The April, 2004 issue of Harper’s has an item titled “Mullah, May I?” which reprints several questions submitted to a South African site which gives advice to Muslims the world over about the propriety of issues that include money, politics, sex, prayer, and marriage. The questions excerpted by Harper’s are specifically drawn from the Marriage section, and at first seem to confirm our standard image of the Muslim world’s misogyny, authoritarianism, and sexual ignorance. They include:
- Is it permissible for a man to look at his wife’s private parts including below the navel and vice versa, during intimacy? I’ve heard one can become blind. (Answer)
- If a wife please her husband by masturbation & their private parts do not touch, is bath compulsory for her? (Answer)
- Can we squeeze our wives breast? can we lick them and suck their nipples and have fun with their breasts? (Answer)
- Can Muslim wife and husband kiss/suck each other body parts stronlgy? I mean whole body (breast, lips, tounge, penis, vagina) (Answer)
The list, as presented in Harper’s at first seems to invite a condescending feeling of superiority by showing the amusingly alien nature of Islamic puritanism and superstitiousness. If you keep in mind America’s own historical attitudes towards sex, health and morality, though, it makes Islam seem that much more familiar. Many of these questions have been phrased by American men and women to doctors, clergy, and writers since the days of the Pilgrims in varying forms. A lot of our contemporary debate has to do with the fact that each new generation asks them.
Browsing the website itself gives a much more nuanced, less coy vision of Islamic attitudes. In many ways, the vision is not a positive one, and does in fact comply with the puritanical, anti-sex image that we have. One of the more disturbing posts, for example, comes from a writer in the UK who asks, “Is there such a thing as rape in marriage between husband and wife ? and what evidence does a wife need to prove if so …” To this, Mufti Ebrahim Desai replies:
In Islam, there is no such thing as rape between the husband and wife. However, both spouses should be considerate to one another in their conjugal relationship. If the wife or the husband does not wish to have a relationship due to circumstances, for example, being tired, ill, etc. then that should be considered.
There are many other examples which make me really uncomfortable, and fit not at all into my ideals of egalitarianism or eroticism. But it’s also interesting to delve past the caricature and see how complicated Islamic codes on sex and the rights or responsibilities of men and women are to each other. If nothing else, both the questions and the Mufti’s answers implicitly acknowledge the importance of pleasure. And the fact that the questions are even being asked shows a much greater degree of ambiguity in Islamic attitudes towards sexuality than we see in our sound-bite media.
Reading Ask Imam doesn’t really reduce my fears or my skepticism about the mix of religion and sexuality; like mixing religion and government, it’s usually a really bad idea. In many ways, it confirms my concerns about Islam. In other words, it may not make Islam seem more benign, but it does make it seem more human. That’s something that’s been studiously buried under all the panic and hysteria of the past two years.