Breastmilk and urine: two unlikely bodily fluids to be news fit to print in the New York Times. But an article by Michael Slackman in Tuesday’s edition pours it on, the kind of hook that tabloids feed on, and then it gets milked for less than it is worth. Here is the hook at the front:

First came the breast-feeding fatwa. It declared that the Islamic restriction on unmarried men and women being together could be lifted at work if the woman breast-fed her male colleagues five times, to establish family ties. Then came the urine fatwa. It said that drinking the urine of the Prophet Muhammad was deemed a blessing.

For the past few weeks, the breast-feeding and urine fatwas have proved a source of national embarrassment in Egypt, not least because they were issued by representatives of the highest religious authorities in the land.

Being the New York Times and not the Daily News, there is an immediate caveat, in this case allowing a Muslim voice to state the obvious:

“We were very angered when we heard about the Danish cartoons concerning our prophet; however, these two fatwas are harming our Islamic religion and our prophet more than the cartoons,” Galal Amin, a professor of economics at the American University in Cairo, wrote in Al Masry Al Yom, a daily newspaper here.

These specific cases are news in the sense that they have been newsworthy in Egypt. The urine sample is taken from a book written six years ago in which a Muslim author noted that a woman had once drunk the urine of the Prophet Muhammad. The urine trope has long been a popular Christian apologetic against Islam, but usually involving camels. But you will have to search far-out and wide (as in wide of the mark) to find discussion of a hadith regarding the nutritional value of the urine of Islam’s Prophet. There are a number of hadiths which emphasize a magical element to Muhammad, including a tradition that his sexual prowess was equal to that of forty men. Muslim scholars have long been aware of the problems in interpreting the traditions, which is why they were codified in the first place. They were obviously not sorted out more than a millennium ago based on 21st century rationality, and quite a few strange traditions can be found even in the standard texts; many of the bizarre ones are, however, considered weak. But this overspiritualized flotsam is the nature of all the major religions; a tendency to, shall we say, overstate. Just count the number of Christian churches which claimed to have the relic of Christ’s foreskin or women who miraculously gave birth by venerating the same holy skin.

The problem I have with the reporting is not that it leaves out the important caveats (that almost all Muslims are upset by this, that these kind of rash statements and over-the-counter fatwas are not representative of the official position, etc.), but what the average reader, even of the New York Times, will remember over a few beers. If a poll could be taken of how many of the people who read the article think that Muslims allow drinking urine, I hesitate to think of the response. If the news is in how the issue is being dealt with in Egypt, then why dangle the raw meat up front and fit it in as news?

Then there is the breastmilk. Lost in the laughter here is a cultural tradition with deep roots in the Middle East. There is a form of fictive kinship called a “milk relationship.” If two unrelated women are friends or neighbors and they at some point breastfeed each other’s child, this establishes a kin relationship of closeness to the point where marriage between the two breastfed “siblings” would be tantamount to incest in the public eye. Given the enormous importance of kinship in the history of the Middle East (and hardly just the Middle East), this is a pragmatic option for establishing close friendships. But the idea that the men in an office could suck milk from a woman in hijab so it would be alright for her to take it off and remain chaste is so off base that calling it “ludicrous” would seem an understatement.

Here is how Slackman describes the claim:

The breast-feeding fatwa came in mid-May. A religious scholar, who headed a department that studies the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings at the Foundation of Religion College of Al Azhar University, wrote that there had been instances in the time of the prophet when adult women breast-fed adult men in order to avoid the need for women to wear a veil in front of them.

“Breast-feeding an adult puts an end to the problem of the private meeting, and does not ban marriage,” wrote the scholar, Izat Atiyah. “A woman at work can take off the veil or reveal her hair in front of someone whom she breast-fed.”

The ruling was mocked on satellite television shows around the region, and was quickly condemned at home. Mr. Atiyah was suspended from his job, mocked in newspapers and within days issued a retraction, saying it was a “bad interpretation of a particular case.”

Needless to say, apart from an “East-of-Bollywood” producer looking for a really bizarre reality show for beyond-progressive Muslims, this kind of statement is on a par with Western scholars who seriously claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. To hark back to the urine sample above, this scenario does not hold water, let alone pass it. My comment about milk relationship is relevant here, because an Azhar scholar named Mabruk Attia has suggested that the so-called fatwa is based on a faulty interpretation of a special case in which the Prophet Muhammad advised a woman to milk her adopted son, who was already grown up, in order to become his milk mother, after adoption was banned by the Islam. In this case, the woman gave him some of her milk to drink from a container, but not from direct breast feeding. The allure of the account loses its hook value rather quickly here.

It is easy, all too easy, to find specific statements in religious texts or by religious scholars that are patent nonsense, at least in hindsight. But this goes for every religion I know. It is not just that there are skeletons in the closet; there are whole cemetaries of dead-headed claims because we humans love a good story and tend to embellish just about everything. Dueling quote mongering is the stuff of apologetic armageddon, but it has little relevance to the everyday life of people who practice a religion.

The real story, elided in the New York Times article, is that Muslims are as rational as anyone else. The notions that a woman was told to drink the urine of the Prophet and that clerical co-workers might line up and suck the breasts (if they want milk, it might help if she is pregnant or already had a child) of a female colleague are tabloid fodder. Do we really need to dredge up all these fat-chance fatwas? Why not run a column on the same page about Pat Robertson’s latest missives from the divine?

[For more information on the milk fatwa, click here.]

Daniel Martin Varisco