In a seminar given by the British Sunni Muslim scholar Timothy Winter—who is also known by his Arabic name, “Abdal Hakim Murad”—some very striking comments were made about the traditional Christian approach to human sexuality. However, before getting into the nature of such comments, it should be noted that the seminar seems to be from some years ago, and that Winter himself has pointed out that some of his more “zealous” comments from the past, e.g. homophobic remarks, were the result of views that he has since relinquished. It should also be stated that I, even as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, am not looking to attack Winter for his comments, but instead hope to reflect on what they perhaps reveal to Christians who are willing to be challenged by those with different perspectives.
The seminar in question was entitled Imam Al-Ghazali on Disciplining the Soul, and was given in front of what appears to be an exclusively male Muslim audience in Florida. Moreover, one of the sessions of the seminar was devoted to the topic of Sexuality: An Islamic Perspective. Winter, of course, as most religious leaders tend to do, spent a little too much of the time moralizing and lamenting the ills of contemporary society. At one point, however, he made some rather striking remarks. Winter claimed that Christianity had waged a “war against [the] flesh,” and that this “war” had led to “agonies of self-renunciation, and in many cases, moral catastrophes.” He went on to argue that the contemporary public obsession with sex in the West—which, by the way, he also condemns—is but a reaction to centuries of Christian demonization of sexuality. Further, Winter turned to the scandals in recent years of the Roman Catholic Church in order to help illustrate his point. He said that the “celibate dream” had been a failure among Catholic clergy, and then went on to reference a report from the Kansas City Star, which apparently found that American Catholic priests were four times more likely to die of aids than the general population.
Obviously, Winter was being rather polemical in his approach to the topic. He probably was simply attempting to further confirm the “superiority” of Islam in the presence of his coreligionists. It could even be argued that, as an orthodox Muslim, Winter specifically calling the Christian approach to sexuality a “war against [the] flesh” is hypocritical, given the Islamic stance on issues such as homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, or its very one-sided approach to polygamy. But Winter was not taking such things into account, since his criticism of the Christian view of human sexuality is based on what he seemingly believes to be a semi-condemnation of heterosexual relations, even within marriage. Thus, for the sake of brevity, this article will only look at what Winter is specifically taking issue with: the Christian view of marital sex between a man and woman. However, before going any further, perhaps a very brief overview of the Islamic understanding of sex is in order.
Islam’s perspective on sexuality has arguably more in common with the Hebrew Bible than it does with the New Testament. According to the Qurʼān, a man may marry up to four wives, and also possess concubines (4:3). Moreover, the Prophet Muhammad was given a dispensation in the sacred text to marry as many women as he wished (33:50). In fact, Winter states in the same lecture that the Islamic prophet’s polygamy was a divine sign to the world that the Christian war on sex was over. That being said, the overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout history have remained in monogamous marriages.
Marriage is also not seen as an impediment to the spiritual life in anyway in Islam. Moreover, unlike in Christianity, celibacy has almost never—except in the case of some Sufis—gained acceptance among Muslims. This is surely due to the fact that the Qurʼān is clear that there is to be no monasticism among Muslims:
We sent other messengers to follow in their footsteps. After those We sent Jesus, son of Mary: We gave him the Gospel and put compassion and mercy into the hearts of his followers. But monasticism was something they invented—We did not ordain it for them—only to seek God’s pleasure, and even so, they did not observe it properly. So We gave a reward to those of them who believed, but many of them were lawbreakers. (57:27)
Although the Qurʼān claims that monasticism was an innovation on the part of Christians, it does not portray monastics as “unbelievers,” and thus, among the condemned. In truth, the Qurʼān takes a nuanced view of monastics themselves, even if it does reject their way of life. For instance, in one sura it says that monks are wanton individuals who “consume people’s possessions,” while also leading believers astray (9:34). Yet, elsewhere we read a much more positive perspective of monastics, as the Qurʼān teaches that Muslims will find Christians to be the closest to them because of their ascetics’ humility (5:82).
Another reason for the Muslim rejection of celibacy as a path towards holiness is that sex is portrayed in the holy texts of Islam as a gift from God himself. Heterosexual sex can even be argued as providing believers with a foretaste of Paradise. The Qurʼān itself is often understood as teaching that sex will be present in the hereafter, such as in the verses which refer to the houri (e.g. 44:54, 52:20). We also read in the sīra the connection between sexual desire and Paradise. For instance, during the Mi’raj, when the Prophet Muhammad arrives in Paradise he is struct by the beauty of a desirable young slave girl, who informs him that she is be the future reward in the afterlife for his disciple Zayd ibn Ḥārithah. As is clear, heterosexual intercourse and holiness are in no way in opposition to one another in Islam.
Having presented a brief overview of some of Islam’s more positive views on sexuality, let us now look at the place of sex in Christianity, with a heavy focus on the Eastern Orthodox perspective on the subject. While there are different views even among Orthodox theologians on the topic of sexuality, especially among modern thinkers, the general Orthodox position on the subject has historically been a rather bleak one. Obviously, this does not mean that there has been Orthodox, or any other mainstream denomination of Christians, claiming that no one should be permitted to have sex, since, if listened to, that would have made Christianity a rather short-lived religion. Also, unlike Islam, which advocates corporal punishment for fornicators (e.g. Q 24:2), the New Testament is far more lenient on those caught in sexual sin (e.g. Jn 7:53-8:11). Nevertheless, within Christianity, sex has often been seen as a sort of “necessary evil,” and one in which the “pure” avoid. The root of such thinking may arguably be found in the New Testament itself. The Apostle Paul writes:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. (1 Cor 7:1-7)
While Paul admits that celibacy is not a gift that God gives to everybody, and that marriage is a good way of avoiding worse things—such as fornication—abstinence is clearly the preferred path. Of course, we also see in the New Testament that celibacy is not a requirement to be an apostle or a member of holy orders. For instance, when describing the qualifications for a hierarch, Paul says, “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife.” (1 Tim 3:2) So clearly celibacy was not a prerequisite for being called to teach or lead other Christians in the faith. Yet, the Church over time would go further than Paul, or any other New Testament writer, did in its negative view of human sexuality.
The Church’s general disparaging of sex is no doubt partially the result of the great monastic movement, which began to bloom in the third century. Monasticism was founded in part as a response to the worldliness of an institutionalized church—a church that would soon become the official religion of the Roman Empire. While monasticism produced so much of value for the Christian world—saints, spiritual and theological writings, hymnography, a defence against certain heresies, and so forth—as it became a more dominant force in the Church, it also ended up contributing to an anti-sexual worldview among believers.
While Christian writers rarely outright condemned marriage, they did constantly lower its spiritual status because of the physical pleasures associated with it. For instance, St John Damascene (c. 675-750), a Church Father who also took great exception elsewhere with Islam’s views on sex, writes the following on the topic of marriage:
The begetting of children which results from marriage is certainly good. Marriage, too, is good, because it does away with fornication and by licit intercourse prevents the frenzy of concupiscence from being excited to illicit actions. Marriage is good for those whom continence is impossible, but virginity is better, because it increases the fecundity of the soul and offers prayer to God as a seasonal fruit.
John calls marriage “good” because it produces children, and prevents one from falling into greater sins, but yet he still believes that it impedes the soul. The reason for this is because marriage involves sex, and sex is the result of the Fall. On the other hand, celibacy is seen as emulating the angels, and God’s original plan for humankind before sin entered into the world. Moreover, other saints go even further than the Damascene did on the topic.
For example, in response to St Augustine of Canterbury’s question about how long a woman who has recently given birth must wait before entering a church, St Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) writes:
As to the interval that must elapse after childbirth before a woman may enter church, you are familiar with the Old Testament rule: that is, for a male child thirty-three days and for a female, sixty-six. But this is to be understood as an allegory, for were a woman to enter church and return thanks in the very hour of her delivery, she would do nothing wrong. The fault lies in the bodily pleasure, not in the pain; the pleasure is in the bodily union, the pain is in the birth […]
Gregory, who in the very same excerpt demonstrates a rather progressive view against the concept of mothers being considered “unclean” for a period after giving birth—an issue which persists in many Orthodox churches to this very day—seemingly finds the pleasure in sex to be defiling for the woman, and probably for the man as well.
There is also, of course, the example of the lives of the saints. Very few Orthodox saints were married, and many that were—royalty aside, but not always—are portrayed as making the decision to live as “brother and sister” at some point during their marriage. Such a decision sometimes simply meant that the couple lived together celibately, but it often meant that the husband and wife both separated from one another in order to join monasteries. Thus, such individuals are seen as having left the “profanity” and “worldliness” of marriage behind in order to imitate the ideal life of the angels.
Perhaps one of the more clear examples of deciding to live as a virgin within marriage is that of St John of Kronstadt (1829-1909). John is also an important example of such behaviour because his biography is not the result of ancient hagiographical sources, but is instead the product of recent history.
It seems that shortly after his wedding, John simply told his wife that they would live together celibately. In fact, based on his diary, John even admits to looking down on a fellow priest for not being a virgin like himself. While this may seem radical, and to some degree it is, Kizenko argues that the saint’s position on the subject was the natural result of the Orthodox Church’s tradition. She writes:
Sexuality entered the world because of sin and was inextricably connected to sin. Because sexuality was a sign of the disruption of the original balance and perfection, the more closely one approached perfection, the less sexual one would be. Slavic clerical writers articulated this notion particularly clearly, stating that sexual impulses came exclusively from the Devil so that he might lead people away from God and their salvation. The notion that sexuality might be anything other than negative was entirely absent.
To demean the place of sex, and thus marriage, as a monastic, or just as an unmarried clergyman, is somewhat understandable—although still erroneous. One has chosen a life of celibacy, perhaps the most difficult thing a human being can do, and in order to justify this choice, and to avoid the temptation of returning to the ways of the “world,” one may need to see the other Christian path—marriage—as being somehow “inferior.” With this in mind, it should be no surprise that the Roman Catholic Church, whose Latin rite clergy must all remain unmarried, possesses an even dimmer view of human sexuality than that of the Orthodox Church. Moreover, within the context of an isolated monastery, perhaps this approach would not be so problematic. However, history demonstrates that this negative philosophy on sex did not stay within the monastery walls, but eventually became almost the standard teaching of the Orthodox Church, as well as the teaching of the other more ancient Christian churches.
This in practical terms has meant that the laity has often viewed the sacrament of marriage as a deficient path, and one that needs to be remedied to some degree by partaking in ascetical, or rather monastic, behaviour. For instance, many pious Orthodox view sex as forbidden on fast days, which, according to the Church calendar, accounts for about half the year. Sex is also seen by many as standing in the way of one’s ability to partake in Holy Communion, since it defiles one before and/or after receiving the sacrament. The Christians who subscribe to such a worldview also tend to see sex as something only useful for procreation, and its connection to love and marital unity is completely disregarded. The importance placed on procreation by such believers is also somewhat contradictory, considering that they are also the same people who tell couples to copulate only rarely.
Moreover, the exalted position assigned to celibacy has also arguably had an adverse effect on the laity’s understanding of the clergy. Married priests are often seen as lacking the same sort of spiritual insight that can apparently only be found among celibates. While it may make sense to credit a monk or nun with possessing a more profound prayer life then the average person, since monastics have, at least in theory, devoted their lives to prayer, the same perception of holiness is often automatically applied to archimandrites or bishops, who often lead lives as “worldly” as any married cleric.
Furthermore, many married Orthodox couples often seek marital advice from monastics who have never been married, which, of course, more often than not leads to advice which undermines the sexual life of such couples. This can be seen in examples which may be, perhaps rightfully, disregarded by some as merely “anecdotal,” but do at least illustrate where anti-sex theology can sometimes lead. For instance, there are cases of married people going to confession with a hieromonk, and being asked details about their sex life in order make sure that they are not partaking in anything “sinful” with their spouse. Some monastic, or at least monastic influenced, priests have been known to give other very strange advice to married people; such as commanding them to wear their shirts during sex, or to say the Jesus Prayer during the act, in order to prevent copulation from becoming too “carnal” for them.
Also, an overfocus on celibacy, as Winter indicates, has led to a number of moral catastrophes for Christians, and not only among Roman Catholics. While there are numerous monastics who live according to their beliefs—both in monasteries or serving in the “world” as priests or bishops—there is the reality of Christian monastics, men in particular, who use the guise of celibacy as a means to sexually abuse believers. However, too many Christians are blinded by the naïve view that men who have seemingly chosen a life of celibacy are “holy,” and could never, or at least only rarely, be wolves in sheep’s clothing. Yet, if Christians would begin to value their teachers more so on characteristics besides celibacy, this may help prevent some of the abusive behaviour that has gone on for potentially centuries within the various churches.
In conclusion, while it is true that most of what I have written here has only confirmed Winter’s accusations against Christianity, this is not because a piece could not have been written that somewhat refutes what he said, or even perhaps turns the tables, so to speak, and begins to make similar accusations against Islam. But I do not believe that such an approach would have been fruitful. This is because Winter’s criticism of Christianity, or least of many Christians’, perception of sex has a high degree of validity to it. We see the source of the exaltation of celibacy above marriage in the writings of St Paul himself, as well as in the works of later saints and hagiography that build upon such teachings. While the practice of celibacy has in many respects been a blessing for the Church, the demeaning of marriage has certainly not been. Furthermore, although one may even agree with the Church’s traditionally negative views on sex, I feel that such a position is more the result of history than it is of the divine will. In fact, we have seen the negative effects of overemphasizing the place of celibacy in a number of Christian denominations. Celibacy is holy and God-given, but so is marriage, and as long as we fail to see the two paths as equally blessed by God, non-Christian thinkers, such as Winter, will be able to rightfully criticize Christianity for pitting sex and marriage against one’s ability to fully serve God. Thus, we should use such criticism to help us try and better follow the God who created all things out of divine love, and who also gave us the gift of sex.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (London: Penguin Books, 1990).
“Cambridge University Lecturer Tim Winter Compares ‘Ignorant’ Homosexuals To Arsonists,” HuffPost. 7 May 2013 Web 8 December 2019.
John of Damascus, Saint, Writings, The Fount of Knowledge: The Philosophical Chapters, On Heresies, and On the Orthodox Faith, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr. (n.l.: Ex Fontibus Co., 2015).
Murad, Abdal Hakim, “What Happens When Sexuality is Misunderstood,” YouTube 19 November 2018 Web 10 December 2019.
Powers, David S., Zayd (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008).
The Qur’an, trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Kizenko, Nadieszda, A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People (University Park, Penn: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003).
 “Cambridge University Lecturer Tim Winter Compares ‘Ignorant’ Homosexuals To Arsonists.”
 Murad, “What Happens When Sexuality is Misunderstood.”
 Powers, Zayd, pp. 5-6.
 John of Damascus, Writings, The Fount of Knowledge: The Philosophical Chapters, On Heresies, and On the Orthodox Faith, pp. 396-97.
 Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, p. 83.
 Kizenko, A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People, p.27.
 Ibid., p. 28.