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Sexuality and Marriage in Islam and Catholicism

June 27, AD 2012 10 Comments

I had the privilege of meeting a Saudi Arabian who was traveling throughout Portugal a few weeks ago and it was an eye-opening experience. I spend most of my time lamenting over the cultural differences between Portugal and the US, but after learning about the Middle East I realized that Europe and North America are very, very similar. I also realized that the influence of Christianity on the Western World is real, and if Europe and North America are similar at all it’s because of Christianity.

The main difference I’d like to focus on is the view on sexuality and marriage. From my contact with the Church’s rich interpretation of Scripture for over 2,000 years and especially John Paul II’s more recent contributions on this topic, I can say with confidence and through faith that I’m sure the Church has the fullness of truth. And this includes the fullness of truth about our humanity, our bodies and our insanely strong sexual urges!

From what I know, Islam doesn’t spurn the body, but there is a clear superiority of the spirit to the body. “The body is subservient and the soul is in charge; however both are indispensable.” (source) Covering the body is directly related to morality: “Nudity of varying degrees is found in societies according to their level of sexual morality.” (source) A clear contrast is found in the history of art in both religions, as Catholic churches and museums are full of artwork portraying the dignity, beauty and vocation of the human body. Our condition as dust (Gn 3:19) is at struggle with the work of redemption in us, that transforms our body to become spiritual and full of power (1 Cor 15:42-49). We believe in the resurrection of the body, and that’s something remarkable. If the body and spirit are at war now, it won’t be resolved with the victory of the “superior” spirit over the body, as seems to be the case in Islam, but instead with a “perfect participation of all that is bodily in man and all that is spiritual in him” (Theology of the Body 67:2).

The Assumption of the Virgin
by Nicolas Poussin

The theology of desire is also quite unique in Catholicism. Our desires are incredibly important and our deepest desire is always for God. As Saint Augustine expressed so beautifully, it’s our desire that guides us to our Creator and Ultimate Lover: “Our hearts have been made for you, O God, and they shall never rest until they rest in you.” The work of ordering our disordered desires is one of purification and tough spiritual work all throughout our lives. From what I know, desire in Islam, even disordered desire, is seen as purely physical in nature and marriage is a natural outlet for it. “Desire for sexual satisfaction is a major reason for marriage” and “Marriage is protection against sexual immorality (KS p. 547, 60:10). If a man sees an attractive woman he should go to his wife immediately because that protects him from potential sin (KS p. 155).” (source) On the contrary, in Catholicism, just looking at a woman as an object for my own sexual gratification is a sin (Mt 5:27-30). Why? Because sin comes from the heart and it’s an interior journey of purification and healing that reorders our faulty desires. We must recover ownership of our heart in order to give it to someone and not fall into the trap of using them. (love v. use)

Finally, the entire concept of marriage is different. While in Islam the chief ends of marriage are pleasure and procreation, in Catholicism marriage is not only a natural institution, but a sign of God’s love, an analogy of the trinity and a precursor of the communion we’re all called to. “Can we not deduce that marriage has remained the platform for the realization of God’s eternal plans, according to which the sacrament of creation had come near to human beings and prepared them for the sacrament of redemption, introducing them into the dimension of the work of salvation?” (Theology of the Body 97:1) In Catholicism, the chief ends of the sexual act (and not marriage) are unity of the spouses and procreation, and it is the most sublime act of love and of total self-gift to one another. Marriage is the platform for the realization of God’s eternal plans. This isn’t just earthly marriage, but the heavenly wedding banquet that is heaven, the eternal communion with God and others, the marriage that priests and celibates skip the earthly marriage for so as to be a sign that points to this higher reality. In Islam, the characteristics of marriage are radically different from those of Catholicism (total, free, fruitful, faithful), even if we judge only by the fact that polygamy is possible. Not only this, but the heavenly marriage doesn’t exist. Monasticism and celibacy are not only non-existent, but forbidden. In Catholicism, celibates model Christ’s perfect self-gift: “We do not forget that the one and only key for understanding the sacramentality of marriage is the spousal love of Christ for the Church (see Eph 5:22-23), of Christ who was son of the Virgin, who himself was a virgin, that is, ‘a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven’ in the most perfect sense of the term” (81:4).

The theology of body, sexuality and marriage in Catholic tradition is very profound and goes beyond a set of rules. I’m sure Islamic tradition is also very rich, and it is interesting to see how deeply the theologies differ and how this impacts culture.


Sources:;; John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (



[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Julie Rodrigues is a 25-year-old Portuguese-American who grew up in California, but moved to Portugal for college and has been there ever since. She has a degree in Theology from the Catholic University of Lisbon, is currently teaching English and has special interest in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She blogs at Marta, Julie e Maria.[/author_info] [/author]

About the Author:

Julie Machado is a 30-year-old wife, mother and Portuguese-American who grew up in California, but moved to Portugal for college and has been there ever since. She has a degree in Theology from the Catholic University of Lisbon and has special interest in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She blogs at Marta, Julie e Maria.

  • Richard

    Julie, I found it interesting that “While in Islam the chief ends of marriage are pleasure and procreation,”; sort of makes it sound as of sex in marriage is a recrecational sport and if a child comes along, so be it.

  • Julie, what an informative post! Thanks for summing up the TOB in an understandable way, all while comparing it to Islam. I learned something new today!

  • Elizabeth

    Very informative…I particularly like the distinction you made between the end of the sexual act vs. the end of marriage.

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  • Thank you for raising what is a fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam. For the understanding of proper relations between men and women, marriage, children and the family is crucial to and affects everything else in society. If people doubt it they need look further than the link (Human Sexuality and the Shariat, by Professor Dr. Omar Hassan Kasule Sr.) you provide for the Islamic perspective. However helpful that link is, there are I think important and deliberate omissions.

    I will only mention one, which you also neglected in your essay. That is the matter of Aisha. The link you provide mentions that she was the only wife of Mohammed who was a virgin. But what it does not mention is that Mohammed ‘married’ her when she was six years of age and ‘consummated’ that ‘marriage’ three years later. From a Christian perspective there are many problems with this event but the most important one is that Muslims consider Mohammed the ‘perfect man’ and that this example is a valid arrangement for all people at all times forever.

    The implications of your essay are the most serious that Western societies can and should deliberate on as more and more Muslims move to the West.

  • Julie Rodrigues

    Thank you, I’m glad you all enjoyed it! Kinana, that’s an interesting point you make. It’s true, the family is the building block of society and the understanding of it affects everything. And I think it’s important to understand how other faiths and countries see it also. I still know very little. But there are many things we can work together on, like pro-life issues and pro-marriage issues (

  • Julie
    I agree we can achieve more working together with others than separately, especially when there is a common foe, as in this case, e.g. the Government’s efforts to change the traditional meaning of the word ‘marriage.’ I also know homosexuals who are opposed to the Government’s efforts. Re working together with Muslims on pro-life issues I suggest this link:
    I encourage the reading of the comments there and all times not to claim too much in any working, pragmatic, short-term relationship with other groups.

    As to the focus of your essay I say again Society needs to decide what values are primary and to support those values; and then punish and prohibit other values.

  • douglas

    My starting point would be 2 Cor. 5:19, “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ” and Romans 11:25 “until the full number of gentiles come in” and conclude that even though the “world” sees Islam winning, God knows the world will be Catholic, and He knows when and how. We just have to trust Him and try to cooperate with His plan. His plans for us are peace, not disaster. (Entrance antiphon for the Sunday before the Feast of Christ the King)
    Queston: Does anyone know why we should not try to dialogue with our muslim brothers (they are our brothers in Christ, even if they do not know this yet) starting with the idea that God must keep all of His promises? then proceed to Gen. 17:20and 21. Do they agree/disagree that God promised and will accomplish His promise that He will make of Ishmael a great nation? Do they then reject the idea that Gen. 17:21 is also true and God will keep His covenant through Isaac? Can they see that Gen. 17:22 is God telling everyone HOW HE WILL keep His promise of Gen. 17:20? Different? But, will it be a starting point?Will they actually say that Gen. 17:20 is true but Gen. 17:21 is false? How can that be seen as consistant? Do they have any evidence to show that God could not be telling us how He will accomplish Gen. 17:20 through His covenant with Isaac?

  • Douglass,

    I am not sure why you are asking the question re dialogue with Muslims. It seems you are changing the subject. Julie has started this discussion in dialogue with a Muslim and has written about it for us to read, and I am sure she would encourage you do the same.

    Please let us know your findings! It is not a big effort to start to start a dialogue with a Muslim. If you wish to stay with this topic that Julie started you can start by asking:

    1. Why Mohammed’s so called marriage to Aisha is rarely spoken of to non-Muslims?
    2. Why is his example of this so called marriage and ‘consummation’ of that ‘marriage’, when Aisha was only nine years of age, a good example for all people/men for all time?
    3. Why are Muslim men permitted 4 wives and super easy divorces but Muslim women are not?
    4. Why are Muslim wives blamed for producing girls and praised for producing boys?
    5. Why are Muslim men permitted by their Allah to ‘beat’ their wives? (Qur’an 4:34)
    6. Why is it permitted for Muslim men to marry non-Muslim women but not the other way around?
    7. What is the meaning of ‘right hand possess’, Quran 33:50; 23:6?
    8. Why is Islamic paradise a place of sensual, even sexual, pleasure?

    Good luck!

  • Lydia

    I just finished reading Al Kresta’s book “Dangers to the Faith” and he had a whole section on Islam and its differences with Catholicism. I found it very informative.