In the early years of the Iranian Revolution, an obscure cleric named Ayatollah Gilani became a sensation on state television by contemplating bizarre hypotheticals at the intersection of Islamic law and sexuality. One of his most outlandish scenarios -- still mocked by Iranians three decades later -- went like this:
Imagine you are a young man sleeping in your bedroom. In the bedroom directly below, your aunt lies asleep. Now imagine that an earthquake happens that collapses your floor, causing you to fall directly on top of her. For the sake of argument, let's assume that you're both nude, and you're erect, and you land with such perfect precision on top of her that you unintentionally achieve intercourse. Is the child of such an encounter halalzadeh (legitimate) or haramzadeh (a bastard)?
Such tales of random ribaldry may sound anomalous in the seemingly austere, asexual Islamic Republic of Iran. But the "Gili Show," as it came to be known, had quite the following among both the traditional classes, who were titillated by his taboo topics, and the Tehrani elite, who tuned in for comic relief. Gilani helped spawn what is now a virtual cottage industry of clerics and fundamentalists turned amateur sexologists offering incoherent advice on everything from quickies ("The man's goal should be to lighten his load as soon as possible without arousing his woman") to masturbation ("a grave, grave sin which causes scientific and medical harm").
Perhaps it's not entirely surprising that Iran's Shiite fundamentalists -- not unlike their evangelical Christian, Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, and Sunni Muslim counterparts -- spend an inordinate amount of time pondering sexuality. They are human, after all. But the sexual manias of Iran's religious fundamentalists are worthy of greater scrutiny, all the more so because they control a state with nuclear ambitions, vast oil wealth, and a young, dynamic, stifled population. Yet for a variety of reasons -- fear of becoming Salman Rushdie, of being labeled an Orientalist, of upsetting religious sensibilities -- the remarkable hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is often studiously avoided.
That's a mistake. Because religion is politics in a theocracy like Iran, uninformed or antiquated notions of sexuality aren't just confined to the bedroom -- they pervade the country's seminaries, military barracks, boardrooms, courtrooms, and classrooms. A common aphorism among Iranians is that before the revolution, people partied outside the home and prayed inside, while today they pray outside and party inside. This reverse dichotomy is true of a lot of social behavior in Iran. For many Iranians, this perverse state of affairs is now so ingrained, such an inherent aspect of daily interactions with Iranian officialdom, that it is no longer noteworthy. For those in the West who seek to better understand what makes Tehran tick, though, the regime's curious fixation on sex cannot be ignored.
To paraphrase the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill, in the Islamic Republic of Iran all politics may not be sexual, but all sex is political. Exhibit A is the revolution's father, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Like all Shiite clerics aspiring to become a "source of emulation" (marja'-e taqlid), Khomeini spent the first part of his career meticulously examining and dispensing religious guidance on personal behavior and ritual purity that ranged from the mundane ("It is recommended not to hold back the need to urinate or defecate, especially if it hurts") to the surprisingly lewd.
In his 1961 religious treatise A Clarification of Questions (Towzih al-Masael), Khomeini issued detailed pronouncements on issues ranging from sodomy ("If a man sodomizes the son, brother, or father of his wife after their marriage, the marriage remains valid") to bestiality ("If a person has intercourse with a cow, a sheep, or a camel, their urine and dung become impure and drinking their milk will be unlawful"). As a young boy growing up in the American Midwest, I remember being both horrified and bewildered after coming across these precise passages in a translated volume of Khomeini's sayings I found in our Persian émigré home.
Scholars of Shiism -- including harsh critics of Khomeini -- emphasize that such themes were the norm among clerics of Khomeini's generation and should be understood in their proper context: Islam was a religion that emerged out of a rural desert, and the Prophet Mohammed was himself once a shepherd. Whereas religions like Christianity and Judaism simply declare such behavior to be sinful, Islam addresses them from a juridical point of view.
The underlying problem, says Islamic scholar Mehdi Khalaji, a former seminary student in the Shiite epicenter of Qom, is not that such issues were addressed, but the fact that "Islamic jurisprudence hasn't yet been modernized. It's totally disconnected from the issues that modern, urban people have to deal with."
Indeed, Khomeini's religious prescriptions are often the butt of jokes among Iran's post-revolutionary generations. "I've never even seen a camel in Tehran," prominent Iranian cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar told me, "let alone been tempted to have sex with one."
IF THERE IS A DOUBLE ENTENDRE that aptly captures today's Middle East, it is the "youth bulge." The Arab world's median age is 22, Iran's is 27; Western Europe's, by contrast, is near 40. High levels of Internet and satellite television penetration, with their pervasive pornography, coupled with the region's youthful demographics, have accentuated the Muslim Middle East's fraught relationship with sexuality.
Google Trends, which monitors searches from around the world, shows that of the seven countries that most frequently search the word "sex" on Google, five are Muslim and one (India) has a large Muslim minority. (The word "sexy" is even more popular among Arabs.) Google Insights, another trend spotter, shows that the most rapidly rising search term for Iranians so far in 2012 has been "Golshifteh Farahani," a popular exiled actress who in January posed topless for the French magazine Madame Figaro.