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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.
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