July 28, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 626

Controversy in Saudi Arabia over Fatwa Permitting Breastfeeding of Adults

July 28, 2010 | By Y. Admon*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 626


Sheikh 'Abd Al-Muhsin Al-'Obikan, an advisor at the Saudi Justice Ministry, recently issued a fatwa allowing the breastfeeding of adults. The fatwa is aimed at enabling an unrelated man and woman to be secluded in the same room, a situation which Islam considers forbidden gender mixing. The rationale behind the fatwa is that breastfeeding creates a bond of kinship between the man and woman, rendering the man her mahram,[1] thus making it acceptable for them to be together in seclusion.

The fatwa created a stir in Saudi Arabia and in the Arab media at large, arousing a wave of criticism from clerics and columnists alike. Clerics claimed that breastfeeding could not create a bond of kinship between a female and an unrelated male over two years of age, and some claimed that the fatwa contradicted the shari'a. Columnists argued that such grotesque fatwas are insulting to women, and also tarnish the Muslims' image. One columnist pointed to a paradox, namely that the fear of gender-mixing is prompting clerics to encourage lewd behaviors like women breastfeeding grown men.

Despite this criticism, Al-'Obikan has stood his ground, and even reiterated his position in greater detail.

It should be noted that this issue first arose in Egypt in May 2007, following a similar fatwa issued by Dr. 'Izzat 'Atiyya, formerly head of the Hadith Department at Al-Azhar University, which permitted a woman to breastfeed a man with whom she must work in private. This fatwa led to 'Atiyya's dismissal from his post at Al-Azhar.[2]

The following document presents the fatwa issued by Al-'Obikan and several reactions to it.

Al-'Obikan: Adult Breastfeeding Permissible in Two Specific Cases

In a May 21, 2010 interview for the Al-Arabiya website, Al-'Obikan said it is permissible for a woman to breastfeed a man who is not a family member: "If a family [employs] an outsider who visits the home frequently, and [this man] has no relatives besides this family – and his presence burdens the members of the household, especially when women are present – it is permissible for a woman to breastfeed him." Al-'Obikan based his argument on a hadith attributed to Muhammad's wife, 'Aisha, which relates that Salem, the adopted son of Abu Hudheifa, was breastfed by Abu-Hudheifa's wife when he was already a grown man with a beard, by the Prophet's decree. Al-'Obikan stressed that the principle represented by this hadith is not limited to a specific time or place, but is universally applicable. He added, however, that a man should not be breastfed directly from a woman's breast, but should be given milk which has been breast pumped.[3]

In a communiqué he posted to his website, Al-'Obikan claimed that the breastfeeding of an unrelated male is also permissible in cases where a family decides to adopt an orphan child, who is likely to find himself in seclusion with the women of the household. According to the communiqué, one of the women in the family must pump milk for the orphan – enough for five mouthfuls – and this renders him the woman's son, thereby solving the problem of seclusion.[4]

Al-'Obikan's statements met with severe censure in the Saudi press. A number of articles in the daily Al-Riyadh presented readers' comments on the issue. Some of the readers argued that only moral education could address the issue of male and female seclusion. Others called for the establishment of a body that would prevent the issuing of strange fatwas such as these, or publish a clear response to any such fatwa issued.[5] Al-'Obikan's statements were also disapproved of by Saudi clerics and columnists.

In response to this criticism, Al-'Obikan clarified that his fatwa is not meant to permit women to breastfeed men in their workplace – hinting at the Egyptian fatwa, which did permit this – because such a permission was improper and extreme.[6] He added: "It is regrettable that there are those who are hasty to react to religious rulings, and misinterpret [them] without verifying them... Some understood my fatwa to apply to drivers, servants, and other 'outsiders,' but this is only permissible in rare cases."[7] In an interview with the Saudi government daily 'Okaz, Al-'Obikan reiterated his previous statements in greater detail, explaining that by "outsider" he did not mean a non-Saudi, but a Saudi who was not considered the woman's mahram. In another interview, Al-'Obikan said that his ruling is based on shari'a proofs, and that he does not therefore intend to reconsider it.[8]

Saudi Mufti: Adult Breastfeeding Goes against Shari'a

Saudi Mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Bin 'Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh said that adult breastfeeding contradicts Islamic law and the norms shared by Muslims. According to Al-Sheikh, this kind of breastfeeding is permissible only when the male in question is a baby under two years of age. Otherwise, it does not render him the woman's mahram. The mufti added that adult breastfeeding has negative and undesirable results, and has been rejected by the majority of Muslims.[9]

Similarly, Dr. Muhammad Al-Nujeimi, a civics professor and member of the Islamic law faculty at King Fahd University, called on Al-'Obikan to rescind his ruling, as "adult breastfeeding is not [a way to turn a man into the woman's mahram] and whoever permits it is wide of the truth... There are caveats in the shari'a regarding adult breastfeeding: How should the adult breastfeed? [Should he nurse directly] from the woman's breasts, or should she pump the milk into a cup for him? How can he nurse from her breasts if he has reached the age of reason and is not her mahram? Even if he drinks the milk from a cup, we are talking about a grown man... who has no need for [mother's] milk..."[10]

In a June 25, 2010 sermon, Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayyis, imam of the Al-Harram Mosque in Mecca, denounced the fatwa, demanding an end to the phenomenon of people "who invade the domain of shari'a ruling" while ignoring the ramifications of their rulings on society and on the Muslim ummah. In his sermon, Al-Sudayyis referred to Al-'Obikan's fatwa specifically, and to other fatwas that had recently been issued by various Saudi clerics, cautioning against opinions that deceive the ummah and cause confusion and conflict, and form the basis for strange and aberrant fatwas.[11]

Conversely, Sheikh Dr. Saleh Al-Sadlan, professor at the Imam Mohammad Bin Saud Islamic University, expressed his support for the fatwa, which he said applies only in specific cases. He said the fatwa should not be regarded with disdain, as it is in line with the Sunna and the opinions of numerous clerics. Al-Sadlan also said that since the fatwa seems strange to the public, it behooves the mufti or the Senior Clerics Council – the Saudi Arabia's supreme religious authority – to examine the fatwa and issue their endorsement of it.[12] A particularly unusual reaction came from Sheikh Ahmad Al-Hashem, a senior cleric in the Saudi Ministry of Religious Endowments., who said he expects the fatwa to meet with significant resistance "because a woman is not [entitled to] market her milk, which is not her property but her husband's, with whose sole authority she nurses her baby."[13]

Saudi Columnists: Fear of Gender Mixing Is Leading Clerics to Issue Ridiculous Fatwas

In an article titled "To Legitimate Gender Mixing – Women, Breastfeed the Men!" that appeared in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, liberal columnist Halima Muzaffar wrote: "...It is strange that Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Obikan should issue such a fatwa... as if it were a solution to [the problem of] an unrelated man mixing with women in their home, or with his [female] colleagues at the workplace... Will the honorable religious police punish a woman for breastfeeding her driver?... Will she be judged guilty of infidelity and adultery when her husband comes home and finds her implementing the fatwa, and breastfeeding one of her relatives who is not her mahram, or one of her co-workers, in order to prevent gender mixing between them at the workplace?! We must do away with this phobia of gender mixing, which afflicts numerous Saudis..."[14]

Columnist Layla Ahmad Al-Ahdab also expressed a similar view in Al-Watan: "...This fatwa does not suit the times or the place, [which is why] several Saudi clerics have criticized it... Someone who lives with his brother because he has no [relatives] besides him and his wife – this is a rare situation... What is to be done if his brother's wife is not nursing and neither are her sisters? What if the woman is a widow or divorcee and has no milk in her breasts?... How long will the 'gender mixing phobia' serve as a source for fatwas that cause the world to laugh at us?"[15]

Saudi Journalist: The Fatwa Is Offensive to Women

In an article for the independent Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Nadine Al-Budair, a Saudi journalist and presenter for the U.S. Arabic-language TV station Al-Hurra, wrote: "...[A senior employee] will breastfeed her clerks; a [common] employee will breastfeed her colleagues; we will all begin breastfeeding: mothers, sons, brothers, and sisters. The extremism of several clerics has led... to something unacceptable, which is foreign even to the Western societies... The issue is rare and fascinating, but [its implementation] in reality is repugnant. [The fatwa] is a frightening public pronouncement... meant to ensure individual freedoms in a way that is beyond primitive.

"Do not be surprised if this fatwa is implemented, since everything in the Islamic world is being made permissible. Proof of this is that we are witnessing new types of marriage [that only] yesterday were forbidden.[16] Today or tomorrow perhaps they will announce a new form of breastfeeding. All this [is due to the fact that] most fatwas deal with the same domain, namely with male-female relations. Therefore, the woman is consistently targeted: in one instance she is required to conceal her body, in another to expose it or to unabashedly pump [milk] from it, without any right to voice her opinion or interfere [in issues that concern] her body and personal needs. The fatwa-issuing thugs give orders, pass judgment, and make decisions: love is forbidden; looking [at a man] is a sin; expressions of love are contemptible – [but] as for breastfeeding, that is permissible, permissible, permissible."[17]

Cartoon in Saudi Daily

Woman's Clothing Store Sign Reads: "New! Abaya with Opening for Breastfeeding!"

Al-Jazeera (Saudi Arabia), June 3, 2010. Cartoonist: Hajed.

* Y. Admon is a Research Fellow at MEMRI


[1] A man whom a woman is forbidden to marry due to blood kinship – i.e. a father, grandfather, brother, or son – in which case there is no prohibition against seclusion.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Report No. 355, "Al-Azhar Lecturer Suspended after Issuing Controversial Fatwa Recommending Breastfeeding of Men by Women in the Workplace," May 25, 2007, Al-Azhar Lecturer Suspended after Issuing Controversial Fatwa Recommending Breastfeeding of Men by Women in the Workplace.

[3], May 21, 2010.

[4], May 23, 2010.

[5] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 26, 2010.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 25, 2010.

[7], May 26, 2010.

[8] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 17, 2010.

[9] Al-Sho'la (Saudi Arabia), June 13, 2010.

[10] Al-Wiam (Saudi Arabia), May 25, 2010. It should be noted that additional clerics opposed Al-'Obikan's fatwa. Among them, Sheikh Muhammad Bin Hassan Al-Dari'i, a member of the teaching faculty at the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University. He said that had the fatwa been issued under the previous Saudi mufti, Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Bin Baz, the mufti would have demanded that Al-'Obikan be imprisoned and his tongue cut out. Sabq (Saudi Arabia), May 28, 2010.

[11], June 26, 2010. Saudi cleric Dr. Hamoud 'Ubah called Al-'Okiban's fatwa aberrant and loathsome. He said its author was relying on a specific case whose circumstances could not be applied to other situations. Dr. Muhammad Al-Harfi, a lecturer and columnist, was of the same opinion, and said that clerics needed to limit the age during which breastfeeding was permissible to two years. He added that it was improper for Al-'Obikan to issue such a fatwa, knowing it to be unusual. Al-Harfi also said that the ruling was too general, allowing people to apply it as they see fit, and that this could eventually devalue the shari'a in people's eyes. Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 25, 2010.

[12] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 10, 2010.

[13] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 25, 2010.

[14] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 25, 2010.

[15] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 31, 2010.

[16] This refers to various types of marriage that are permitted in Islam. Mut'a ("pleasure") marriage, permitted in Shi'ite Islam, is contracted for a limited period of time, and divorce is not needed to end it. 'Urf ("custom") marriage is an arrangement that does not require an official contract and grants the woman no rights. It is considered legal matrimony as long as they meet the legal criteria for marriage. In a "friend" marriage, the girl remains at her family's home, and she and the man do not maintain a shared household, but meet whenever and wherever they want. This type of marriage is aimed primarily at meeting the needs of young Muslims in the West, who wish to have a girlfriend-boyfriend relationship as is customary in Western society, but with religious legitimacy. Misyaf marriage is practiced among rich men from the Gulf who go on summer vacation in Yemen and marry local girls for a particular period of time – a fortnight to two months – without the brides being aware of the time limitation. Misyar is a marriage in which the woman relinquishes some of the rights that Islam grants her, such as the right to a home and to financial support from her husband, and, if he has other wives, the right to an equal share of his time and attention.

[17] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), June 11, 2010. Al-Budair has written extensively against the persecution of women in the Muslim world. In one article on the issue, she asked why only men were allowed to practice polygamy. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2773, "Saudi Journalist: Why Is Polygamy Only for Men?" January 27, 2010. Saudi Journalist: Why Is Polygamy Only for Men?.

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