May 5, 2014 By Interactive Scholars

Muslim Homosexuals: Why is There Much Fuss Around?

Gay-Muslim_fb_106443We are carrying discourses about homosexuality and Islam. It goes without saying that it’s one of the most volcanic topics now (whose eruption here was caused by the recent verdict of Supreme Court of India upholding a 150 year old Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes same-sex sexual intercourse, thereby striking down the Delhi High Court Verdict de-criminalizing the same)

Most of us tend to view homosexuality as a quirk; the very adjective ‘queer’ expresses it unequivocally. ‘Most’ definitely is the problem; homosexuals constitute a minority in the world. Interactive believes that one of the ways to make this world a better place for living together is to lend our ears to the voice of minorities – to bring it up from the muddle of dominant discourses. We believe that homosexuals, especially Muslim homosexuals, make their argument dialectically. Neither do we try to suppress the facts; nor do they escape from the arguments you have to deny them. We want to generate debates on the issue. You have every right to post your comment in a language which, while unambiguously making your point clear, does not degenerate into incivility and name-calling.

None may gainsay the argument that the Quran prefers and promotes as ideal a sexual union between man and woman. Scott Siraj al Haq Kugle, an outspoken defender of the rights of gays and lesbians and an illustrious scholar, makes it unequivocally clear: “It is admitted that the Qur’an assumes a heterosexual norm among its listeners. This does not automatically mean that the Qur’an forbids homosexuality or condemns homosexuals – it means only that the Qur’an assumes that sexual desire between men and women is the norm and that addressing and regulating this desire is the basis for establishing a moral society.” (Scott Siraj al Haqq Kugle: 200). Ziauddin Sardar in Reading the Quran says: The Sacred text focuses on heterosexuals because they propagate and replicate the social order. Homosexuals exist, the Quran seems to be saying, but they are a small minority. So don’t make too much fuss about them.’

While this website believes in and promotes such a norm, it does not want to suppress or oppress the voice of minorities who can’t belong to that norm. The claim that homosexuals constitute a minority is academically valid. Scott adds: ‘In any society, homosexuals are a numerical minority and are discursively located at the margins of ethical regulations: whether they are condemned or admired, they are always unusual. This is exactly what the modern Arabic term al-shudhudh al-jinsi means: a sexuality that is uncommon, outside the general norm, and rare. However, despite being a numerical minority, homosexual women and men are also present in society and numerically persistent. In every historically documented society there is evidence of homosexual desire and activity and there are persons characterized by such desire and activities.’

Hence we leave space for the voice of minority as well as for those who consider it not as a voice of minority but ‘a jarring, disruptive note of anarchy’ (we quote here the words of a Muslim organization which warmly welcomed the verdict of the Supreme Court of India which criminalized the gay-lesbian sex). Here we will briefly summarize the pre-modern and modern debates on the issue citing from some important, academically weighty literatures. You can post your replies, as said above, to our editor:

Pre-modern discussions

Khaled El-Rouayheb is Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of Islamic Intellectual History (FAS) at Harvard Divinity School. A scholar with outstanding reputation, El-Rouayheb has authored Introduction to Islamic Philosophy and Theology: The Early-Modern and Modern Periods (16th to 20thcenturies) and Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500 –1800, the latter being the focus here. Before Homosexuality analyses the difference between the terms used to describe the sexual and romantic union between the same genders. There is pederasty, homosexuality, liwat, ubnah etc, which all carry so many nuances-political, cultural and sociological-as to make it difficult to club them together. He says: “It is generally acknowledged that the term “homosexuality” was coined in the late 1860s by the Austro-Hungarian writer Karl Maria Kertbeny, and that the first English equivalent first appeared in print some twenty years later.” He draws a neat difference between the homoeroticism expressed in Arab poetry (where the beauty of a male is erotically extolled by another male) and the sexual union-especially the anal penetration-between two males. For example, Ibn Hajar al Haytami, a classical Meccan scholar in the tradition of Shafi jurisprudence, considers ‘amorous verse’ as ‘not an indication of having looked with lust’ but as something which exhibit the poet’s craftsmanship and, hence, considers it religious permissible. But the same scholar says: ‘There are beardless boys who surpass women in beauty and so are more tempting . . . and so more deserving of prohibition.’ So the four schools of law, with the exception of Hanafi School, as well as the Shii School reserve severe punishment for two adult males who engages in anal penetration (liwat). Though Hanafi school ‘did not consider liwa¯t to be a variety of fornication, and thus not liable to hadd punishment, Hanafi jurists were of the view that liwa¯t. should then be punished by discretionary chastisement (tazı¯r), and this was usually less severe than hadd.

But scholars, including the LGBT activists, have positively evaluated the tolerance in the Islamic tradition for homosexuality, which, therefore, is ahead from the Victorian sexual mores of the Christendom. They cite Arab and non-Arab biographies, travel narratives and poetry from the early 16th century for their positive appraisal. El-Rouayheb quotes orientalists at length to show that they considered the horrible sin of sodomy as a feature of the Arabian society. He contrasts the orientalists’ account with the Arab accounts which express surprise at the absence of same-sex love.
In short, in the pre-modern era, we have evidences for the presence of positive and the theologically approved homoerotic literatures, while we have evidences in Islamic jurisprudence that scholars approved liwat (the sexual union with anal penetration)

Modern discussions

In his work above cited, Scott Siraj al Haqq Kugle cites the European Christian morality as the reason why “Contemporary Muslims who explicitly denounce homosexuality as “un-Islamic” adopt the dichotomy of natural and unnatural”, though Islamic discourse based on the Qur’an did not use a discourse of “natural” or “unnatural” to describe sexualities. The natural and unnatural distinction of sexuality is a principle feature of modern era. Desiring Arabs, written by Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab politics at Columbia University, introduces the discourses of Syed Qutb, the renowned scholar-activist, and Taha Husayn, the outstanding modernist writer, which can be taken as the Modernist-Islamist responses to homosexuality. Massad cites Qutb’s writings on America ‘collected and edited and published in 1986 in Saudi Arabia under the title America from the Inside. Qutb uses the term mithliyyah (sameness) to describe what he saw the deviant abomination in the American society. But Massad does not think that Qutb actually observed the practice as ‘this was the period when the rise of U.S. anti-Communism broadened to target homosexuals, who as early as 1947 began to be purged from government jobs. The McCarthyist targeting of American homosexuals, which reached its apogee in 1950.’ Qutb might have been influenced by the writings of US scholars who are in their turn motivated by the McCarthyism.

Qutb thinks that spread of homosexuality in America was caused by gender mixing not segragation (‘in response to the Orinetalist view that posited segragation as leading to homosexuality in the Muslim world). Massad asks jocularly: then would this mean that homosexuality (both male and female) is always a result of an excess of available vaginas? If this is the case, then why would this not be the outcome in Muslim societies as well, wherein Muslim men could marry four wives? Alas, Qutb did not address this contradiction. Taha Husayn, on the other hand, thinks that the degeneration of Arab sexual morals shown by the ghazal poetry describing the love of youthful boys was caused by legacy of Abbasid civilization, a legacy that was founded by Persian civilization [hadarah] when it mixed with the Arabs or when the Arabs moved to it [the Persian empire] and spread their authority over Baghdad.’ With this position, according to Massad, Sayed Qutb does not agree, as the latter thinks such a judgment lacks a comprehensive analysis of the historical documents.

We see in these positions a kind of positive enunciation of the Arab civilization which they either equate with or makes superior to modernity or the western civilization. Post-modern and post-colonial scholars’ objection is that in their attempt to enunciate the strength of Arabian civilization, they were imbibing the Victorian morals of the European civilization into their own.

Recent Studies

Most recent studies focus on distancing the jurisprudential views of homosexuality and the popular conception born of those views from what they consider as the silence of the Quran on the issue. They also seek to interpret the Lut story in a sexually positive way, as the story narrated in the Quran is the sole premise on which the critics of homosexuality base their arguments.  Amreen Jamal, following Toshihiko Izutsu’s semantic analysis, selects all passages in the Quran which deal with the Lut story and categorize the words according to the sematic field to which they belong. A word like fahisha can have different meanings in different contexts in the Quran. Without understanding these differences, we can’t form ethical perception on the issue.

Scott Siraj al Haqq Kugle reads the Lut story using a different historical lens from the one most readers had chosen to read it. Following al-Kisa’i’s Stories of the Prophet, a 12th century text, Scott argues that the story’s moral aim is not to disparage homosexuality but to ‘state that the belief in one God is the basis for generosity, hospitality and an ethic of care for the needs of others.’ Scott says: Their acts are not important as sexual acts (as expressions of sexuality) but rather as expressions of their disregard for the ethical care of others and most specifically their rejection of the prophethood of Lut. He adds: ‘the context of the narrative focuses on acts of greed, selfishness, and inhospitality, which are taken to the extreme of violence against strangers. The sexual acts of the narrative are acts of violence more than acts of sexual pleasure; they are contiguous with acts of coercion and robbery. Worse, all these incidents of violent inhospitality are concentrated in rejecting the prophethood of Lut and disbelieving in the God whom Lut claims to represent. The narrative is clearly about infidelity through inhospitality and greed, rather than about sex acts in general or sexuality of any variation in particular.’

Also Scott cites a Hadith in which Prophet Muhammad asks why the people of Lut were destroyed. Jibril answers: ‘The people of Lut were a people who did not clean themselves after excreting, and did not wash after sexual ejaculation. They were stingy and covetous in refusing to share food generously with others. Lut stayed among them for thirty years, living amid them without ever becoming like them, entering into intimate terms with them or establishing a family among them. Lut called them to follow Allah’s command but they never heeded his call or obeyed him as their Prophet. With the citation, Scott adumberates the point: The Hadit ‘supports the basic framework of al-Kisa’i’s narrative interpretation of the Qur’an.’
Ziauddin Sardar’s Reading Quran, while stressing the point that there is no homophobia in the Quran and that a discerning reader of the Quran can live together with the homosexual believers, he is a strong critic of the contemporary gay and lesbian behavior in western societies ‘with 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.’ The claim of some LGBT activists (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) that their rights should be superimposed on the rights of other minorities has been questioned. Joseph Massad questions Judith Butler’s argument that homosexuality is ‘one of the defi nite features of the social world in its very intelligibility.’ Massad says: ‘Butler’s concern is that contemporary human subjectivity in constituted through a repudiation of what is lesbian and gay, which are therefore banished beyond the perimeter of the human. While this may be arguably true in certain Western contexts, it has no bearing on contexts in which lesbianness and gayness, let alone homosexuality as configured in the normalized West, are not the other against whom the self is constituted. In calling for the internationalization of Western sexual ontology, Butler is risking another subjective repudiation, a banishing of another other, in the formation of the Western human that is inclusive of the homosexual, namely, those cultural formations whose ontological structure is not based on the hetero-homo binary.

Tariq Ramadan, whose view on the issue we will soon post, while siding with the traditional argument not favoring homosexuality, does, however, take a strong stance against homophobia. He writes in Radical Reform: ‘For more than twenty years I have been insisting—and drawing sharp criticism from some Muslim groups—that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, but that we must avoid condemning or rejecting individuals. It is quite possible to disagree with a person’s behavior (public or private), while respecting that person as an individual. This I have continued to affirm, and gone further still: a person who pronounces the attestation of Islamic faith becomes a Muslim; if that person engages in homosexual practices, no one has the right to drive him or her out of Islam. Behavior considered reprehensible under the rules of morality cannot justify excommunication. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf has also commented on the issue in the same vein. In a debate on Islamic reform widely broadcasted by YouTube he said that though acting on homosexuality is prohibited in the Quran-that is acting on rectal intercourse for male and female is prohibited, ‘the prayer of the person known as ma’boon, a person who has the condition of bring attracted to the same sex is a valid prayer, even if they lead the prayer.’
That is all. We have tried to summarize the views of major Muslim scholars on the issue, though it is difficult to summarize all of them. This proves that the Islamic tradition is not unique, but diverse, as far as homosexuality is concerned. We invite you all to come and contribute to the issue, thereby enriching the tradition further.

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