Ghosts in a breast milk fatwa

There were two stories out of Saudi Arabia last week that begged for more detail. The first told of a judge who asked hospitals if they could sever a man's spinal cord in order to paralyze him as punishment for injuries he inflicted during a fight. In many cases the stories didn't highlight the judicial principle that motivated the judge's request -- a strict adherence to "an eye for an eye" judicial code. Or even if they mentioned the principle, they didn't include a healthy discussion of the theology underlying it or the various interpretations of it. Another story managed to miss the religion angle as well. The headline in the Los Angeles Times was:

SAUDI ARABIA: Cleric who urged grown men to drink breast milk of unrelated women taken off air

No more fatwas for Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, the Saudi cleric and royal court adviser who earlier this year earned notoriety for rolling out an eyebrow-raising religious decree that called on women to give men breast milk to avoid illicit mixing.

Saudi authorities on Wednesday reportedly pulled the plug on Obeikan's radio program "Fatwas on Air," a daily morning show in which Obeikan would go on air and issue fatwas -- religious rulings -- to the public on various matters.

Taking the sheikh off air appears to come as part of Saudi king Abdullah's recent clampdown on the nation's fatwa bazaar.

The story includes a few more paragraphs but nowhere do we get any understanding of why the cleric might even be opining on men drinking breast milk. The reader who submitted the story asked:

How can you spend this many words on something like this and not even MENTION that a man who drinks a woman's breast milk is unable to marry that woman in (at least some interpretations of) Islam? I mean, for Pete's sake, four seconds with Google can give a reporter at least a start on what they need to know on this.

It turns out that the discussion has a history that goes back to the earliest days of Islam. At least some interpretations of Islam believe that the drinking of a woman's breast milk turns the relationship into a parental one that then makes her sexually forbidden to him. To not mention that this is a heated point of discussion in some interpretations of Islam leaves the cleric looking like he's off his rocker. In fact, the question about what the drinking of a woman's breast milk means aren't unheard of.

On this online forum asking for clarification of whether it's permissible for a husband to drink his wife's breast milk, we get a response citing various scholars saying various things. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi retells stories from during the lifetime of Muhammad contemporaries about differing opinions being offered even then before suggesting that the practice is permissible.

Another quoted Islamic scholar recommends against the practice:

Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and an Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, adds:

The wife's breast milk is intended for the baby, and not for the husband to consume. Although the husband is allowed to suck on it gently, he is not allowed to draw the milk in. According to some scholars, if he were to do so it would endanger the marriage relationship — if done five times. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, 'Avoid that which is doubtful', for, 'thereby one keeps his honor and religion intact.'

It's easy to just point and imply silliness. It's much more difficult to explain at least some of the theological context. For more information about the fatwa in question, this site might be helpful.

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