A Professor and a Preacher Debate Sexual Science and Morality
RABAT—A few weeks ago, a preacher in Morocco claimed that sex outside marriage causes cancer. A Moroccan sociologist responded by calling on the authorities and the media to deny a platform to religious figures who spout “idiocies” and whose ignorance represents a public danger.
It started on January 18, when Sumaya Naaman Guessous listened to an episode of “Religion and the World” (El-Deen wa al-Dunya) on Chada FM, a major Moroccan radio station, featuring a well-known religious preacher, Abderrahman Essekach.
Guessous herself is a prominent academic, a sociologist who teaches at Hassan II University in Casablanca. She became famous in the 1980s, when she wrote a best-selling book, Au dela de toute pudeur, (“Beyond all modesty”), about the sex lives of Moroccan women, based on hundreds of interviews. Guessous writes for the press and is an active supporter of women’s rights in Morocco.
Guessous was so shocked and infuriated by what she heard the preacher say that she took to Facebook to write a long open letter to the public and the authorities which was later posted on Huffpost Maghreb.
On his show, the sheikh claimed that Western scientists had recently discovered that when a woman has sexual relations, her partner’s semen inscribes a code in the woman’s vagina and uterus. If the woman has sexual relations with another man, this will provoke uterine and cervical cancer. He explained that the idda period—the period of four months and ten days that widows and divorcees must wait before remarrying, according to Shari’a—is exactly the time it takes to erase the code.
In her post, Guessous described the preacher “raving,” “What Western scientists have just discovered, the Prophet knew already 14 centuries ago. He knew the uterus needs these four months and ten days to change the code of the sperm. How could he know this but by divine miracle?”
Guessous objected that “For the last thirty years, as a sociologist and a lay person, I’ve studied the Qur’an, Hadith and fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] and I’ve consulted true and respectable ulema, and I have never heard of this code.” (Nor does a quick internet search on the topic of scientific discoveries, sperm code and uterine cancer turn up any mentions of this alleged breakthrough.)
Guessous wrote, “Is it normal, in the Morocco of the 21st century—which has such great ambitions to modernize, to educate its population and fight religious obscurantism—to allow these kinds of idiocies? Is it acceptable for the heads of radio stations to give a platform to such ignorant faqihs [Islamic jurists/scholars], to inform and orient our people?”
Guessous points out that the recognized explanation of the idda period is that it allows time to establish the paternity of children. She also notes that Essekach’s words might persuade women who are faithful to their husbands that they don’t need to screen for cancers that are supposedly only caused by sex outside of marriage.
The professor notes that in 2014 Morocco created a new institute for the training of preachers and religious “guides”; this is meant to ensure that only those with a certain level of education and who adopt a mainstream religious discourse hold positions at mosques.
Why, asked Guessous, don’t media outlets call upon these trained religious scholars and preachers and why don’t the authorities, who claim to support a moderate enlightened Islam, more closely monitor religious discourse?
Guessou’s open letter stirred a debate, first on social media and then in traditional media. It raised a host of questions, starting with that of the relationship between scientific knowledge and religious authority, and of the growing “scientific miracles” movement, which tries to demonstrate that all modern scientific discoveries are predicted by verses in the Qur’an.
There is also the question of whether the media and the authorities should do more to prevent the dissemination of certain forms of irresponsible or intolerant religious discourse, while they censor free speech on many political issues. And there is the question of how to discuss the sexual reality of the lives of Moroccans, which many scholars have argued for decades is quite different in practice from what is legally, socially and religiously sanctioned.
Most of these questions were not addressed during a follow-up debate on Chada FM. The station refused to apologize. It defended the preacher’s remarks in the name of freedom of expression and said they were taken out of context. But it did invite Guessous on a further program, to debate another controversial religious figure, the Salafist preacher Mohamed Fizazi.
I watched this debate and I was struck by how quickly it veered away from what I thought was the central question: the validity of the Essakach’s pseudo-scientific claims, and how to ensure that dubious claims and injunctions aren’t blithely propounded by men wrapped in religious authority.
But Chada FM seems to have viewed the debate not as a chance to redeem itself but rather as another opportunity to sell a sensationalized story to listeners. The debate debate was advertised as a discussion of the phenomenon of “multiple sexual relations outside marriage.” Early on, the presenter asked Guessous and Fizazi questions such as: Are you for or against sex outside marriage? Are you for or against polygamy? Are you for or against fasting in Ramadan? The preacher had simple answers to all of these; Guessous’s more nuanced responses balanced personal freedom and women’s rights with religious belief.
Soon, the sheikh was telling the female scholar: “You’re speaking of something that’s not your domain. You don’t understand the Qur’an,” to which Guessous replied: “It’s my Qur’an just like it’s your Qur’an” [el-qur’an diali wa dialik].
As Guessous wrote in a lengthy Facebook post after the debate, many of her friends and colleagues had advised her not to participate in the debate. As she had expected, Fizazi engaged in “attacks, not on my ideas, but on my person, my faith, my dignity and on my role as a teacher.” The preacher accused her of being Westernized, of importing her ideas from abroad, of supporting sex outside marriage and moral corruption, and of being an unbeliever.
Guessous claimed she was satisfied with her decision to fight for her ideas in public. Both the way the radio station framed the debate and the way the preacher attacked her proved her original point, she said—that religious discourse and media coverage urgently need to change.
Chada FM has now been asked to explain itself by the High Authority of Audiovisual Communication. Yet the HACA has already issued three warnings to the preacher Essekach—for discriminatory and inciting remarks—with no effect.
Meanwhile, the price is steep for academics, such as Guesssous, who dare to question the soundness of what religious figures say. They face public vilification and sometimes even threats to their personal safety.
“The role of a faqih,” wrote Guessous in her account of the radio debate, “is to listen to others, to inform them if they are making mistakes, to guide them in the right direction and not to try to destroy them in the eyes of public opinion by accusing them of being kafirs [unbelievers]. Only God can judge who is a good believer or not.”