Return to Born Eunuchs Library



Revival of the Religious Sciences

Book 23 On Breaking the Two Desires

Chapter 6. A Discourse on Sexual Desire.
Chapter 7. An Exposition of the Aspirant's Obligations Regarding the Renunciation or Undertaking of Marriage.
Chapter 8. An Exposition of the Merit of him who Counters the Desire of his Sex and his Eye.

[Translated by T.J. Winter in the following edition:
Al-Ghazali. On disciplining the soul = Kitab riyadat al-nafs, & On breaking the two desires = Kitab kasr al-shahwatayn: Books XXII and XXIII of The revival of the religious sciences = Ihya ulum al-din. Translated with an introduction and notes by T.J. Winter. Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society, 1995.]

Chapter 6. A Discourse on Sexual Desire.

Know that man has been made subject to sexual desire for two beneficial reasons. The first of these is that by knowing its delight he is able to draw an analogy which suggests to him what the delight of the Afterlife must be like. For the delight of the sexual act, were it to last, would be the greatest pleasure of the body, just as the pain of a burn is the body's greatest agony. Encouragement and deterrance, which drive people towards their saving happiness, can only be brought about by means of palpable pain and pleasure, since what cannot be perceived through experience will never be greatly desired. The second reason is that it allows the human race to continue and the world to abide. Such are its benefits.

However, sexual desire also contains evils which may destroy both religion and the world if it is not controlled and subjugated, and restored to a state of equilibrium. It has been said that His word (Exalted is He!), "O our Lord! Burden us not with more than we can bear!" (Qur'an 2:286) refers, when correctly interpreted, to powerful lust. And Ibn 'Abbas understood His word (Exalted is He!), wa-min sharri ghasiqin idha waqab (Quran 113:3) to refer to the erection of the male member'. A certain Traditionist has traced back to the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) the saying [interpreting the same verse], 'The male member when it enters'. It has been said that 'an erection results in the loss of two-thirds of the intelligence'. And the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) used to say in his prayers, 'I seek refuge in Thee from the evil which may be in my ear, my eye, my heart, and my semen'. And he said (upon him be peace), 'Women are the snares of the devil' - and indeed, were it not for this desire women would have no power over men.


The desire for women, which is the greatest of all desires, is susceptible to excess, defect, and equilibrium. Excess obtains when the intellect is overcome, so that a man's concern is so distracted towards the enjoyment of women and slavegirls that he is unable to tread the path of the Afterlife; or it may overcome a man's religion, so that he is drawn into obscene activities. This may become so extreme in some cases that two foul habits are acquired. Firstly, he may partake of something which makes him desire to have intercourse more often, just as some people take certain drugs which strengthen the stomach and allow them to eat more of the things which they desire. This resembles nothing so much as a man tormented by savage beasts and snakes which sleep from time to time, but which he finds methods of awakening and arousing, and then has to make his peace with. For the desires for food and intercourse are in reality pains, which a man would rather be free of so as to gain another form of delight. Should you object that it has been narrated in a gharib Tradition that the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) said, 'I complained to Gabriel that I would like more strength when having intercourse with my wives, and he instructed me to eat harisa,' then you should know that he had (may God bless him and grant him peace) nine wives, and that he was obliged to satisfy them all, and that no-one was permitted to marry them after his death, or even if he divorced them: his request for strength was therefore for this, and not for enjoyment.

The second thing is that in the case of some misguided people this desire may end in amorous passion ['ishq], which constitutes utter ignorance of the intended purpose of sexual congress, and a descent to a level lower than that of the animals. For such people are not content merely to gratify their lust, which is the unsightliest of all desires and the one of which a man should most be embarrassed, but instead believe that their lust can only be satisfied by one person. An animal finds it enough to satisfy its lust anywhere it can, whereas these people will only be satisfied with one person in particular, which thing heaps abasement upon abasement, and enslavement upon enslavement, until their intellects are subordinated to the service of their cravings, even though the intellect has been created to be obeyed, not to obey desires and devise means of gratifying them. Amorous passion is nothing but a wellspring of excessive sexual desire, and is the disease of an empty and unconcerned heart. One should be on one's guard against its preliminaries by abstaining from repeated glances and thoughts. Otherwise, it win take firm hold of one and be difficult to shake off. In this it resembles the passion which certain people harbour for wealth, status, land and children, or even for playing with birds, lutes, backgammon, or chess, all of which may possess them to such a degree that their religious and worldly lives are adulterated and they are unable ever to abstain from them. To break the power of amorous passion in its early stages is like pulling at the reins of a riding-beast when it heads for a gate it would like to enter: to rein it back is a very easy thing, whereas to treat such a passion after it has taken hold of one is like letting the beast go in, and then catching it by its tall and pulling it from behind: a much more difficult task. One should therefore take precautions at the onset of these things, for later they can only be treated with an effort so intense as almost to lead to death.

Excess in the matter of sexual desire, then, causes the intellect to be overcome to this degree, which is very much to be condemned. Insufficient sexual desire, however, leads to an indifference to women, or to giving them insufficient pleasure, which is also to be condemned. Sexual desire is a praiseworthy thing when it stands in a state of equilibrium, obedient to the intellect and the Law in all its movements. Whenever it becomes excessive, it should be broken with hunger and marriage. The Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) said: 'O young men! You should marry, and whosoever cannot should fast, for fasting is a form of castration [?].'

Chapter 7. An Exposition of the Aspirant's Obligations Regarding the Renunciation or Undertaking of Marriage.

Know that at the outset the aspirant should not occupy his heart and his soul with marriage, for this would distract him very seriously from treading the Path, and would cause him to find solace in his wife; and all who find solace in other than God must necessarily be distracted from Him. You should not be deceived by the fact that the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) married frequently, for the entire world could not have distracted his heart from God: one cannot compare angels to prison warders. In this way, Abu Sulayman al-Darani said, 'Whoever marries has inclined toward the world'. He also remarked, 'I have never known an aspirant to marry and retain his former state.' And when he was once told, 'How greatly you need a woman in whom you can take solace!' he replied, 'May God not grant me solace in her!' - for that would bar him from finding solace in God (Exalted is He!). He likewise said, 'Everything which distracts you from God, whether it be family, property or children, is an ill omen for you.' How, then, could one draw such an analogy in the case of the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace), whose burning love of God sometimes so engulfed him that he feared that it might overflow upon his physical body and destroy it? For this reason (because of his frame's insufficient capacity) he would at times slap the thigh of 'A'isha, and say, 'Talk to me, 'A'isha!' so as to be distracted by her words from the overwhelming nature of his state. Intimacy with God (Great and Glorious is He!) was part of his nature, while his intimacy with His creatures was temporary, and a form of clemency to his body. He found his perseverance in sitting with God's creatures hard to bear, and would say, 'Relieve us with it, Bilal!' in order to return to that which was his true delight. A weak person, observing how his circumstances were in such matters, will be deceived, since no mind can comprehend the secret wisdom behind his acts (may God bless him and grant him peace).

Accordingly, it is a condition that the aspirant remain celibate at the outset, until such time as his gnosis becomes well-established. This, however, is the case only if he is not overcome by desire. If he is so overcome he should break it with constant hunger and fasting. Should his desire still not be subjugated, and he find himself unable to restrain his eyes, for instance, even if able to Preserve his chastity, then for him marriage is the better state, for it will quieten his. desire. Otherwise, to the extent that he cannot restrain his eyes he will be unable to restrain his thoughts, and his concentration win be destroyed; he may even be tried with something beyond his capacity. The 'fornication of the eye' is one of the major venial faults, and soon leads on to a mortal and obscene sin, which is the fornication of the flesh. The man who is unable to turn away his eyes will not be able to safeguard himself against unchastity.

Jesus (upon whom be peace) said, 'Beware of glances, for they sow desire in the heart, which is temptation enough.'

Sa'id ibn Jubayr said, 'Temptation came to David (upon whom be peace) merely through a glance.' Therefore he told his son [Solomon] (upon whom be peace), "O my son! Walk behind a lion or a black cobra, but never walk behind a woman".

John [the Baptist] (upon whom be peace) was once asked, 'How does fornication begin?' and he replied, 'With looking and wishing'.

Al-Fudayl said, 'Satan says: "It is my ancient bow, and my arrow with which I do not miss", referring to looking.'

And the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) said, 'A gaze is a poisoned arrow from Satan. Whoever abstains from it in fear of God shall receive from Him an increase in faith, the sweetness of which he will feel in his heart'.'

He also said (may God bless him and grant him peace), 'I leave behind me no temptation more damaging to men then that of women'.

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), 'Beware of the temptation of this world and the temptation of women, for truly, the first temptation of the sons of Israel was through wcmen'.

God (Exalted is He!) says: "Tell the believing men to lower gaze" ((Qur'an 24:99) to the end of the verse.

And [the Prophet] said (upon him be peace), 'Every son of Adam has his share of fornication. The eyes fornicate, and do so by looking. The hands fornicate, and do so by touching. The feet fornicate, and do so by walking. The mouth fornicates, and does so by kissing. And the heart forms thoughts and wishes, which the genitals confirm or deny.'


Now, it may also be the case that a man is able to keep his eyes from women, but not from adolescent boys, and for him too it is better that he marry. For the case of boys is even more damaging, since if a man's heart inclines to a woman he may at least render her lawful to him by marrying her. To look with desire at the face of a boy is forbidden; in fact, everyone whose heart is affected by the form of beautiful boys to the extent that he senses that they are different from bearded adults, is forbidden to look at them. [See footnote below*.] Should you say, 'Everyone who has any perception necessarily knows the difference between someone who is beautiful and someone who is ugly, and yet the faces of young boys remain unveiled,' I would reply that I do not mean the mere distinction made by the eye, which resembles the distinction which one might make between a green tree and a desiccated one, between pure and polluted water, or a bush bearing blossoms and another denuded of leaves: one inclines towards the former in each case both with one's eye and one's nature, but in a fashion that is quite devoid of sexual desire, for one does not desire to touch and kiss flowers, or sources of light, or pure water. Likewise is the case with handsome old men, to whom one's eye may incline, and know the difference between them and old men who are ugly, but without any intrusion of desire. This may be recognised in one's inclination towards proximity and touching: to the extent that a man detects this inclination in his heart, and perceives the distinction between a handsome face and pleasant plants, embroidered garments, and gilded ceilings, his regard is concupiscent, and therefore forbidden.

* [T.J. Winter's footnote:] The implications of this weakness, celebrated by a number of important Arab poets, are discussed in Bellamy, 'Sex and Society in Islamic Popular Literature,' 37-8; Schimmel, 'Eros in Sufi Literature and Life,' 131-3; for the more general Islamic understanding of inversion, see, e.g. EI2, v. 776-9, art. 'Liwat'; Yakan, al-Islam wa'l-jins, 47-50. The phenomenon may have been reinforced by the increasing segregation of higher-class women from the second century onwards, although this cannot be proved securely; indeed, it has been shown that among the ancient Greeks, homosexuality was often more common in regions which did not practise female seclusion than in areas which did. (Wilkinson, Classical Attitudes to Modern Issues, 115-6.) Ghazali is here echoing the concerns of other sober mystics of his tradition, such as Qushayri (Risala, 744-5), who were alarmed by what seems to have been a widespread and unnatural interest in ahdath, male teenagers present at Sufi gatherings. The shahid, the youth whose beauty bears witness to the beauty of the Divine, is nonetheless one of the commonest and most ambivalent figures of Persian mystical literature.

This is a matter in which people are careless, and which drags them into destruction without their noticing. One of the Followers said, 'A wild lion is less to be feared in the case of a youth given to worship than his sitting with an adolescent boy.' Sufyan remarked, 'If a man so much as plays with two toes of a boy for the sake of lust, he is a sodomite'. One of the Predecessors said, 'There shall be three kinds of sodomites in this nation: those who look, those who hold hands, and those who act.'

To gaze at adolescents is therefore a very serious matter. To the extent that an aspirant is unable to lower his eyes and control his thoughts, the appropriate thing is that he should break his desire by marrying, for there are many souls whose cravings cannot be subdued through hunger.

Someone once said, 'At the outset of my aspirancy I was unbearably oppressed by sexual desire. For a long time I beseeched God (Exalted is He!), until I saw someone in a dream. He asked me what was the nature of my complaint, and I informed him. "Come here," he told me, and I did so. He then placed his hand on my chest, and I felt its coolness in my heart and in all my body. When I awoke, my condition was at an end, and I remained free from it for a year. When it returned, I sought help once more from God, until someone again came to me in a dream, saying, "Would you like your state to be removed on condition that I chop off your head?" "Yes," I told him. "Then lean forward," he said, and when I did so he drew a sword of light, and cut off my head. When I awoke, the condition had ended, and again I was free from it from a year. Finally, it returned to me even more powerfully, and again I saw someone standing directly before me. He said, "Wretch! How many times have you asked God to remove that which He does not like to remove?" And so I married, and that state departed from me at last, and I was given children.'

However much an aspirant may need to marry, he should not forsake the stipulations of aspirancy, either when he is first married or later on. When he is newly wed, he should respect them by having a correct intention, while during the course of his married life he should do so by means of goodness of character and behaviour, and respecting the rights which God (Exalted is He!) has granted to women and which, since we have detailed them in the Book of Marriage, we will not commit prolixity by reiterating. It is a sign of sincerity in aspirancy that one marry a woman who is poor but religious, rather than seeking after a wealthy one. Someone once said that 'The man who marries a rich woman will find five things in her: an expensive dower, a delayed wedding, a lack of service, constant expense, and an inability to divorce her should he wish to do so, because of his fear of losing her money. The case of a poor woman, however, is quite the opposite.' And someone else remarked: 'A wife should be beneath her husband in four things or else she win despise him: age, height, wealth and lineage. She should be better than him in four others: beauty, manners, character, and scrupulousness in matters of religion.'


Chapter 8. An Exposition of the Merit of him who Counters the Desire of his Sex and his Eye.

Know that this desire wields more power than any other over man, and is the most disobedient to reason when it is aroused. Its consequences are unsightly and embarrassing, and one should be afraid to enact them. Most people refrain from acting upon their sexual desire either through incapacity, fear, embarrassment, or a wish to safeguard their reputations. None of these things, however, brings any reward [from God], for they constitute no more than a preference for one desire of the soul over another. Certainly, a man's inability to follow up his desire is a sign that he is protected, and all such obstacles are beneficial in that they ward off sin: a man who does not commit fornication will not incur the sin which attaches to it, whatever the reason that induced him to abstain may have been. But merit and great reward follow only when one refrains from such an act for fear of God (Exalted is He!), while able to perform it and in the absence of obstacles and the presence of suitable circumstances, and this is especially so when one's desire is genuine. This constitutes the degree of the Truthful Saints.

In this regard the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) once said, 'Whoever feels amorous passion, but remains chaste, conceals his state, and then perishes, has died the death of a martyr.'

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), 'On the Day of Arising, seven people will be shaded by God under His Throne, when there is no shade but His.' And he enumerated among them 'a man invited by a woman of beauty and good family to lie with her, but who said, "I fear God, the Lord of the Worlds".'

The tale of Joseph (upon whom be peace) and his refusal of Zulaykha, despite his ability to accede to her demand, and in spite of her desire for him, is well-known: God (Exalted is He!) praised him for so doing in His mighty Book, (Qur'an 12:22-6) and he is the leader and exemplar for all who have been granted success in struggling against the devil with regard to this powerful desire.

It is told that Sulayman ibn Yasar, who was one of the most handsome of all men, was once visited by a woman who asked him to lie with her. He refused, and fled the house, leaving her inside. Sulayman said later, 'That same night I had a dream in which I saw Joseph (upon whom be peace). "You are Joseph!" I said, and he replied, "Yes, I am Joseph, who desired, and you are Sulayman, who did not desire," referring thereby to His statement (Exalted is He!), 'She desired him, and he desired her, had he not seen the argument of his Lord.' (Qur'an 12:24)

Another, even more astonishing thing is related of him. Accompanied by a companion, he once left Medina intending to perform the Pilgrimage. When they arrived at al-Abwa' his companion got up to go to the souk to buy something, taking with him the mat of leather on which they used to eat. Sulayman remained seated in the tent. Since his face was unusually handsome, he had been noticed by a bedouin woman who was on a nearby hill, who now descended and went to him. When she saw the beauty of his face she drew closer until she stood before him (he being of great beauty and scrupulousness in matters of religion) wearing a veil and gloves. She unveiled her face, and it was like a piece of the moon. 'Satisfy me!' she said. He thought that she was referring to food, so he picked up some leftovers and gave them to her. 'I don't want that,' she said. 'I want what a man gives to his wife.' 'Satan has sent you to me!' he exclaimed, and then, setting his head between his knees, began to sob and weep without interruption. Beholding this sight, she drew on her veil once more and went away to her family. His companion then came, and, upon seeing that his eyes were swollen from tears and that his voice was silent, asked what had made him weep. 'Something good,' he told him. 'I remembered my children'. 'No, by God,' his companion said. 'You have some tale to tell. You were with your children three days ago or thereabouts'. And he persisted until he had heard about the bedouin woman. He thereupon put down the leather mat and started to weep bitterly, so that Sulayman asked him, 'Why are you weeping too?' and he replied, 'It is more appropriate that I weep than you. I fear that had I been in your place I would not have refused her!' And then they wept together for a long time.

When Sulayman reached Mecca, and performed the sa'y and the tawaf, he went to the Black Stone, where, after wrapping himself in his garment, he was overcome by sleep. And there he beheld a handsome, tall man, fragrant and of pleasant aspect, to whom he said, 'God show you mercy! Who are you?' 'I am Joseph,' the man said. 'Joseph the Truthful?" he asked, and he replied, 'Even he.' 'Your episode with Potiphar's wife was quite astonishing,' said Sulayman; but Joseph replied, 'Your episode with the woman at al-Abwa' was more astonishing still'.

It is related that 'Abd Allah ibn 'Umar said, 'I once heard the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) say, "Three men of yore once set out on a journey. When night fell, and they had entered a cave in order to sleep, a rock came down from the mountain and blocked the entrance. 'Nothing can save us from this rock,' they said, 'unless we pray that God (Exalted is He!) save us on account of our righteous works!' Accordingly, one of their number declared, 'O Lord God! Thou knowest that I have two elderly parents, and that I always drew milk for them before my other family and my slaves. One day the search for fodder caused me to go far afield, so that I did not return to them before they had slept. When I drew their milk, and found them to be asleep, I found it hateful that I should give others of my family or my slaves to drink before them, so I remained there with the vessel in my hand waiting for them to awake until daybreak, although the children were crying around my feet. Then they awoke, and drank their Milk. O Lord God! If I acted thus for Thy sake, then deliver us from the misfortune of this rock!' At this, the rock moved slightly - but they were still unable to leave. Another man said, 'O Lord God! I had a niece whom I loved exceedingly, and I tried to seduce her,' but she refused. There then came a year of drought in which she suffered greatly. She came to me, and I gave her a hundred and twenty dinars on condition that she put herself at my disposal. This she did. But when I was upon her, she said, 'Fear God! Break not the seal, save in a lawful way!' So I refrained from going into her, and went away, even though she was dearer to me than all else, leaving her with the gold which I had given her. O Lord God! If I acted thus for Thy sake, then deliver us from our plight!' And the rock moved - but they were still unable to emerge. And then the third man spoke up, saying: 'O Lord God! I once hired some men, and paid them their wages, with the exception of one man who went away and omitted to take his due. So I invested his wage until a large sum had accumulated. After a time, he returned to me, saying, 'Bondsman of God! Give me my wage!' 'Your wage,' I told him, 'is everything you can see, whether camels, cows, sheep or slaves.' 'Bondsman of God!' he said. 'Are you mocking me?' 'I am not,' I said. 'Take it.' And he rounded up [the animals and slaves] and took everything, leaving nothing behind. O Lord God! If I acted thus for Thy sake, then deliver us from our plight!' And the rock moved again - and they emerged and walked away.'"4

Such is the merit which attaches to remaining chaste when one is in a position to gratify one's desire.

Similar to this is the case of being able to gratify the sexual desire of the eye [and yet abstaining]. The eye is the beginningplace of fornication, and to guard it is therefore a matter of great importance. It is also difficult, in that it may be underestimated and not greatly feared, despite the fact that all evil derives from it. One will not be taken to task for the first glance, if it is unintentional, but one will certainly be taken to task for looking again. The Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) said, 'You may have the first, but the second is against you,' by which he was referring to one's glance. Al-'Ala' ibn Ziyad has said, 'Do not follow the cloak of a woman with your eyes, for a glance sows desire in the heart'. It is rare indeed that a man in his comings and goings does not happen to glance at women and boys. To the extent that he senses their beauty his nature will demand that he look again, at which point he should make himself appreciate that looking again in this way is sheer ignorance. For if he looks, and finds the object of his regard to be beautiful, his desire will be aroused, but since he win be unable to satisfy it, he will gain only regret; while if he looks and finds ugliness, he will gain no pleasure, and will in fact be pained, since he had desired pleasure and found ugliness instead. Both of these circumstances, therefore, entail sin and sorrow. However, to the extent that he guards his eye, a great number of disadvantages will be spared his heart. Should his eye stray [by looking], but he still restrain his sex when in circumstances which would permit him to gratify it, he has been granted the utmost strength and success.