June 3, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 355

Al-Azhar Lecturer Suspended after Issuing Controversial Fatwa Recommending Breastfeeding of Men by Women in the Workplace

June 3, 2007 | By L. Lavi*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 355

The head of the Hadith Department in Al-Azhar University, Dr. Izzat Atiyya, recently issued a controversial fatwa dealing with breastfeeding of adults. The fatwa stated that a woman who is required to work in private with a man not of her immediate family – a situation that is forbidden by Islamic law – can resolve the problem by breastfeeding the man, which, according to shari'a, turns him into a member of her immediate family.

The fatwa sparked a storm of protest in the Egyptian public arena, especially within the religious establishment. It was harshly criticized by Muslim Brotherhood MPs, who even brought it up for discussion in parliament, as well as by Egyptian intellectuals and columnists.

In response, Al-Azhar University formed a special committee to debate the fatwa, and on the recommendation of this committee, Dr. Atiyya was suspended. The Egyptian information minister ordered the removal from sellers' shelves of the issue of the government weekly Al-Watani Al-Yawm in which the fatwa had been published.

Dr. Atiyya, on his part, published a retraction and apologized, saying that the fatwa was no more than a personal interpretation of a certain hadith, and furthermore, that the hadith in question relates a particular incident that occurred under specific constraints, and has no general applicability. However, Al-Azhar refused to accept his apology.


Head of the Al-Azhar Hadith Department: Breastfeeding Allows a Woman to Be With a Man in Private

Dr. Izzat Atiyya explained his fatwa in an interview with Al-Watani Al-Yawm, the weekly of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Front party. He said: "The religious ruling that appears in the Prophet's conduct [Sunna] confirms that breastfeeding allows a man and a woman to be together in private, even if they are not family and if the woman did not nurse the man in his infancy, before he was weaned – providing that their being together serves some purpose, religious or secular...

"Being together in private means being in a room with the door closed, so that nobody can see them... A man and a woman who are not family members are not permitted [to do this], because it raises suspicions and doubts. A man and a woman who are alone together are not [necessarily] having sex, but this possibility exists, and breastfeeding provides a solution to this problem... I also insist that the breastfeeding relationship be officially documented in writing... The contract will state that this woman has suckled this man... After this, the woman may remove her hijab and expose her hair in the man's [presence]...

Dr. Atiyya further explained that the breastfeeding does not necessarily have to be done by the woman herself. "The important point," he said, "is that the man and the woman must be related through breastfeeding. [This can also be achieved] by means of the man's mother or sister suckling the woman, or by means of the woman's mother or sister suckling the man, since [all of these solutions legally] turn them into brother and sister...

"The logic behind [the concept] of breastfeeding an adult is to transform the bestial relationship between [two people] into a religious relationship based on [religious] duties... Since [this] breastfeeding takes place between [two] adults, the man is still permitted to marry the woman [who breastfed him], whereas [a woman] who nursed [a man] in his infancy is not permitted to marry him...

"The adult must suckle directly from the [woman's] breast... [This according to a hadith attributed to Aisha, wife of the Prophet's Muhammad], which tells of Salem [the adopted son of Abu Hudheifa] who was breastfed by Abu-Hudheifa's wife when he was already a grown man with a beard, by the Prophet's order... Other methods, such as [transferring] the milk to a container, are [less desirable]...

"[As for the possibility of using a breast-pump, which] increases the production of the milk glands... that is a matter for doctors and religious scholars who must determine if the milk [thus produced] is real milk, i.e., if its composition is identical to that of the [woman's] original milk. If it is, this method is permissible...

Dr. Atiyya also said: "The fact that the hadith regarding the breastfeeding of an adult is inconceivable to the mind does not make it invalid. This is a reliable hadith, and rejecting it is tantamount to rejecting Allah's Messenger and questioning the Prophet's tradition."[1]

Al-Azhar Examines the Fatwa, Suspends Dr. Atiyya

In response to the uproar caused by the fatwa, Al-Azhar university formed a committee of several experts on hadiths to investigate the matter. According to a senior Al-Azhar source, the university president also ordered Dr. Atiyya to publish an apology, and the latter complied and retracted his fatwa,[2] explaining: "My statements on the issue of breastfeeding an adult were based on the imams Ibn Hazm, Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Al-Qayyim, Al-Shawkani and Amin Khattab [Al-Subki], and on conclusions I drew from the statements of Ibn Hajar [Al-Askalani]. However, I hold that only the breastfeeding of an infant creates a family relationship [that prohibits marriage between the parties and allows them to be together], as the Four Imams [i.e., the founders of the four Sunni legal schools] said, while the [act of] breastfeeding a grown man [mentioned in the hadith] was a [specific] incident that came to serve a [specific] purpose, and the fatwa I issued was based solely on my personal interpretation. Based on what I have learned with my brothers the religious scholars, I apologize for my earlier [statements] and retract my opinion, which contradicts [the norms accepted] by the public."[3]

However, the Al-Azhar Supreme Council, headed by Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, refused to accept Dr. Atiyya's apology, saying, "We must not be too lax in matters of religion, especially when the matter at hand is a fatwa that significantly affects people's actual lives, inclinations, and views – because it speaks to their natural emotions which [lead them to] embrace what is permitted and shun prohibitions." Tantawi said, "Society cannot tolerate [a fatwa] that undermines its religious stability. There is enough chaos with all the unsupervised fatwas [published] on some satellite channels. We will never permit this chaos to spread to the religious establishment and to Al-Azhar."

By the recommendation of the special committee formed to examine the fatwa, Al-Azhar decided to suspend Dr. Atiyya pending further investigation of his case.[4]

Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments Dr. Muhammad Hamdi Zaqzouq likewise criticized the fatwa, saying: "Fatwas like these harm Islam, serve our enemies and push the public towards backwardness and ignorance."[5]


Muslim Brotherhood MPs: This is an Erroneous Fatwa

The issue of breastfeeding adults was brought up for debate in the Egyptian parliament. Sabri Khalaf Allah from Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the parliament told the Al-Arabiyya TV website that some 50 MPs had discussed the issue, had expressed concern over the fact that the fatwa had been published in the media, but had refrained from submitting a parliamentary question in order to avoid creating too big an uproar.

Dr. Sayyid Askar, a Muslim Brotherhood MP and former member of the Academy of Islamic Studies, said that the hadith on which the fatwa is based is indeed authentic and valid, but that the accepted view among Muslim scholars is that it refers to a specific case and cannot be applied to other cases. Therefore, he concluded, Dr. Attiya's fatwa is an erroneous fatwa that goes against the consensus. "In our modern society," he added, "it makes no sense to talk of breastfeeding adults."[6]

Intellectuals Object: The Koran Forbids the Breastfeeding of Adults

Dr. Abd Al-Fatah Asaker, who studies Muslim tradition, denied the validity of the hadith on which the fatwa is based, claiming it is nonsense and criticized the publication of Abd Al-Qadir's book which regarded it as valid.[7] In an interview with Al-Watani Al-Yawm, he said: "Would Dr. Abd Al-Mahdi [Abd Al-Qadr] agree [to let] his wife, daughter, sister or even his mother breastfeed a grown man – whether a stranger or a family member? Would the Muslim scholars [want people] to say that their wives breastfeed any man who comes along?

Asaker argued that the hadiths of Muslim tradition, even those that appear [in reliable compilations like those of] Al-Bukhari and Muslim, are invalid if they contradict what is said in the Koran, which states: "Mothers shall suckle their children for two whole years; [that is] for those who wish to complete the [full period of] suckling [Koran 2:233]." Asaker argued that after this period ends, breastfeeding is forbidden, and added that the story of Salem is a legend spread by the enemies of Islam with the aim of discrediting Aisha, to whom the hadith is attributed. "It is inconceivable," he concluded, "that Islam, which commands the believing [men and women] to lower their eyes [in modesty], should permit a strange man to place his mouth on the breast of a married woman and suckle from [it]."[8]

Liberal Muslim thinker Gamal Al-Banna argued that, in ancient times, the issue of breastfeeding adults was not sensitive, but today times and perceptions have changed. He added, "We always call [to distinguish] within Islamic tradition [between] hadiths which were published in [certain] circumstances that have changed [and hadiths that remain valid]..."[9]

Egyptian Columnist: The Fatwa Reflects Intellectual Petrifaction

Al-Sayyid Abd Al-Rauf, former editor of the Egyptian religious government weekly Aqidati, wrote in his regular column: "Strange and bizarre fatwas [like the one published by Dr. Atiyya]… sometimes stem from a desire to gain publicity by unusual means that lie outside the consensus, and [sometimes stem] from failure to understand the [current] reality of the Islamic nation. The reality of the modern world, with all its struggles and changes, requires new outlooks that acknowledge the Islamic legal tradition and maintain its principles, [but at the same time] deal with the changes in [this tradition] – in accordance with the principle that fatwas must change with time and place.

"In some instances, fatwas like this also reflect a frozen outlook, a petrified point of view, and an insistence on drawing conclusions from an incident that occurred to specific individuals in specific circumstances, applying them to a different reality, and [then] publicizing [this] ruling…

"Some clerics are dragging the nation back [into the past] or are spreading opinions that provoke conflicts and struggles. Some do it to satisfy the rulers, whether in quest for power, publicity and money or out of belief in ancient opinions, and without exercising their own minds…"[10]

Uproar in Ruling Party Weekly over Publication of Fatwa

The interview with Dr. Atiyya published in Al-Watani Al-Yawm, the weekly of the ruling National Democratic Party, caused an uproar among party members, and the Egyptian information minister ordered that the issue with the interview be removed from sellers' shelves.[11] Dr. Ali Al-Din Hilal, member of the party's general secretariat, said: "Al-Watani Al-Yawm is the newspaper of the party, which expresses its ideas and opinions." Hilal decried the publication of Dr. Atiyya's opinions, saying that "they are damaging to all of us, especially since we bring them into our homes, and our children read them." Many party members sent faxes to the party secretariat in which they expressed their opposition to the articles on the fatwa in Al-Watani Al-Yawm. They claimed that these articles were damaging to the newspaper and to party members, especially during the elections campaign, when there are more people looking out for the party's mistakes."[12]

In response, Al-Watani Al-Yawm published a clarification: "We emphasize that we are opposed to the fatwa. When we published it... our aim was to direct attention to the existence of such ideas in Al-Azhar, [and to the fact that these ideas] are to be studied in Al-Azhar in the coming year… We emphasize that our aim in publishing [the interview] was not to endorse the fatwa; rather, it was an attempt to bring [the fatwa] to the attention of the senior Al-Azhar scholars, so that they would investigate its author, especially since he is head of the Hadith Department in the Faculty of Theology, and the alumni [of this faculty] are thousands of preachers who occupy the pulpits of the mosques, and spread [the opinions] that they have learned to the public in Egypt and in the [rest of the] world. We hoped that Al-Azhar would speedily intervene and clarify the truth to the public…



"Since Dr. Atiyya has expressed very bold opinions on the Egyptian culture channel, which is broadcast into every Egyptian home – and this without needing [any] permit, as he is part of the Egyptian Information Ministry – and since his ideas were provocative to us, we saw it as [our] duty to approach him and discuss [his ideas] with him, and so we did… We recorded his answers on two tapes. Due to their boldness, we feared that he would [later] retract [them], so we asked him to write them out in his own handwriting. But he did not retract his ideas, [but] wrote us his bold opinions in his own hand…"[13]


*L. Lavi is a research fellow at MEMRI


[1] Al-Watani Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 15, 2007.

[2], May 21, 2007.

[3] Al-Watani Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 22, 2007.

[4] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 22, 2007.

[5] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 22, 2007.

[6], May 16, 2007.

[7] Before the publication of Dr. Atiyya's fatwa, Dr. Abd Al-Mahdi Abd Al-Qadir, another Al-Azhar scholar, published a book proposing a similar solution based on the same hadith.

[8] Al-Watani Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 15, 2007.

[9], May 16, 2007.

[10] Aqidati (Egypt), May 22, 2007.

[11] Al-Wafd (Egypt), May 21, 2007.

[12] Al-Misriyyun (Egypt), May 19, 2007.

[13] Al-Watani Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 22, 2007.

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