According to official statistics from Morocco’s Ministry of Public Health, from the beginning of the AlDS pandemic to 1997, 450 cases of HIV infection had been recorded in the country. At the same time, a minimum of 100,000 new cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as syphilis, gonorrhea, chancroid and genital herpes are reported annually in Morocco. [1]

In 1997, the high number of STD infections led The Population Council’s MEAwards Program [2] to fund a study of the relationship between HIV and sexual behavior among young Moroccans. Conducted by the author, the study, called “Youth, AIDS and Islam,” consisted of interviews with controlled samples of young Moroccans in Morocco and living abroad. [3] The study asked if young Moroccans understood the risk of HIV infection and if this understanding was sufficient to produce changes in sexual behavior. The different responses to this question generally reflected the interviewees’ places of residence and understandings of Islam. More than 40 percent of the interviewees raised the question of Islam as it relates to premarital sex. Specifically, many thought that, until they were able to marry, the Moroccan ‘ulama’ (clergy) should issue a ruling sanctioning their use of condoms during premarital sexual activities.

Premarital Sex and Islam

The young people claim that they are subject to strong sexual temptations and, at the same time, to an Islamic sexual ethic that proscribes all premarital sexual activity. To counter the risk of HIV infection, some believe that Islam must adapt to the current situation of young people, who, for economic reasons, are often unable to marry. They ask that their premarital sexual activity be legitimated and protected by the ‘ulama’ by making the use of prophylactics permissible. For them, Islam needs to be interpreted to meet the needs of a contemporary society.

For young people, the clear Islamic solution for reducing HIV risk is premarital sexual abstinence and early marriage. “I agree with Islam when it preaches abstinence and early marriage as ways to protect oneself,” said one youth. This attitude occurs more frequently among Moroccans in country than among those abroad. Those who knew nothing about these prescriptions were rare and always lived in Europe. “I don’t know what Islam teaches about sexual activity” states a male Moroccan high school student in Angers, France. Among Moroccans abroad, acceptance of traditional Islamic solutions is found mostly among women. A female university student in Holland states that, “Islam is the best defense against AIDS.” She concludes that, “A Muslim, by devoting himself to prayer and sport, can put the brakes on his desires…and stay away from all sexually stimulating situations.”

The internalization of an Islamic sexual ethic leads young people to feel that they sin with every premarital sexual contact. Many of them feel they are caught between the call of a “modern” lifestyle, where sexual activity is considered a normal part of life, and the message of official Islam, which sanctions only marital sexual activity. For most young Moroccans, the norm of premarital sexual abstinence is very difficult to uphold.

Abstinence is even more difficult for those living in western societies, where visible manifestations of Islam are rare and limited. An unemployed Moroccan male in Utrecht believes that abstinence is “very difficult in Holland.” He states, “Sex is in plain view everywhere…but not a single mosque is in sight.”

In general, the young people interviewed also reject the idea of early marriage. They believe that early marriage is not possible for everyone (because of the unemployment that awaits them), that adolescence does not permit them to assume the moral responsibilities of marriage, and that early marriage will only exacerbate the demographic explosion in the Arab world. Young women see marriage as a prison to be entered only after an adequate formal education and “going out a little first.” For one young male Moroccan emigrant, "early marriage does not mean monogamy or faithfulness."

Even when not citing the stimulation caused by the media, young Moroccans define and assign new functions to sexual activity that break with the Islamic model. For one young person, sex is a way to forget, a form of compensation for the inaccessibility of marriage. Chronic sexual frustration is even perceived as a cause of psychological imbalance. A young woman goes so far as to claim that, “Sex is a necessary condition for thinking well.”

Young people do not merely question the classical Islamic position. They hope that the ‘ulama’ will permit them to engage in premarital sexual activity. For some of those interviewed, of course, Islamic norms regarding sexual activity are not subject to opinion because opinion is not relevant to matters of religion. Prescriptions are to be strictly applied without attempting to understand and/or discuss them. A female secretary in an insurance office in Fez believes that “the fuqaha’ (Muslim jurists) cannot recommend prophylactics for young people, because that would amount to encouraging them to commit zina (fornication)…. The fuqaha’ cannot consent to young people making love before they get married.” For the majority the traditional, restrictive prescriptions of Islam stem from the essence of Islam.

In opposition to this traditionalist point of view, young critics demand that Islam recognize their premarital sexual activity in order to protect them from HIV. An unemployed male in Utrecht summarizes the issue: “The fuqaha’ must propose solutions for young people…. They cannot practice abstinence…and there is AIDS.” In Morocco, some young women wish that Islam were more comprehensive: “It should give people the right to have a sex life without being punished.”

An Islamist male architect in Fez says: “The original solution is abstinence. Given the conditions in which young people live and the fact that abstinence is non-existent, the condom is the temporary…solution…. It means protected sexual activity for young people, until the problems of illiteracy, poverty and unemployment can be solved, and young people can get married.”

According to a male university student, “Islam in Morocco cannot propose any solutions because of fundamentalist opposition.” The student’s perception is accurate. The journal al-Sahwa, a publication of the radical Islamist association al-‘Adl wa al-Ihsan, published an article by Abderrazaq El Marrouri that is extremely critical of prophylactics. According to the author, AIDS is God’s punishment for those who choose to fornicate. It is therefore necessary to appeal to young Muslim Moroccans to return to Islam, not to fight AIDS by using prophylactics as the minister of public health and some NGOs suggest. The author criticizes the distribution of brochures about AIDS and prophylactics that has occurred in some private and public high schools. According to him, “The condom is the vector of the pandemic of fornication and lewdness.” Will this strict, purist position prevent the Moroccan ‘ulama’ from issuing innovative edicts that would legitimate the position of the minister of public health and meet the expectations of these youth?

The ‘Ulama’ Respond

According to A. Tazi Saoud, rector of Qarawiyyin University, the proper use of ijtihad (interpretation) can never justify a forbidden act. Taking the prohibition of fornication as a starting point, there is no question of discussing ways to protect those who commit it from HIV risk. In his view, making the use of prophylactics lawful would encourage fornication.

Mohammed Issef, dean of the university’s faculty of shari‘a, states that the prohibition of fornication is a given because the Qur’anic text on the subject is clear and needs no interpretation. To avoid fornication, the Prophet recommended marriage or fasting (which leads to abstinence). The duty of Islamic society thus is to work to make marriage possible for every sexually mature young person.

The ‘ulama’ were asked if it “is possible to apply the principle that ’necessity makes the forbidden lawful‘ [4] to establish a law of exceptional conduct.” According to the dean, this principle may only be applied after a forbidden act has been committed. Once the prohibition has been violated, the fuqaha’ examine the case to see if the reasons for the violation make it lawful. This does not create a general principle according to which the psychological or physical need to have sex justifies violating the prohibition of fornication. For the dean, the principle that it is lawful in the case of necessity to “choose the least objectionable of unlawful acts” is equally inapplicable. This principle applies only when a Muslim is compelled to choose between violating a prohibition (fornication, consumption of alcohol or pork, and so on) and the threat of death. In an earlier age, some fuqaha’ believed that this principle could be extended to the case of female prostitutes, recognizing the income of a prostitute as lawful if she can find no other way to support herself. In any event, the necessity that makes a forbidden act lawful must be strictly necessary for the sake of survival and can be assessed only on a case-by-case basis.

Even in the context of possible HIV infection, the Islamist establishment cannot recommend that young people who commit fornication use prophylactics to protect themselves. According to the dean, fornication with a prophylactic is as objectionable as fornication without a prophylactic. Both acts are fundamentally forbidden. The dean believes that in the current state of affairs any solution except the Islamic solutions of marriage and fasting can only be proposed on an individual basis for those who have chosen or are “compelled” to commit fornication. No official spokesperson for Islam could take responsibility for issuing an edict that authorized the use of prophylactics in extramarital sexual activity for the sake of preventing HIV infection.

The dean suggests that the solutions that do not contradict Islamic law must be studied collectively, with specialists in the social sciences and the humanities participating in the process. Likewise, it is necessary to engage the state, political parties, professional organizations and unions to find a rapid solution to the sexual crisis among young people. Young Moroccans receive two messages, directly opposed to one another yet coming from the same government. The minister of health calls on them to use condoms, while the minister of religious affairs orders them to practice abstinence or marry. Faced with this contradiction, young people are forced to cobble together an ideology. The result is that their sexual activity is guilt-ridden, opportunistic and risky. What is needed is a real dialogue on the national level between scientists and religious experts, under the sponsorship of these two ministers in order to formulate a coherent government policy. The dean believes that the minister of public health who encouraged young people to use prophylactics without consulting the ‘ulama’ acted in error. It is this lack of coordination that plunges young people into chaos.

—Elizabeth M. Bergman translated the article from French.


[1] Pessimistic sources estimate new cases of STDs at 400,000 a year. The combination of the low incidence of AIDS infection and the high frequency of at-risk behavior and STDs is a paradox, assuming the accuracy of the Ministry of Public Health’s statistics A report by the World Health Organization indicates that the actual number of people with AIDS is four times the published figure.
[2] MEAwards (Middle East Awards) is a regional research award administered by the Cairo office of the Population Council, a nonprofit organization based in New York City.
[3] The age of the sample group ranged from the start of puberty (12-13 years old) to 35 years old. During the investigation, 162 young Moroccans were contacted — 100 living in-country, 50 living abroad and 12 young Moroccans who were former emigrants. In addition, four focus groups were brought together two in France of young Moroccans living abroad, and two in Morocco of young Moroccans in Morocco.
[4] See the original context of this principle in Good Intentions [Les bonnes intentions] by Al-Hafid As-Sakhawhi. Necessity here is accepted to violate a prohibition or die: One who is in danger of death may haves sip of wine or eat a mouthful of a prohibited food in order to live, only taking in what one needs.

How to cite this article:

Abdessamad Dialmy "Moroccan Youth, Sex and Islam," Middle East Report 206 (Spring 1998).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This