Chastity is an integral part of living a Christian life of holiness. It is particularly important in our Catholic tradition: all Catholics are called to be chaste in accordance with their state in life: married, single, clerical, or vowed.
What about Muslims? Do Muslims value chastity, and if so, why? And how does their understanding of chastity compare with ours?
In this article we will deal primarily with Catholic theology and Sunni Muslim theology, both of which represent the majority viewpoint within their respective religions. And we will see that, though similarities do exist, there is important difference in two key areas.
The Catholic understanding of chastity is rooted in how we understand God. Both men and women were created by God in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:27) and therefore, despite being different, have equal personal dignity. God, who created us in his image, ordered us to love one another. (The Trinity reflects this: the love between the Father and the Son is so great that it eternally begets a third person, the Holy Spirit.) As part of this likeness, God knit sexuality into the very fibers of man, giving us the power also to create, with God’s assistance, a third person. In it we get a glimpse of God’s fatherhood.
The result of this participation in God’s creative work is a family, which forms the foundation of a strong human society. In order to maintain the strength of this society and to faithfully reflect the love of God, husband and wife are considered to be one flesh and must fully give themselves to their spouse and children for the rest of their lives.
The Catechism expresses this sentiment:
Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman (2337).
Because sexuality is ordered to the family and the family is the building block of society, violating chastity—through pornography, adultery, divorce, etc.—does great harm to society. Therefore chastity is the guardian of God’s plan for mankind, extremely important to the preservation and thriving of our society.
Islam shares some of the same understanding of chastity and love. Muslims often appeal to a form of natural law in which we are designed to be chaste in order to better worship Allah. Allah, in turn, will be more pleased with us as a result of our right living and reward us. The Quran says,
Surely, men who submit themselves to God and women who submit themselves to Him, and believing men and believing women, and truthful men and truthful women, and steadfast men and steadfast women, and humble men and humble women, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their chastity and women who guard their chastity, and men who remember Allah much and women who remember Him—Allah has prepared for all of them forgiveness and a great reward (33:36).
According to the Quran, chastity is a behavior that pleases Allah and a condition necessary for salvation. Elsewhere it says: “And they who guard their private parts except from their wives or those their right hands possess [concubines], for indeed, they will not be blamed—but whoever seeks beyond that, then those are the transgressors” (23:1-7).
This emphasis on the importance of chastity to salvation is found not only in the Quran but also the Hadith, Muslim oral tradition: “If a woman prays the five obligatory prayers, fasts the month of Ramadan, preserves her chastity and obeys her husband, she will be told: ‘Enter Paradise from whichever door you wish’” (Ahmad, Al-Albaani–Saheeh).
This is not applicable to women alone. Another Hadith reads, “Ma’qil ibn Yasar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, ‘For a nail of iron to be driven in the head of one of you would be better for him than to touch a woman who is not lawful for him’” (al-Mu’jam al-Kabīr 16910). In this Hadith, the stick of punishment is promised to go along with the carrot of salvation.
So we can see that Islam places a great value on chastity just as Christianity does, but not for the same reasons. In Christianity, our sexuality is a power and a gift that, properly used, makes us holy and joins us to God. In Islam, sexuality is one of many behaviors that, if held in check, pleases Allah and gains entrance into heaven.
A second difference concerns Muslim and Christian ideas about celibacy. For Christians, chastity extends beyond simply maintaining one’s virginity before marriage and exercising fidelity within it. It extends also, in a radical way, to those who are called to give their sexual gift back to God.
Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner. Others live in the way prescribed for all by the moral law, whether they are married or single (CCC 2349).
Christians understand consecrated celibacy as a means of giving oneself completely to God. We see this as following the example of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, both of whom remained virgins their entire lives. And in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes,
[I]f you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin…The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord (7:28, 32-35, NRSV-CE).
In Islam, however, there is no comparable exaltation of the celibate life. As one Hadith reads:
It was narrated from Sa’d bin Hisham that he came to the Mother of the Believers, ‘Aishah. He said: “I want to ask you about celibacy; what do you think about it?” She said: “Do not do that; have you not heard that Allah, the Mighty and Sublime, says: ‘And indeed We sent Messengers before you, and made for them wives and offspring’? So do not be celibate” (Sunan an-Nasa’i 3216).
Another says, “When a man marries, he has fulfilled half of his religion, so let him fear Allah regarding the remaining half” (Al Mu’jamul Awsat, Hadith: 7643 and Shu’abul Iman, Hadith: 5100). Not getting married would leave “half of his religion” unfulfilled, which would be displeasing to Allah and likely lead to damnation. In another Hadith, Muhammad is recorded as commenting on consecrated celibacy:
A group of three men came to the houses of the wives of the Prophet asking how the Prophet worshipped [Allah], and when they were informed about that, they considered their worship insufficient and said, “Where are we from the Prophet as his past and future sins have been forgiven.” Then one of them said, “I will offer the prayer throughout the night forever.” The other said, “I will fast throughout the year and will not break my fast.” The third said, “I will keep away from the women and will not marry forever.” Allah’s Messenger came to them and said, “Are you the same people who said so-and-so? By Allah, I am more submissive to Allah and more afraid of Him than you; yet I fast and break my fast, I do sleep and I also marry women. So he who does not follow my tradition in religion, is not from me [not one of my followers] (Sahih al-Bukhari 5063).
Consecrated celibacy is repugnant to Muslims because it is seen as excess in religion—it goes beyond what is called for, which is a married life devoted to Allah. “O’ ‘Uthman! Surely, Allah, the Blessed and the Exalted has not ordained monasticism for us; monasticism of my ummah [the community of Muslims] is only jihad in the way of Allah” (Biharul Anwar, vol. 70) So Muslims are instructed that if they want to deny themselves, jihad, not celibacy, is the way to do it.
As we can see, though both religions value sexual continence, only in Christianity does it extend beyond a mere positive command to something sacramental and sanctifying—participation in the creative power of God. And only in Christianity is lifelong celibacy seen as a high state of life, a single-minded offering of love to God, rather than a defect or excess. When talking with Muslims about what unites and divides us, these similarities and differences are important to bear in mind.