Back in the 7th century, on a routine day, the Prophet Muhammad used to answer questions from his followers that ranged from how many disciples were guaranteed a spot in heaven (alas, only 10) to whether a Muslim may have doggy-style sex with his wife.
That last query seems to have preoccupied enough of the Prophet’s companions to warrant a verse in the second chapter of the Quran: “Your wives are a tith unto you, so approach your tith when and how you please.” In his exegesis of the Quran, twelfth century scholar Fakhr al-Din al-Razi devotes several pages to explaining the reasons for this clarification. “The Jews [of Medina] used to say: ‘whoever approaches a woman’s vagina from behind will produce a cock-eyed child,’ so Allah the Exalted revealed this to belie their claim.”
Correcting misinformation about sex has, in fact, occupied some of the greatest minds of Sunni jurisprudence. In the years after Muhammad’s death, when Islam split into vying sects and dynasties, phony hadiths abounded (a “hadith” is an account of the Prophet’s sayings and actions, on which Sunni law is partly based). One mischievous forgery took aim at the vagina. “During intercourse,” the Prophet was reported to have warned, “let none of you look at the pudendum of his wife or concubine for it leads to blindness.”
This fake hadith might have spelt the demise of cunnilingus in the Muslim world. Fortunately the famed 8th century scholar Imam Malik, founder of the Maliki school of jurisprudence, studied the matter and issued a rousing edict: “There is no harm in looking at the pudendum during intercourse. And there is no harm in licking it with his tongue.”
Doubts about oral sex lingered. One of the Prophet’s wives, Aisha, reported that she and the Prophet never looked at one another’s privates during intercourse. The Malikis, and scholars from the other schools, took this as an example of good manners rather than evidence that nudity and oral sex were taboo.
But to this day some scholars regard giving head as depraved. Yusuf Al Qaradawi, a popular Egyptian cleric, opined that oral sex was the phenomenon of an over-stimulated Western people “in need of more excitements during copulation.” Qardawi eventually declared oral sex permissible if no semen were ingested (semen is considered impure in Muslim law).
Muslim sexuality has come a long way since the days when Sheikh Nefzaoui, in his 16th century instructional tract, The Perfumed Garden for the Soul’s Recreation, recommended applying a “mixture of the blood of a he-goat with honey” to rejuvenate a man’s tired nether regions. But judging by questions submitted to fatwa websites, devout Muslims still seek guidance.
One such site is www.islamic-fatwa.com, run by Ahmed al Kurdi, a member of Kuwait’s fatwa council. No. 1 of its thirty most-viewed fatwas is “The ruling on a wife drinking her husband’s semen.” (The ruling on “Absentmindedness during Prayer” places No. 29.)
In another fatwa—the sixth most popular—the sheikh responds to a question on the permissibility of a husband sucking his wife’s breasts (and ingesting breast milk). “There’s no opposition to a husband sucking his wife’s breasts,” wrote Kurdi. “But he should avoid drinking her milk.”
The tenth most popular fatwa is on the permissibility of inflatable sex dolls. “It is impermissible,” says the ruling, as it encourages masturbation, which most scholars forbid (unless this “secret habit” saves one from adultery, whereupon a sex doll exception can be made).
What’s the word on anal sex? Hard to say. Sunni clerics forbid it, while most Shiite clerics merely discourage it. As it happens, Kurdi is very clear on the matter: “it is obligatory on [a husband who insists] to cease immediately and seek repentance.”
But what about “placing the finger in the rear of the wife?” asks one man. “There is no objection, without exaggeration, if there is no harm in it,” replies the cleric. One woman complains: “I want the Sharia’s opinion on practices my husband demands. He wants me to play with his ass, and sometimes to lick it.” The cleric responds: “All matrimonial interactions are allowed, staying clear of impurities and anal sex and sex during menstruation.” (For the record, Kurdi does permit married couples to masturbate one another when the wife is menstruating.)
Kurdi also looks somewhat favourably on strip dancing. “There is no objection,” is his reply to one question, “if the couple were in an enclosed area with no one looking, but it would be better if they didn’t do this much.”
Another website, www.fatwa-online.com, offers Muslims counsel from some of Saudi Arabia’s leading clerics. Under the heading “My husband sucks my breasts like a baby,” a woman writes: “I married the son of my maternal uncle, and I love him and he loves me. Only six months have passed since we got married, and every time we go to sleep he grabs hold of me and begins sucking my breasts like a baby, so I said to him: ‘This is wrong!’ However, he did not stop and I did not try to make it difficult for him.” The late Ibn Uthaymin, one the most popular scholars in Saudi Arabia of the past century, responded: ‘There is no harm in this, because it is for the married couple to enjoy themselves with each other in other than that which Allah has prohibited [i.e anal sex, and sex during menstruation].”
Another woman asks whether it would be permissible to talk dirty over the phone with her husband, who is always on the road, “until one of them or both of them have an orgasm (making sure not to use the hand because it is haraam).”
“Yes, there is no harm [in doing so] without using the hand [while] he imagines he is with her,” responds Ibn Uthaymin. “And it is befitting upon them both that they are careful no one listens to their speech or spies upon them. And Allah is the Most Knowledgeable.”
But for all their popularity, fatwa websites are unable to stop what some regard as the escalating prudishness of Muslim societies. “We’re retarding, not progressing,” says Dr. Heba Kotb, an Egyptian sexologist and host of a show on an Egyptian satellite channel called Big Talk. Kotb fields questions from viewers about sexual etiquette and matters such as erectile dysfunction—a popular question from men, she says. A devout Muslim, Kotb still has her share of conservative critics, who say her show promotes deviance, despite the fact that she does not discuss sexual relations outside marriage.
Wariness toward the topic of sex in Muslim societies, argues Kotb, may mean that “as a culture, we are not deeply Islamic.”
“After all,” she says, “the Prophet always used to answer these questions.”
But Kotb and other clerics who increasingly deal with sexual questions over the Internet have also been criticized by secular Muslims, who view this as yet another incursion by religion where it shouldn’t belong. “After Islamic banks, Islamic fashion, Islamic TV channels, Islamic hairdressers, Islamic swimsuits, Islamic writers ... now Islamic sex? This is too much,” wrote one feminist writer in an Egyptian liberal paper about Kotb’s show.
While Islam has traditionally been open to questions about sex, the debate on “Islamic sex” touches on the larger problems faced by secularists when dealing with a religion that legislates, with great detail, matters both spiritual and worldly. Some say the scope of Islamic legislation makes it resistant to reform. But whatever the merits of that observation, Islam needn’t stand in the way of a good shag.
This piece originally appeared in Issue 28 (Summer 2008) of Maisonneuve.