Sex and the fatwa

The present-day maulvi’s preoccupation with carnality and with women

Sex and women, the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal wrote long ago, are never far from the maulvi saab’s mind:
“Umeed-e-hoor ne sab kuch sikha rakha hai waaiz ko/ Yeh hazrat dekhne mein seedhe saade, bhole bhaale hain (It is the lure of the houris that keeps him ticking/ Don’t be taken in by the preacher’s pious persona).”

That this is so is apparent from a spate of ‘sexy’ fatwas issued in recent years. For many a believing Muslim, such fatwas may seem ridiculous, ludicrous or outrageous. But Islamophobia thrives on this constant supply of fodder from the modern-day custodians of Islam. An annual award for the ‘Fatwa of the Year’ may well be in the offing. Were such an award already in existence, the jury would be hard put to choose between two fatwas issued in 2011.

In May, the Moroccan imam Abdelbari Zemzami ruled that necrophilia is “halal” or religiously acceptable practice in Islam. In other words, a Muslim husband has the right to have sex with his wife who has just died. To be fair to the imam, he added that the wife too has a right to sex with her dead husband though he did not elaborate on its feasibility. His logic was impeccable: since the husband and wife are to be reunited in heaven, the mere fact of death neither terminates the marital bond nor the copulatory right that goes with it. Following public outrage, the imam quickly clarified that though halal, necrophilia is a disgusting act that is best avoided.

In stiff competition to this edict is what some are calling the “cucumber fatwa”. In December, the Egyptian newspaper Bikya Masr reported that an unnamed Muslim cleric had opined that women shouldn’t touch fruits or vegetables such as bananas, cucumbers, carrots, zucchini et al because they resembled male genitalia. Please note that it is the handling of these consumables that is prohibited, not their eating: “A third party, preferably a male related to them, such as their father or husband, should cut the items into small pieces and serve this to them.”

There is some dispute now as to whether such a fatwa was actually issued and if so, by whom. But facts will not inhibit the merry-go-round of a fatwa as heady as this. In any case, other fatwas could be cited to illustrate the inner workings of many a maulvi/mufti’s mind. Which leads to the question: Could this have something to do with Islam? But of course, the Islamophobe is sure to claim. The Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi has however an interesting take on the subject.

According to her, though both are oppressive to women, the Islamic perspective on sexuality differs radically from the Freudian notion in two crucial respects. One: Freud considers civilisation as “a war against sexuality”; the “Muslim theory views civilisation as the outcome of satisfied sexual energy”. Two: For Freud, the woman is a passive sexual partner “predisposed to frigidity” but the highly revered Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (11th century), for example, saw the sexual desire of the female as “truly overwhelming” and believed that the necessity for the male partner to satisfy her was “a compelling social duty”.

Delving deeper, Maulana Ahmed Raza Khan (1856-1921), whose multi-volume Fatawa-e-Razvia is considered the most important source of Shariah law for Barelvi Muslims in South Asia, leaves little to the imagination: When excited, a woman is a hundred times more passionate than a man… “A woman is like a mom ki naak (tip of a burning candle), balki raal ki pudiya (in fact, an inflammable resin), balki barood ki dibiya (in fact, a box of explosives)”. Light a spark, expect an explosion, the maulana seems to be saying.

In such a theological universe, the “cucumber fatwa”, the imperative of keeping women safely encased in the burkha, even retaining the pre-Islamic cultural practice of female genital mutilation (in some Muslim societies) might seem like “reasonable precautions”. But in sharp contrast to Shariah Islam, there exists an alternative tradition – Sufi Islam – where women and sexuality are differently perceived.

According to Ghazali, for pious Muslim males, the experience of momentary orgasmic ecstasy is but a “foretaste” of the eternal bliss that awaits them in paradise. Though he grants the right to sexual desire and gratification to Muslim women too, Ghazali is silent (in their case) of the link between the joys of Here and the Hereafter.

For many a believing Muslim, such fatwas may seem ridiculous, ludicrous or outrageous. But Islamophobia thrives on this constant supply of fodder from the modern-day custodians of Islam     

Islam is what they have in common but they follow vastly divergent pathways to the divine. For Jalal al-Din Rumi (the renowned 13th century poet and mystic whose Masnavi is regarded as the Koran in Persian), “Woman is a beam of the Divine Light”. For his predecessor, Ibn al-Arabi (“al-sheikh al-akbar, the greatest scholar”), “Women are the most perfect mirror for God.” Lest we conclude that Sufis are not into sex, al-Arabi (“the supreme philosopher of the erotic in the Sufi tradition”) also wrote: “When a man loves a woman, he seeks union with her, that is to say, the most complete union possible in love and there is in the elemental sphere no greater union than that between the sexes.”

Men and women are absolutely equal in terms of human potentiality, al-Arabi argued. From where did the Sufi master get his notion of gender equality 800 years ago? From his own engagement with women and from the example of Prophet Muhammad who he believed always showed great affinity, empathy, regard and respect for the female gender.

The prophet said: “No one among you should throw himself on his wife like beasts do. There should be, prior to coitus, a messenger between you and her.” People asked him: “What sort of message?” The prophet answered: “Kisses and words” (al-Ghazali, The Revivification of Religious Sciences, p. 50). In short, Islam emphasises the need for Muslim men not to be self-centred, to be sensitive to women’s emotional and sexual needs.

So maulvi/mufti saab, consider respect, affinity and empathy towards women (“the most perfect mirror for god”), as the prophet did. The day you do that, you’ll stop worrying about candles and cucumbers and the very idea of necrophilia will be too obnoxious and inhumane to contemplate.

Who listens to such mindless fatwas, Muslims often ask. The answer is that the Islamophobes do. And they use them to denigrate Islam and demonise Muslims. It’s time to speak out, Mr Muslim: Make it your resolution for the New Year.

Archived from Communalism Combat, January 2012. Year 18, No.163 – Focus





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