The Marriage Bed

For those people who are married, it is quite evident that the relationship between men and women is one that is uniquely tight-knit. Married couples share life together with a closeness that is unparalleled. Even more so, the intimacy that comes from the physical side of this union is one that links two people together in a singularly special way in body, soul, and mind. Given this significance, it isn’t surprising that both Christianity and Islam discuss the physical side of marriage.

Much of the practicalities of Islamic life and morals are located only in the Hadith. Yet the Qur’an does contain a few specific such commands. As it happens, one well-known and prominent verse has to do with marriage, specifically some of the more intimate physical aspects of marriage. A verse in the Qur’an that deservedly gets more than its share of ink is Surah 4, verse 34. It is in this verse that Muslim men are given permission to beat their wives for disobedience.

[4.34] Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.

Christian apologists have written about this verse abundantly, such as in this article and video from Acts 17 apologetics. While I don’t disagree with anything stated in the video, the focus by Christians is almost always on the section of the verse relating to wife beating. This shouldn’t be surprising, given this outrageous prerogative that men are granted in the Qur’an. This verse of the Qur’an does deserve scrutiny, but as usual, I prefer to take the road less traveled.

There are several punishments permitted by this verse. Some Muslims view the verse as saying that men can choose from any of these punishments as the situation warrants, while other Muslim scholars view the verse as prescribing a set order of escalating options for chastening their wife. Regardless, notice what else the Qur’an instructs a man to do in an attempt to discipline his woman. He is instructed to “leave them alone in the sleeping places.” Pickthall translates this as “banish them to beds apart” while Yusuf Ali translate the phrase as “refuse to share their beds.” In other words, a man is instructed to cut off his wife physically. Withholding sex is one of the prescribed methods in the Qur’an that a man is to use in order to teach his woman a lesson and bring her back in line.

So what does the Bible say about this practice? First, the Bible makes it plain that the physical relationship between men and women is a gift from God, and one to be enjoyed within the constraints of marriage (Proverbs 5:18-19). Song of Solomon, an entire book of the Bible, is devoted to the attraction that often initiates the deep longing that men and women feel for each other. While many of the verses couch the language regarding the more sensuous aspects of the physical side of the relationship, it is plain that we are to delight in the beauty and affection it provides (Song of Solomon 1:2, Song of Solomon 7:1).

But more to the point, the Bible teaches that neither men nor women should withhold sex from their spouses (1 Corinthians 7:3). The only exception to this rule is by mutual agreement, and even then, only for a limited time and for the sake of prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5). The point of the Biblical teaching is that men and women are to be actively involved in all parts of the martial relationship, including the physical side. Men and woman are reminded that their spouse has just as much authority as they do over the marriage bed.

As always, when we examine Islamic and Christian practice in detail, we get completely opposing viewpoints. In Islam, men are allowed to withhold physical affection from their wives as punishment. In Christianity, men and women are instructed to enjoy each other within the bounds of marriage without unilaterally depriving the other for any reason. These are exactly opposite instructions. In the deepest and most intimate aspect of our most cherished relationship, the two religions have completely antithetical instructions.

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