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Islam and Sex By: MEMRI
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 20, 2006

The French monthly Afrique Magazine conducted an interview with Algerian scholar and author Dr. Malek Chebel following the publishing of his latest book, The Arab Kama Sutra. In the interview, the author claims that the puritan tendency in Islam is a recent innovation, and that classic Islamic literature freely treated not only romantic love, but also sex and eroticism. He also discusses his views on the veil, pleasure marriages, honor crimes, polygamy, and ritual purity.

The following are excerpts: [1]

"Sexuality is a Gift From God"

"...The Arab erotologists in the Middle Ages had a keen knowledge of sexuality. On some points I was able to assert that they themselves were inspired by the Indian Kama Sutra. There are several common elements in their writings: the role of etiquette and courteousness in romantic relations... the importance of the genitals, etc. But I did not just stick to the Kama Sutra... I summarized 2000 years of erotic Arab literature...

"Islam is the only monotheistic religion that advocates free and spontaneous access to sexuality. One never finds in Muslim texts any condemnation or diminution of sexuality. Just because we have been a state of decadence for the last two centuries does not mean that we should consider the totality of the [Islamic] doctrine decadent. [This doctrine] is quite explicit: Sexuality is a gift from God, so go ahead, in all of the possible and legitimate ways, and without holding back. The only constraint is the partner's consent. In a pinch, even sodomy may be permitted, if the partner consents. Masturbation too... I am neither an ideologue nor a moralist. I just describe what I see, without obfuscation..."

"We Are in an Unfortunate Phase of Sexual Regression"

In response to the question "who are today's erotologists?" Chebel answered: "There aren't any... In the last two centuries, we have lost our way. We no longer know how to speak of our sensual enjoyment, our pleasures, our utopias, or our liberties. This is the result of the trauma of our collective defeats - the rout in Granada (1492), subjugation to the Ottomans, colonization, and botched decolonization. We are in an unfortunate phase of sexual regression, of outright prudishness. This has reached the point where the very fact of speaking of a man's or a woman's nudity seems like an outrage. Sexuality is not something impure or dirty."

Pleasure (Mut'a) Marriages are Hypocrisy

"Puritanism often decks itself out in hypocrisy. It is enough to pay, and then anything is possible... Everything is negotiable, including the duplicity of the imams. Take Iran, for example. To this day, they practice temporary marriage - pleasure marriages. Zawaj al-mut'a.[2] A guy passing through Teheran wants to sleep with a woman. He pays the mullah in the morning [and then he sleeps with her]. When he leaves, he pays the mullah again, but this time, in order to divorce her. He was a woman's husband for one day... As for me, I find it scandalous to pay in order to make a sexual act morally acceptable...

"The problem is that [in Muslim societies] sexuality does not belong to the partners, but to their families - and often to the clan in general. The lovers are nothing more than the long arm of a will that is beyond their control... The girl's brother feels authorized to knock off the boy that she loves in the name of collective morality and at the expense of the will of the couple. This is what one calls an honor crime. To this day it is [hardly] ever punished. The murderers spend a year in prison - and no more - if they don't have any money. When they do, they pay the [blood money]. All of this... is social hypocrisy..."

"The Prophet Said that What He Liked in This World was 'Women, Perfume, and Prayer'"

When asked about sexuality being associated more with procreation than with pleasure, Chebel said: "Take the Prophet for example. He had between nine and 11 wives, of which several were concubines. When one takes a concubine, one is not thinking of procreation, but of pleasure... Maria the Copt, who was more fair-skinned than the Bedouins, went with a delegation sent by the King of Egypt. She had the privilege of staying with [the Prophet] 27 days and 27 nights in his harem. Do you think this was for the sake of procreation? No, it was for pleasure.

"By the way, contrary to custom, in this period he stopped making the round of his other wives, to such a point where they complained to their fathers, who then rebuked [Muhammad], prophet or not. [The Prophet] himself said that what he liked in this world was "women, perfume, and prayer." He did not talk about procreation!..."

"A Muslim Cleric is Better Received When He Speaks to People Who Are Frustrated and Have No Prospect of Sensual Pleasure"

"... My book is impossible to translate [from French] into Arabic. I can cite texts written in classical Arabic that include the word zubb [penis], but as for me, I cannot write it, because it is too vulgar! This is an unending hypocrisy..."

On the subject of why the Muslim world had become so puritanical, Chebel said: "... A Muslim cleric is better received when he speaks to people who are frustrated and have no prospect of sensual pleasure. Then he comes with a purported answer: having sovereignty over oneself. Through the ablutions connected with the five [daily] prayers, he controls the bodies of the believers. He dictates to them how to behave: when you make love to your wife, you need to immerse your entire body; if you do not, your prayer is not valid.

"As for me, I have rarely seen men immersing themselves at 3 A.M. and then going to prayer at 5 A.M. It is in this that I am subversive: I bring common sense into my analyses. In my opinion, it is sufficient to perform the [regular] ablutions."

"Since When Are Women So Impure That One Must Cleanse Oneself of Them?"

"[The Prophet's wife] 'Aisha herself said: 'The Prophet gets up from my bed, I put perfume on him, and he goes to the mosque.' With the perfume, she got rid of the impurity that he supposedly contracted from her. But since when are women - who make up half of all humanity - so impure that one must cleanse oneself of them? This is a primitive, pre-Islamic mentality that has survived in monotheism. I think that [both] men and women are naturally clean, even if they swim in sperm. Clearly, if all Muslims thought like I do, then the mosques would be less well attended. They would lose their power all of a sudden, because they would make less money."

When asked about a Muslim scholar who had forbidden making love naked, Chebel said: "He is not a scholar, but rather a hypocrite and a sexually repressed individual. This is a retreat from Islam; in fact, it is contrary to Islam. I militate for an Islam of Enlightenment. What is important is to tell Muslims that God's portion is to be found in the heart. Why make such a big deal out of everything?"

"Women are Not More Muslim With [the Veil]"

"...Polygamy is a problem. When a man takes the right to have four wives, while women do not have the right to have four husbands, [this is a problem]. It's unjust. The Koran tried to restrict abuses by limiting the number of wives to four. But, historically, there have been very few men who have had four wives at the same time...

"[However,] the very fact that this is possible... is already scandalous. It is on this point that the Family Code must be reformed. Thankfully, polygamy has clearly decreased over the last few years, in the Maghreb in particular. It is only in the Gulf states, and especially in Saudi Arabia, that a few potentates still take this right for themselves - but even if it were forbidden, they would continue this practice, since they have their checkbooks.

"The West is infatuated with polygamy. I understand why: As soon as something is forbidden, it takes on value..."

On the issue of the veil, Chebel said: "Women are not more Muslim with it. They need to fight to liberate themselves from this calamity. I think it is a passing crisis. There have already been similar crises in history. There was even a crazy Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim, who ordered that women's heels be cut off so that they wouldn't make noise when they walked. I think that men can take a position of principle - my wife and daughters do not wear the veil - but I think that it is up to them to liberate themselves from this constraint. They are free, nevertheless, to listen to the retrograde religious scholars; one can not de-marginalize someone by force, nor prevent them from loving their torturer...

"I think that many women find refuge in the veil. I am not certain that they all wear it in order to be closer to God. It is as though they have the impression that they are more free with the veil."

"I Do Not Look to Shock... [But] To Call a Cat a Cat and a Pussy a Pussy is the Least I Can Do"

On the subject of conjugal tenderness, Chebel said: "It is not expressed, certainly not. It is a sort of autistic tenderness. We are the first generation to say 'me' and to take on desire, sometimes even tenderness. This opens the door to poetry, long preliminaries, gifts, presents, flowers, perfumes, and romance. In fact, tenderness exists, but in private. Look at this Arab couple crossing the street in front of us: they are seemingly distant [one from the other], but in their car or at home, they will caress one another. While they are very naughty, they will not make any external gesture of tenderness, even to the point of giving the impression of being asexual."

In conclusion, Chebel said: "... I do not look to shock. You will never hear from me anything offensive to Islam... [but] to call a cat a cat and a pussy a pussy is the least I can do in a book called The Arab Kama Sutra."


[1] Afrique Magazine (France), August-September, 2006. Among Chebel's previous books is Manifesto for an Enlightened Islam, in which he outlined 27 proposals for reforming Islam; see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 273, "Algerian Reformist Malek Chebel: 27 Propositions for Reforming Islam," May 5, 2006: http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=ia&ID=IA27306.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 291, "Pleasure Marriages in Sunni and Shi'ite Islam," August 31, 2006: http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=ia&ID=IA29106

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