Q. What does the Shari`a say about masturbation (istimna')?

A. This article is in three parts: 1. The reports of Ibn `Umar, Ibn `Abbas, and the early Mufassirun [Commentators on Qur'an] concerning istimna' [masturbation] followed by a commentary by Imam Ghazali; 2. The position of the Four Schools and other scholars. 3. Ibn Jarir al-Tabari's discussion from his "Ikhtilaf al-fuqaha" (The Differences of Opinion among the Jurists)

Ibn `Umar

The reports of Ibn `Umar. ("Mawsu`at fiqh `Abdillah ibn `Umar" ["Encyclopedia of Ibn `Umar's Jurisprudence"], Beirut ed. 1986, p. 115.)

a) He was asked about it and is reported to have answered: "It is nothing except the rubbing of the male member until its water comes out" and in another report: "It is only a nerve that one kneads."

b) He answered in another report: "It has been forbidden: that one (who masturbates) is having intercourse with himself."


Reports of Ibn `Abbas and the early Mufassirun commented by Ghazali. Hujjat al-Islam [The Proof of Islam] Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali said: "Ibn `Abbas said: "A man's worship does not become perfect except through marriage, and this is a universal predicament of which few can do without." "Qutada said concerning the meaning of the verse "Impose not on us that which we have not the strength to bear" (al-Baqara 2:286), that it means lust. "

`Ikrima and Mujahid are reported to have said, concerning the meaning of the verse, "Allah would make the burden light for you, for man was created weak" (an-Nisa' 4:28), that it means men cannot do without women. "Fayyad ibn Najih said: "When the male organ of a man stands erect, two thirds of his intellect go away." Some add: "and one third of his religion." "Ibn `Abbas explains the meaning of the verse: "From the evil of the darkness when it is intense" (al-Falaq 113:3) as referring to the erection of the male organ. "The reason for this is that sexual desire is an overwhelming bane which, when it arises, cannot be countered with mind nor religion, although it is good insofar as it serves both for the life of this world and the next.

The Prophet (s)

The Prophet (S) said: "O Allah, I seek refuge in You from the evil of my hearing, of my sight, of my tongue, of my heart, and of my private parts" [Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Nisa'i, Hakim; al-`Iraqi confirms its authenticity]. And if the Prophet (S) himself sought refuge from lust, then who after him can take the matter lightly?

Ibn `Abbas

"One day after one of Ibn `Abbas's classes, everybody left except a young man who stayed behind. Ibn `Abbas asked him what he needed and he replied that he wanted to ask a question but was too shy to ask in front of other people. Ibn `Abbas said: "The scholar [`alim] is like a father, so speak to me frankly, as you would to your own father." The young man said: "I am an unmarried young man, and sometimes I fear hardship upon myself, so I masturbate [astamni] with my hand." Ibn `Abbas turned his face from him and said: "Fie, alas! It would be better to marry even a slave-girl, and yet it is better than adultery [zina]." "This is a warning that the unmarried man who is controlled by his lust faces three evils: the least of them is to marry a slave-girl who might bring a child into slavery, worse is masturbation, but most indecent yet is adultery. Ibn `Abbas did not call the first two "(indifferently) permitted" [mubah] (the last one being forbidden [haram]), because they are cautioned against and are to be resorted to only for fear of something worse, as one resorts to eating from the meat of a dead animal [i.e. not slaughtered] in order to survive. Therefore preferring the least of two evils is not tantamount to declaring it unreservedly permissible, even less is it being declared a good."

Translated from "Ihya' `Ulum ad-Din" [Reviving of the Religious Sciences], Book of Marriage. NB: Two translations of this particular section of the "Ihya" are available: Madelain Farah's "Marriage and Sexuality in Islam" (1984), annotated and far more complete than the Book of Marriage comprised in Fazul-ul-Karim's "Imam Ghazali's Ihya Ulum-id-Din" (Lahore).

Positions of the Four Schools

Position of the Four Schools and other scholars as explained by Sayyid Sabiq in his book "Fiqh as-Sunna" (Cairo ed. 1987) Vol. 2 p. 581-583.

"Istimna' negates the manners and sublime character demanded of human beings. The scholars of fiqh, however, have differed concerning it. Some consider it absolutely forbidden [haraman mutlaqan]. Some, forbidden in certain cases, and obligatory [wajib] in others. Finally some say it is disliked [makruh].

"Among those who consider it absolutely forbidden are the Malikis, the Shafi`is, and the Zaydis [Shi`ite madhhab closest to the four Sunni Schools]. Their proof is that Allah Almighty ordered that we guard our private parts save from wives and slaves (al-Mu'minun 23:5-7); to trespass these two boundaries through masturbation, therefore, makes one a transgressor who leaves what Allah made permitted to go over to what he made forbidden.

"The Hanafis consider it forbidden in certain cases and obligatory in others, that is, when one might otherwise commit adultery. This is in accordance with the precept that one must choose the least of two evils. They add that masturbation is forbidden if it is merely for the sake of pleasure (when there is no risk of adultery by avoiding it), but that it is excusable if a single, unmarried man is overcome by his lust and seeks to quiet it.

"As for Hanbalis, they say that it is forbidden except if done for fear of committing adultery, or for fear of something more unhealthy, by an unmarried person who is unable to marry. If these conditions are present, he is excused...

"Mujahid said: The ruling is the same for women as it is for men."

3. Ibn Jarir in a lost section of his "Ikhtilaf al-fuqaha'" quoted by al-sayyid al-Murtada al-Zabidi in his commentary on "Ihya `Ulum al-Din" (1st chapter of the book on "Nikah," section on the troubles and benefits of marriage) says:

"I read in the book on the differences of jurists by Ibn Jarir al-Tabari the following: "The jurists differed concerning the question of istimna': - al-`Ala' ibn Ziyad ibn Matar (d. 94) said: "This is acceptable, we used to do it during our military campaigns." Related to us by Muhammad ibn Bashshar al-`Abdi who said Mu`adh ibn Hisham related it to us from his father from Qatada from al-`Ala'. - Al-Hassan al-Basri, al-Dahhak ibn Muzahim, and a large group with them said the same thing. - Ibn `Abbas said: "It is better than fornication/adultery, and to marry a slave-woman is better than that." -Anas ibn Malik said: "He who does this is cursed." - Al-Shafi`i said: "This is not permitted." Related to us by al-Rabi`.

The reasoning of those who hold al-`Ala's position is that to forbid something and to permit something is not established by any other way than through a formal proof to which it is imperative to acquiesce and submit; in this particular matter there is no unanimity of opinion (around such proof), although there is unanimity that if this is the substance of what one does, then it is forbidden. They are unanimous that he has to deal with this in a lawful way.

As for those who say what al-Shafi`i says, they derive their position from Allah's saying: "Wa al-ladhina hum li furujihim hafizun..." ("Successful are the believers... who guard their private parts, save from their wives or the slaves that their right hands possess, for then they are not blameworthy, but whoso craveth beyond that, such are the transgressors" 23:1-7). Ibn Jarir says: "Allah has thus told that he who does not protect his private parts with other than his wives or those whom his right hand possesses, he is one of the transgressors, and whoever practices istimna' has committed transgression with his sexual parts by staying away from them." Shafi`i said after mentioning the verses: "Allah showed that no sexual act involving the male organ is permissible except in conjunction with the wife or those whom one's right hand possesses. And Allah knows best."