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Islam and Homosexuality (part 1)

James Doughty
Student, Political Science
Montclair State University
New Jersey
Spring 2009

In today’s globalized world, no issue is really confined to a particular region, country or even religion. These globalized issues can come from any discipline, ranging from science, law or even sociology. However, one of the most understated, and until recently, understudied global issues, is the issue of sexuality, specifically that of homosexuality. There is no society that fully embraces homosexuality, one hundred percent, even within the more liberal countries of the West such as Britain, Canada or Spain. These supposedly liberal countries still posses strong minority voices who view homosexuality as an ‘inherent sin’ against God.

As a matter of fact, there is hardly an anti-gay argument which doesn’t invoke religion as the primary cause of homosexuality’s unnaturalness. This is true within all of the major monotheistic religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three religions view homosexuality in the western context as a sin, against nature and the Almighty, by whatever name He chooses to go by. The West, primarily secularized, has been able to achieve an uneasy peace between religion and gay society, because the two domains are separate. However, in the majority of Islamic societies, with minimal exceptions such as Turkey, the realm of politics, society and religion can not be separated so easily, if at all, due to the ingrained roots of Islam throughout Muslim societies.

Therefore, where does the issue of homosexuality come to play in such a world-wide and important religion? Are the two mutually exclusive, or can the two exist peacefully? Likewise, can the same terminology even be used when referring to homosexuality in a non-Western context? Or are attempts made by gay and gay-friendly scholars to find homosexuality in Islam simply another form of Western cultural imperialism? Also, is there a difference between each Islamic country in the Middle East and their treatment of homosexuals, or is there a ‘universal approach’ to the ‘homosexual question’ within the Middle East? Finally, where do women stand in this issue, are they active participants in the ‘homosexual issue’ or, like the majority of other issues throughout the world, forced to stand in the bleachers while the members of society with penises decide what will happen? These are all very important questions that do not carry any simple or easy answers. All of these questions, have perspectives that need to be taken into account when addressing the very taboo subject of homosexuality in Islam and Islamic societies, specifically those of the Middle East.

However, before addressing any of the aforementioned questions, it is important to have a basic understanding of Islam as a religion itself. As previously stated, it is one of the three major monotheistic religions, that is to say, a religion whose belief is solely centered on one God, named Allah. This is the same God worshiped by those of Christian and Jewish sect, even though the names are different. It is centered on the Prophet Muhammad who in 610BCE received a revelation in a cave by an angel of God and began his preaching. With this first revelation to the Prophet, came the start of the religion of Islam, which means submission, specifically submission to the will of God, implicating that a Muslim submits his will to God.

Upon receiving his first revelation, he preached to the masses about God’s will, and the changes that needed to be made in order to appease the Almighty. These changes included following the Five Basic Pillars of Islam which include: the acknowledgement of the one and only true God Allah, prayer five times a day, donating to the poor, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and finally going to Mecca on a pilgrimage, if health and monetary funds allow for the journey. These are the basic principles one must follow to be a Muslim. There is another ‘pillar’ that primarily militant Islamists add to the Basic Pillars, that being the Jihad, or Holy War.

Though war is explicitly forbidden in the Qur’an or Islam’s Holy Scripture, there is room for war in the name of protecting and spreading the faith of Allah; hence the appeal of militant Islamists. They are able to enact war and violence upon those they feel unworthy or who are damaging or degrading Islam, i.e., homosexuals and the West. There is also another facet to the Jihad, which most moderate Muslims adhere to, that being the ‘Great Jihad’ which calls for the purification and moral supremacy desired by all Muslims.

Like all the other major monotheistic religions, Islam has its own set of doctrines and holy books which Muslims vehemently adhere to: the Qur’an and the Hadith. Both are considered Holy in both major sects of Islam: Shiia and Sunni; however, the importance of each book in both sects is not equal; the Qur’an is regarded higher because it’s the Word of God whereas the Hadith is the sayings and lifestyles of the Prophet. Though the Hadith is important, it, unlike the Qur’an is ‘disputable’ because the accounts given in the Hadith are contradictory and questionable, and not the Word of God. Likewise, many scholars feel that the Hadith was a collection of accounts of people around the Prophet, not necessarily exact words of the Prophet himself. 1

With the basics of Islam now explained, the question of where homosexuality stands in the religion can be addressed. Unfortunately, it is not as clear cut as it being accepted or not, because the context in which homosexuality is referred to in a Middle East setting is extremely different than that of a Western context. Therefore, it is important to address what exactly ‘homosexuality,’ ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ mean in a Middle Eastern setting, and more importantly what ‘homosexuality’ means in Islam and what it says when it does indeed address the issue.

The difference between the two viewpoints regarding homosexuality, Western and Middle Eastern, is as diverse as every other aspect of the culture. Though what is interesting to note, is that prior to World War II, the two groups held a similar view of homosexuality, that is to say, that the receiving partner was the ‘homosexual one,’ especially if he enjoyed it. The mounting partner, or top in modern terminology, was seen as expressing his dominance over the other, a typically male attribute, and surprisingly not uncommon to either society.2

It wasn’t until the end World War II did gay identity emerge in Western Society. Being gay became an actual identity in which men and women could claim their sexuality as an identifying feature. Here is where the sharp contrast between the two cultures took its first turn, as Schmidtke notes in her article. “Moreover, whereas turn of the century homosexuality was still patterned by gender (third-gendered), modern Western homosexuality since the Second World War was been predominantly egalitarian: both partners define themselves as gay regardless of who penetrates whom.” What she is saying here is that the focus of being gay transformed from just being the receptive partner being seen as the ‘feminine’ role and the mounting partner as ‘masculine’ role, to one where both partners who engaged in same-sex activities defined themselves not by a gender role, but by sexual identity. She says this perfectly in her article by going on to note that, “Accordingly, contemporary Western homosexuality represents a unique pattern of identity, life-style and group formation.”

This idea is sharply contrast to modern Islamic societies and its view of homosexuality. Bruce Dunne gives an excellent anecdote about the attitudes of Middle Easterners towards the West’s idea of homosexuality, in general, through a recount of Bill Clinton’s attempt to remove the ban on homosexuals in military service. Though it is only one specific reference, it is that of an average Egyptian man, and though it may not be ‘perfectly academic’ to assume this, certain liberties are being taken to state that this is the common ideology regarding Western homosexuality from a Middle Eastern standpoint. “…prompted a young Egyptian man in Cairo, eager to practice his English, to ask me why the president wanted to ‘ruin the American army’ by admitting ‘those who are not men or women,’” he goes on to ask the young Egyptian if that would include married men who enjoy having sex with other men. The boy responded immediately with ‘no.’ Dunne sums up the ideology of this Egyptian man, and probably that of the average Middle Eastern citizen by stating “For this Egyptian, a Western ‘homosexual’ was not readily comprehensible as a man or a woman, while a man who had sex with both women and boys was simply doing what men do. It is not the existence of same-sex sexual relations that is new but their association with essentialist sexual identities rather than hierarchies of age, class or status. 3

Understanding this sharp contrast in what each culture and group identifies as being homosexual is important to a better overall understanding of where homosexuality stands in not only Middle Eastern culture but in Islam as well. As is evident by what the Egyptian boy mentioned above, same sex relations were not uncommon or unusual, but identifying oneself according to them is where the miscommunication comes into play. However, it is also important to take an anthropological point of view when looking at this very sensitive question, because even though the terminology of ‘gay,’ ‘homosexual,’ and ‘lesbian’ all have different connotations between the peoples of the two cultures, there also exists a distinct gap academically in tracing the ‘origins’ of homosexuality and the ‘proof’ of its ‘universality’ within not only Islam and the Middle East, but also globally, by Western scholars.

There has been a growing problem, since the emergence of international homosexual studies, which predominately comes from Western scholars and thinkers, who inevitably attached their own meaning to ‘homosexual’ to these non-Western contexts. This is not only a problem anthropologically, in that the study starts out false because there are already preexisting notions of what ‘gay’ is suppose to be, but additionally, many modern scholars, feel that by bringing Western terminology such as ‘homosexual,’ ‘gay,’ or ‘lesbian’ to a non-Western context, brings with it a sort of cultural imperialism, where instead of countries coming in to others with weapons, they come with hegemonic ideas and lifestyles, which remove the native cultural context, not just suppress it.

Recently however, there has been a growing anti-imperialist movement regarding the interdisciplinary studies of same-sex relationships in a global context. This movement tries to examine same-sex relationships without any prejudice or cross cultural examination. Two scholars that follow this trend are Thomas Spear and Deborah Amory, who although writes about homosexuality in Francophone and African contexts. Spear’s reminds scholars, “…one must exercise caution not apply our notions of homosexuality to a very different social context. 4 ” Deborah Amory, elaborates on Spear’s idea by stating, “Cross-cultural lesbian and gay studies has been accused more than once of cultural imperialism. For example, anthropologists and others have been criticized for roaming the world in search of cross cultural evidence of the universality of ‘homosexuality,’…some scholars have responded to theses issues by arguing that the terms and analytic categories of “homosexuality,” “lesbian,” and “gay” are inappropriate to the cross-cultural study of same-sex sexualities. 5 ” Both authors express the growing trend in international gay studies in that it is impossible to search for ‘universal homosexuality’ and that in each culture and people, same-sex relations not only differ, but have extremely different meanings; both in roles, and whether or not the sexuality is used as an identity, such as the Western versus Middle Eastern approach.

By addressing the multifaceted view regarding homosexuality from not only a Western, but global point of view, the stance of Islam on homosexuality can not only be better addressed but better understood. Scholars, both Western and non-Western alike, agree that the Qur’an prohibits homosexuality. However, there is more at debate than just the simple phrasing of the Qur’an. As stated above, the Qur’an is the word of God, and is therefore, ‘infallible.’ However, like all Holy Scriptures, it is indeed open to interpretation. There are two passages in the Qur’an which address the issue of homosexuality, one clear the other ambiguous. The latter passage addresses the story of Lot and of Sodom and Gomorra. It states “What! Of all creatures do ye come unto the males, and leave the wives your Lord created for you? Nay but ye are forward folk…And we rained on them a rain. And dreadful is the rain of those who have been warned. (26. 165-75) 6 ” Many anti-gay scholars and Muslims feel that God is punishing Lot and his followers for the act of homosexuality. However, this particular passage never specifically addresses why God has brought forth His wrath. However, pro-gay scholars, such as Anissa Hélie, take a different point of view regarding the story of the Sodomites. She states, “While the harsh punishment inflicted on the people of Sodom and Gomorrah at the time of the prophet Lut is for some people a clear proof that Allah meant to eradicate homosexual practice, others argue that there is no specific punishment for homosexuality. The people of Sodom were punished for ‘doing everything excessively’ and for not respecting the rules of hospitality. They insist that it is not the Qur’an itself that brings condemnation of homosexuals, but rather the homophobic culture prevailing in Muslim societies. 7

Though Hélie undoubtedly meant to bring a different point of view to the table regarding the Qur’an and homosexuality, she unfortunately and quite ironically (because she is half-French and half Algerian) falls into the same pitfall many Western scholars do. By saying that the Qur’an and Muslim societies are inherently homophobic, implies the same-sex relationships that exist in the Middle East and Islamic societies are similar to those in the West, and that there is a universal homosexuality; when clearly, the issue is not that cut in dry. Even though Hélie falls short in her analysis, she should not be completely discredited or forgotten because the point is well made that there are varying opinions to the story of Sodom and Gomorra, and that just because the common theory is that Allah punished the Sodomites for homosexuality, it doesn’t mean it’s the only one that exists.

The other passage in the Qur’an which offers an opinion on homosexuality is “And as for the two of you who are guilty thereof, punish them both. And if they repent and improve, then let them be. Lo! Allah is Relenting, Mericifu. (4.16) 8 ” The interesting thing about this passage as Wafer elaborates, is how vague and gentle it is regarding the punishment of homosexual acts between two men. He even goes so far as to claim “The mildness of this passage contrasts markedly with Qur’anic verses where severe punishments are prescribed for other crimes. (For example, Sura 24:2 specifies a penalty of one hundred lashes for zina, or ‘fornication.’) This mildness has provided the basis for the view that the Prophet took a lenient attitude toward sex between males.” This is an astonishing accusation and theory regarding one of history’s most loved and controversial figures, especially on such a ‘taboo’ topic. With this, and the multiple arguments regarding exactly why Lot and the Sodomites were punished, those who identify, and those who do not identify with a Western gay identity can have a valid argument of the historic presence of same-sex relationships and finding hope of swaying religious and social intolerance.

1All information regarding Islam was found in Monte Palmer’s The Politics of the Middle East 2nd Edition, pp: 12-17

2Sabine Schmidtke. “Homoeroticism and homosexuality in Islam: a review article” p. 260

3 Bruce Dunne. “Power and Sexuality in the middle East” p.9

4 Thomas Spear. “ ‘Foreign’ Sexualities in Francophone Contexts” p. 198

5 Deborah P. Amory “ ‘Homosexuality’” in Africa: Issues and Debates p. 8

6 Jim Wafer “Muhammad and Male Homosexuality” p. 88

7 Anissa Hélie “Holy Hatred” p. 122

8 Jim Wafer. “Muhammad and Male Homosexuality” p. 88