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Why is watching pornography not permitted?

The Holy Quran has commanded believers to lower their gaze:

Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely Allah is well aware of what they do.

(Surah an-Nur, 24:31)

The wisdom of this teaching is to save us from the negative consequences that result from openly looking at women. Our ability to perceive and appreciate the physical beauty of an object decreases as familiarity with that object increases. For example, if we find a new phone or shoes that we see through a store window to be beautiful, we will like the way it looks most when we first see it. The more we see it, the more we become familiar with it, and its beauty in our eyes slowly starts decreasing. When we have bought it and see it every day, the fascination with it begins to fade as our familiarity with its appearance causes the mystery and novelty of its beauty to disappear. After a few years of owning it, even if it is in exactly the same physical condition as it was when we first saw it, we will still not find it as beautiful and will want a new or different one. Oscar Wilde said:

Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.

We find it less beautiful not because its appearance has changed but because we are now familiar with it and the effect it has on us has changed. Take cars for example. When people buy a new car they find it beautiful. Then, some get bored with its appearance and start modifying it, buying new rims, and then lowering it. When they see the car now, they find it beautiful again because it looks different and its appearance is new to them. However, after some time they again become bored with its appearance, so they buy a body kit and then add a spoiler and find it beautiful again, wondering how they used to find it so fascinating when they first saw it in its original condition. With physical beauty, fascination fades with familiarity and one starts looking for something new and different. This same principle applies when we only appreciate a human being as a physical object. When men objectify women and look at them just for their physical beauty, their fascination with that beauty begins to fade with familiarity.

Hadrat  Musleh Mau‘ud ra described  how  there is a difference in how we see the beauty of Allah Almighty and the beauty of human beings. He explains that when we love Allah Almighty, we first see His ihsan [favors] first and then we see His husn [beauty]. We first see the favors that Allah Almighty does for us, and then when we reflect on those favors, we begin to see His beauty which exists as the source of those favors. However, for humans, it is the opposite. When we first see someone, we only see their husn, their beauty, but we do not know them. Only afterward do we become acquainted with their ihsan, their qualities and personality (Anwarul ‘Ulum, vol. 23, p. 208, ta‘luq billah).

The purpose of the ihsan of Allah Almighty is to ultimately lead us to His husn. If a person sees the favors of Allah Almighty and never reflects on His beauty, then he has not benefited from the favors of God at all and will remain trapped in this stage, looking for greater and greater miracles but not progressing in love, as the Jews did at the time of Hadrat Musa as. Similarly, the purpose of a person’s husn is to ultimately lead to their ihsan. If we only see a person’s beauty and never try to understand their ihsan and good characteristics and personality, then we will not benefit from their husn at all and will remain trapped in this stage, looking for greater and greater beauty but not progressing in love.

As we progress in our love for someone, the appearance of their husn begins to fade from our perception until eventually we only see their ihsan. Take for example our family members or our close friends. If someone were to ask us how handsome or beautiful a member of our family is, we would have to take a moment to re-look at that person more objectively. We rarely think of how our father or mother looks when someone else meets them for the first time. When we look at our brother or friend, what we see is the person we know and the result of the sum total of all our experiences with them. Thus, the more we get to know someone, the more their physical beauty fades from our perception, and when we see them, we see the person behind the face, we see the ihsan behind the husn. Hadrat Musleh Mau‘ud ra said that when a husband has been with his wife happily his entire life, he loves her even though her physical beauty has faded. If one were to take a picture of her in her old age and show it to someone else and ask them if they could fall in love with her, they would refuse and say that it is impossible, but her husband still loves her and would give his life for her because although her physical beauty has faded, it has been replaced with companionship (Anwarul ‘Ulum, vol. 23, p. 210, Ta‘luq billah).

Thus, when husn moves on to ihsan, we no longer perceive the physical beauty of that person but only see their inner beauty. If we have come to know the evil attributes of someone and despise them, it does not matter how physically beautiful they are, we will be repulsed by the sight of their face. If we have come to know the good attributes of someone and love them, they will become more beautiful in our perception. Thus, we see the husn of people when we first meet them, but as we get to know them, their ihsan slowly and involuntarily replaces our perception of their husn until their personality is all we see, and eventually we have to make a deliberate effort to step back and see their husn again.

The purpose of physical beauty is to lead us to learn about the inner beauty of others. However, if men fail to lower their gaze and freely look at the physical beauty of women, they do not progress past husn toward ihsan but remain trapped at husn. As a result, they begin to see women as nothing more than physical objects and their appreciation of their beauty becomes limited. As described earlier, when we appreciate the beauty of a physical object, whatever it is, our fascination with its beauty begins to decline as we become familiar with it. As a result, we look for something that has the novelty to excite our fascination again. When men do not lower their gaze, they look for the fascination of seeing the beauty of a woman, but no matter how beautiful she is, they will eventually become bored with her and search for the fascination of seeing a different woman. As a person continues to look for more and more different things to quench his insatiable thirst for novelty in physical beauty, he starts to get pulled into a vicious cycle.

One clear example of this is the popularity of pornography. When men start looking for pornography, they search for the pleasure of seeing things they find beautiful and fascinating. However, when they become accustomed to the novelty of pornography and the physical beauty they are searching for, they start to look for newer and more different things. As a result, they begin searching for more and more strange acts until they get to a point where they are no longer able to appreciate the normal physical beauty of a woman and their perception of beauty has become so deformed that they are only excited and attracted to images of what ordinary people would consider disgusting and heinous acts. In this way, the effect pornography has on our mind can be similar to our biological response to an addictive drug. The more tolerance a person builds to a drug, the higher the dose he needs to achieve the same high, and if that does not work, then a more potent drug is needed. The popularity of deviant pornography is a testimony to the ultimate results of this vicious cycle. This state of affairs is an inevitable result of searching for only physical beauty. This same principle applies to the example of looking for fascination in the beauty of cars referred to earlier. Some people start modifying their cars to renew the novelty of its beauty in their eyes. Step by step, they sometimes go so far in adding modifications to it that eventually it looks ridiculous to ordinary people who see it. Ironically, it would have looked ridiculous to them as well when they first bought the car and found it beautiful in its original condition, but because their perception has become skewed by slowly looking for new types of novelty in its physical beauty, they genuinely think that their car is beautiful in its modified state. Similarly, when men look at a woman only for her physical beauty, they eventually become accustomed to it and look for something different, and that search for something different never ends, leaving them more and more dissatisfied with every attempt.

Thus, Allah Almighty has commanded that we observe ghadd-e-basar, that we lower our gaze. We are permitted to look at the physical beauty and husn of our wives because in the context of a marriage a person can progress from seeing her husn to seeing her ihsan. In the relationship of a marriage, the appreciation of the physical beauty of one’s wife leads to the appreciation of her qualities and ihsan. However, when a person looks openly at the physical beauty of women who he sees around him, or on TV or online, that beauty cannot lead him towards the higher beauty of ihsan, and since appreciation of husn cannot move upwards, it becomes trapped and leads him downwards into a vicious cycle in which his perception of beauty becomes more and more disfigured, where he becomes more and more thirsty for greater fascination and novelty but is never satisfied. Then, because of his failure to observe ghadd-e-basar, a man becomes less and less capable of finding his wife physically beautiful and looks for pleasure elsewhere. Failure to observe ghadd-e-basar ultimately leads to frustration and disappointment. The Holy Prophet sas said:

The adultery of the eye is the lustful look.

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 79, Hadith 17; Sahih Muslim, Book 46, Hadith 32)

The Promised Messiah as wrote:

But those whose eyes commit adultery and whose hearts are more dirty than filth and who have totally forgotten that they have to leave this world one day, I and my God are completely disgusted with them. I shall feel happy if such people, on their own account, sever their connection with me, because God intends to make this Community a model for others, who strive to reach the highest rung of the ladder of piety and purity and those who have truly given priority to faith over their worldly pursuits.

(Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 20, p. 77)
Updated on February 2, 2019

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