In the front room of his suburban home in Bradford, England, Imam Alyas Karmani is waiting for a scheduled Skype call. On the hour, a woman calls. She speaks softly and there’s nervousness in her tone. She’s calling from Morocco and though she’s in her 20s, she says she’s afraid of her parents hearing the conversation. “I felt so bad about my habit that I used to cut myself. You have really helped me, Imam. Thank you.”
This is one in a series of counseling sessions with “Nadia.” For months now, she’s been in conversation with the Imam. He reassures her: “Masturbation is not forbidden.”
For a BBC radio program, The Muslim Sex Doctor, I spent a week sitting in on the Imam’s sexual counselling sessions, meeting and hearing for the first time from the men and women who turn to him for pastoral advice about their sexual concerns or passions.
It’s a valuable insight into a community that normally just doesn’t talk about sex. It is a subject where people growing up amidst both Muslim and Western culture have very different levels of acceptance, and that can leave many who value their faith confused or worried.
As a society, we ought to understand this dilemma better, so I have tried to find out why in modern Britain his clients come to get sex advice in a specifically Islamic context. The frankness with which the Imam discusses anything his clients ask him about may be alarming to people who are used to the discussion of sex being explicitly, and often exclusively, linked to procreation. As a result, this Imam has gained an international reputation for applying the Koran and Hadith (accounts of the Prophet Mohammed’s life) to the sex lives of Muslims.
The Iman tells me he “grew up in Tooting [in London] and the general rule was: Don’t get seen with a girl and don’t talk about sexual feelings. Muslims in Britain and in much of the world are in a state of sexual denial.”
Even putting aside his enviable flat-cap collection, Alyas is not an average Imam. He studied psychology at Glasgow University and is working on a PhD in “The Crises of Masculinity and Urban Male Violence”. He loves bossa nova jazz but gave away his entire record collection when he discovered a more “orthodox” version of his faith in the late 1980s.
Today, at fortysomething, he is as comfortable discussing contemporary culture as he is leading Friday prayers at Bradford’s Muhammadia Mosque. It’s precisely this ability to tread two cultures with such grace that makes Alyas a boon to many Muslims in Britain who would be reluctant to share the intimate details of their sex lives with most other Imams, with family members or even friends.
Alyas tells me there is a method and a logic to forming his conclusions. “I have studied this area extensively and we know that everything is halal [permitted] unless it is expressly prescribed as haram [forbidden].” It’s this method of referencing text that makes the Imam’s advice so palatable to his clients, many of whom would not feel comfortable taking it from an exclusively secular source. But the system of Koranic interpretation and, more so, reliance upon Hadith can be dense and complicated.
While there, I meet “Gabriel,” a 23-year-old university student who contacted Alyas about masturbation. When I point out that, in my understanding, students masturbating is “pretty normal,” Gabriel snaps. “I thought it was 100 per cent haram.”
He first contacted the Imam after seeing a Hadith that referenced men on the day of judgment with “pregnant hands.” He applied this to his own life and began dreading the day he would face God with his hand in prenatal agony. It was only after long conversation with the Imam that the authenticity of such a Hadith was questioned. Alyas concludes the session. “Often, people bring textual proofs that don’t have any validity. I know that narration to be something which is unreliable.”
As a Muslim born and raised in Britain, I have personal experience of trying to discuss sex with an Imam. I remember being 15 and asking the Imam in my home town of Huddersfield why I had such raging desire and what I could do to control it.
I was told to “avoid eating dates and raisins.” In my Imam’s view, my teenage libido had little to do with my hormones and everything to do with dried fruit. These notions are not explicitly Islamic. They are rooted in South Asian culture. It’s believed that nine out of 10 Imams who work in Britain today were born outside of the UK. The result is often a Mosque leadership that struggles to meet the needs of the congregation it serves.
Imam Alyas explains: “I believe 80 percent of being an Imam is pastoral care and 20 percent is about leading prayers. Most Imams in Britain have it the other way around. The faith actually has a very mature and progressive take on these issues. Islam gave women the right to an orgasm 1,400 years ago. A woman has reasonable grounds for divorce if her husband cannot sexually satisfy her. It is in fact cultural attitudes that have distorted faith notions to [cause people to] feel shame and embarrassment around a fundamental human behaviour.”
These cultural notions and the structures that uphold them can sometimes have devastating implications. The Imam has been advising “Mo” for 18 months. He got in touch, initially expressing anxiety over his upcoming wedding night. He said he was unsure if he’d be “able to satisfy his wife”. But after just a few a counseling sessions, Mo told the Imam that he had been sexually abused by an older male from age 10. This was his formative sexual experience and something that had an impact on the rest of his life.
Increasingly, the Imam is trying to take the discussion about Muslim sex lives to the public space. On my last day with him, I saw him deliver a Friday sermon exploring the “pornification” of society. The subject matter made some of the congregation visibly nervous. This is, after all, a space that is increasingly reserved for the discussion of ideals from Islamic history rather than specific contemporary issues.
“You get it in the neck from the Muslim community, who don’t understand what you’re doing — who think you’re actually trying to undermine Islamic values because they profoundly misunderstand your role —and so they therefore then label you as someone who is immodest.
"And then I get it in the neck from the other side, because what the other side is basically saying is: Why do you persist with Islam? Islam seems to be the problem, all you have to do to is ditch Islam. You’re reinforcing values which are actually creating difficulties and problems for people. And that’s a profound misunderstanding of Islam and Muslims and what we want in Britain society, and the fact that we’re part of British society. We’re trying to come to a balance.”
The names of those seeking advice from Imam Alyas Karmani have been changed to protect their identities.
‘The Muslim Sex Doctor’ is broadcast on the BBC World Service radio on 16 November.