The author is Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
Intimate Human Relationships
Healthy living is very closely related to intimate human relationships. Human beings are social animals and live in clusters and communities. There are close family members, followed by tribes and clans, communities and villages, towns and cities, nations and countries and finally the whole human race that form a link. If this concept of one closely linked human race is recognised universally, and properly utilised, then peace, prosperity, health and happiness will prevail over the whole world. The human relationship within the immediate family of a person is, however, where it all starts.
The Role of the Mother
The mother has a pivotal role in all human relationships as she:
- conceives the baby
- keeps it in the womb for 9 months
- gives birth after enduring great pains and considerable danger to her own life
- nurses on her breast milk or otherwise feeds the newborn
- helps it to grow and become strong and independent
What health risks are incumbent at each stage? What do we know about this from modern science and the guidance found in the Holy Qur’an?
This is a precarious time and although, in the majority of cases, everything turns out fine, much can go wrong at this stage. Modern science has shown that the human embryo is made up of a female egg being fertilised by a male sperm, and each bit contributes to half of the characters of the individual. The embryo then grows and gets implanted into the womb of the mother, where it continues to grow further. It passes through several stages during which various cells of the dividing embryo specialise and start forming different tissues of the body such as the skin, muscles, bones, internal organs, brain and the limbs. This process continues throughout pregnancy. The Qur’an states:
We have created man from a mingled sperm-drop (Ch.76:V.3)
Then we placed him as a drop of sperm in a safe depository; then We fashioned the sperm into a clot; then We fashioned the clot into a shapeless lump; then We fashioned bones out of this shapeless lump; then We clothed the bones with flesh; then We developed it into another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators. (Ch.23:Vs.14-15)
He creates you in the wombs of your mothers, creation after creation, in threefold darkness. (Ch.39:V.7)
So what can go wrong at this stage? And what can a mother do to give birth to a healthy baby? These are vital questions and from our present knowledge of embryology we understand them much better now than at any other time in human history.
Genetic diseases often occur if the genes forming the embryo are defective. The genes exist in pairs; if one gene is defective, but the other is healthy and the two combine, the individual inheriting the defective gene may not display symptoms of the disease at all and appears entirely healthy. On the other hand if both the genes are defective the individual suffers from full manifestations of the disease and becomes seriously ill. Very often such embryos do not even survive and abort spontaneously. So the correct selection of the sperm to fertilise an ovum is an important matter and must be considered at the time of the marriage. This is now a well-developed science and genetic counselling is often advised before marriage to couples with a family history of certain diseases. The genetic make up of close relatives like parents and siblings is often very similar and the offspring of such mating have a much greater chance of inheriting a pair of defective genes and thus being borne with a serious genetic illness. This is referred to as incest and can cause a lot of ill health and diseases. However, in most societies and countries of the world this sort of practice is unacceptable and considered to be illegal. The Holy Qur’an gives the following guidance in this matter:
Forbidden to you are your mothers, and your daughters, and your sisters, and your father’s sisters, and your mothers’ sisters, and brother’s daughters, and sister’s daughters, and your foster-mothers that have given you suck, and your foster-sisters, and the mothers of your wives, and your step-daughters, who are your wards by your wives unto whom you have gone in – but if you have not gone in unto them, there shall be no sin upon you – and the wives of your sons that are from your loins; and it is forbidden to you to have two sisters together in marriage, except what has already passed; surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful. (Ch.4:V.24)
It is also important to know the exact make up of the human embryo. Short of chromosomal studies it is very simple to discern if both the partners of mating are clearly identified. Hence, the following teachings in the Qur’an:
And forbidden to you are married women… (Ch.4:V.25)
And come not near unto adultery; surely, it is a foul thing and an evil way. (Ch.17:V.33)
This aspect of health is so important that women who are widowed or divorced are not allowed to get married again until enough time has elapsed to reveal any pregnancy that may have resulted from the previous husband, as the following verses indicate:
And the divorced women shall wait concerning themselves for three courses; and it is not lawful for them that they conceal what Allah has created in their wombs, if they believe in Allah and the Last Day… (Ch.2:V.229)
And those of you who die and leave wives behind, these (wives) shall wait concerning themselves four months and ten days. And when they have reached the end of their period, no sin shall lie on you in anything that they do with regard to themselves according to what is fair. And Allah is aware of what you do. (Ch.2:V.235)
This point becomes even clearer when we consider another verse that describes the separation of a couple bonded in marriage ‘before’ they have touched each other. In such a case there is no waiting period for the woman to remarry:
O ye who believe! when you marry believing women and then divorce them before you have touched them, then you have no right against them with regard to the period of waiting that you reckon. So make some provision for them and send them away in a handsome manner. (Ch.33:V.50)
Infections are closely related to uninhibited intimate sexual relationship. They harm both participants in the act as well as their offspring. In the modern ‘civilised’ society we live in, unlimited sex is rampant in the adolescent as well as the mature age groups. The institution of marriage is laughed upon; men and women like to live as partners rather than as husband and wife. Same sex marriages are being recognised as the basic human right of the individual. Pornography is widely accessible in print, internet and all other media. Anal, vaginal and oral sex is considered by many to be the basic human right of the individuals to seek pleasure in their personal lives as they please. The following quote from www.en.wikipedia.org may give us some idea of the grave dangers of anal sex:
‘Among the diseases with which anal sex is associated are HIV, human papilloma virus (HPV) (which can increase risk for anal cancer), typhoid fever and various diseases associated with the infectious nature of fecal matter or sexual intercourse in general. Among these are: amoebiasis; chlamydia; cryptosporidiosis; E. coli infections; giardiasis; gonorrhea; hepatitis A; hepatitis B; hepatitis C; herpes simplex; human papilloma virus; Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (HHV-8); lymphogranuloma venereum; public lice; salmonellosis; shigella; syphilis and tuberculosis.’
What is the modern medical advice to prevent these terrible diseases? The advice is the use of condoms and more condoms and more condoms and to have safer sex. The use of vaccines is also advocated where such vaccines are available. Vaccination of schoolgirls against human papilloma virus is an example as is hepatitis B vaccination in male homosexuals. Early consultation with the specialists if there is suspicion of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
Gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS played havoc with public health and caused untold misery before the treatment of these diseases was discovered. Multidrug resistant and completely resistant tuberculosis (MDR/XDR TB) is a particular problem in those suffering from immune deficiency related to HIV/AIDS infection equally in the third world countries like India or the developed countries like the United States.
The guidance in the Holy Qur’an to prevent all these problems is comprehensive and foolproof. Intimate relationship between individuals is governed by regulations of marriage and is outlined below.
The Sanctity of the Institution of Marriage
The Holy Qur’an bases the human relationship on righteousness or ‘Taqwa’ as the following verses indicate:
O ye people! fear your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and created therefrom its mate, and from them twain spread many men and women; and fear Allah, in Whose name you appeal to one another, and fear Him particularly respecting ties of relationship. Verily, Allah watches over you. (Ch.4:V.2)
O Ye who believe! fear Allah, and say the right word. He will bless your works for you and forgive you your sins. And whoso obeys Allah and His Messenger, shall surely attain a mighty success. (Ch.33:Vs.71-72)
O ye who believe! fear Allah; and let every soul look to what it sends forth for the morrow. And fear Allah; verily Allah is Well-Aware of what you do. (Ch.59:V.19)
According to Islamic tradition, the above verses of the Qur’an are recited at the time of the announcement of a wedding of a couple. They emphasise the righteousness and fear of God, or Taqwa,five times as the basis of sexual relationship. They make it clear that Allah watches over all our deeds and knows all our intentions. They tell us to look after each other’s feelings, convey the absolute unadulterated truth in our statements and care for our coming generations because that is the ultimate purpose of sexual relationship.
About extra marital relationship and other immoral sexual acts the following verses, some of which have already been quoted, give full and comprehensive advice:
And come not near unto adultery; surely, it is a foul thing and an evil way. (Ch.17:V.33)
And who guard their chastity. Except from their wives or what their right hands possess, for then they are not to be blamed; but those who seek anything beyond that are the transgressors. (Ch.23:Vs.6-8)
The believers in Qur’an in the above verses are strongly advised to refrain from adultery, fornication, rape and any other extramarital sexual activity. They are also commanded to guard the usage of their private parts for sexual gratification as well as to be guided about the means to achieve such an object in the following verse:
Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do. (Ch.24:V.31)
The Arabic word translated as private parts in relation to the men in the above verse is ‘furuj’ and literally means a ‘hole’ or an ‘opening’. The same word is used in the following verse in relation to women. The best method of safeguarding the private parts is to restrain the eyes from viewing such things that may excite their feelings. The ‘hijab’ for women is prescribed for this very reason and is mentioned in the following verse, thus pinpointing the relatives who are permitted to mingle with women freely.
And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms, and that they disclose not their beauty save to their husbands, or to their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands or their sons or the sons of their husbands or their brothers, or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, or their women… (Ch.24:V.32)
This teaching of the Qur’an is precise. It is based on the belief in the One, All-Knowing and Powerful God who watches over our actions at all times. He has given us the guidance for our own benefit and by following these instructions we reap immediate benefits. This is the Qur’anic way to prevent all those terrible diseases that are prevalent in the promiscuous society due to aberrant sexual behavior.
Risk of Cancer
Infection with Human papilloma virus has shown a close association with genital cancers. This is an infection that occurs in individuals engaged in uninhibited sexual activities with multiple partners. This infection can be prevented by vaccination and recently a drive to get all the sexually active schoolgirls vaccinated against this infection was carried out in some parts of America to reduce the risk in this most vulnerable population.
Righteous living as advocated by the Qur’an and quoted above will obviously eliminate this risk completely.
Another carcinogen sometimes mentioned is the smegma, the material that accumulates underneath the foreskin of uncircumcised men. This may cause cancer both in the males as well as their female partners. The practice of male circumcision traditional amongst the Muslims to remove the foreskin surgically probably reduces the risk of these cancers.
Many things can go wrong during pregnancy as well. Many of the infections referred to above can affect the developing foetus during pregnancy. This leads to its infection resulting in either an abortion or a congenital illness in the newborn. It is, however, worth mentioning two important factors that are in the limelight these days. One is the consumption of alcohol by the pregnant mother and the other is the effect of active and passive smoking, on the health of the developing baby. Both these substances are commonly consumed or used by pregnant women in western societies and are extremely harmful to the foetus.
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is particularly harmful and can cause a variety of defects ranging from low birth weight to full-blown foetal alcohol syndrome and brain damage. Similarly, smoking is also very harmful and also causes low birth weight and is associated with sudden infant death syndrome. Medical advice is to refrain from both alcohol and cigarettes during pregnancy.
The Qur’an gives precise guidance that has been discussed earlier, but to recap, the following verse at this stage may be useful:
O ye who believe! wine and the game of hazard and idols and divining arrows are only an abomination of Satan’s handiwork. So shun each one of them that you may prosper. (Ch.5:V.91)
The consumption of intoxicants mentioned in the Qur’an include alcohol in all its different strengths and formulations, opium and its derivatives, marijuana and its derivatives and tobacco that produces a substance called ‘nicotine’ which is an addictive substance. The Qur’an recognises that alcohol has some benefits as well, and alcohol is permitted in Islam for medical purposes. However, because the disadvantages exceed its advantages, alcohol is prohibited. All these are forbidden to the believers and if the pregnant woman sticks to this guidance she and her baby will be safe from their harmful effects.
Labour is a very distressing and painful experience for the mother. She can suffer physical damage, infections, psychological trauma and many other harmful effects during this stressful time. The newborn can also come to similar harm and suffer from infections and even death during or soon after delivery. A lot has been learnt about how to prevent all these problems in the modern times. Some of the important factors are good and proper hygiene and cleanliness, physical and moral support of the mother and the nutrition of the mother and the baby.
Is there any guidance about labour in the Holy Qur’an? There certainly is. This guidance is contained in the verses in relation to the delivery of Jesus(as) to Mary(as), his blessed mother. The instructions given to her in the following amazing verses contain all the guidance one requires:
And the pains of childbirth drove her unto the trunk of a palm-tree. She said, ‘O! would that I had died before this and had become a thing quite forgotten!’ Then he called her from beneath her, saying, “Grieve not. Thy Lord has placed a rivulet below thee; “And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree; it will cause fresh ripe dates to fall upon thee. “So eat and drink, and cool thy eye.”(Ch.19:Vs.24-27)
These verses mention the pains of childbirth and the support that is needed for women at that time. It mentions good hygiene as the driving principle of care during labour, and finally, the nutrition of the mother and the care of the baby which bring immediate solace and joy to both of them. These are the principles of care during and immediately after labour that are associated with enormous health benefits.
Caring for the Offspring
An important step that has a lasting effect on the health of an individual, and hence the society as a whole, is the proper care and nutrition of a newborn. There again is the very important role of the mother in maintaining the good health of the society. No one can perform this job as well as the mother; she alone is provided with the means to breastfeed the newborn. There was a time when artificial feeding was fashionable. No woman wanted to breastfeed her baby. They thought breastfeeding would cause them to lose their figure and make them look ugly. Moreover medical advice of the time was that formula feeding was healthier for the babies as it contained all the modern ingredients of diet necessary for the proper growth of the babies. However, with new research it transpired that the mother’s milk is the best source of nutrition for the newborn baby, and not only it supplied all the essential ingredients of the diet such as protein of the right type, calcium and vitamins, but also gave special protection against many diseases because of such immunoglobulin that the mother supplied in her milk. Moreover, breastfeeding the baby removed all the unnecessary fat that the mother had accumulated on the body during pregnancy. There are also many other health benefits of breastfeeding for the mother. Research has also shown that breastfeeding gives more satisfaction to the babies, forming an intimate attachment to their mothers and that this helps them develop into more sensible, intelligent and satisfied individuals. The following quote from the American Academy of Pediatrics2 is self-explanatory:
‘Extensive research, especially in recent years, documents diverse and compelling advantages to infants, mothers, families, and society from breastfeeding and the use of human milk for infant feeding. These include health, nutritional, immunologic, developmental, psychological, social, economic, and environmental benefits.’
The practice of breastfeeding the newborn baby slowly came back for these reasons, though only reluctantly. The mother of the newborn, however, has to return to her day job and start earning the livelihood again for economic reasons. So, despite its advantages, the practice of nursing the baby is only short-lived and transient. The formula feeds and the nannies finally take over again.
So what is the guidance in the Qur’an about all these matters? The following quotation from the Qur’an outlines this:
And mothers shall give suck to their children for two whole years; this is for those who desire to complete the suckling. And the man to whom the child belongs shall be responsible for their (the mothers’) food and clothing according to usage. No soul is burdened beyond its capacity. The mother shall not make the father suffer on account of her child, nor shall he to whom the child belongs make the mother suffer on account of his child, and the same is incumbent on the heir. If they both decide upon weaning the child by mutual consent and consultation, there is no blame on them. And if you desire to engage a wet nurse for your children, there shall be no blame on you, provided you pay what you have agreed to pay, in a fair manner. And fear Allah and know that Allah sees what you do. (Ch.2:V.234)
This is very clear guidance. The nursing period is two years, but may be reduced by mutual parental consent. It is the father’s responsibility to provide food, daily needs and livelihood, and he is commanded to look after the mother and baby and provide for them. The following verse also points to the fact that men must take full responsibility of the economic needs of the family:
Men are guardians over women because Allah has made some of them excel others, and because they (men) spend of their wealth. (Ch.4:V.35)
Bringing up children properly is given foremost priority and both parents are made responsible for this, with love, kindness and compassion. The following verse forbids believers to cause any harm to their children.
Kill not your children for fear of poverty. It is We Who provide for them and for you. Surely, the killing of them is a great sin. (Ch.17:V.32)
The Holy Qur’an commands the believers to recognise the role of their parents in their upbringing and be grateful and respectful to them. The following verses point out this fact quite clearly:
And We have enjoined on man concerning his parents — his mother bears him in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning takes two years — ‘Give thanks to Me and to thy parents. Unto Me is the final return. (Ch.31:V.15)
And We have enjoined on man to be good to his parents. His mother bears him with pain, and brings him forth with pain. And the bearing of him and his weaning takes thirty months, till, when he attains his full maturity and reaches the age of forty years, he says, ‘My Lord, grant me the power that I may be grateful for Thy favour which Thou hast bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and that I may do such good works as may please Thee. And make my seed righteous for me. I do turn to Thee; and, truly, I am of those who submit to Thee.’ (Ch.46:V.16)
Thy Lord has commanded, “Worship none but Him, and show kindness to parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age with thee, never say unto them any word expressive of disgust nor reproach them, but address them with excellent speech. “And lower to them the wing of humility out of tenderness. And say, ‘My Lord, have mercy on them even as they nourished me in my childhood.’” (Ch.17:Vs.24-25)
So the teaching of the Qur’an in this respect is that not only is it necessary to look after one’s parents when they are old, but it is also essential to constantly pray for them that God has mercy on them.
The most intimate relationship one has is with one’s spouse. The health benefits to the individuals and the society at large of a long-term stable sexual relationship is well-documented. The institution of marriage is a guarantee to this. It gives individuals rights and benefits that are unparalleled by any other means. The principles of marriage are laid down by the Holy Qur’an and are mentioned in many places, but the following verses give the gist of the purpose or marriage according to Islam:
And lawful for you are chaste believing women and chaste women from among those who were given the Book before you, when you give them their dowries, contracting valid marriage and not committing fornication nor taking secret paramours. (Ch.5:V.6)
So marriage is an undertaking in which men and women are bound together in an honest and just commitment in which there is no deceit or fornication. The following Arabic words, quoted from the above verse, ‘Muhsineena ghayra Musafiheena wa la Muttakhidhi Ahdan’ (meaning that marriage is a noble deed and is not meant for achieving carnal pleasure or making hidden paramours), make this point absolutely clear.
Further guidance is given about the way to treat one’s spouses where it is stated in the Holy Qur’an, ‘and consort with them in kindness’ (Ch.4:V.20).
The main purpose of intimate personal relations is to propagate the human race as is evident from the following verse:
O ye people! fear your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and created therefrom its mate, and from them twain spread many men and women. (Ch.4:V.2)
The following verse is also indicative of the same purpose:
Your wives are a tilth for you; so approach your tilth when and how you like and send ahead some good for yourselves… (Ch.2:V.224)
The feelings of pleasure, enjoyment, love and tenderness in the intimate personal relationship with one’s spouse is fully recognised as the following verse comprehensively indicates:
He has created wives for you from among yourselves that you may find peace of mind in them, and He has put love and tenderness between you. (Ch.30:V.22)
Despite this fact, however, seeking only pleasure is not the main object of having intimate personal relationship with one’s spouse. The following verse drives this message home:
And they ask thee concerning menstruation. Say: ‘It is a harmful thing, so keep away from women during menstruation, and go not in unto them until they are clean. (Ch.2:V.223)
This is an amazing verse. It not only forbids sexual relationship with a woman during the seven to ten days of her menstrual cycle, but is also a tremendous lesson in personal hygiene, cleanliness and health. The woman is shedding her lining of the womb during this time and the inner surface of the womb is raw and vulnerable to infections and other harm. She is also not fertile at this time. So if females are merely a source of carnal pleasure and desires of the powerful male sex, then this lucid and unmistakable inhibition on their activities with their lawfully-wedded wives would not be present. This point also supports the argument that the Qur’an was revealed by an All-Knowing, Powerful God who cares for all His creatures whether they are males or females.
On the other hand, however, the importance of intimate relationships is acknowledged fully, and even during the sacred month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims devote their attention towards seeking the pleasure of Allah by fasting during the days and praying during the nights, permission for such a relationship is granted as the following verse shows:
It is made lawful for you to go in unto your wives on the night of the fast. They are a garment for you, and you are a garment for them. (Ch.2:V.188)
Another amazing concept introduced in this verse is that of the spouses having the functions of being a dress or garments for one another. This concept is most unique and novel. This verse has been discussed elsewhere in greater detail, but is worth mentioning here insomuch that it means that men are a source of protection, comfort, grace and joy for their wives; these are all the functions of the clothing. Likewise, the wives fulfil the same objects for their men and each one has to care for their dress to be tidy, clean, beautiful, and comfortable and at the same time hide all the defects of the body underneath that wears it.
All human beings are different and sometimes two persons may not be compatible and, thus, unable to live together. This point is also recognised and separation of the couple in the form of divorce is made permissible in the Qur’an, but again justice, equity and human rights are safeguarded in this action. The following verse of the Qur’an point to these circumstances:
Such divorce may be pronounced twice; then, either retain them in a becoming manner or send them away with kindness. And it is not lawful for you that you take anything of what you have given them (your wives) unless both fear that they cannot observe the limits prescribed by Allah. (Ch.2:V.230)
Divorce, though allowed, is considered to be distasteful, but all the regulations and conditions pertaining to and following such an action are described in detail in the Qur’an in several more verses. These include efforts of bringing an amicable solution to the problem, but if that cannot be found then separation should proceed in a cordial and just manner without usurping the rights of either party. The divorced women are allowed to marry again after the waiting period is over. The rights of the children and ownership of the property are all considered in detail. This teaching is important for maintaining sanity and the psychological health of individuals.
Objections to the Teachings of the Qur’an
There are many objections to Qur’anic teachings on women’s rights, and the permission granted to men to be able to marry four women at any one time. But if you consider these teachings with a balanced view, it becomes clear that all the instructions given in the Qur’an regarding marriage are to keep the society free of corruption, disease and disharmony.
Equity, justice, human rights and human feelings are safeguarded at every step of these teachings. Observe the following verses that were revealed at a time when the Muslims were engaged in a struggle of life and death with their enemies who were trying to wipe out this new faith and its followers – physically attacking them right, left and centre. The believers were at the time engaged in continuous and never-ending battles with their opponents. Numerous men were killed in these battles, leaving behind their wives, children and property. In many battles the Muslims were also victorious and brought with them the prisoners of war, some of them women, of different faiths and cultures. So this very new religion right at the start of its life faced this tremendous danger of being wiped out by other cultures due to the mixture or conversion of large number of these men and women who knew nothing about the new enlightened teachings of Islam. With this in mind, the purpose of this guidance becomes crystal-clear to us and the relevant verses are as follows:
And if you fear that you will not be fair in dealing with the orphans, then marry of women as may be agreeable to you, two, or three, or four; and if you fear you will not deal justly, then marry only one or what your right hands possess. That is the nearest way for you to avoid injustice. (Ch.4:V.4)
And you cannot keep perfect balance between wives, however much you may desire it. But incline not wholly to one so that you leave the other like a thing suspended. (Ch.4:V.130)
These two verses read together make it quite clear that marriage is for providing protection to women – those who have been left behind as orphans or widows as well as to those who have entered society from warring factions as prisoners of war and have also lost their husbands or carers. Equity, justice and care for their physical, economical, moral, psychological, and mental needs are the important conditions imposed on anyone deciding to marry more than one wives. This is also made quite clear that such a justice and balance between wives may be a very difficult object to achieve; hence it is better just to stick to one wife.
In short all the above teachings of Qur’an keep individuals in society both physically and mentally healthy and provide them with proper support and help. These measures are also the means to replenish the human resources that are so valuable for the growth and progress of a society and may at such times of crisis and wars become depleted.
- Maulawi Sher Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text with English Translation, 2005. Islam International Publications Limited.
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Breastfeeding Policy Statement 2005. PEDIATRICS Vol.115, No.2 February 2005, pp.496-506