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A logical religious view of masturbation and other addictive behaviors with potential solutions

When religious leaders speak of masturbation and other addictive behaviors, even the best informed forward-thinkers among them fail to find a solution, maybe due to the fact that they are so out of touch with what it feels like to be a young person in the modern world. Below, I will try to present a realistic (as opposed to high-flying moralistic) view of the problem that I have never heard from any leader or writer, and potential solutions that rely on this view.

A question I received today:
What can I do to avoid the temptation to masturbate? I'm really sorry if it makes you uncomfortable because I want to please Allah. I don't want him to be upset @ me. I want to please HIM. But it as if I cannot control myself sometimes.
"Trying" not to commit a sin is like "trying" not to think of flying elephants, the more you "try", the more difficult it becomes. Don't think of the sin, focus on improving yourself instead.

Masturbation is not the problem, and there are respected scholars, such as Imam al-Shawkani (died 1834), who consider it permissible. Imam Abu Hanifa, founder of the Hanafi school, considers it permissible if the desire cannot be resisted. The general opinion, however, is that it is a negative thing to do and it is best not to do it. But either way, it is not a big issue and there are no clear texts about it in the Quran, nor are there any sahih (authentic) prophetic sayings or traditions on the issue.

When the Quran is silent on a topic, it is a sign that God did not want to make the religion impossible to follow by outright forbidding the thing, even if God did not like people doing it. Many Christian (and sadly Muslim as well) leaders speak harshly of masturbation, not realizing that they are only showing how irrelevant and out of touch they are. These leaders often have a steady income, lots of friends, wives and children, and busy and fulfilling lives. From their position of power they cannot imagine why anyone will desire to masturbate unless they are a bad and sinful person. They cannot understand or empathize with the situation of young people, so they pass judgment on them as if they are as fulfilled as they are themselves.

A young person usually has much energy and desire, but no or few outlets. Young people have to go to irrelevant schools teaching them irrelevant things, and at home their families treat them as second-class individuals, not giving them any important responsibilities or tasks, making them feel isolated and unable to do much good. 

Young people want to go out in the world and do things that matter and to feel like citizens of the world, not slaves controlled by the world. But their lives often feel like being a prisoner or hostage. They are treated like children, but they want to be adults.

Some animals that do not masturbate in the wild start to do it when they are in captivity. In situations of captivity, masturbation can become attractive as it provides excitement and temporary fulfillment in an otherwise bland and unfulfilling life. 

Parents and leaders think that youth have it better than they did when they were young. They think youth have all they need so that they have no reason to masturbate. But youth do not have what they need. What they need is to be treated as respected human beings with responsibility and power, not as children to be controlled and put through 12 years of mind-numbing and useless education.

Young people feel like captives. Yes, they are comfortable and have much to entertain them (similar to zoo animals), but they are still prisoners in their comfortable homes and schools. Captivity brings with it unfulfillment. The energy of youth, if not given proper outlets, will find secret and possibly harmful ways of manifesting itself. Different people prefer different outlets, some masturbation, others smoking, drinking or drugs. The problem is not the things that these youth do, it is the fact that society has made young people irrelevant. And the solution is for them to feel relevant.

Potential Solutions for Youth

If you suffer from any addiction-like behaviors (meaning that you dislike the thing you do, but you cannot stop it), the first thing to know is that the thing you are doing is not the problem. The problem is that you are not fulfilled in life. The problem is that you feel like a prisoner with no legitimate outlets.

To solve the problem, find legitimate outlets. Find something that gives you a sense of purpose. You may think that masturbation cannot be replaced by anything else, but you do not know unless you try something else. Below are some ideas you can try. Each one of them may reduce your need for the addictive behavior by 10%, meaning that if you try many of these simultaneously, or come up with many of your own, you may soon find that you barely have any desire to masturbate, or to do any other behavior you want to give up:
  1. Start memorizing Quran.
  2. Find a charity in your area that you can volunteer for.
  3. Take classes in a thing you are interested in, such as a language you'd like to learn, or painting. You do not have to pay for it, you can take classes with a relative, or find a relative who also wants to learn and do the same thing so that you can both do it together at home, by watching an instructional video or reading a book together. What matters is that other people should be involved.
  4. Join a team or club. It can be in sports, or video games, or a book reading club. When you do something with other people, and those people have expectations in you, it gives you more of a sense of purpose in life. It may not be anything immediately life-changing, but when you know that there are people out there who care about you being there with them, it will make your life a little somewhat better.
  5. Start doing an exercise program, such as weightlifting or martial arts. Something that has trackable and achievable goals.
Some of the above things may be impossible for you to do, and it is possible that you may not find any good alternatives. In that case, know that Allah does not burden a person beyond their ability. Endure patiently and read as much Quran as you can. If you succumb to your desire, make up for it by improving yourself in other areas, use it as a motivation to become better. Don't focus on your sin, focus on improving yourself.

There is no perfect or final solution for this issue. But a day will come when life offers you enough of good things that you will lose your desire for the behavior. Use your time now to make that day happen earlier. Learn as many languages and skills (programming, etc.) as you can. Constantly work to improve yourself. Read as many books as you can. And as your status in life improves, as you acquire more influence and power to do good, you will soon find it easy to give up anything you dislike about yourself now.

Potential Solutions for Parents

If you are a parent and and would like to help your children avoid addictive behaviors like masturbation, what you should NOT do is tell them they are sinners or speak to them about the harms of their behavior. To them, asking them to stop their behavior is like asking them to fly. They will either think you are completely out of touch with reality (and thus they may think the religion is false since it is asking them to do the impossible), or they may think that they are simply bad and sinful people with no hope of improving, and this too can lead them into disliking the religion, since they feel that they can never live up to its standards.

Neither of the above cases will do any good for you or your children. What you should do instead is find outlets for their energies. Make them feel more like adults and less like children or prisoners. Here are things you can try:

  1. Start a home-based business with your children. This is the best thing you can try. Provide a way for your children to earn money by doing something useful. For example I would create a website or blog for them and pay them a certain amount for each article they write for it, as well as sharing with them any advertising money the blog may make. Or I would hire them to build a video game with me (and pay them enough to interest them in the project). Or I would hire them to write a book on a certain topic, when it is done I would publish the book and share with them any money the book earns. Treat them as adults and give them adult things to do and adult wages to earn.
  2. Do activities with your youth. It can be fishing, or building something (like a table or shelf), or playing a multi-player video game that has rankings, anything that provides an outlet for their energy and has a an appreciable result. Youth want to do things that matter, they want their labor to produce some fruit. Playing a card game or solving a puzzle may not do it. Find something they like. When you first suggest something, they may be against it, but when they try it, they may find that they enjoy it. 
  3. Take them to join a martial arts class, or any other group activity, and join the class with them. Your presence there will be motivation for them to continue the class, and may also lead to a better relationship with them.
In all of the above, the goal is to make them sense that they matter, that they can help in the family, that they can improve their own and the family's situation in life. If you provide them with enough fulfillment, they will not feel like prisoners and will not act as such by trying to find illicit outlets for their energies.

Blank slates: Why Islam mentions backbiting and spying together, and why they are both forbidden

A New Life

Imagine a man who has done many wrong things in his life. One day he decides to change course and become a better man. But people around him continue to judge him as if he is the same man as before. For this reason he moves to another town to start a new life.

In the new community, people treat him kindly, ready to accept him as a good man, as if he has no bad past. This creates joy in his heart and motivates him to be better each day.

But what if someone from this new community decides to spy into this person's past? The man's past bad deeds become known, and the spy will start to treat him differently. And if our spy decides to commit the other sin, backbiting, the bad news of the man's past become widespread, and people in the community start to treat him like a bad man. His feelings of joy will disappear, to be replaced with depression, dislike for his community, and a desire to escape from it.

This is why Islam forbids backbiting and spying, and why it mentions them together in the same verse:
O you who have attained to faith! Avoid most guesswork [about one another] for, behold, some of [such] guesswork is [in itself] a sin; and do not spy upon one another, and neither allow your­selves to speak ill of one another behind your backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, you would loathe it! And be conscious of God. Verily, God is an accep­tor of repentance, a dispenser of grace! (Quran 49:12)
Islam wants to enable people to change, and wants society to forgive and forget and give people second chances.

Islam wants a person's current and past misdeeds to be unknown. Because when you treat a person, regardless of how bad they are or have been, as a good and acceptable human being, it creates a good change in them. It creates a motivation in their heart to change for the better, to become the person you think they are.

But if society loves to find out bad things about others, it will start to treat people badly, even if they have changed for the better. And the prejudice creates a motivation in the heart for these people to be as bad as society thinks they are. It creates dislike and hatred in both parties. It is a loss for everyone involved, and prevents many great things and blessings that could exist otherwise.

The worst thing is that in many Muslim societies the backbiting continues to hurt for generations. A person is considered bad an un-marriageable because their grandfather was so an so.


It is not backbiting if ...

Someone spoke ill of a particular person because he neglected his daughter. Knowing the said man, I mentioned that since we do not know what is in this man's heart, and since we do not know what burdens and troubles he has, it is unfair to focus on just one negative part of his personality and defame him for it.

Her reply? It is not backbiting if it is true.

My reply:

This, sadly, is how many Muslims seem to think. 

In case it is unclear, it is backbiting only if you think it is true or might be true. If the bad things you say about someone are false and you know them to be false (or you know that they have a high likelihood of being false), this becomes another sin called ramyi or qadhf (calumny or defamation in English), which the Quran speaks much more severely about. For example, people who make up stories about other people's virtue are cursed by God in 24:23.


Backbiting and spying: two sins, similar effects

Both backbiting and spying enable people to find out negative information about their target. Both of them are means of gathering intelligence. They are different activities and require different skills, but the end result is the same: the information gathered gives the spy or backbiter the power to harm and destroy people's lives. People who engage in this get a big rush out of doing it because humans do not normally have much power to cause good or harm. The knowledge that you can do harm without suffering any harm to yourself creates a momentary feeling of great power and can be quite addicting.

Humans love power, whether it is the power to do great good or harm. When a person does not have the power to do good but finds an opportunity to safely cause harm to others (through spying or backbiting), the opportunity can be too tempting to resist. We are designed to enjoy the feeling of power; our bodies do not care where the power comes from. This is why so many otherwise nice people can become guilty of backbiting and spying; they enjoy it, and they do not care to think too much about the harm it may cause.


Reading someone's diary

A classic example of spying that many may not realize is reading a person's diary (or other secret writings and creations) without the person's knowledge. It can be very tempting to go inside a person's head and find out their deepest thoughts. But you have not earned the right to do so, and doing so enables you to find out negative information about the the person that can forever harm your relationship with them.

Islam wants to protect people's dignity and wants to give people the ability to renew their lives. Finding out secret information about them through spying or backbiting blocks this process. Negative knowledge about a person becomes permanent in our minds, and we end up treating them with less love and consideration than we would otherwise. In some cases finding out secret information about a person can lead to downright dislike and aggression in a relationship that may have had a great future otherwise.

Therefore if you ever had the chance to learn about a person's secrets, do not fall for the temptation.


Be nice, but use common sense

Islam's ideal is that we should give people second chances and to think the best of others. We should avoid negative suspicion about others, whether it is about members of our family or acquaintances, and we should ignore any suspicions we have instead of spying on people to confirm them.

Islam wants us to believe that people can change, even though change usually happens extremely slowly. If a person says they want to be good and that they have changed, we should treat them with sincere acceptance and ignore our suspicions that the person may still be the same. When you treat someone as if they are good, it creates a small change in them. Even if that person becomes 1% better every week through your acceptance, in a year or two they could become some of the best people you know.

The practical lesson from all of this is that we should think the best of others (even though it can be difficult at times), treat them as if they are good people regardless of what we know or have heard about them, we should not gossip or spy, and we should forbid others from gossiping in our presence.

This does not mean that we should treat people as if the world is perfect and nobody is bad; you shouldn't give a person the key to your home just because you want to think the best of them. Trust is built over time, over years. As a person starts to change for the better, you can trust them more. And if a new person enters your community and appears to be a saint, you can be kind and accepting towards them without putting yourself at risk. They may be a good person, or a government agent wanting to entrap you, or a person with a severe mental illness who may be able to bring some harm to you. Only time will tell.

Islam doesn't require you to be a saint, it doesn't want you to put yourself at the mercy of others. What it wants is that you should follow its guidelines, then use your common sense to decide what to do, and if your own knowledge fails you, use the advice of others more experienced than you. You can be nice and polite and non-judgmental with others without putting yourself at risk. You do not have to learn about all of their bad deeds to decide how to treat them. Always treat with kindness and acceptance, trust with the amount of trust that common sense requires, and leave it to God to judge people.

The Anatomy of Virtue

What is it that the believer does that makes him worthy of Paradise?

This article is an effort, a meditation in hope of reaching a conclusion. I will first lay down my questions, after which my analysis will come, if Allah gives me success.

What does the believer do? What is the force at work during every act of virtue?

Why should I deserve a reward when I avoid a sin? I have noted that my power to do good and avoid sin increases and decreases by the amount of Quran I read or listen to (I have this idea that a Muslim needs to dedicate at least one hour a day to reading or listening to Quran if he wants to be a Muslim that he is not ashamed of). So the virtuous act itself is actually the fact that I remind myself of Allah, which then gives me the power to be good.

It is easy for a person to sin when God's punishment seems distant. So distant, in fact, that it seems unreal or impossible to many. It is part of our design (a design created by God) that we discount faraway rewards and punishments. The thought of receiving a thorough beating in an hour gives you a bigger amount of stress than the thought of receiving said beating in five years. A virtuous person keeps God's punishment real in his imagination, so that it seems nearer than what our brains tell us, and this is the virtuous act. The virtuous act wasn't the avoidance of the sin, but the fact that he had "done his homework" and had kept God's punishment real in his imagination, so that he had the willpower to avoid the sin.

You could say that the avoidance of sin is an application of his willpower, and that this is where the virtue lies. But anyone who has lived and tried to be virtuous knows how easy it is to slip when presented with temptation, and how easy it is to forget God without active remembrance of Him. For this reason a person's willpower at the moment of choice is not very significant, what is significant is his willpower to perform remembrance of God, to do the homework necessary to be virtuous, so that when the moment of temptation comes, he has the power to be good.

So a believer deserves reward for choosing to keep God's remembrance alive in his heart during his normal, everyday life, and when the hour of action comes, his power to do good and avoid evil is directly proportional to how real God's reward and punishment is in his imagination.

The unit of measurement of a person's virtue, as given to us by God, is taqwa (fear and mindfulness of God), as expressed in the following verse:
... the most honorable among you are those who have the most taqwa ... (Quran 49:13)
A person's capacity to fear God is directly related to how much "homework" he does at home, during those calm and "boring" moments when others entertain and enjoy themselves in various ways. The virtuous person chooses to listen to Quran instead of music. Or if he wants to listen to music, he chooses to listen to an Islamic song. When he is lying in bed, instead of thinking of the best way to conquer the world, he chooses to make istighfar (pray to God for forgiveness) a hundred, or a thousand times, until he falls asleep. When he performs sujood (prostration during formal prayer), he chooses to recite each line seven times instead of three, and then he chooses to add three more prayers for forgiveness to this.

We often think that virtue is made at special times, when a person uses his willpower to do a great deed or avoid a very tempting sin. This is incorrect. These are simply signs, expressions, or proofs of a person's virtue, a virtue that he has built elsewhere, during the normal and boring days when no one was watching him, he built his virtue small choice after small choice, listening to an Islamic song instead of another type of song, he prayed a little while longer, he made istighfar during moments of waiting.

He carried out God's command when He said:
... and come closer. (Quran 96:19)
The Quran repeatedly tells us the two conditions necessary for a person's entry into Paradise. In 51 different places the Quran refers to those who succeed in this manner:
Those who had faith and performed virtuous acts
Once we attain to faith, we are not left alone to do as we like until we enter Paradise. We are also required to perform acts of virtue. And to perform acts of virtue we need to keep God near and real in our imagination, otherwise we slip and lose our way and forget God.

The Quran also says:
Are they waiting for the angels or your Lord to come down to them, or for some of your Lord’s signs to come? The day when some of the signs of your Lord shall come, it shall not profit any human being who did not have faith before, or who did not earn any good by his faith. Say to them, ‘Wait then, we too are waiting.’ (Quran 6:158)
To be saved, one needs to earn good by his faith. And to earn good by one's faith, he needs to actively reprogram his brain to think that God's reward and  punishment are real and close.

The Quran, when speaking of the non-virtuous, says:
They see it [the Day of Judgment] as a distant thing. (Quran 70:6).
It becomes clear then that the fundamental force that differentiates one believer from another in virtue and rank is how close and real he keeps the things that he believed in when he attained to faith. What our religion is about, is to believe in God and His words in the first place, and then to keep these alive and close in one's consciousness.

Thus when a person first attains to faith, he does so because he has realized that God and His words are true. At this moment of true faith, in the person's consciousness, the closeness and realness of God and His promises are as follows:
Day 1: [person]-[God]
Then a day passes, and if he hasn't actively tried to re-enliven God's presence in his heart, the image becomes as follows:
Day 2: [person]--[God]
And as the days pass, if he doesn't do his homework, God fades away from his heart he becomes less virtuous and more sinful.
Day 3: [person]---[God]
Day 4: [person]----[God]
Day 10: [person]----------------------[God] (sins become easier)
Day 30: [person]-------------------------------------------------------------[God]
Day 90: [person]------------------------------------------------------[The person doesn't even know where this goes anymore. Is God even real?]
While for a virtuous believer, the graph would be as follows:
Day 1: [person]-[God]
Day 2: [person]--[God]
Day 10: [person]---[God]
Day 11: [person]-[God] (he realized that he had been neglecting his duties, and thus applies more effort toward remembering God, and brings God closer in his heart]
The thing that a virtuous believer does is keep the remembrance of God alive in his heart. We say that what a weightlifter does is to lift weights, and what a programmer does is to program applications. In the same way, what a virtuous believer does on the job is to kindle and rekindle the remembrance of God in his heart.

The non-virtuous believer ignores his duty on the job and lets God's remembrance fade away, and thus falls into sin and starts to ignore his main obligations.

So an easy way to measure your level of virtue, something that I have known for a long time without thinking too much about it, is to ask yourself how real Paradise and Hell feel to you. How close or faraway are they? I know that during those times when I was at the highest points of my virtue, Paradise and Hell felt very real, as if they could be right next door. So ask yourself, how faraway are these? One mile, a thousand miles, or infinitely faraway?

It seems now that we have found the fundamental principle of virtue, the equation that will determine a person's virtue, and thus his rank in Paradise:
Total Virtue = (Sum of the closeness of God and His promises at each moment or day of the person's life)
As an example, each moment of a person's life can be broken down as follows:
Day 1 -  Closeness of God: 96% - Score: 96
Day 1500 - Closeness of God: 50% - Score: 50
Day 8000 - Closeness of God: 100% - Score 100 (God's existence and His promises are as close as it is humanly possible to experience, thus the person, when he thinks of Paradise, it is as if he can touch it, and when he thinks of Hell, same thing.
 When the person dies, his final score is:
The sum of all scores divided by the sum of all days
The top score will be 100, which no one can get because that requires being in God's presence every day of one's life. And by averaging the scores, a person's length of life will not matter. Living for a year at a score of 50 is better than ten years at 25, even though a person may have done more good during those ten years. Because by having a lower score, we can deduce that the person also committed more sins, which take away from the good deeds.

In reality we know that God judges us based on our good deeds and sins on the Day of Judgment, not based on how real God's remembrance was in our hearts during each day. But as has been illustrated in this article, the two things are the same thing. The realness of God's remembrance in your heart decides how many good deeds you do and how few sins you commit, and thus it decides how you will end up on the Day of Judgment. It is better to focus on the root of success, which is God's remembrance, rather than the branches, which are the deeds.

We, as (hopefully) intelligent believers, can focus on the one thing that truly matters, the one thing that makes us do good deeds and avoid sins: the realness of God and the Unseen world in our minds. And everyday we can ask ourselves how close Paradise and Hell feel to us, and if they don't feel close, we must increase our worship and remembrance. And everyday we can try to make them feel closer. To make them more real in our minds. Until the fire of Hell feels so close that the slightest sin becomes unthinkable, and until Paradise feels so close that it takes away the difficulty from the most difficult good deed.

I know that as self-respecting human beings, we like to think that we can choose do to good deeds and to avoid sins whenever we want through our amazing willpower. But reality will always prove us wrong. There is no way to constantly be good and avoid sin without keeping God and His promises close and real in our minds. This is how we, as human beings, function.

A day spent in negligence of God is not a "neutral" day as we like to think. It is a day on which Paradise and Hell will become ever so slightly more distant in our minds, and immediately with this, our desire to do good deeds, and our power to avoid sins, will decrease. Virtue is like a painting that's constantly losing its color, so that it needs to be painted again and again, every day, otherwise soon little will be left of it.

Now that we realize that "how real and close Paradise and Hell feel to us" decides our success and rank on the Day of Judgment, the next step is to think of the ways to accomplish this, the best ways to keep Paradise and Hell real and close. In my own experience, reading Quran is the best way. There is a reason why the Quran is called adh-Dhikr ("The Remembrance") in verser 15:9. It is the tool that Allah in His boundless grace and mercy bestowed upon to allow us to keep Him and His promises close and real, if we only dedicate some time to it.

The proper way of treating the Quran is as Aaidh al-Qarni says:
... read the Quran in private and out in public, when standing and when sitting, when reflecting upon its meaning and without reflecting, when in a state of wudu and when not in a state of wudu, for every letter earns you ten hasanaat [good deeds].
The amount of time we dedicate to the Quran per day will determine how close Paradise and Hell feel to us, and thus it will determine our success and rank on the Day of Judgment. If we dedicate 30 minutes per day to it, this will lead to a certain outcome. If we dedicate an hour per day to the Quran, this will cause us to be a different type of believer, and a higher ranking one than the believer who dedicates 30 minutes to it. And one who dedicates two hours per day to the Quran will have a higher rank (more good deeds and fewer sins) than the previous two.

And what about the blessed believer who dedicates every available moment to the Quran? What rank will he have? How much will he put us to shame on the Day of Judgment? When Allah points him out to us, we will realize how much we have failed. Will we even think that we deserve to enter Paradise? There stands a man who deserves Paradise, and what about us? We will carry the unbearable shame of realizing just how foolish we were to have wasted the only chance we had, in all eternity, to earn a high rank in the sight of God, and yet we wasted it. We were too busy increasing our wealth. We were too busy watching the news. We were too busy having a good time on the internet. And thus we wasted our one and only chance to have an incredibly better place for the rest of eternity.

On that Day how much will we wish that we had spent just an hour more reading the Quran? How foolish will we feel to have wasted all those great opportunities that God gave us to remember Him and increase our rank in His sight?

Two years ago I learned that it is very important for a believer to be unattached to dunya (the worldly life), and I thought this was the ultimate stage of growth, to put all focus on detaching myself from the worldly life and to always be on guard to keep my attachments under control. But now I realize that this is the wrong focus. Detaching yourself from the worldly life is not something you can do, it is like telling yourself "do not think of elephants" so that you may stop thinking of elephants, it does not work.

What does work is to think of something else. Detaching yourself from the dunya is accomplished by making Paradise and Hell and the Day of Judgment (and the rest of God's promises) real in the mind. Once the mind is filled with God's remembrance, the dunya will automatically leave. Therefore as you will surely hear a lot about detachment from dunya, know that it is accomplished by attaching yourself to the akhirah (afterlife). The more real and close Paradise and Hell feel to you, the less real the dunya will feel.

Let's all dedicate our lives to keeping Paradise and Hell and the Unseen world as close as humanly possible through remembrance of Allah, and inshAllah in this way we will not be among those who are covered in shame on the Day of Judgement.

And to repeat, ask yourself everyday: How close and real do Paradise and Hell feel to me? If they don't feel very close and real, realize that you are in great danger of committing sins and getting in a bad place spiritually. Fix the situation immediately with more Quran and more worship, as much as is necessary to make Paradise and Hell close and real again. You may need to read the Quran all over a number of times if you have been neglecting it for a long time, because the Quran will not inspire a person who neglects it. And the next step will be to design a lifestyle, a daily routine that ensures that Paradise and Hell are always close and real to you, through Quran reading, tahajjud, istighfar, and anything else that works for you.
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