Sometimes being a supporter of free speech can be really really really hard. A leading expert of “comparative jurisprudence” and Sunni cleric at al-Azhar University, Dr. Sabri Abdel Raouf, has been placed under review by his university (and ordered by the state media regulator to stay off the air) after dispensing some rather chilling advice on Sharia law and Islamic values. Abdel Raouf had told viewers that it is is permissible under Islamic law for a husband to have sex with his dead wife in what is called “goodbye intercourse.” The action taken by the university and the government highlights the curious line drawn over the discussion of Islam in Egypt. Moreover, it is a rather bizarre example of the debate that we are having in this country over the right of academics to engage in free (and controversial) speech outside of their schools. In this case, both the university and the government have moved to prevent anyone from airing these views as an insult to Islam.
Abdel Raouf notably did not approve of this practice which he said was carried out by perverts. However, he explained that there is a difference between necrophilia and adultery under Islam:
“People who do this are perverts, I mean she is dead, how could anyone accept such a thing. However, is it considered adultery? If husbands do this they are going against societal norms, but they are not punished in the manner of adulterers. It is permissible even though it is a shameful, unnatural act.”
His rationale was that Islam allows spouses to wash the bodies of dead spouses and therefore would allow intercourse — a rationale that is a bit hard to discern. He later insisted that the question was related to the fatwa issued by another cleric who said such acts are allowed under Islam. He agreed with that religious interpretation. In 2011, Moroccan cleric Zamzami Abdul Bari stated that husbands could sleep with their partners within six hours of their passing.
The university appears to have responded to the widespread criticism by calling him to account for his “unauthorized media appearances.” It is a bizarre version of our own debate over free speech rights for academics in the United States. We have been discussing how there is still no clear line for the disciplining of out-of-school statements — leading to the danger of arbitrary and content-based discrimination of free speech. In this case, the university appears to have had little problem with the past appearances of Abdel Rauof when he was holding forth on Islamic law.
I have previously discussed my dislike for Sharia legal systems around the world, which impose medieval values on countries like Saudi Arabia as public law. I also (like most of humanity) find this particular concept repulsive and legitimately criminalized around the world. However, there remains the question of what standard applies and why this academic is being barred from speaking and subjected to university review. Notably, the university has also referred another academic for review because she appeared in the debate and opposes the view of Abdel Rauoff. Al-Azhar University President Mohamed Hussein el-Mahrsawy has accused both Abdel-Raouf and Dr Soad Saleh for their media appearances. Soad Saleh rejected the fatwa of Abdel-Raouf and said that sex with your dead wife is akin to adultery.
When you treat religion as a “law,” you inevitably invite such extreme interruptions over what God permits. While Abdel Rauof and his university may dress this up as a type of “jurisprudence,” it is the same religious orthodoxy that leads to other extreme rules. I am therefore shocked by the practice but not the fact that some clerics would view it as permissible. Indeed, this university is also viewed as the leading authoring on Sunni Islam — blurring not only the lines between religious and the law but clerics and academics.
The government in Egypt also asserts the right to bar clerics from the media if they espouse religious interpretations deemed improper. Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation issued an order that prevents any media outlet from airing the views of Abdel Raouf on private or public satellite channels or radio stations. Council chair Makram Mohammed Ahmed said the fatwa insults Islam and disrespects the sanctity of the dead. He ordered that no one discuss such views and called on Al-Azhar to investigate the cleric.
Obviously, I have long advocated a high and deep wall of a separation between church and state. I also do not view Sharia law as an appropriate public legal system any more than I would view Canon law as such a system outside of the confines of the Vatican. It is hard to speak up for academic freedom for professors who advocate the imposition of religious law on others, including some who favor the infamous apostasy and blasphemy laws of Sharia systems. However, free speech should protect both religious and political speech. Admittedly, most such test cases do not come close to the offensiveness of this speech but the test is whether it is the content of the views or the right to express them that should be the determinative question.