Ask Ayatollah Sistani!

What the Iraqi Constitution will and won’t allow.

The Iraqi Constitution is finally written, sort of, and it bears remarkable similarity to the winning entry in Chatterbox’s “draw the lumberjack”-style reader contest in that it sidesteps a lot of contentious issues. But one section of the constitution is, I think, being wrongly identified as a fudge. I refer to the following text:

1. Islam is a main source for legislation.
   a. No law may contradict Islamic standards.
   b. No law may contradict democratic standards.

Ask the ayatollah 
        Click image to expand.
Ask the ayatollah

My Slate colleague Fred Kaplan calls this “a contradiction that would befuddle the most probing judicial review. …. For women especially, Islamic law itself contravenes the principles of democracy and basic liberties.” But “democracy” and “basic liberties” don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. As Fareed Zakaria noted in his 2003 book The Future of Freedom (click here for a review displaying rare insight), a polity may choose, democratically, to deny basic freedoms prized by a minority—or even freedoms that, on any other day, might be prized by the majority. So while the Sunnis seem nuts to resist compromise on the constitution—having no oil gives Sunnis a much larger stake than the Kurds or the Shiites in maintaining a unified Iraq—I can nonetheless understand why the Sunnis are worried that the Iraq is about to become a theocratic state.

What do Iraq’s Shiites want? Whenever I find myself pondering that question, I log onto the state-of-the-art Web site maintained in five languages by Grand Ayatollah Uzmah Sistani. There I click through to the Q and A section, “Fiqh & Beliefs,” which would more appropriately be called “Ask Ayatollah Sistani.” (Fiqh, according to the site glossary, means “a science of religious jurisprudence.”) It’s a little like Slate’s Dear Prudence column. You can ask your own questions, or, if you just want to lurk, you can find answers to the questions of others.  For instance, I was unaware, until I logged on today, that backgammon—a game widely believed to have originated in what is now Iraq—is forbidden, while anal sex is permitted (though frowned upon). What follows are some questions from the Web site (mildly embellished, but substantively unaltered) paired with the Ayatollah’s verbatim responses.

Dear Ayatollah,

Iraq could use some decent accountants, and I’ve been thinking of entering the field. But to be an accountant, you have to be willing to keep a record of transactions involving interest. If I promise not to give or take interest myself, and to disapprove when others do, may I become an accountant?

Unemployed Econ Major

Dear Unemployed Econ Major,

Given the supposition made in your question, the job is not permissible because it involves keeping, recording and dealing with interest based transactions.

Dear Ayatollah,

I’ve got 40 pounds I just can’t lose. My boyfriend says he’s going to leave me if I don’t shed them, and I’ve been exercising like mad, with not much to show for it. May I get liposuction?

Tubby and Tormented

Dear Tubby and Tormented,

It is permissible.

Dear Ayatollah,

If I happen to walk past a bare-chested man working at a construction site on a particularly hot day, may I look at him?

Cabin Fever

Dear Cabin Fever,

Looking of a woman at a stranger’s (ajnabi) body is forbidden, if it is with lust and fear of falling in sin. It is not even permissible to look without that (lust and fear) also as a measure of obligatory precaution except for the parts of body which normally a man does not cover i.e. head, hand and ankles which a woman can look at if it is without lust and without fear of falling in sin.

Dear Ayatollah,

My husband has been begging me for oral sex. His birthday is coming up. May I treat him to a hummer?

Islamist Princess

Dear Islamist Princess,

Oral sex act is permissible with the consent of both husband and wife provided that no liquid gets into the mouth.

Dear Ayatollah,

I’m running for mayor of Baghdad. May I shake the hands of appropriately veiled girls?

Get Out The Vote

Dear Get Out The Vote,

It is not permissible.

Dear Ayatollah,

I’m an exchange student this year at a college in England. I’d like to try out for the cricket team. May I play cricket?


Dear Anglophile,

There is no objection in it.

Got a question about what basic liberties the Iraqi Constitution will allow and not allow? Contact Ayatollah Sistani at!