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Religion and Society

Reason Between Breastfeeding and Weaning

Egyptian women protest in front of al-Azhar university in Cairo (2013)

A woman who works alone in an office with a male colleague should breastfeed him five times until satiation, in accordance with Islamic law. The heated debate that has raged shows the complex nature of the relationship between modernity and tradition in the Arab Muslim world

This article was published in Oasis 21. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-05-27 15:06:30

A fatwa issued in Egypt in 2007 rules that a woman who works alone in an office with a male colleague should breastfeed him five times until satiation, in accordance with Islamic law. The heated debate that has raged shows the complex nature of the relationship between modernity and tradition in the Arab Muslim world: they have tried to adapt to each another and dominate each other in a continuous remodelling process that has generated a “fake modernity.”

 

 

In May 2007, in a famous religious TV program, a female employee of a major Egyptian bank inquired about Islam’s opinion on her case, for she had to work alone with her male colleague in a closed office, where nobody could enter without prior authorization of one of them. Sheikh ‘Izzat ‘Attiya – President of the Hadîth Department of al-Azhar University and a regular commentator on Egyptian TV, where he would promulgate fatwas concerning people’s daily affairs – replied that the woman’s presence in an intimate setting with a male colleague was neither admitted by Islamic law, nor accepted by Islam. When asked about what the lady could do then, since she was forced to work in those conditions, he replied that the lady should breastfeed her male colleague five times until satiation, and in that way staying alone with him would become permitted. Then he explained that his fatwa was based on the judgment of a number of early imams and ancient fuqahâ’ of similar cases and who relied on oral transmissions from the Prophet Muhammad relating that, after the revelation of some Qur’anic verses that prohibited adoption, he suggested a woman from Medina to breastfeed her adopted son so that he could enter to see her alone. Those fuqahâ’ corroborated their judgment by recalling the practice of ‘Ȃisha, the Prophet’s wife, who after her husband’s death used to ask some female relatives to breastfeed any male stranger she wanted to have visit her.

 

 

This fatwa stirred a bitter controversy in the Egyptian and Islamic societies. For months it remained the main subject of debate in talk shows, newspaper op-eds and even cartoons, which all agreed that should this fatwa be applied in modern society, it would turn adult breastfeeding into a social rite practiced daily by the absolute majority of men and women. This ferocious debate induced the Egyptian parliament to interfere on the basis of the interventions of some MPs belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood (who, in the 2005 election, had gained 25% of the parliament’s seats). In the dispute raised by this fatwa, they saw a menace to their political program, whose success was basically relying on the slogan “Islam is the solution” and on the call to the application of the sharia. Thus, the Muslim Brothers found themselves compelled to replicate the arguments of their contenders – the liberals – by claiming that not all rulings preserved in the books of Islamic jurisprudence were valid and appropriate. For instance, sheikh Sayyid ‘Askar, former Deputy Head of the Islamic Research Academy and parliament’s deputy for the Muslim Brotherhood, refused the fatwa, saying that, even though the hadîth on adult breastfeeding was sound and could not be repudiated, the majority of Islamic scholars disagreed on whether to consider it as a special occurrence or a judgment that could be generalized. The predominant opinion was that it represented a special case, which could not be taken as a model. Allowing adult breastfeeding in such a way was, in sheikh ‘Askar’s opinion, a wrong application of ijtihâd, breaking the principle of ijmâ’ (consensus) and paved the way for the spread of depravity in society, for he asserted that it was not reasonable to speak about adult breastfeeding in modern society. Such a phenomenon, the sheikh added, had indeed been an occurrence concerning only the “Mothers of the Believers,” and what applied to them did not apply to the rest of women.[1]

 

 

Sheikh Mâhir al-‘Aql, Islamic preacher and another parliament’s deputy for the Muslim Brotherhood, protested vigorously. He maintained that Dr. ‘Izzat ‘Attiya’s fatwa on adult breastfeeding was not correct, because the famous fourteenth century jurist Ibn al-Qayyim, while mentioning the hadîth, clarified that it was a special fatwa for Sâlim, the mawlâ[2] of Abû Hudhayfa. In fact, in the Qur’an the duration of breastfeeding is specified as lasting two years, after which it must cease (2:233). What is more, such feeding can happen only on the condition that “it grows the flesh and strengthens the bones,” but sheikh al-‘Aql noted that adult breastfeeding does not lead to such a benefit. On the contrary, it awakes carnal desire, because exposing the breast of a woman to someone other than her husband is equivalent to exposing her genitals.

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To cite this article


Printed version:
Wael Farouq, “Reason Between Breastfeeding and Weaning”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 64-74.


Online version:
Wael Farouq, “Reason Between Breastfeeding and Weaning”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/reason-between-breastfeeding-and-weaning.

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