Friday, December 05, 2003

Ayatollah Sistani on oral sex

I assume that the Ayatollah Sistani's name will be generally familiar, if only because he has been in the news a lot recently. Sistani is the most eminent of the four Grand Ayatollahs in Iraq, who are at the summit of the "mainstream" Shiite religious establishment there (as opposed to a more radical, theocratic, violent, and anti-American tendency identified with Muqtada al-Sadr). The position of these four is relatively "moderate" in the sense that they all reject the Khomeinist idea of direct rule by clerics, and all appear to support representative government, elections, etc. Sistani's rulings (implicitly) endorsing cooperation with the Americans, during both the war and the post-war occupation, have had a very important influence with the Shiite majority. On the other hand, he has also been engaged in a series of political disagreements with the Americans that seem to have effectively derailed significant elements of Bremer's plan for political "transition" in Iraq.

But most of the time, of course, the great bulk of Sistani's activities do not involve direct intervention in political questions (not only because that would have gotten him killed during the Baath regime--he was, in fact, under something like house arrest for a while--but also on principled grounds). His main concerns, and the main basis of his authority, rest on his rulings on religious matters and on everyday questions of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). The message below deals with one of these rulings ... on a matter that is certainly of wide interest.

The Grand Ayatollah Sistani has an English-language website for "Questions on Fiqh". I was intrigued by one ruling.
Question: I am really sorry that I have to ask this type of Question. But since I grew up in a western country; I really don't know much about our religion. And I can't ask this Question to my parents due to subject matter. Brother my question is, can we have oral sex before or after the sexual intercourse or can we have oral sex at all? Is it haram?
Answer: Oral sex act is permissible with the consent of both husband and wife provided that no liquid gets into the mouth.
This is good news, but only up to a point. If I understand the ruling correctly, it (grudgingly) permits fellatio, but it seems to effectively rule out cunnilingus. This seems a little one-sided.

(I was even more intrigued to note that anal sex is permissible with the wife's consent, though not recommended ... while "masturbation is impermissible under all circumstances." Clearly, the principle involved here is not a general prohibition of non-procreational sex. So if getting liquid in your mouth is the problem--for whatever reason--what about fellatio using a condom and/or cunnilingus using one of those latex dental "dams"? Neither strikes me as an appetizing prospect--but from the point of view of Islamic legality, I suppose it would be important to cover all the options.)

(It occurs to me that I don't know the Talmudic position on oral sex--or, more likely, the main lines of debate on the issue. Might be interesting to find out.)

--Jeff Weintraub