Emory Report
October 30, 2006
Volume 59, Number 9

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October 30, 2006
Ancient religious texts advise on ‘modern’ marital and family issues

by mary loftus

Ancient religious texts from six of the world’s major religions are surprisingly explicit about such “modern” family issues as divorce, adultery, property rights and conjugal manners, reveals a new book co-edited by an Emory law professor.

A collection of writings and teachings from the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian traditions, “Sex, Marriage & Family in World Religions” (Columbia University Press) spans several thousand years.

Readings are drawn from such sources as the Qur’an, the Bible, the I Ching, the Book of Common Prayer, the Kamasutra, the Analects of Confucius, the sermons of John Calvin, the Dead Sea Scrolls, legal codes of the Qing Dynasty and a contemporary Episcopalian liturgy.

One of several volumes to emerge from the research project Sex, Marriage and Family and the Religions of the Book, conducted by the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory, the book is edited by John Witte Jr., CSLR director and Jonas Robitscher professor of law, CSLR senior advisor Don Browning of the University of Chicago, and CSLR senior fellow M. Christian Green of Harvard Divinity School.

“We are trying to fill the gaps so that current debates about contentious marital and family issues can be better informed. There are a lot of false impressions out there that need to be overcome,” Browning said. “Religions are never without internal tensions —people dealing with the same text and founding figures continue to debate among themselves about what it means. We have impressions of religious traditions based on one strand of interpretation without even knowing about other historically prominent strands.”
Broad commonalities exist among the six religions—all the traditions have tended to be patriarchal, to celebrate marriage as a public contract and religious commitment, to include an exchange of property in the marital contract, to guarantee certain marital rights, and to emphasize family continuity and intergenerational obligations.

Nearly all the religions also “shared the idea that sex had to be confined to marriage, since it was going to lead to children and quickly,” said Browning. “Early forms of contraception were not very reliable.” Sex outside of marriage that resulted in offspring would inevitably lead to questions of legitimacy and responsibility for the children, he added.

But there were major differences apparent as well: Confucianism and ancient Judaism permitted concubines; Christianity sometimes idealized sexual abstinence even in marriage; Islam, as well as some Christian sects, allowed polygamous marriages.

Traditional sacred texts were unexpectedly liberal in certain areas. The Qur’an says that a divorce “is only permissible twice, after that, the parties should either hold together on equitable terms, or separate with kindness. It is not lawful for you [men] to take back
any of your gifts [from your wives] . . .”

Fathers were expected to be directly involved with child rearing, with the father-son relationship in Confucianism being even more important than that between husbands and wives, and with the father being the primary “teacher and provider” in the Abrahamic religions.

Various responsibilities regarding sex were spelled out, with husbands and wives expected to fulfill the conjugal rights of marriage in mutually acceptable—and pleasurable—ways.

“Procreation was viewed as a divine mystery and mandate in the early texts of these traditions,” said Witte, “a way for men and women to participate in the creation itself, indeed to be co-creators of a sort.”
The Kamasutra, perhaps the most well-known ancient treatise regarding erotic love, was originally composed in Sanskrit around the third century in Northwest India, and contains advice on methods of seduction, various sexual positions and how to treat all the wives in a harem equally.

A Hadith recounts a surprisingly pragmatic interchange between the man of a disloyal wife and the Islamic Prophet Muhammad: A man came to the Prophet and said, “My wife does not repel the hand of any man who touches her.” He said, “Divorce her.” The man then said, “I love her.” He said, “Then enjoy her.”

Even the practices of foreplay and mutual satisfaction seem to have been encouraged in early Islam, as in a
text from the twelfth century that recounts the Prophet saying to “kiss and touch” one’s wife until she “has the same desire you have” and “wait for her until she is satisfied.”

Several of the texts call for adulterers to be flogged or shunned, however, and many passages make clear that a woman’s allure can be dangerous: “Never sit at table with another man’s wife, or join her in a drinking party, for fear of succumbing to her charms and slipping into fatal disaster,” reads Ecclesiasticus.

All the religions make a distinction between children born inside and outside of wedlock; children born outside of marriage are stigmatized. Within marriage, though, children were almost universally considered “sacred gifts,” carrying forth the family name and lineage as well as the community’s religious traditions, culture and language. All the traditions emphasize that stable marriages and families are essential to the well-being of children.

Taking a slower, deeper look at where we came from, said Browning, is a necessary counterbalance to the swiftness with which we now live. “We should try to understand ourselves a little bit better,” he said, “as well as the other guy.”