Desire, Lust, Chastity, and Love: A Deeper Understanding

William E. May
(c) 2011 Culture of Life Foundation
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

Hamza Yusuf, an Islamic scholar, gives a thought-provoking and powerful presentation of these key concepts of any sexual ethics in his article, "Desire and the Tainted Soul: Islamic Insights into Lust, Chastity, and Love," which appeared in The Social Costs of Pornography: A Reader (the Witherspoon Institute, 2010).

This article summarizes Yusuf's thoughtful and thought-provoking essay, focusing on the movement from the hedonistic, self-centered self to the ethical or virtuous self, and ultimately to the self at peace. It shows how chastity is a central virtue enabling this movement, insofar as this virtue helps a person to take command of his desires and emotions and not be under their command.

Desire and Wrongful Desire

The Platonic Socrates defined desire as a "longing to fill an emptiness within us. It may be profound (a desire to know why we exist) or less so, such as the desire to own objects just to fill a void." Rational and religious ethics distinguish between right and wrong desires and affirm that wrong desires may result in damaging and destructive pursuits that can shatter an individual's psychological well-being and severely damage human relationships. Wrong desire is desire for an illusory good; this is pernicious, particularly so in carnal desire.

The Tainted Soul or Self

The Islamic tradition sees the root of this destructive desire in the nafs, an Arabic word appropriately understood as the soul. According to the Koran the nafs has three stages: the compulsive or commanding self, the reproachful self, and the self at peace. The compulsive, tainted self is supported by three other destructive elements: the passions, the illusory nature of the world, and an obsessive and compulsive force referred to as Satan. Sincere human effort can control and overcome these poisons; this effort is easier when aided by divine grace but can be done without faith.

Philosophers like Aristotle have recognized that man without virtue is worse than an animal, but religious tradition, Islamic and Christian, is not merely concerned with man's psychological or rational well-being but more importantly with the state of his soul.

During the compulsive stage of the soul the "goods" that a man (male person) desires are pleasure (specifically sexual activity with a person who can provide him with children), wealth (in any form), and power (over children). He makes these goods the end for which he yearns. But this end is illusory.

The hedonistic life means "eating not to live, but living to eat; loving not to give, but lusting to take; accumulating wealth not to support, but to create a false sense of security. In short, these are sins driven by emptiness within, mere distraction to avoid confronting a lack of knowledge of life's purpose and relevance."

Moral Freedom and the Ethical or Virtuous Life

Kierkegaard said that each of us is faced with an Either/Or choice [either] to renounce our free will and "to choose not to choose in our pursuit of pleasure, or to embrace our true self and pursue not pleasure but the ethical life of virtue, which is rooted in commitment to others." But choosing the ethical life does not require renouncing pleasure. Rather, it becomes meaningful in ways unimaginable to the aesthete.

Moderation is the path of an ethical life that results in happiness. Extremities on either side of the golden mean are physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually harmful. "Both moral philosophy and religion warn of the dangers of intemperance, as expressed in gluttony, drug abuse, sexuality, and other wanton behavior." Chastity is not abstinence from sex but its ethical regulation. Yusuf agrees with St. Thomas Aquinas, who said: "It belongs to chastity that a man may make a moderate use of bodily members in accordance with the judgment of his reason and the choice of his will." Of profound importance for the well-being of men and women is the move beyond the realm of lust to the realm of love, which binds one person to another as to one's self. "Love is the gravitational force that holds families together and sustains even the commonwealth. Lust, on the other hand, is merely self-gratification."

Chastity and Commitment

True love is the desire to give pleasure to the other as well as to receive it. Acts of betrayal can destroy love, and chastity enables one to relate to another without the destructive element of betrayal. "Chastity has been a steadfast guardian of human well-being and an effective restraint from falling into the potentially bottomless pit of lust and wantonness. Human beings ultimately find more satisfaction from ethical, intellectual, and spiritual awakenings, especially when they are experienced within the nexus of moderation, virtue, and love…. It is chastity that regulates one's sexual desires, enabling one to explore the other necessary aspects of life that afford a fully human experience."

The Self at Peace and Custody of the Eyes

Yusuf writes of a mystical perspective that celebrates the third and final stage of a human being's spiritual development, which the Koran describes as the self at peace. He emphasizes that both Christianity and Islam share the concept of the Beatific Vision. "Blessed are the pure at heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). Maintaining the heart's purity is a particular focus of the Abrahamic faiths. The Koran says: "On the Day of Judgment, nothing will avail a person…but a pure heart (26:88-89)."

According to Islamic and Christian tradition, the single most corrupting inroad into the heart is through "the concupiscence of the eyes." This is destructive because it stifles man's primitive power of perceiving reality, making him incapable not only of reaching reality and truth. Yusuf reflects on the Semitic (Hebrew and Arabic) significance of the "eye" as the window of the soul (see Jesus' remarks on this). Thus "chastity [or better perhaps "custody"] of the eyes is the single most difficult form of chastity." Both Jesus and the Koran recognize "adultery of the heart" and the truth that a spouse can in fact commit adultery with his or her spouse if he or she seeks sex not in order to give himself or herself to the other but simply to gratify his desires for sexual pleasure here and now.

Woman the Apotheosis

Yusuf closes his essay by reflecting on the role of women in God's providence. "In the Islamic tradition, women have always been associated with the divine [especially divine mercy]." He points out that the Koran sees "Mary, the mother of Christ, as the great paragon of chastity and purity of the heart." He likewise points out that the Arabic and Hebrew words for "womb" mean "mercy." And Mary in the Catholic tradition is the "Mother of Mercy," always ready to help her children, given to her by Jesus on the cross as her very own, to lead lives of chastity at peace with God and with themselves, undisturbed by what others say or do to harm them or mock them for not conforming to the world shaped by those who seek their final end in pleasure.

Summary Conclusion

This remarkable essay is most helpful in deepening our understanding and appreciation of the role that chastity has to play in enabling human persons to come into possession of themselves as sexual beings with sexual desires and not to be possessed by them. It helps us also to understand more fully how God in His providence gives us the gift of peace with ourselves, others, and Himself. Finally, it emphasizes that "woman," whose womb in Arabic and Hebrew means "mercy," is associated with the divine, pre-eminently Mary, the Mother of Christ and Mother of Mercy.