Islam, Homosexuality, & Same-Sex Marriage

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The subject of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is one of the rare ones where we’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s agnostic about it. It’s either you’re in support of it or you’re against it. Moreover, we’re quickly moving into a time where anyone who speaks against homosexuality and same-sex marriage is going to be labeled as a bigot only equal to those who were against the civil-rights movement of the 60’s. Of course, the primary reason for this is the equivocation between what a person looks like to how a person behaves like based on both of them sharing the quality of biological bases. Nevertheless, for one to be able to articulate their religious convictions that in their essence shouldn’t be offensive except that they go against public opinion, they must be prepared to face scrutiny. It’s strikingly hypocritical to assume the right to free speech for oneself while denying it to those who oppose one’s view. The challenge for Muslims today is to not get into such an extreme of vilifying people that they lose perspective of the overall message of mercy and compassion that Islam has come with. It’s one thing to disapprove of an action, but quite another to condemn a whole person as if we’re infallible. The first is Islamic, the second is demonic.

In recent weeks there has been a heavy push from groups calling for marriage equality to be extended to same-sex couples in the U.S. The seeds for the current surge seem to have been planted in May 2008 when the Supreme Court of California overturned a marriage ban for same-sex couples, thus making it the second state after Massachusetts to legalize these unions (Massachusetts did it in May 2004). Those not accepting this challenge to traditional marriage exercised their rights through the democratic system and campaigned for an amendment to the constitution that would overturn the Supreme Court’s decision and restore the status quo. A vote in November of the same year on Proposition 8 saw close to an 80% voter turnout, 52% of which voted in favour of re-establishing marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Well over $100 million later between all the campaigns for and against same-sex marriage and Prop 8, we’re now seeing this issue elevated all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court where justices heard the arguments in March of this year and are now deliberating a decision regarding the constitutional right or lack thereof for marriage equality.

The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage

Although the argument against same-sex marriage from a constitutional point of view is highly questionable, it seems that we’re at the crossroads of religion vs. secularity. Although the U.S. Constitution is supposed to be the supreme reference for the land upon which it operates, this reality is incommensurable with the opposing reality that for many Americans their supreme reference comes not from a document inspired by man, but another one inspired by the God of man. This is the point where if the justices disregard the democratic process and allow the true nature of the U.S. as a republic to emerge, same-sex couples will finally be granted the right to be married. Of course it goes without saying that this matter is much more complicated than this.

Multiple arguments have been formulated for and against same-sex marriage that bring forth various aspects to this case. However, the fight for marriage equality has nothing to do with getting some form of blessing from any religious group for such unions. Although it might be important for some, for the majority it’s not the case as per the arguments that have been put forth. This whole fight is really about extending financial and social benefits that are normally advanced by the government to traditional married couples, to same-sex couples. It’s about being able to visit their partner in the hospital when sick, get tax benefits, social security, healthcare, etc. In light of this, some have written articles that highlight from a secular perspective the case against same-sex marriage such as the popular one from 2004 by Adam Kolasinski. Kolasinski began his argument by reminding everyone that it’s not just same-sex couples who can’t get married: “States regulate marriage in many ways besides denying men the right to marry men, and women the right to marry women. Roughly half of all states prohibit first cousins from marrying, and all prohibit marriage of closer blood relatives, even if the individuals being married are sterile. In all states, it is illegal to attempt to marry more than one person, or even to pass off more than one person as one’s spouse. Some states restrict the marriage of people suffering from syphilis or other venereal diseases. Homosexuals, therefore, are not the only people to be denied the right to marry the person of their choosing.”

Kolasinski does make it clear that he’s not equating all other types of couples to homosexual ones, and that he’s only using them to show that marriage is in fact a heavily regulated institution by the government. The reason for this is the economic cost the state and other individuals incur by allowing couples to marry. In order for this right to be granted, the state must fulfill some form of interest from it. In other words, a reciprocation of something that benefits the state is expected. In this case, a marriage between unrelated heterosexual couples allows for society to propagate because they’re likely to have children.

Support of Same-Sex Marriage

It’s easy to see how one could provide a number of rebuttals to the arguments put forth by Kolasinski. Indeed it’s been done numerous times, attacking the nature of the state and its actual role in relation to the individual, whether rights are granted or innate, and the issue with regards to reproduction. For example, a possible way for same-sex couples to economically reciprocate is to adopt orphaned and abandoned children who are under the care of the state. This not only addresses an economic aspect for the state, but can also handle a social one.

An argument that can be forwarded in relation to children being raised by same sex couples is that a proper psychological development of children requires a mother and a father to be present. However, same-sex couples that point to the staggering divorce rates and the spectacle society has made of marriage and family can easily counter this. Add to that the positive accounts of people like Zach Wahls, who was raised by a lesbian couple and seems to be doing quite well. In his account of his experience during a testimony he gave in January 2011 at the Iowa House Judiciary Committee he shared his scoring in the 99th percentile on the ACT, his being an Eagle Scout, and owning and operating a small business.

Although Wahls’ account is impressive, it doesn’t account for anything more than being an anecdotal one. He’s a skilled public speaker and can easily get the crowd emotionally charged. But the reality is that individual anecdotes don’t tell us anything about the social cost of something like same-sex marriage. However, they can be very effective in driving public opinion in one way or another. In fact, a CBC News Poll showed that as of March 2013, 53% of Americans support same-sex marriage. This is quite a dramatic shift from 2004 when it was only 32% of Americans who supported it.

Changing Attitudes

The changing attitude on same-sex marriage is not a result of rational argumentation or “progressing” morally as some might like to put it. It wasn’t self-reflection or assessment of what’s right or wrong. As has been recently reported by CNN, it was TV shows and Hollywood that changed America’s attitudes to same-sex marriage. According to Vice President Biden, he thinks it was “Will & Grace” that had the most influence. He might not be far off as has been stated in the article: “Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage agree – entertainment and Hollywood have been incredibly influential in the acceptance of gays and lesbians. It was through the medium of television that millions of Americans first had gays and lesbians in their living rooms… Television shows and Hollywood helped create an environment of acceptance, where more and more gays and lesbians came out of the closet, contributing to a dramatic change over the past few years… a new CNN/ORC poll out today shows 57% of Americans say they have a family member or close friend who is gay. That’s up 12% since just a few years ago, and almost double what it was 20 years ago. And as those numbers have changed, so has support for same-sex marriage.”

These realities which not only seek to push forward the acceptance of homosexual activity and same-sex marriage using anecdotal accounts like those of Zach Wahls and TV shows like “Will & Grace” make it impossible for most people to see opposing accounts like those of Robert Oscar Lopez. Not only did a lesbian couple raise Lopez, but he also identifies himself as a bisexual. In Lopez’s recent article where he responds to some of the oral arguments articulated during the U.S. Supreme Court Prop 8 case he says: “The richest and most successful same-sex couple still cannot provide a child something that the poorest and most struggling spouses can provide: a mom and a dad. Having spent forty years immersed in the gay community, I have seen how that reality triggers anger and vicious recrimination from same-sex couples, who are often tempted to bad-mouth so-called ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘trashy’ straight couples in order to say, ‘We deserve to have kids more than they do!’ But I am here to say no, having a mom and a dad is a precious value in its own right and not something that can be overridden, even if a gay couple has lots of money, can send a kid to the best schools, and raises the kid to be an Eagle Scout. It’s disturbingly classist and elitist for gay men to think they can love their children unreservedly after treating their surrogate mother like an incubator, or for lesbians to think they can love their children unconditionally after treating their sperm-donor father like a tube of toothpaste. It’s also racist and condescending for same-sex couples to think they can strong-arm adoption centers into giving them orphans by wielding financial or political clout. An orphan in Asia or in an American inner city has been entrusted to adoption authorities to make the best decision for the child’s life, not to meet a market demand for same-sex couples wanting children. Whatever trauma caused them to be orphans should not be compounded with the stress of being adopted into a same-sex partnership.”

Religious  Responses

In the midst of this barrage of anecdotal accounts and tireless campaigns for and against same-sex marriage, many religious groups are finding themselves retreating and either staying quiet or making the “necessary adjustments to get with the times”. There are some groups who are outspoken with their disapproval of what’s going on, but they seem to push the envelope too much and receive the “hate group” label. Recently, an old video recording of Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad giving an answer during a Q&A session on the issue of the Islamic ruling on homosexuality caught some negative attention. (Shaykh Murad is a British Muslim academic researcher currently holding the posting of the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer of Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and Director of Studies in Theology at Wolfson College). In the video he referred to homosexuals as “ignorant people, [who] don’t even understand what [their] bodies are for.” Of course several media outlets seized this opportunity to shine the spotlight on Murad. Although when questioned about it he explained that these were “comments from the mid-90s, during a fit of youthful zeal [and] my views and manner of exposition have moved on since then.” The president of the Cambridge student union’s LGBT society indicated that they’re in communications with the university regarding the compatibility of Shaykh Murad’s role with his current posting in Cambridge. Shaykh Murad has recently issued a public statement in reply to this controversy and the video has since been removed at his request.

Given the current atmosphere, Muslims are increasingly finding themselves asking questions about the Islamic position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. An increasing number of Muslims who self-identify as homosexuals are coming out openly and establishing their own support groups. Like many Christians have attempted to reconcile their beliefs with this issue by giving what they think are valid alternative explanations to what the Bible teaches, some Muslims are making similar attempts with the Quran and the Islamic Tradition. As indicated in my post “LGBTQIA Islam?” addressing this issue from an Islamic perspective, the first challenge for Muslims is for them to accept the fact that the rulings on homosexuality in Islam relate to the act rather than the orientation. It’s becoming increasingly evident that sexual orientation has neurobiological and genetic bases. After all, no one makes a choice about the feelings triggered within them in response to the world they experience. However, such knowledge doesn’t indicate legitimacy for acting out this impulse. Multiple studies are shedding light on similar bases underlying many human behaviors that are either unaccepted or even illegal. This is not to equate something like the propensity for violence with homosexuality, for example. But it is to say that pointing to a biological origin of why someone does something is not accepted as justification in many arenas, and consistency demands of us not to accept it in the case of homosexuality. Furthermore, in the Islamic worldview human beings are not labeled by reducing them to their sexual orientation or any other single behavior they engage in; being human means much more than just their sexual orientation and/or practice.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the Islamic attitude towards homosexuality must not become an attitude towards those who identify themselves as homosexuals. To love the sinner and hate the sin is not some aphorism that one articulates but doesn’t actually apply in real life. As much as some Muslims may dislike or even refuse to acknowledge this, we’re all brothers and sisters in humanity. Every single one of us has what in the Islamic Tradition would be considered shortcomings and challenges on the way towards getting closer to God. It seems that for many Muslims the opportunity to focus on condemning homosexuals is also an opportunity to focus on the other and forget about oneself. The Islamic position on homosexuality can be stated and affirmed without being venomous about it. Moreover, it seems that Muslims are more appalled by homosexual behavior than by polytheistic practices or even by atheism. This seems to stray away from a proper understanding of the Quran where no transgression trespasses that of denying God or associating partners with Him. This is not to diminish the weightiness of homosexual behavior in Islam. It’s merely to put it in perspective with regards to the big picture of Islam.

Contrary to common Muslim belief, homosexual and even what today is categorized as transgendered individuals have existed from the very beginning of the Islamic period. In fact, one famous example is an effeminate man by the name of Hanab used to be in regular company with the Prophet’s wives and was eventually barred not because of what he was, but because of comments he made about another woman that were unbecoming. This might come as a shock to many Muslims who will find it hard to accept the possibility, let alone the reality, of the presence of people who we today identify as homosexual and transgendered. The presence of such individuals within Muslim communities from the dawn of Islam led scholars to address various rulings related how they should strive to behave, how they’re to play their parts in society, and even acknowledged what was naturally innate behavior and what was choice-driven behavior. In fact, scholars have also differentiated between behaviour that stems from innate tendencies and uncontrolled, and behaviour that’s deliberate by the individual. In modern parlance this would be called “progressive” scholarship. Unfortunately, Muslims have regressed in their understanding of the world and its realities. Zaytuna College lecturer Shaykh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali delves into this matter to some length in his paper “The Homosexual Challenge to Muslim Ethics”.

A careful examination on how public opinion of homosexuality and same-sex marriage has dramatically changed over the past few years reveals that it’s based on nothing else but giving historical analogies to various civil rights struggles and emotional appeals about love. However, the civil rights struggles dealt with phenotypic characteristics resulting from where people come from rather than their behavior. As for the emotional appeals, it hardly counts as a valid reason, let alone a good valid reason, to accept a behavior based on desire. Lastly, many people have adopted an evolving relative framework for morality and called it “progress”. In reality, their acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is a byproduct of media influence and change of public opinion they subconsciously have conformed to. This hardly makes them qualified to make any moral judgments upon others who consistently stick to what they consider to be their absolute epistemological bases for moral conduct. What we’re in need of now is recognition of when one goes too far. It should be acceptable amongst different groups of people to state and act upon what they believe. This is not a subscription to moral relativism. It’s an acknowledgement that it’s not one’s duty to subjugate everyone else to their beliefs, which is an essential aspect of the Islamic message in the Quran. The challenge we’re facing today with homosexuality and same-sex marriage is that we’re dealing with a phenomenon that has an influence on society at large. Islam speaks to the individual in their private affairs as well as their societal role. Hence, a balance between firmness upon Islamic teachings and showing understanding and compassion must be obtained in order for Muslims to be steadfast upon their beliefs to carry out their duty as vicegerents of God and witnesses unto people without alienating others in the process.