Islam is often accused by Christians of being a “sensual” religion. This is despite Islam imposing restrictions upon gender-mixing, fornication, alcohol-consumption, and so on. Christianity on the other hand, is either unwilling or unable to do anything of the sort on a societal level.
One “evidence” they present in support of their claim that Islam is “sensual” is the delights of Paradise.
For instance, they complain about the fact that Muslims will drink wine in Paradise (despite this not being the same intoxicating and corrupting substance we know in this world). However, according to the words they ascribe to him in the Bible, ‘Isa (‘alayhissalam) says that he will do likewise (see Matthew 26:29).
I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.
What we’ll examine within this article is a Biblical book called the Song of Songs. It is also referred to as the Canticle of Canticles and the Song of Solomon, as they ascribe it to Sulayman (‘alayhissalam). We’ll also be taking a look at how the Bible contains far more “sensuality”—some of which could in fact be potentially deemed blasphemous—than anything found within the Islamic tradition.
The Jews and Christians attribute the Song of Songs to Sulayman (‘alayhissalam). But as with all the other Biblical books, this could just be a complete fabrication or distortion, and we’ll likely never know who its true author is.
Christopher Gilbert thus writes in his A Complete Introduction to the Bible, p. 118:
This book has traditionally been attributed to King Solomon, but most scholars doubt that Solomon actually wrote it. Although Solomon is mentioned in chapters 3 and 8, those references are in the third person rather than the first. Scholars believe that these poems were attributed to Solomon by an editor who wished to lend to them the authority of someone who was known for both his wisdom and his active love life.
Gilbert then goes on to quote some of what he calls the “explicit verses,” and we’ll come back to this a little later on.
What is certain is that prophet Sulayman (‘alayhissalam) is without doubt free of such erotic “poetry” which the Jews and Christians ascribe to him. Keep in mind that the Qur’an (2:102) also defends Sulayman (‘alayhissalam) against other slanderous Biblical allegations (black magic). Muslims are alone in truly honoring him (‘alayhissalam) and the other prophets (‘alayhimussalam).
More realistically, as Canadian archaeologist Theophile Meek demonstrated more than a century ago, and which is now accepted as a sort of scholarly consensus, this book reveals the explicit influences of the “fertility cults” you find in the Near East in places such as Egypt or Mesopotamia—fertility cults which also gave rise to such sexual poetics.
The Jews of course would have gladly appropriated such foreign influences as they were always ready and willing when it came to being corrupted by paganism as is the case with many other aspects of their faith.
Is It Literal or Allegorical?
The verses which we’ll be reading are so extremely embarrassing that Jewish and Christian “scholars” had to somehow conjure up a way to escape their literal meanings.
In fact, this book was so controversial due to its sexual imagery that it was canonized between years 100-200 CE. This was centuries after its supposed original redaction by Sulayman (‘alayhissalam) and many decades after its oldest attested fragments (or portions) found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (dated between 50 BCE and 50 CE).
Gianni Barbiero wrote in his Song of Songs: A Close Reading, p. 1:
How and when it entered into the canon is not clear. Explicit quotations of the Song are absent from the other books of the Old and New Testaments. The most ancient witness to the Song probably goes back to Josephus (c. A.D. 100) (…) around 200 A.D., the Song of Songs is mentioned in the Mishnah in a text which reflects the problematic canonical status of the book.
To avoid the embarrassment while still justifying its canonization, the Jews and Christians then adopted an allegorical reading.
In 1974, William E. Phipps wrote an entire article related to these rhetoric gymnastics—aptly titled “The Plight of the Song of Songs”—for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
He also notes the fact that the Jews, despite adding an allegorical reading, never denied the literal meaning.
He writes on p. 85:
There is no evidence that the ancient Jews rejected the literal sense of a writing either before or after accepting it as authoritative Scripture (…) even Philo of Alexandria, who was the most allegorically prone of all Jews, did not discard its literal meaning.
Christians were more ambiguous. However, as Phipps puts it, this was mainly due to the influence of Greco-Roman paganism, with philosophers attempting to defend their Homeric “gods.” Plato for example:
“who found odious the obvious meaning of some poetry revered in their culture, substituted a basically opposing meaning to the objectionable lines”
It created a sort of moral crisis for some Christians who, under the influence of Greco-Roman pagan thought, in fact even rejected the book outright (p. 86):
The generally contrasting outlook between Jews and Gentiles regarding sexuality precipitated a dilemma among Gentile Christians with respect to the Song of Songs. In the second century some of them rejected that book as an authoritative sacred writing.
Phipps then writes that:
“allegory was brought to the rescue”
Around the year 200, Hippolytus had given it an allegorical reading from the Christian perspective and a contemporary of his, Origen, cemented such an interpretation. This was then followed almost unanimously during the centuries thereafter.
Within the pre-modern period, writes Phipps that the only major theologian to have rejected such an approach was Theodore of Mopsuestia who was active in current Syria c. 400. Phipps writes that he (p. 95):
“protested the allegorization of Scripture because it perverted its plain meaning”
And that Theodore read it as:
“a love song in which Solomon celebrated his marriage with an Egyptian bride”
What’s more intriguing is the position of one of the principal theologians of Protestant Christianity: 16th c. John Calvin, who—along with his student—disagreed with this forced allegorization.
Phipps write on p. 96:
It was not until John Calvin rejected the allegorical mode of interpretation that scholars began to reappraise the Song of Songs. That sixteenth-century Reformer forthrightly stated his position in this way:
Origen, and many others along with him, have seized the occasion of torturing Scripture, in every possible manner, away from the true sense. They concluded that the literal sense is too mean and poor, and that, under the outer bark of the letter, there lurk deeper mysteries, which cannot be extracted but by beating out allegories… [But] the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning.
Sebastian Castellio, who studied under Calvin, was convinced that the Song of Songs should be understood literally, but he was not convinced that it was worthy to stand in the canon of Holy Scripture. He is reported to have called it “a lascivious and obscene poem in which Solomon described his indecent amours.”
In fact, American Biblical scholar Tremper Longman writes in his Songs of Songs that the allegorical approach is now unanimously rejected by modern Christian scholars as they are no longer under the pressure of clerical authorities.
He writes on pp. 35-37:
The Song of Songs is an interesting study in terms of the history of interpretation because no other biblical book witnesses to such a definite and universally recognized shift in genre identification. Until the nineteenth century the Song was unquestioningly treated as some type of allegory (the rare exceptions will be treated below), and after the nineteenth century we are hardpressed to find supporters of the allegorical approach, at least among scholars. This move has taken place among most Catholics, Jewish scholars, and Protestants, both liberal and evangelical. (…)
In a premodern cultural environment, this sort of unsubstantiated interpretation could be handed down from one generation to another with little questioning, especially when it was backed by the authority of the Church and its official exegetes.
But is the book really as bad as Calvin’s former student Castellio deemed it to be and to the extent that some early Christians completely rejected it?
Well, why don’t we take a look and see for ourselves.
Before quoting verses, we should have a general idea of what the book contains in term of “eroticism”—basically erotic material.
Jerry Sumney, an American professor of Biblical Studies, writes in the third edition of his The Bible: An Introduction, p. 194:
This whole book is a love poem, complete with loving, even sensuous, description of both lovers. Including this kind of poetry in the Bible has made many people uncomfortable. So some have read it as an allegory of the love God has for Israel. Christians have sometimes read it as an allegory of God’s love for the church. These readings try to avoid having a love poem in the Bible. Yet the nature of the poem remains obvious to all who read it.
This is a poem that affirms, even celebrates, sexuality. Here sexuality is a gift from God. The poem also transcends much of the patriarchal system of arranged marriages, as these two lovers find each other outside the bounds of that system. The man and woman express their attraction in loving and sensual description of each other.
So a Christian scholar happily acknowledges that it is a poem celebrating sexuality and he even considers it to be “fighting the patriarchy”!
The poem sets the tone from the very beginning. We read the following words in 1:2:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
for your love is more delightful than wine.
Here’s that “wine” again…
Another common occurrence is the mention of “breasts.” For example, we read in 1:13:
My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh
resting between my breasts
The references to “breasts” are numerous, with them being compared to young roes (4:5 and 7:3), clusters of grapes (7:8), and even towers (8:10).
We’ll let the readers make of the following what they may (2:3):
Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest
is my beloved among the young men.
I delight to sit in his shade,
and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
Hmmm… What could “fruit” be referring to here I wonder.
Honestly it’s pretty embarrassing quoting from this book, and there’s a lot more, but readers probably get the idea by now.
How Christians Are Trapped by the Interpretation
Readers will likely also now understand why German biblical scholar Arend Remmers writes for Bible center:
With orthodox Jews we find the old tradition that men under the age of 30 years ought not to read the Song of Songs.
We will not be bringing in all the secular literature which looks at the Song of Songs from the perspective of eroticism, but it is interesting that Christian leaders themselves re-appropriate it.
Take the case of the famed Evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll for example. In 2008 he commenced a series of sermons entitled Peasant Princess, using the Song as a sort of manual to “spice up” the sex lives of married Christians.
It caused some controversy, pushing some to talk about “Porn-Again Christians.”
So maybe Christians who accuse Muslims of “sensuality” should perhaps go back and give their own book another read?
Also, note how allegorization doesn’t save them:
Understanding it literally results in incriminating Sulayman (‘alayhissalam)—we seek Allah’s refuge from such blasphemy—and their own moral standards for having such a book within their religious canon.
But how exactly would understanding it as symbolic for the “love of God” be more respectable? How can any “allegorical” reading of the “kisses,” the “breasts,” the “fruits,” etc., be appropriate and respectable in relation to God and His “love”? And again, we seek Allah’s refuge from such blasphemy.
Ultimately for Christians, it’s a simple choice between rejecting their “sacred scriptures” or shouldering blasphemies!