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A highly recognized holy text of Islam appears to confirm that women can become functional relatives (mahrams) of adult men by suckling them - according to a scholar from Al-Azhar University, one of the most reputed religious universities of the Islamic world.
In Islamic societies gender segregation is a common practice to help avoid any form of fornication or adultery. Thus men and women are not advised to stay in the same room if they are alone, and any adult woman is required to wear a veil in public. Though there are also some Islamic scholars who reject the need to wear a veil in public, it has become common practice in many Islamic countries and societies. In many cases scholars refer to the Surah of the Light:
Thus, only if men and women are closely related or married is there no need for gender segregation and hijab. However, it is obvious that the strict application of Islamic law may cause some trouble and difficulties to daily life, particularly concerning business. For example, if there is a small company employing a man and two women there maybe nothing wrong if they all work in the same room. However, if one of the two women happen to not show up for work (e.g, due to sickness) the remaining pair cannot work together any more. In many Islamic societies this would be strictly forbidden, and even if it were not, they could both face severe rebuke, rumours and tittle-tattles from their community.
The Fatwa of an Al-Azhar scholar
Here is where the head of the Hadith Department in Al-Azhar University, Dr. Izzat Atiyya comes into play. Its worth noting, that the Al-Azhar University in Kairo is considered to be the world´s most renowned Islamic university by all Sunni Muslims.
Dr. Atiyya published a fatwa. According to this verdict the Islamic rules of gender segregation and veiling can be circumvented if a woman suckles a man. Alternatively, a man can also be breast-fed by a sister or the mother of a woman. The idea behind this ruling is that there is no law for adoption in many Islamic societies. However, a mother-son-relationship can be established by breast-feeding. The scholar of Al-Azhar University explained his ruling in an interview given to Al-Watani Al-Yawm, a weekly newspaper published by Egypt's ruling National Democratic Front party. According to this interview it was the prophet himself who confirmed that a man and a woman are allowed to be together in private if the man had been previously breastfed by the woman. It must also be noted that Dr. Abd Al-Mahdi Abd Al-Qadir, another Al-Azhar scholar, wrote and published a book rendering similar ideas based on the same Islamic sources.
The text in question
Here is a part of the text Dr. Atiyya referred to in an English translation:
Dr. Atiyya repeatedly declared that the sources he quoted belonged to the Islamic holy texts with the highest possible authority. According to him no less than 90,000 contemporary scholars confirmed that the hadith referred to is authentic. Further related texts:
Waves in the Islamic World - and in the Rest of the World
The fatwa released by Dr. Atiyya and the book of Dr. Abd Al-Mahdi Abd Al-Qadir raised many questions and caused harsh reactions by many Muslims:
Is it really an appropriate solution to suckle an adult to avoid the veil and gender segregation in Islamic companies? Can Muslims throughout the world still rely on the knowledge of Al-Azhar scholars? Can Muslims throughout the world still rely on the holy texts of Islam - and even on the wisdom of their prophet? A woman is forced to wear a veil to prevent herself from becoming harassed. To avoid the veil, she has to breastfeed a strange man - does this improve the life of anybody?
According to the Institut für Islamfragen in Germany there has been 60 books covering this subject published in Egypt alone. They are also stating that there were already foreign women renouncing Islam because of this discussion.
It comes as no surprise that many women who work are scared that this ruling may encourage harassment by male colleagues . Others are simply disgusted by the idea of having to breastfeed strangers in order to gain permission to work with them.
The Muslim Brotherhood criticized the fatwa harshly and took the matter to parliament, thus putting pressure on the Egyptian government. The leaders of Al-Azhar University rejected the fatwa as well and suspended Dr. Atiyya.
There are also discussions about the hadith quoted by Dr. Atiyya. Most scholars still regard it as authentic, but there are a few who are voicing their opinions that it may be fake. There has been increased efforts by political and religious authorities to stop the debate. However, this is not going to be an easy task since the quoted sources belong to the holiest texts of Islam. Therefore most political and religious leaders are calling for a thoughtful approach to the holy texts. They say that fatwas should agree with logic and common sense and ancient texts should not be “misused” for thrilling headlines.
Responses to Apologetics
- "It was an isolated incident. Permission was only given to that woman in that particular situation. It doesn't apply to others!"
Islam at its most basic form is the Qur'an and Sunnah of Muhammad. Islamic rules and regulations pertaining to all things originate from studying these texts and seeing how Muhammad dealt with them. Islamic jurists then apply these to modern-day situations. Here we find a woman came to Muhammad with a problem and he gave her instructions on how to solve it, i.e. how to make a non-mahram male into a mahram. There is absolutely nothing in the Sahih Muslim narration that would suggest this instruction was only limited to her, or to women in the exact same situation. The fact that the non-mahram was a freed slave who lived in the same house as her (as a foster member of the family) is inconsequential. And even if it were not, that would still mean it is permissible for a foster parent to suckle her adult foster child to make him a mahram. This in itself is disturbing.
- Islamic ‘Adult Breastfeeding’ Fatwas Return - , April 13, 2012 (archived), http://frontpagemag.com/2012/04/13/islamic-‘adult-breastfeeding’-fatwas-return/
- New Fatwa Calls on Men to Drink Women's Breast-Milk - June 4, 2010
- Link to a Translation of the disputed hadith at USC -MSA
- Blog with an article in Spanish
- Article on Wikinews about the subject
- The Middle East Media Research Institute on Dr. Atiyyas Suspension and related matters (with many links)
- Article in Arabic on Al Arabia online with more than 2400 comments
- Article about the matter on BBC
- A German article about the subject at the Institut für Islamfragen
- Another German article stating that many female muslima leave islam because of the fatwa