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Sex and the Freethinker 

Yes, she said “pussy,” but don’t call Mohja Kahf progressive

Wednesday, Jan 3 2007
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“Talk terroristic to me, baby,” she said, all her alert levels soft and rising . . .

“Want to go for another baby before they drag me away to Gitmo?” he growled in her ear.

God she loved the FBI; it was better than Viagra.

These are exactly the kinds of words that have gotten Mohja Kahf into trouble with ultraconservative Muslims. They’re also what her growing Muslim fan base has come to expect from her writing, which ranges from the recently published coming-of-age novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, to scholarly papers as part of her work as a professor at the University of Arkansas, to a volume of poetry called E-Mails From Scheherazad. And, of course, there is her online column, “Sex and the Umma” — advice and short fiction with sexual themes for Muslim sensibilities — which runs infrequently on the Muslim Wake Up! Web site. “Talk Terroristic to Me” is one of the column installments that has brought Kahf more and more attention.

“My Islamic education included positive teachings about sex from the beginning,” Kahf wrote when she introduced her column. “We also learned that a Muslim can talk about sex without shame, that sex can be a form of ibada [worship] like any other human act, and that sex is not tolerated just for the purpose of procreation the way it is in some other religions (or so we learned), but as a good and natural act that God made humans love to do.”

Kahf’s column reflects the way Muslims broke with the Judeo-Christian tendency to describe sex in the most reprehensible, shameful, only-if-you-must colors. As she so frankly puts it, “To whom else but a readership versed in the Quran does a question [in one of her short stories] such as ‘Do we get dick in heaven? Men get pussy. Do we get dick?’ make perfect sense?”

Certainly her column lets uninitiated Westerners in on the secret that healthy Muslims can be sexually free. But as her readership grows and the column continues to gain both positive and negative attention, Kahf feels the need to distinguish her sex project from sex as we commonly know it — to cast it in more of an Islamic mold and reiterate the sexual comfort and health preached at Islam’s formation.

“My sexually themed stories spring from my Islamic values and my particular experience of Arab culture,” she says. “Far from being Western-inspired, my stories come from a sensibility that is aghast at the often casual, crass and soulless attitudes toward sex portrayed in the mass media, including on the program Sex and the City, whose name nevertheless helped name the column — and whose storylines I raptly watched, of course, darling, with the prurient fascination of an amateur Occidentalist.”

Kahf is also firmly against premarital intercourse, “on the grounds that sex is sacred; our bodies, including our sexual organs, should be treated with respect.” Even so, her column speaks not only to Muslim women, but to some of Kahf’s “non-Muslim, 1970s cluster-fuck friends” who “expressed to me the need for a sexual ethics.” Her project is like a search for morals within the sometimes brutally insensitive world of sex: “[I look for] a framework of ethical sexuality that people can take joy in, and I try to find out how that would be expressed in Muslim inflection.”

Kahf works to reconcile spirituality and sexuality, which have been estranged as part of the neo-puritanism that has seized certain segments of the Islamic Umma (community). Many Muslims suffering from sex complexes and anxieties, so foreign to early Muslims’ sexual uninhibitedness, could use a reminder of the good old days centuries ago. In front of a Muslim audience at a Michigan public library, Kahf read a retelling of the romance of Khadijah (the prophet Muhammad’s first wife), to which she gave the nickname “How Khadijah Got Her Groove Back.” “She was a successful businesswoman. It’s a story of a woman and a much younger man,” says Kahf. “They loved it.”

Kahf, who was born in Damascus, Syria, says that Muslims in the Middle East cannot and should not try to escape from a literary past animated by incredibly vivid and humorous sexuality, from the “racy, multicultural, secular” Thousand and One Nights to “our rich heritage of Sufi poetry,” where the “inseparability of eros and spirituality is inescapable.” Kahf gathered enough material to teach a course called “Love and Eros in Literature,” during which she examines “seven or eight Arabic treatises on erotic love from the ninth to the 17th century, many of them by religious scholars.”

With her sexuality excavation work, Kahf has reopened the fragrant box of Muslim love, which leads many to try to label Kahf as a progressive or liberal. But she rejects these labels and even published a list on the Muslim Wake Up! Web site called “Why I Am Not a Progressive Muslim.” At the top of the list: “Labels suck. They don’t do us complex humans justice.” Later in the list she writes, “I hate U.S. foreign policy. I love Islamic traditions.”

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