The story always ends with the Princess being awakened with a kiss from Prince Charming. And so, they lived happily ever after. It is the typical bedtime story told to our young girls. Is it surprising, then, that they grow up to continue reading these stories — beyond a kiss?
Erotica, or as it’s more popularly known, “smut,” is not a new genre, although Fifty Shades of Grey might have made it mainstream and normalized. The Overton window shifts slowly over time: what was once considered pornographic is now marketed as harmless romance in young adult novels. Self-published stories on Wattpad, as well as fanfiction for popular novels on fandom sites, are rife with descriptions of “spice levels” and tags for specific types of explicit content. On “BookTok” a genre of videos on TikTok, and similarly on Instagram, a growing industry of book reviewers influence reading list recommendations and direct girls towards these reads. Currently, #BookTok is approaching 100 billion views, and was the top hashtag in 2022, with romance topping “four of the top five books with the most engagement.”1 While the popularization of smut is concerning due to the hypersexualization of literature, more importantly, it is spiritually concerning that Muslims are openly reading and promoting smut to others, posting content about these books and the specific scenes within them.
The modern world has lost the plot (pun intended) when it comes to boundaries and limitations on sexual content. In a secular, post sexual-revolution society, the widespread promotion and accessibility of erotica are consistent with the continuous expansion of sexual freedom.
The current state of affairs demonstrates that only a minority of people are willing to resist the tidal waves of sexual content pushed onto children. In Dearborn, Michigan, parents and community members have engaged in public protests and meetings with school officials to protest against school libraries giving children access to books with sexual content. While these books were primarily contentious due to LGBTQ content, “what is also being protested is the evolving nature of sexuality and hyper-sexualization of society.”2
The conversation about the content that (young) Muslims consume needs to progress from an individual spiritual issue to a broader social issue, questioning what content is produced and why. To put it simply — sex sells. Colleen Hoover, currently the most famous author within the genre, sold more than 8 million romance books in 2022.1 Erotica writers have corrupted and commodified the most intimate aspect of sanctified marital relationships by appealing to youthful desires and commercializing degeneracy.
As Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad elucidates:
… people make a lot of money out of exploiting people’s desires. And this is one of the tragedies of our time. Half of TV is about it. The gigantic pornography industry is an example of that. The whole usage of sexual innuendo in advertising and popular culture and soap operas and comedy and everything, with every decade that goes by, there just seems to be more of it, more and more innuendo, more and more sexual content in everything. And the modern world is not very comfortable about that, particularly when it’s things like sexualization of children’s clothing and pre-teen children’s tv programming and that’s more and more common. But nobody’s quite sure where the boundaries should be. No hikmah, no middle way. And therefore excess, ifraat. And that’s the tragic condition that we’re in. So people are so bombarded with these messages that it becomes an extreme activation of something that is designed to be just for certain times and certain places.3
Even with safety features, what constitutes vulgar and explicit by Western standards still leaves unchecked what is clearly vulgar to the Muslim who is degraded for “prudish ethics” and the inability to consume such material without it affecting them. The problem lies precisely in the mass desensitization of society that goes uncriticized (as opposed to the easy critique of hyper-sexualization among Muslims).
The contemporary literary world will criticize the romanticization of abuse or the lack of consent within some of these fictional relationships, but the genre of smut continues to top the New York Times’ bestselling list. As a Muslim community that recognizes the existence of the ruh and that which affects it, we should elevate the conversation and push back against the hypersexualization of literature altogether. Everything we read has a spiritual effect on us, both as individuals and as a society. Consider the first Quranic injunction, Read, in the name of your Lord, inviting humans to read the Words of their Creator and henceforth interact with every individual they meet and the cosmos that surrounds them through a Quranic worldview.
In contrast, echoing the ethos of a secular, post-sexual revolution society, contemporary erotica reduces humans to their bodies, prioritizing the hedonistic fulfillment of their desires above all else. The goal of the characters within these novels is maximal pleasure, even at the risk of higher values and fidelity. From the lens of this worldview, the individuals that one encounters become mere objects for one’s own pleasure, and the world around them an amusement park to be maximally enjoyed in the pursuit of desire. When these ideas are sold to society by a multi-million dollar industry, it spiritually affects the relationships of individuals, creating a society that has little regard for fidelity, allows for all forms of sexual relationships, and degrades humans into desire-driven consumers rather than spiritual beings who are bound to their relationship with their Lord.
Throughout time, the best forms of literature have provided insight into the human condition and reflected universal truths; contemporary erotica strips humans of their spiritual selves, leaving literature at a loss. The boundaries that Islam has set offer Muslims, and others, a creative opportunity to revitalize a tradition of meaningful literature that does not resort to monetizing an appeal to carnal desires.
The Spiritual Perspective
Struggling with the sin of reading smut and its spiritual harm is not new. What has changed, however, is the publicization of such sins — without shame. Instead of concealing one’s sins, these very sins are instead used to gain fame and followers. Not only is publicizing sins harmful to one’s own spiritual state, it also leads to widespread spiritual harm, normalizing the sin such that people no longer recognize it as a sin. As one scholar writes, “we do not consider seeking forgiveness for a misdeed unless we see the act as a sin. Perhaps such a lack of insight is the greatest tribulation of our time.”4
Reading erotic literature contradicts the hayaa that Muslims should embody. The attribute of hayaa, according to one definition, is “the constriction of one’s self from [doing] something [lowly] and leaving/abandoning it in caution of being chastised for it.”5 Our hayaa should compel us to leave those books that involve the glorification of sin and thus lead to chastisement. To quote Shaykh Muhammad Elshinawy in defining hayaa:
Abū Hurayrah رضي الله عنه narrates that the Prophet ﷺ said, “Ḥayāʾ is from faith, and faith is in Paradise. And vulgarity is from callousness, and callousness is in the Hellfire.” Hence, the faithful are those who are cautious of using vulgar expressions (badhāʾah), even when factually correct, while those with callous hearts (jafāʾ) do not abstain from obscene speech.6
Hayaa applies to both our internal and external state; while it is important to demonstrate hayaa through our sartorial choices, it is just as important to maintain hayaa in our hearts. As previously mentioned, everything we consume affects our spiritual state. Consider one’s spirituality during Ramadan, when we spend more time reading the Quran and less time engaging in music, television, and other forms of entertainment. Is the focus in our prayers heightened? Are we more conscious of avoiding lewdness in all its forms?
Outside of Ramadan as well, one can not spiritually progress unless they are avoiding obscenity. In a lecture regarding lust, Mufti Hussain Kamani explained, “temptations, when they consume a person and step outside of a healthy boundary, become a great distraction and they end up consuming you from within.”7 Although local bookstores glorify these books with central displays and “recommended by TikTok” signs, as Muslims, we should recognize that these books are an immoral form of lustful entertainment that distract a person during and from their ibadah and from their purpose in life, worshipping Allah. Our goal is to return to Allah with a pure heart that He is pleased with and to attain this, we must maintain taqwa and hayaa concerning what we read as well. While you might enjoy reading smut right now, soon you will be reading your Book of Deeds. What answer will one give, standing before Allah, about every word and page read?
The defense: “Oh, but I’m just reading it.” But the higher the chilli pepper rating, the more likely she is to indulge in it, convinced that she can handle the “spice” and avoid being (spiritually) burned. She reads books with more graphic scenes than the last, because reading involves lustful fantasizing, an imagining of the lines in each scene or “creating scenarios in one’s head,” which drives the temptation for more. This cycle feeds the lower nafs that loves to indulge in desires, and while it is easy for the nafs to become attached, it becomes ever-harder to refrain. The readers of these books can easily fall prey to seeking more or even worse forms of erotica or sexual content to satisfy their inner carnal desires. As we are warned in the Qasidah Burdah, “the ego’s like a child: neglect it, and it will grow still suckling; only if you wean it will it be weaned.”8
Unfortunately, lustful fantasizing can drive a person to act upon and fulfill their desires in haram ways. Allah Ta’ala clearly instructs us, “Do not even go close to fornication, It is indeed a shameful act, and an evil way to follow.”9 From this, it is clear that we should avoid any action that takes us close to Zina, a great sin that carries severe punishment in Islam. It is also an uncomfortable reality, rarely discussed, that reading erotica often leads to one fulfilling their desires through the sinful act of masturbation. It is important to keep in mind the principle, actions which lead to sin are sinful as well.
Imam Ghazali (RH) elaborates:
And you will not be successful in guarding the private part except by guarding the eye from looking, the heart from contemplating, and the stomach from doubtful food and from satiety, for these things stir one’s desires and are the places where their seeds are sown.10
We often wrongfully assume that our thoughts and feelings are permissible to indulge in, so long as we do not act on them. However, dwelling on our thoughts and feelings can easily lead to acting upon them; in this case, reading smut and allowing one’s imagination to run wild can lead to attempts at fulfilling one’s desires wrongfully. Moreover, actions of the heart are differentiated between those within one’s will and those that are not in one’s will. A person is accountable for the actions of the heart that they willfully and determinedly engage in. By choosing to read smut, a person intentionally brings to mind lustful thoughts, as well as exposing themselves to an external factor that increases whispers from Shaytan. While reading smut might appear harmless, it is important to recognize its spiritual consequences.
Psychologically, erotica gives a person unrealistic and unfair expectations for halal marital intimacy in their life, damaging one’s self, one’s partner, and the bond of intimacy between them. We rightfully criticize porn and understand that the consumption of porn creates false expectations, addictions, and severe relationship issues. Erotica also affects a person’s expectations and relationship, although to a different degree and in different ways.
When influencers recommend to their followers specific graphic scenes, they are impressing upon (often young) girls that marital intimacy will or should occur exactly as these bestselling novels describe. Like the issue of porn, an individual may struggle with addiction to erotica, or due to erotica, addicted to fulfilling their desires through sinful acts such as masturbation. Every believer faces tests in their pursuit of paradise, and should not lose hope when the test they face is a sin that is addictive in nature. However, a believer should have the courage to recognize that this is a sin, make sincere tawbah, seek spiritual help through their Lord and spiritual mentors, and take practical means to address the addiction.
It is worrisome that this genre, aside from its explicit nature, also normalizes and even romanticizes violent forms of intimacy and relationships. In a hypersexualized society, as young Muslim girls struggle with puberty, temptations, and identity, are these the ideas that they should be influenced by? Saba Syed excellently pointed this out back in 2014, saying “… if our girls are going to read books like Fifty Shades of Grey, they are going to [be] left with a seriously damaged concept of intimacy.”11
Islam establishes a women’s right to intimacy within marriage and makes marital intimacy a means of reward. Our deen holistically acknowledges women’s emotions and specifically instructs men regarding intimacy with ihsan. This is the mindset towards intimacy that should be taught to and understood by Muslim girls. In this age of degeneracy, parents, teachers, and mentors should be aware of the prevalence of smut online, and for the purpose of tarbiyah, have honest conversations with the youth in their life who are exposed to this. And, well, confiscate some Colleen Hoover books for the spiritual and literary sake of these girls.
The Way Forward
It is absolutely a spiritual struggle to maintain chastity as Muslim women living in a hyper-sexualized society and in a Muslim community that rarely, if ever, acknowledges the desires of women while also making the marriage process difficult to navigate. Allah alone sees the struggle that one endures every single day against their nafs. He alone grants ease and a way out. If you are struggling with reading smut or acting on your desires, turn to Him and know that He has the power to grant assistance. As Ibn Ata’illah writes, “Whoever finds it astonishing that God should save him from his passion or yank him out of his forgetfulness has deemed the divine Power to be weak. ‘And God has power over everything’ [Q 18:45].”12 Ask Him for assistance, chastity, and a fulfilling marriage. One specific dua is: اللهم إني أسألك الهدى، والتقى، والعفاف، والغنى – O Allah! I beseech You for guidance, piety, chastity and contentment. Allah loves to be asked and Allah always responds. Remember that your chastity is beloved to Him and that He rewards every sincere atom’s worth of effort for His sake. Make a sincere intention to abstain from all forms of lewdness and cut off all sources of the sin, whether apps, books, or the BookTok influencers one follows.
If you read smut, then in the immediate future, seek forgiveness and have hope that Allah will forgive you. But for the love of Allah, and in consideration of your long-term future (including your job and school applications, marriage, and ultimately the hereafter), do not post about it openly on social media. Moreover, do not promote or encourage the reading of smut to others, assisting in others’ sins and promoting sin is itself sinful.
If you have posted about smut, the wisest action for both your spiritual and material life is to remove it from the internet as best as you can. No doubt, every child of Adam (AS) falls into sin. However, the Prophet ﷺ has emphasized that we should conceal our sins and seek forgiveness. The Prophet ﷺ said something to the effect of,
All the sins of my followers will be forgiven except those of the Mujahirin (those who commit a sin openly or disclose their sins to the people). An example of such disclosure is that a person commits a sin at night and though Allah screens it from the public, then he comes in the morning, and says, ‘O so-and-so, I did such-and-such (evil) deed yesterday,’ though he spent his night screened by his Lord (none knowing about his sin) and in the morning he removes Allah’s screen from himself.13
Most importantly, know that Allah is the Most Forgiving and that He accepts the repentance of His servants. As He beautifully revealed, “Say (on My behalf), “O servants of Mine who have acted recklessly against their own selves, do not despair of Allah’s mercy. Surely, Allah will forgive all sins. Surely, He is the One who is the Most-Forgiving, the Very-Merciful.”14 Even if this is a sin an individual repeatedly falls into, they should stand up each time and seek His forgiveness again. He loves those who constantly seek forgiveness from Him. “Surely Allah loves those who are most repenting and loves those who keep themselves pure.”15 Reading smut, being addicted to it, posting about it in the past, or acting on one’s desires should not be causes for despair. Instead, every fall is an opportunity to make tawbah and try again.
This Dunya is a test, and Allah has placed restrictions upon the fulfillment of our desires as a test and out of His Wisdom of what is beneficial for us. We will return to Allah and be held accountable for all of our actions. We pray that we return to Him with purified hearts and that Jannah is the “happily ever after” for us all.
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.
- Ceron, E. (2022, December 28). A Romance Book Boom Fueled by TikTok and Pandemic Blues. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-12-28/colleen-hoover-viral-booktok-sensation-lead-2022-romance-book-boom?leadSource=uverify%20wall.
- Siddiqi, Z., & Khan, F. (2022, October 26). Dearborn Schools and the Protests Against LGBT Books. Traversing Tradition. https://traversingtradition.com/2022/10/26/dearborn-schools-and-the-protests-against-lgbt-books/.
- G, Usman. [@usmang5542]. (2016, November 10). Sexual desire & boundaries ~ Abdal Hakim Murad [Video]. Youtube. Timestamp: 9:32 – 10:50 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiGTZuI7pvg.
- Abdul Sattar, Husain, foreword to Prayers for Forgiveness, written by Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf Mangera. (California: White Thread Press, 2005), 11.
- معجم التعريفات. المؤلف: علي بن محمد السيد الشريف الجرجاني
- Muhammad Elshinawy, “Ḥayāʾ: More Than Just Modesty,” Yaqeen Institute, October 8, 2021, https://yaqeeninstitute.ca/read/paper/haya-more-than-just-modesty#ftnt15.
- Kamani, Hussain. “The Temptation of Lust.” Produced by Qalam Institute. Traversing the Path to Allah, April 9, 2022. Podcast, https://open.spotify.com/episode/6HdWmYnCKs9wXInxzDMZCw?si=SRTF7ouWTDSFoCZIeVV8Mw&nd=1.
- Al-Būṣīrī, The Mantle Adorned: Imam Al-Būṣīrī’s Burda, trans. Abdal Hakim Murad (London: The Quilliam Press Ltd, 2014), 34.
- Quran 17:32.
- Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī. The Beginning of Guidance. Translated by Mashhad Al-Allaf. London and Santa Barbara: White Thread Press, 2010.
- Syed, Saba. “Fifty Shades of Grey: What Muslim Teens Need to Know.” MuslimMatters, January 24, 2014. https://muslimmatters.org/2014/01/24/fifty-shades-grey-young-muslim-women-looking-love-need-know/.
- Shaykh Ibn ‘Aṭā’illāh al-Iskandarī, The Book of Wisdoms, trans. Victor Danner (London: White Thread Press, 2014), 165.
- Quran 39:53
- Quran 2:222
Amatullah bint Mohammed
Bint Mohammed is a student of the traditional Islamic sciences and social sciences. Her interests include tafsir and Islamic pedagogy.