July 3, 2015 By Shameer.ks

How to Transgender Islam


Joseph Massad, professor of Arab politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, is a towering post-colonial theorist and political scientist. Wide-ranging though his academic interests are, his writings primarily focus, just as those of his teacher Edward Said do, on the aggressive colonial politics of Israel and the western liberal nation states. At the theoretical level, he has written about the Otherness of Islam in the western liberal thought and the racist-colonial preoccupations in the “western” academia in selecting and dissecting Islam as an episteme. In that sense, he specially chooses the discourses on Sexual diversity and Islam.

In 2007, Massad published his Desiring Arabs. The word “Desiring” is deliberately ambiguous. Desiring as a gerund (verbal noun) signifies that someone (“West”) ‘desires’ Arabs. In Other words, anxieties and imaginations of the west about Arabs are transformed into the process of desiring. Or the “west” desires the way Arabs are supposed to be responding to the question of sexuality in general. It can also be the desire for Arab body. Desire can be used adjectively as Arabs subjects desiring human bodies. It evokes the picture outlined in European travels and tales like Arabian Nights of “ugly” Arabs satisfying their lust in the most pervert way possible.

In the sexuality debate in Kerala, the southern state of India, two different pictures about Muslims come to fore. The first is about a puritan Muslim imposing the codes of “Victorian morality” on general public. The second picture is that of a paedophilic, gay Muslim in pop culture including cinemas. Same is the case about European desires of Arab. The West desires (imagines with craving) the Arab to bear the burden of its own homophobic past in the present. That desire is contrasted by the image in pop culture, including Burton’s classic translation of Arabian Nights, of Arabs’ sexual desires, especially their homoerotic leanings.

A summary of Massad’s arguments in Desiring Arabs has been made in Massad’s latest work Islam in Liberalism.

  1. There is a tendency to universalize ”historically and culturally specific’ sexuality and its derivatives such as homosexuality and heterosexuality (and bisexuality).” Historical and cultural experiences of sexuality in Europe and other societies are different from one another.
  2. “The specific history of the US gay movement as part of American social and cultural history (and the correlate development of “straightness” as its normative counterpart), was exported to Britain and non-English-speaking Western Europe.” There was “the attempt to export it to the rest of the world as an Anglo-American-centric identity category whose proponents insist on its universality and universalizability while maintaining its specific English name across languages and cultures.”
  3. “The scholarly and activist commitment to the Euro-centric and imperial insistence that these culturally and historically specific categories be made universal and that the world be assimilated into European and Euro-American normativity as the only path to civilized modernity that merits “Western” tolerance and recognition.
  4. That these assimilationist activities, effected through the process of translation, result in the production of precisely what liberal Western-based scholars and sexual rights activists claim to be resisting in Europe and Euro-America and outside them, namely that by universalizing the hetero-homo binary, they end up heterosexualizing the world, not “queering” it.
  5. A scholarly and activist commitment to what Foucault calls “the repressive hypothesis” in looking at sex and desire outside Europe and Euro-America, especially among Muslims, as “repressed,” “confined,” “restricted,” and that their intervention will set it “free” and rescue and save their Muslim practitioners from their Muslim oppressors.

In discussions on sexual minorities in Islam, western liberal discourses are predominant. The gaze has now been averted to the east, especially in Islamic societies, where liberal homosexual people are considered to be actually liberated from the repressive conditions of religious authority. A similar case in point is the one that was made about western feminist movements like Femen that put forth a universal category of misogynist oppression, which has been used by the western forces that invaded Afghanistan. Also important is the fact that the LGBT groups in western societies determine modalities and conditions of involvement without understanding that the western experience can’t be the template in all societies.

Ziauddin Sardar, a commentator sympathetic to queer groups, is at the same time critical of overtly sexualized mannerism and behaviour of these groups in the west. In his article on homosexuality in the book Reading the Quran, Zia chastises contemporary gay and lesbian behaviour in western societies for “lavishing attention on looks, clothes, certain kinds of pop music and promiscuity’ which echoes the excesses of Lot’s people and which is aped blindly in Muslim societies.’ According to Terry Eagleton (in his On Evil) a sexually -obsessed pop culture thriving on a successful sex industry promoting fetishism and consumerism (toy shops) is in its turn the cultural capital of a unipolar world order imagined by the west. So the discussion on transgender in Islam should be made free from assumptions and imaginations of the capital.

Jane Hatheway’s Beshir Agha: The Chief Eunuch of Ottoman Court is a remarkable book. The book gives a different picture of eunuchs (khunsa) in Islamic societies from the one usually spread about them in romantic works (including written histories). What makes him different is not his capacity as a soldier or court jest, but his role as librarian and manuscript collector in the Ottoman court. He rendered invaluable service to the Ottomans as a collector of rare manuscripts on Islam and as a reformer and overseer of the library. He codified fatawa and masa’ail across fiqh schools and was a major juris scholar in the court.

There are, however, some orientalist tropes in Hatheway’s analysis of Beshir Aga’s life, though she is aware of that.One remarkable observation is that Beshir Agha was purchased from a slave market in Africa and was sterilized before he was admitted to the Ottoman court. In dominant European narratives, khunsas are considered as not desiring female sexuality. The Quranic reference to ‘those who don’t desire women’ among the non-female categories before whom hijab need not be observed is taken to mean khunsas in several interpretations. Doesn’t the sterilization narrative conflict with predominant interpretation of the sexuality of the transgender in Islamic texts?

Hatheway quotes British diplomat Paul Raycaut in her exploration of the reasons for sterilization. Women usually keep away from black slaves out of abomination, Raycaut says, and sterilization would remove the situation of salves not approaching women for sex. Hatheway clearly points out the conflation of racist mentalities, attitudes and imaginations of the white in the west, at least at his time, for back bodies with the Ottoman imagination. The problem can be made glaring by the question as to whether a civilisation that introduced Bilal, the black slave, as the clarion call of Islam can imagine black bodies in the same way that Europe visualizes. The problem is that in connection with transgender, sources remain to be people like Rycaut.

A different archive about transgender and diverse sexuality should be unearthed in the Islamic domain for us to have an unencumbered concept of Islam and sexuality.


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