وراتب مجهول أو من أبنا *** وأغلف عبد خصي ابن زنا
The subject of sexual orientation is quite sensitive within the Muslim community. This is especially the case in our postmodern times of “question everything”, “nothing is sacred”, and “I can do whatever I want so long as I’m not hurting anyone else”. Matters that were never contentious until only recently are now receiving the spotlight. Some might see it as a sign of a healthy mind. After all, when one is being inquisitive and challenges the status quo, they’re not being a blind follower. However, we’re in a unique position in comparison to our predecessors. The rate of literacy, and by that I only mean the ability to read and write, is far beyond what anyone from the past could have imagined for a population. This has now allowed for an unprecedented capacity for general laymen to open up scholarly works and be able to recognize words and read them. Unfortunately, literacy does not automatically impart knowledge and wisdom, so with today’s mass literacy has also come mass confusion.
Can one be a gay Muslim? There’s a challenge when dealing with this issue. I’ve come across a few articles and discussions recently that dealt with Islam and homosexuality. To my surprise, there seems to me from my limited anecdotal findings, that there’s a growing movement calling for a “gay and lesbian” Islam. To do this, the proponents of this movement are redefining terms, making attempts at using the science of Usûl al-Fiqh (Foundations of Islamic Jurisprudence) and Maqâsid (Higher Objectives of the Sacred Law), and reinterpreting very clear verses in the Quran and Hadiths of the Prophet peace be upon him on the premise that they’re actually not all that clear. In addition, they bring up what they claim to be scientific proofs in support of their lifestyle.
So what to do? Get into a scholarly discussion and write a very lengthy article that only some will read and understand due to the technical nature of it? Or realize the simple fact that despite the logically fallacious, philosophically flawed, and theologically indefensible nature of the arguments put forth by the proponents of a “gay and lesbian” Islam, they will still make headway. Because if you’re an average educated Muslim who didn’t study the Sacred Sciences and doesn’t understand how Islamic legal theory works, just by seeing a lengthy defence of homosexuality that employs terms you recognize to be Islamic, you’ll have a seed of doubt implanted in your heart. It won’t matter that trained scholars have refuted it into oblivion, because you never understood the defence and therefore couldn’t understand the refutation. You were taken in by the façade of it all and before you know it, you’ll fall for the appeal to emotion campaign and next you’ll repeat the fallacious arguments put forth for a “gay and lesbian” Islam.
Before continuing on, something has got to be very clear from the beginning. What you’ll read is in no way to condemn human beings. From an Islamic point of view, every human being is born with a God-given sanctity, and we’re all in the sense of our being humans equal in front of God. It’s our actions that determine our status with Him and not how we label ourselves. This is not about people. It’s not even about what they do per se. It’s about their attempts at turning Islam into a tailored religion fitted around their desires. Hence, what follows are just points to keep in mind whenever you come across a lengthy article or discussion that revolves around the idea of Islam not being clear on the matter of sexual practice.
One of the points that must be addressed here is the science bit. For one, pop culture always picks up on flashy titles and runs with them. There are possibly thousands of statements people claim to be scientifically backed, when in fact it was something they read in some magazine or saw on some TV show, which more often than not was a gross and completely unjustified elaboration on some scientific findings. Secondly, when it comes to the subject of human behaviour, we’re dealing with multiple layers of complexities. What we do know for sure is that what makes each one of us who we are is not completely a result of genetic programming, and also not completely a result of where we grew up and how we were treated. It’s a combination of the two and depending on the specific question being asked, the degree of influence coming from nature or nurture can change. Finally, by explaining the genetic and neurobiological factors at play in a particular individual or population, the most one can assert is correlation that can be strong or weak. Causation requires a different approach in science that for ethical reasons will never happen (it has to do with experimenting on humans if you’re wondering).
So, if you’re gay, were you “born that way”? May be. Given that just like everyone else you can’t remember the first 3 or 4 years of your life, no one can say for sure whether you even recognized whether you were male or female. At that age you couldn’t talk and let people know what you viewed yourself as. Also, not much could’ve been deduced from your behaviour because most of the time you were lying on your back or barely sitting trying to hold your too big for your body head up and not let it tip you over. But what we do know is that we all have what are called “critical periods”. A critical period is a window of time after birth; it’s a very restricted period of development in which the nervous system is particularly sensitive to experience. This window of time depends on the developmental aspect and having the appropriate stimuli is crucial for proper development. It’s not for nothing that the Prophet peace be upon him ordered boys to be separated by the time they’re 10 years old if they grew up sharing the same bed.
Having said a “may be” as an answer for being born with a particular sexual orientation, a very carefully qualified “it’s likely” should be said here. There are multiple correlative studies of humans in addition to genetic manipulations done on experimental models that strongly suggest a biological basis for where these feelings come from. A certain segment of the population actually feels attraction to same sex members, and this is not something they “choose”. So to be fair, this rhetoric should actually stop. No one chooses how they feel, the emotions, or even much of the internal dialogue that arise without their conscious control. Each one of us is subject to the four types of unconscious thoughts, which are categorized according to the source and outcome: khawatir al-Rahman (inspirations from the Merciful), khawatir al-mala’ikah (inspirations from angels), khawatir al-nafs (inspirations from the self), and khawatir al-shaytan (inspirations from the devil). Inability to recognize each one from the other, combined with conflicting emotions about it, in addition to social stigmatization is one toxic mix for anyone. No one chooses to be bullied in school and harassed at work. It seems that one of the reasons for what got this movement going is the ignorance of the general Muslim community regarding the underlying realities behind these emotions and how to handle them.
But it should be pointed out that what we’re dealing with here is “inclination”. In a recent campaign for marriage “equality, iO Tillett Wright, the woman leading the campaign “Fifty Shades of Gay,” made a survey asking the participants where they viewed themselves on the sexual orientation scale. Before answering the question, most of these individuals had defined themselves as gay based on the gay/straight binary. But when presented with a continuum between the two, the majority put themselves in the grey area. All of a sudden most of the couple of thousand participants who had originally identified themselves as strictly gay turned out to actually not be so strictly gay after all, and reported stronger attraction for the same sex than for the opposite sex. In fact, even the woman leading the campaign said for her it’s about the person more so than about them being a man or a woman.
There is much more to be said about the science of it all. But that misses the greater point on hand, which is the question of legitimacy of behaviour based on inclination and the justification of it all using Islam. So if we go back to the question of being a gay Muslim, it depends on what the questioner is seeking to know. Can one be more inclined to be attracted to members of the same sex and still be Muslim? Can one engage in homosexual relations and still be Muslim? Can one act upon their homosexual inclinations and assume that it’s permissible in Islam? The answer to the first two questions is a yes, and the third is a non-negotiable no!
One of the ideas thrown out there as a “valid” point is that gender identity is a product of modern society and therefore the way our scholars have interpreted the Quran and Hadith is historically and culturally bound. Hence, we should reinterpret those texts in order for us to come up with something more relevant for us. First, let’s see what one example of those verses actually says:
ولوطا إذ قال لقومه أتاتون الفحشة ما سبقكم بها من أحد من العلمين إنكم لتاتون الرجال شهوة من دون النساء بل أنتم قوم مسرفون
We sent Lot and he said to his people, ‘How can you practice this outrage? No other people has done so before. You lust after men rather than women! You transgress all bounds!’
Interpretation of the Quran is not based on what one wants it to say. It’s based on what the rest of the Quran says, what the Prophet peace be upon him said it means, what the companions said about it, the proceeding generation after the companions, and the Arabic language with its various ancillary sciences that go along with it. It’s not based on postmodern concocted concepts that we came up with based on desires and then called it progress. It’s also not based on imagining things that are not there. For example, there is an argument out there that the people of Lot peace be upon him were engaging in non-consensual homosexual practice, i.e., rape, in addition to having relations with women. How such an interpretation could be derived from the Quran is puzzling.
What’s interesting about the above verse is how Lot peace be upon him was talking about the action. One of the complaints put forth by one of those who are looking for a “gay and lesbian” Islam and trying to halalify homosexual behaviour, is that when he looked in the Tradition, he couldn’t find a single thing about homosexuality. Aside from this being a verifiable lie, the reason he couldn’t find anything that he was looking for is because he was trying to define his whole being on the basis of what he gets attracted to and the behaviour he wants to engage in. He wasn’t looking for a ruling on his sexual orientation as he made it seem to be. It’s like someone looking for a ruling on their blood as it circulates inside their body; they also won’t find anything. It’s not a shortcoming of the scholars. Blood gets a ruling when you cut yourself or bleed from your nose during prayer for example. But while it’s inside your body it has no status from an Islamic legal standpoint (this has a little bit of detail about it but sufficient for now as an example). Therefore, having feelings for something impermissible is no cause to feel guilt over them as long as they remain as feelings. The problem comes when the feelings become actions. Actually, this brings up an important issue that needs people to be attentive to. The Quran acknowledged that the people of Lot peace be upon him were engaging in homosexual behaviour as a result of their desire for it, but the condemnation and punishment weren’t for the desire; they were for the action.
Another problem with bringing up that gender identity was not an issue in the past is the use of relative ever-changing categories in order to re-interpret absolute Revelation and create a false sense of ambiguity for a clear text. In this particular case, the first question that popped into my head was about the historical development of defining oneself, one’s whole being, by a single category: what they feel most sexually attracted to. In fact, it’s surprising how Islam is being labelled as backwards and barbaric, when according to Islam everyone is viewed as a human being first. On the other hand this movement is paradoxical with their reducing of themselves to being defined based on sexual orientation while at the same time asking to be acknowledged as human beings. In fact, when they discuss their sexual orientation, they give the impression that somehow along with a different sexual orientation than the norm, they also lack the capacity for self control. Somehow being gay means an irresistible urge to fulfill one’s desire for a homosexual relationship. Alright, let’s do a little bit of an exercise in logic and push this to an absurd extreme and see if it holds up. If we have to accept that homosexuals have an irresistible sexual urge, why is it aside from the consent issue that rapists are not partly excused for a lack of self-control as well? Here is a question: should heterosexual single Muslim men and women go ahead and fulfill their sexual desires illicitly if they can’t get married for whatever reason? Or is the gene for heterosexuality linked to a gene that encodes for a chastity neurotransmitter to be released in their brains? I bring this last point up because of the way they present themselves and their whole case.
One final thought about this issue. There is an appeal to human psychology to be included into the equation for how we interpret the Quran so we can give permission for those who have the inclination towards members of the same sex to engage in homosexual relations. This is bolstered of course using the Quran by quoting the verse stating that God doesn’t burden a soul with more than it can handle, and those individuals can’t handle a life of chastity given that marrying someone of the opposite gender is not something they want to do. First of all, using human psychology, a very subjective faculty, to interpret the Quran was already addressed from very early on. Imam Ali may Allah be pleased with him used to say, “if I lost a camel I could find it in the Quran“. With such an approach, any absoluteness to the texts becomes nullified. Secondly, the verse about not bearing a soul more than it can handle is actually God telling us that what He prescribed upon us is not more than we can handle. It doesn’t mean we get to pick and choose what we feel like we can handle and what we can’t and make our own little versions of Islam. Even for those who might have extreme difficulties in certain circumstances, there are mechanisms that have already been codified within the Sacred Law to alleviate their burdens. But these burdens have to be assessed first for their source. Unfortunately for those who have an attraction to the same sex, much of their burdens are a result of society transgressing against them rather than it is about them having to stay chaste. Finally, human psychology has already been addressed in the Quran:
وأسروا قولكم أو اجهروا به إنه عليم بذات الصدور ألا يعلم من خلق وهو اللطيف الخبير
Whether you keep your words secret or state them openly, He knows the contents of every heart. How could He who created not know His own creation, when He is the Most Subtle, the All Aware?
We all have problems and we all have challenges and we all transgress the Sacred Law in some form or another. No one is infallible after the Prophet peace be upon him. He told us that each one of us sins much, but the best of us are those who repent. But we tread on some very dangerous grounds when we insist on transgressing and then seek to justify it using the Sacred Law. It’s best to acknowledge one’s weakness and ask for forgiveness and strength. The problem with the movement for a “gay and lesbian” Islam is that they want to continue with their actions but their inner guilt and fear of punishment, in addition to the constant condemnation and stigmatization from the Muslim community at large has driven them to the unprecedented attempt at gaining some religious legitimacy for themselves. Their attachment to Islam and desire to stay within its community are commendable. The intention is right, but the bogus way they go about doing it will only result in increased alienation from the rest of the community. For now it seems to be about having some feel-good security blanket so they can rest easy when they sleep at night. Sorry. It’s one thing to be understanding about your emotional situation and recognize the fact that you didn’t choose your sexual orientation. But it’s a completely different field of play when you try to transfer understanding and accepting why you feel a certain way to an understanding and an acceptance for why you behave in a certain way. You don’t have control over your feelings, but you most certainly have control over your actions.
The ruling of homosexual activity in Islam is not complicated and it is not an area open to differences in opinion. Much of the discussion conducted by academics out there to give it a different approach to halalify (make permissible) what is necessarily known from the religion to be haram (impermissible) has no recognizable basis within Islam. If they made their arguments using a sound application of Usûl we would support them – just like the women leading men in prayer issue. But they don’t. Instead of following accepted means of deriving Islamic law, they use means which are external and foreign to Islam to compel Muslims to accept the unacceptable. Whatever happened to “no compulsion in religion”?
What does need work is the Muslim community to be more educated and merciful towards their brothers and sisters who have shortcomings in staying away from the limits set forth by God, and more importantly to be callers not judges. We live during the times foretold by our Prophet peace be upon him who said holding on to Islam will be like holding on to a hot coal. There are limits to condemnation and interaction, and when we transgress these limits we ourselves aid in driving Muslims to warp Islam out of desperation. Our brothers and sisters with challenges such as these are already going through enough tribulation. There’s no need to push them to either leave Islam completely or to respond to our pushing them away with their current attempts at legitimizing the illegitimate.
p.s. I’ve been asked about the meaning of the Arabic verses at the very top. This line of poetry comes from a foundational text of Maliki jurisprudence written by the great Moroccan scholar and sage Ibn Ashir over 400 years ago. It comes from the section dealing with the conditions of becoming a hired imam at a mosque for a community, and this line is giving some of the disliked characteristics. It says that it’s disliked to hire a salaried or regular imam who is of an unknown moral status or someone who is accused of serious wrongs or homosexuality. Also disliked as an imam is someone uncircumcised, a bondsman, an eunuch, or one born out of wedlock. These disliked qualities were mentioned specifically for someone who will be a religious community leader because they’re supposed to be reflecting the purest manifestation of the Islamic Tradition.
p.p.s. In case someone gets the false impression that there’s any denial of science in this article about the biological origin of homosexuality, it must be stated clearly that it’s not the case. However, unlike the general public, anyone who actually does science as opposed to just read about it in magazines will recognize why I don’t make absolutist statements about anything in science that involves interpretations and statistics. Hence, my carefully qualified statements here are not to dismiss science but to acknowledge the findings without becoming an ideologue about them. Moreover, although I bring up the science to acknowledge it, the article is not a scientific treatise about the origin of homosexuality. Once again, explanation of where an orientation comes from biologically does not entail justification for acting upon desires. A common strategy is to focus the readers on the scientific explanation using various rhetorical tools in order to transfer their acceptance of the science to become an acceptance of carrying out the homosexual acts. The point of this article to turn attention to the fallacies used by the movement calling for a “gay and lesbian” Islam and confirm the non-negotiable Islamic ruling on this matter.