone else has (e.g. that he be married to his neighbor’s wife), or desiring what is itself unlawful (e.g. intimacy with an unlawful partner).3

Later scholars also mention the case of a husband thinking about another woman during intercourse with his wife. The predominant opinion in the school is that this is not reprehensible provided that it is not combined with a desire to engage in actual fornication [with the object of his imagination], since he is forgetting the true attributes he considers unappealing by imagining attributes he finds appealing. This is not unlawful since it only involves imagining something contrary to what it is in reality. It would, however, be unlawful if he planned to commit sin with the object of his imagination if given the opportunity. Although this is the predominant opinion within the Shāfi‘ī school, the other schools and a minority of Shāfi‘ī scholars consider it unlawful or offensive.4

An interesting issue tangental to the examples mentioned above that, perhaps, can spark some thought about the ethical side of things: What about a husband imagining one of his wives while he is with another? Both are permissible for him. What’s odd here is that he is intimate with one wife while thinking of the other. And yet there seems to be something distasteful and harmful here. Fiqh-wise, a husband should not be physically intimate simultaneously with his wives in the same bed. What then of one in the bed and the other in the head? Even if this is permissible though offensive, it still seems to me that there is something at odds with purification of the self and realizing iḥsān.

And another interesting issue to ponder is this: The third paragraph indicates that it is permissible for a husband to engage in intimate behavior with his wife while imagining that his wife looks like someone else – but not imagining engaging in intimate behavior which would be unlawful with that person. So it follows that it is permissible for him to imagine being intimate with his wife but with her looking like a previous wife – but not imagining engaging in intimate behavior with his previous wife with whom intimate behavior is no longer permissible. Since the general ruling applies to men and women, it also follows that it is permissible for a wife to imagine being intimate with her husband with him looking like a previous husband, etc. Now with this in mind: ask yourself how you would feel about your spouse, your intimate companion and love, thinking of anyone else while being intimate with you – especially if thinking about someone with whom they had shared intimacy with prior to you? Pretty bad. And only slightly worse than that is if the object of their imagination was someone they had seen engaging in similarly intimate acts in a pornographic film.

Even within the narrow window where imagining your spouse differently or as someone else is permissible, one should still avoid it due to the legal principle that it is best to extricate oneself from matters where there is disagreement between the scholars and one can avoid it without committing something offensive in one’s own school. Anyone still wishing to pass this narrow window of permissibility should think carefully about the consequences it will have on themselves, their spouse, and their marriage. They should also consider what Allah has said concerning marriage and spouses, including:

O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah, through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed Allah is ever, over you, an Observer. Q4:1

And those who say, “Our Lord, grant us from among our wives and offspring comfort to our eyes and make us an example for the righteous.” Q25:74

And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought. Q30:21

There is much written about the purposes and etiquette of marriage, so there is not need to repeat it here.

I think it is unwise to assume that one spouse thinking about the other being other than they actually are is necessarily harmful or wrong, especially seeing that this includes remembering them as they were 15 years ago, 5 kilos ago, or 1 disfiguring accident ago – where the spouse finds everything else about the spouse is still beautiful.

Today’s hypersexualized context leaves us with so many particular scenarios to that did not exist even a decade before. This short article cannot cover everything related to imagining and thinking about intimate behaviors and all its related issues. I hope that this short article provides some general principles and guidelines that contributes towards answering some issues – even if only a few.

As with things that are offensive, it is best to avoid them and, when we do not, to use them cautiously, sparingly, and wisely.

UPDATE This subject of this entry this entry has caught a more attention than usual. There is some healthy discussion about the entry on Facebook. It’s public so you should be able to access it without a Facebook account. The comments include additional real-world examples, its application to therapy (especially in the context of pornography addiction), and additional questions. If you’re not on Facebook and would like to comment below, I’ll do my best to bring let the appropriate people know so they can reply here.

Please take the time to read Real world actions vs virtual or simulated actions in fiqh, which places this entry within a larger context.

  1. The ruling of a male looking at a female depends upon the relationship between them and the circumstances wherein it occurs. The most common cases concerning the rulings of males looking at females, from The Ultimate Conspectus, include that looking:
    1. at an unrelated woman without need: is impermissible;
    2. at his wife: is permissible to look at the entirety of her body;
    3. at close relatives: it is permissible to look at everything other than the area between the navel and the knees;
    4. for the purpose of marriage: it is permissible to look at the face and hands;
    5. for the sake of medical treatment: it is permissible to look to the extent needed; or
    6. for the sake of testimony or trade: it is permissible to look at the face, specifically. 
  2. Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, (Cairo: Maṭba‘ah al-Istiqāmah, n.d.), 2:279. 
  3. Ibn Ḥajar al-Ḥaythamī and Yaḥyā bin Sharaf al-Nawawī, Tuḥfat al-Muḥtāj bi Sharḥ al-Minhāj, (Beirut: Dār Iḥyā’ al-Turāth al-‘Arabī, n.d.), 7:262. 
  4. ‘Abd al-Raḥīm bin al-Ḥusayn al-‘Irāqī, Tarḥ al-Tathrīb, 1:390; Muḥammad al-Zarkashī, Al-Manthūr fi al-Qawā‘id, ed. Taysīr Fā’iq Aḥmad Maḥmūd and ‘Abd al-Sattār Abū Ghuddah, (Kuweit: Wizārat al-Awqāf wa al-Shu’ūn al-Islāmiyyah, 1985), 1:466.