The Ruling on Fantasizing about Another Woman during Sexual Relations with One's Spouse

[Translated by: Ahmad Ali Al-Adani]

The praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of the worlds.

May Allah bless and send prayers of mercy on our Prophet Muhammad, his family and all his companions.


Among the issues of universal concern to people, though reticence blocks them from inquiring about them, is the issue of a man fantasizing about a stranger woman while cohabiting with his spouse.

That is due to the fact that intermingling between the sexes, which is so rife in our time, is a trigger stirring up a person’s dormant lust that is hidden inside. As a result of it, men’s hearts become attached to women’s, especially women who are beautiful or in the prime of their lives. In our age, the opportunities of looking at them are plentiful, so their graces cling to the passionate hearts of men tested by that.

It is an entrenched truth that the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, saw a woman, whereupon he came to his wife Zaynab and satisfied with her his sexual urge; he then went out to where his Companions were and said: “A woman verily advances in a devil’s image, and retreats in a devil’s image. If, then, any one of you sees a woman, let him cohabit with his wife, for that will repel what is in his self.” In a different variant we read: “A woman verily advances in a devil’s image, and retreats in a devil’s image. If a woman delights any one of you, let him head for his wife on purpose, and let him have intercourse with her, for that will repel what is in his self.” The like of it was related in another report, which mentions: “She has in fact the like of what the other woman has.”

The meaning of her “advancing in a devil’s image” is that the Devil raises his glance to her and, through her image, casts in front of the man looking at her such beautiful graces that he imagines her to be exactly that, so that he is enticed by her. The Prophet [Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam] thus guided the married men tested by something in that vein to do the like of what he, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, did so as to repel any appetite for such a woman which might cleave to their selves.

A man’s self might become attached to a woman without however finding a way to marry her. When he cohabits with his wife, the image of that stranger woman rushes to his imagination, either by him deliberately trying to summon her image or by him being overpowered by it. He then imagines that she is the one he is sleeping with, in order to heal some of his fondness for her that has penetrated his being and his wish to sleep with her.

Q: What is the judgment the Law assigns to this fantasizing in the jurists’ view?

Here is the answer to that question:

A: To our knowledge, this issue was not explicitly pronounced upon by the earlier jurists. Conversely, some of the later jurists dealt with it, basing the judgment specific to it on similar juristic issues covered by explicit texts.

Among the Mālikī savants, Ibn al-Hājj held in Al-Madkhal the view that it was prohibited, by analogy to the scenario where a person drinking some water imagines it to be wine.

When dealing with the etiquettes of sexual cohabitation, he wrote in fact:

“He should beware, personally by his action and as regards others by his counselling words, of such an ugly trait that has become so prevalent throughout, viz. the scenario where a man who has seen a stranger woman and then cohabits with his wife places that woman’s image in front of his eyes. This is a variety of zinā, given what our savants, may Allah have mercy on them, said about a person picking up a glass of water and fantasizing about its being filled with wine he drinks, namely, that such water becomes prohibited for him. At-Turtūshī, may Allah show mercy to him, mentioned in that regard a hadith from Abū Hurayrah to the effect that the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, said: “If a slave drinks water made to resemble wine, that water is prohibited for him.”

As for the Shāfi`iyyah, this issue has been cited by at-Tāj as-Subkī in Tabaqāt ash-Shāfi`iyyah when sketching the biography of Abu’l-Qāsim ‘Umar b. Muhammad b. al-Bizrī, listing the latter’s fatwā on it as one of his odd legal pronouncements.

Here is the text of al-Bizrī’s treatment of the issue:

“A man sleeps with his wife, and during intercourse thinks of some other woman who is not lawful to him: Ibn al-Bizrī was asked whether that was prohibited or disliked, whereupon he answered as follows:

“A man does not commit any sin when it comes to intercourse with his wife, whether he actually cohabits with her or not. Thinking about a woman who is not lawful to him is however forbidden. If not straightforwardly unlawful, it is undoubtedly disliked, and one should go to great lengths in avoiding it and turning away from it.”

The quoted speech is disorderly and incoherent in its parts, as you can see. The source of that might be an error by the copyist writing down from the author’s manuscript.

Notwithstanding that, it appears that al-Bizrī – one of the master luminaries of theShāfi`ī madhhab – issued a conclusive opinion that such an action was extremely reprehensible, whilst personally favouring the (non-conclusive) view of its prohibition. Some of the glosses written on the Commentary on an-Nawawī’sMinhāj (at-Tālibīn) and al-Ansārī’s Manjaj list however al-Bizrī as being one of the advocates of the lawfulness of imagining oneself with another woman during intercourse with one’s wife.”

As-Subkī then quoted Ibn al-Farkāh ad-Dimashqī as being asked for a fatwā on a man who, while cohabiting with his wife, conjures up the graces of a stranger woman he knows, whose image he evokes in his heart, imaging that he is making love with her: Is he committing a sin, or is that recommended, due to the hadith which says: “If any of you sees a woman, let him cohabit with his wife, as that will repel what is in his self”?

He replied: “I found no specific text about it.”

As-Subkī went on to partially quote his speech, which evinces the fact that he expressed a legal opinion in support of neither the lawfulness nor the unlawfulness of the conduct inquired about.

One can, however, infer from his words that he leaned towards its lawfulness, because of the hadith: “Allāh passed over, on my behalf, punishing my nation for their selves’ self-talk, so long as they do no speak or act thereon.” It is, therefore, as if he saw the visual fantasy about a stranger woman as a species of self-talk that attracts no sinfulness.

Thereafter, as-Subkī commented as follows:

“It is for the one who alleges its unlawfulness to say that the fantasizing man “has engaged in an act”. The Prophet’s words, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, “so long as they do no act thereon” refer to something broader than merely self-talk and other than it.

What his statement means, and Allah knows best, is:

His cohabitation with the wife while engaging in self-talk on sleeping with the stranger woman he is fantasizing about is an example of self-talk linked to action, even though it is not the very same action, i.e. intercourse with the stranger woman, which his self is whispering to him. Being linked to action, he is punished for it without forgoing punishment, and Allah knows best.

Ibn Hajar al-Haytamī al-Makkī [likewise Shāfi`ī] exhaustively tackled this juristic issue at the beginning of the Book of Marriage included in At-Tuhfah [=Tuhfah al-Muhtāj]. He abridged what he mentioned there in his Fatāwā. We reproduce it in full hereunder, given its painstaking accuracy and the ample benefit contained therein:


He is having sex with his wife while thinking about the graces of a stranger woman, in such a manner that he is imagining sleeping with the latter: are that thought and that fantasizing unlawful?

A large number of later scholars differed on that issue, after concurring on the fact that the mas’alah was not transmitted from the earlier scholars.

A sizeable number of accurate investigators of juristic truths, such Ibn al-Farkāh, Jamāl al-Islām Ibn al-Bizrī, al-Kamāl ar-Raddād, the commentator of Al-Irshād, and al-Jalāl al-Asyūtī, maintained that it was lawful [1], which is the ruling necessitated by what at-Taqī as-Subkī said on the arch-principle of blocking the means to evil (sadd adh-dharā’i`) [2].

Ibn al-Farkāh specifically relied for proof on the hadith: “Allāh passed over, on my behalf, punishing my nation for their selves’ self-talk, so long as they do no speak or act thereon.”

You might refute that evidentiary reliance on the ground that such hadith does not deal with the said issue (= an inner visualization) but with the different issue of athought astir in a person’s self (= an incipient intention to perpetrate a wrongdoing), i.e.: Does he actually carry out the wrongdoing, such as zinā and its preliminaries, or does he refrain from it, so that he is not punished for his incipient intention so long as he does not firmly resolve upon translating it into action, to be distinguished from a thought born out of agitation or confusion, a disquieting thought, self-talk and firm resolution? What we are dealing with here (= a [sexual] fantasy] does not fall within any one of those five categories [3]. When indulging in his thought or fantasy, in fact, the man did not consider engaging in any zinā or its preliminaries, let alone setting his firm resolve upon that. All that issued forth from him was an ugly fantasy about a beautiful image. He is heedless of the essential description and focuses his recollection on the accidental description [4], based on his fantasy, and that is not something forbidden, being no more than envisioning in one’s mind something other than what is actually out there [5].

If you were to contend that by fantasizing intercourse with a stranger woman he is indulging in zinā, I would retort that such an equation is untenable. Assuming that he added to his mere fantasy about a stranger woman the thought that, if he actually prevailed over her in real life, he would commit zinā with her, he would still not be sinful unless he firmly resolved on actualizing his thought. It clearly follows that each of mere thought or fantasy is a different circumstance than the aforesaid five categories, and that he commits no sin unless he firmly resolves upon actually engaging in the fantasized wrongdoing if able to perpetrate zināwith her in real life.

Ibn al-Bizrī alleged that the appropriate ruling would be to declare the reprehensibility of that visualization. The riposte to that would be based on the fact that reprehensibility must inevitably rest on a specific prohibition, which includes the scenarios where such a prohibition is inferred from analogical reasoning or from a strong disagreement as to whether an action is obligatory, whereupon its omission would be disliked, as in the case of the complete ritual bath for the Jum`ah; or is inferred from a strong disagreement as to whether an action is prohibited, whereupon its practice would be disliked, as in the case of playing chess. However, no hadith has validly come down on the prohibition of the visual fantasy in question.

Ibn al-Hājj al-Mālikī quoted one of the (Mālikī) savants as asserting that the conceptualization of a stranger woman’s graces while sleeping with one’s wife was actually meritorious and attracting a reward, as the man would protect his Dīn thereby. One of our later (Shāfi`ī) scholars settled on the same view, provided that his intention for doing so was sound, namely, out of fear that her beauty might cling to his heart. He heeded the aforesaid opinion of meritoriousness based on what is found in the authentic hadith to the effect that the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, ordered a man who saw a woman whose appearance excited him to come to his wife and cohabit with her.

This view is however open to debate. Perpetuating the visual fantasy would in fact cause attachment to that enticing image to endure, and would foster attachment to it rather than transcending it. What helps sever that attachment is for the man to forget her physical features and not to linger on them in his thought, even gradually so, until attachment to her is removed at source.

Ibn al-Hājj al-Mālikī saw that it was unlawful, for someone who had seen a stranger woman and then approached his wife, to envision the former during the act, since that was a form of zinā, just as the (Mālikī) savants had stated that when someone took a glass of water and on drinking it imagined it to be wine, the water would become unlawful for him.

One of the later savants retorted that the judgment of unlawfulness was extremely far-fetched and founded on no proof. Ibn al-Hājj had in fact based it on the principle of blocking the means to evil (sadd adh-dharā’i`) in his (Mālikī) school, which is unsupported by our (Shāfi`ī) jurists. Ahmad (b. Hanbal), the relinquisher of worldly superfluities, who was Shāfi`ī [6], agreed on that view, though heedless of the principled inconsistency [7].

I have expounded those four views [8] at length in my Fatāwī, where I clarified that the principle followed by his (Mālikī) school did not point to what he stated on fantasizing about a woman, and where I distinguished this scenario from the scenario of drinking water (while imagining it to be wine) due to the existence of a clear and undeniable distinguisher. You should thus have a look there, as it is an important matter.

If you were to say that the prohibition of a visualized fantasy was supported by the following assertion from Judge Husayn: “Just as looking at something forbidden is unlawful, so is thinking about it, on account of Allah’s statement, may He be Exalted: «Do not covet what Allah has given some of you in preference to others» (Sūrah an-Nisā’: 32), where Allah forbade wishing something unlawful just as He forbade looking at it”, my rejoinder would be as follows:

The Judge’s use of the āyah as proof, and his statement, immediately after quoting it: “Allah forbade wishing something unlawful, etc”, are explicit as to the fact that the discourse is about something other than the present topic of thought and visual imaging. His discourse is in fact about the prohibition of a man wishing the materialization of something unlawful for him, by for instance wishing to commit zinā with a specific woman, or by wishing to earn a blessing assigned to another person by dispossessing him of it. That is why az-Zarkashī quoted JudgeHusayn’s words under the rubric of the arch-prohibition of a man wishing a fellow person’s blessing in either Dīn or dunyā. He said in that regard: “The prohibition in the āyah entails unlawfulness, and those who ascribed it to a mere cautioning against reprehensibility erred” [9].

Sure, if one adds to our mas’alah of mere thought and fantasy a wish to sleep with the stranger woman in zinā, there would be no doubt about its unlawfulness, as he would then have set his resolve on wholeheartedly perpetrating zinā, and both its perpetration and satisfaction with it are prohibited.”

The view distilled by the accurate verifier of Shāfi`ī rulings in his age, ‘Allāmah IbnHajar al-Haytamī, is the relied upon position in that madhhab, the one followed when issuing a fatwā on it [10].

As for the Hanafiyyah, Ibn al-‘Ābidīn wrote on the issue in a gloss of his. He succinctly quoted the aforesaid views held by the Shāfi`iyyah, after which he said:

“I did not come across any of our jurists who tackled this issue. In Ad-Durar, however, we read: “If a person drinks water or some other lawful drink with the lustful excitement that is typical of depraved people, his action would be unlawful.”

The closest ruling to the arch-principles of our school is lack of licitness, since imagining that the stranger woman is in front of him and that he is making love to her involves the conceptualization of a direct sin in its exact form. It is thus the equivalent of the issue of drinking [water imagining it to be liquor].

I also saw the author of Tabyīn al-Mahārim, among our savants, quoting with approval the statement by Ibn al-Hājj al-Mālikī, the latter part of which makes mention of a hadith from him, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, that says: “If a slave drinks water made to resemble wine, that water is prohibited for him”.”

As we can see, the Hanafiyyah added nothing new to what Ibn al-Hājj had stated.

Turning now to the Hanābilah, Ibn al-Muflih ar-Rāmīnī quoted Ibn ‘Aqīl and IbnHamdān, the author of Ar-Ri`āyah, as stating that if a man, during intercourse with his wife, conjures up the image of an unlawful woman, he is committing a sin.

I remember that a long time ago I read something from Ibn Taymiyyah, the source of which I cannot presently recall, where he firmly alleged the unlawfulness of such a scenario. It is as if he was refuting thereby the views held by some of his Shāfi`ī contemporaries.

Here is the distillation of the aforesaid fatāwā:

Most of those who spoke on this issue asserted that it was unlawful for a man summoning up in his mind, while cohabiting with his wife, the image of another woman whose sight had delighted him, imagining in the process that she is the one he is having sex with in order to expel from his self the crave for her that has cleaved to it. Some of the later Shāfi`ī scholars, however, stood out for asserting the permissibility of doing so, that being the position around which their fatwā on this issue revolves. They deemed it an instance of sheer imagination that did not fall within the scope of a tentative intention, a firm resolution or even a wish to commit a sexually indecent act.

If, however, the licitness of that might be conceded to them regarding a woman who is presently a stranger, given the permissibility of his gaining marital power over her in future – his fantasizing being the equivalent of a wish for such hoped for future eventuality –, so that it is permitted, on what basis can we conceded to them the extension of permissibility to envisioning interaction with young beardless males, as asserted in the glosses written on ar-Ramlī’s An-Nihāyah (= Nihāyah al-Muhtāj ilā Sharh al-Minhāj) and in Al-Jamal ‘alā Minhāj at-Tullāb [11], despite their knowledge that such a fantasized cohabitation cannot in actual fact be other than unlawful?

The aforesaid is the sum-total of what I could gather on this issue. Allah knows best what the correct position is. To Him is the reference and the final destination.

It is a pity that al-Majjājī did not voice his personal opinion on the matter.

Clearly, the view of unlawfulness propounded by Ibn al-Hājj (always the stringent and inflexible jurist) is untenable.

It is based on no proof, and prohibition is not something readily proclaimed.

The argument underlying it lacks cogency.

With a man drinking water while desirous of sipping liquor in lieu of it, the principle of blocking the means to evil demands that he be swerved away from his harmful fantasy through the shame associated with perpetration of something legally unlawful.

It cannot be said that indulgence in his fantasy attracts any benefit, e.g. the benefit of “living out in his mind the crave for consuming liquor in real life”. What he is called upon to do is to curb that crave and that inclination, lest he translates it into sinful action.

As for the mas’alah dealt with in this fatwā, the very same principle of blocking the means to evil necessitates the permissibility of a man’s visual fantasy. The probable evil there is to fall into wine-drinking. The probable evil here is dual if not compound:

  • The evil of taking steps towards indulging his fantasy with the stranger woman out there, in real life. That is the only evil most of the juristic statements quoted in this fatwā (“the so-called indirect zinā”) have focused upon. That evil itself is cured by channelling sexual arousal towards one’s legitimate spouse, as recommended by the Prophetichadīth.

  • The evil of the man, if ashamed of doing something declared unlawful, being incapable of healing and transcending his sexual fantasy by intercourse with his wife, with the result that the wife, too, is harmed by his abstention, and the reward of a two-way lawful law-making goes amiss. There is no reward, by contrast, in giving free rein to one’s hidden desire for liquor.

  • The evil of a man, engulfed nowadays by alluring female graces from all sides, festered by repressed sexual feelings and unable to release them lawfully, in the face of jurists blocking the means to that for any one but a superman, which is exactly what Prophetic pragmatism wanted to avoid.

Ibn Hajar’s analysis was inspired and panoramic. Curiously, he seemingly applies sadd adh-dharā’i` while noting his own school’s methodology repudiation of that principle.

As pointedly remarked by al-Majjājī, the fantasy is about something which, in real life, might become lawful one day by marriage with the visualized woman, whereas the fantasy about wine-drinking can never be lawful. Moreover, most of these fantasies, especially in this age of constant visual bombardment, do not tend to linger long or settle in something greater than a transient excitement. A lawful release thereof is accordingly the best antidote to their harms. I do not tend to agree, at least not in absolute terms, with the statement in the fatwā that deeper attachment of the fantasy to the heart might ensue from visualizing the woman’s graces during spousal intercourse. That might be the case only in a few scenarios, where the fantasizing man is quite familiar with the stranger woman and her beauty is often evoked by him in his thoughts (as with a neighbour, a colleague, a relative or an in-law etc), whereupon the advice to try and gradually extirpate her image from the mind fully applies, since the risk is concretely there of leaning towards zinā in real life should time and opportunity arise for that.

The correct judgment, therefore, gravitates towards neutral permissibility or, in many instances, to meritoriousness steeped in protection of one’s Dīn amid rampant licentiousness.

There remains to record, with a blend of amusement and concern, al-Majjājī’s dismay about some late Shāfi`ī scholars’ permissiveness towards homosexual fantasies.

Success is by Allah.

[1] As for Ibn al-Bizrī, however, we previously saw him propounding the view of severe reprehensibility and inclining towards the view of straightforward unlawfulness.

[2] What it means is that, should one not endorse the lawfulness of such visualizations, the door would be open to the probable evil of the man shunning intercourse with his wife and striving even more to actualize his fantasies with the stranger woman.

[3] Underlined by us in bold. He did not, therefore, preoccupy himself with the perpetration of a wrongdoing, as his was no more than conjuring up an image in his mind.

[4] In other words, he is forgetful of the person of the stranger woman (the essence or substance), and all that he remembers is her captivating image (the accident).

[5] It appears from Ibn Hajar’s words that he concurs with Ibn al-Farkāh on the conclusion of permissibility, while differing with him on its probative ground. For Ibn al-Farkāh, it is the abovementioned hadith on Allah passing over His slaves’ incipient intentions to do something wrong, whereas Ibn Hajar sees the hadith as being extraneous to the mas’alah in question.

[6] That is an interesting comment.

[7] In other words, as we understand it, “heedless of the unsupported status of that principle in the Shāfi`īschool”.

[8] It means: a) The view of neutral permissibility, which Ibn Hajar personally championed; a) The view of reprehensibility, transmitted from Ibn al-Bizrī; c) The view of meritoriousness, endorsed by one or more Mālikīscholars, followed in that by some Shafi`ī jurists; d) The view of unlawfulness, held among the Mālikiyyah by Ibn al-Hā

[9] See az-Zarkashī’s Al-Manthūr fī al-Qawā`id.

[10] In Tarh at-Tathrīb, Hāfiz Abu’l-Fadl al-‘Irāqī conclusively related one legal view only, when he said:

“If a man sleeps with his wife while in his mind he is sleeping with a woman who is unlawful to him, picturing in his mind that he is cohabiting with that unlawful image, doing so is forbidden to him since it resembles the scenario of what is unlawful.”

[11] Sulaymān b. ‘Umar al-Azharī, known as al-Jamal (d. 1204 AH).