We have previously discussed the Islāmic position on liwāṭ and the framework of marriage in our tradition and the contentions pertaining thereto, but have largely left the legal matters, wisdoms, and, most importantly, the discussion concerning identities largely uncovered. Although it is not within the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive discussion regarding identities, and nor is it possible to do so, given that the aim is not to produce a book on the subject but rather to briefly put forward our own positions and justifications thereof on the matter, we aim to elaborate upon the issues that we consider the most important that tie into the broader theme.
Identity, Attractions, and Tradition
It must be clarified that, contrary to certain positions that may be held presently, and quite conventionally even, differentiations with regard to sexual orientation are not innate qualities that humans are immutably born with. The very notion that one’s sexual orientation constitutes an important part of one’s identity or places one in a separate category overall is a relatively recent one, and is by no means a claim that can be universalized across cultures. These concepts, rather, are social constructions with their own history in Western politics and culture, and there are other existing models of sexuality different from what we are presently familiar with.
Charlotte Patterson writes, when providing an overview of the relevant history,
Although same-sex attractions and sexual behavior have undoubtedly occurred throughout history, lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities are relatively new. The contemporary notion of identity is itself historically created. The concept of a specifically homosexual identity seems to have emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, only in relatively recent years have large numbers of individuals identified themselves openly as gay or lesbian or bisexual. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual public identities, then, are a phenomenon of our current historical era.1
Lisa Duggan, similarly, when recounting the efforts of gay historians, writes,
Lesbian and gay historians have asked questions about the origins of gay liberation and lesbian feminism, and have come up with some surprising answers. Rather than finding a silent, oppressed, gay minority in all times and places, historians have discovered that gay identity is a recent, Western, historical construction. Jeffrey Weeks, Jonathan Katz and Lillian Faderman, for example, have traced the emergence of lesbian and gay identity in the late nineteenth century. Similarly, John D’Emilio, Allan Bérubé and the Buffalo Oral History Project have described how this identity laid the basis for organized political activity in the years following World War II.2
David Benkoff writes,
“According to the experts on homosexuality across centuries and continents, being gay is a relatively recent social construction. Few scholars with advanced degrees in anthropology or history who concentrate on homosexuality believe gays have existed in any cultures before or outside ours, much less in all cultures. These professors work closely with an ever-growing body of knowledge that directly contradicts ‘born that way’ ideology.”3
This prefaces him quoting said experts on the issue, who concur that our current model of sexuality is a socially constructed reality.
As hinted above, we are not proposing that sexual relations within members of the same sex is a recent phenomenon, but basing identities off of such inclinations that is. This should be kept in mind when discussing the Islāmic perspective of sexuality, given that it will be nonsensical to attempt to understand a 1400-year-old tradition through what has arisen in the West in the pre-modern era.
Furthermore, understanding this point helps dispel the rhetoric of the LGBT community that controlling one’s same sex attractions is “repressing who you really are,” and helps the Muslim community see that there’s no reason to ostracize someone who does have these attractions yet nonetheless tries to live a life pleasing to Allah. The history of this ummah shows us that it is very possible for someone with SSA (same-sex attractions) to live a pious life and be a respected member of the community.
There were times in Islamic history where handsome youth were seen just as much a source of lust for the average man as women, so much so that legal works took many of the rulings that apply with regard to women to dictate how a man should interact with a youth.4 Abū Ḥanīfa, for example, one of the most prominent jurists in Islāmic history, is reported to have abstained from looking at his own student when he was young, namely, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Shaybānī, until the latter had shaven his head. Al-Nawawī wrote that one should avoid altogether looking upon a beardless youth, for it may incite desire, and that it was forbidden to stare upon the body of a youth if doing so leads to desire.5 The avoidance of such acts by these scholars itself implies that the jurists considered carefully that it was entirely possible for one to be attracted to an individual of the same gender, and they took steps to prevent such accordingly. It was an act that did not require a specific type of person, and was in principle something every man was liable to.6 Conversely, those who controlled these desires were highly praised. Many respected figures in our tradition, as such, including Ibn Ḥazm and Ibn Ḥajar, felt no unease in mentioning that it was entirely possible for a male to be attracted to an individual of the same gender, and prescribed measures so that inclinations towards what it is prohibited may be averted.
While the intention is not to romanticize the past, this outlook is much more uplifting and empowering than what LGBT rhetoric would have us believe is in store for Muslims with SSA. Those who do have to deal with such attractions are not fundamentally different from any other Muslim trying to deal with the madness of the dunya, and they deserve to treated with honor and compassion all the same. This shift in perspective also helps resolve the conflict in identity that many Muslims with SSA feel between their being gay and their being Muslim, an issue almost endemic to this section of the Muslim community.7
The LGBT community commonly conteds that controlling one’s attraction towards the same sex is synonymous with suppressing one’s true identity. The contention is not incredibly coherent, given the aforementioned subjectivity of self-identification, and it is much more psychologically healthy for a person with SSA to decline identifying themselves as ‘gay’ and to not revolve their sense of identity around an incidental inclination of their personality. It would in fact be a form of infidelity to Islām, as the primary self-identification of a Muslim is their being a ‘Muslim’. There is no reason to ostracize one who has these attractions yet nonetheless tries to live a life pleasing to Allāh. It is praiseworthy, rather, that such individuals do not act beyond Islāmic boundaries despite having such inclinations.
The wisdom(s) behind the ruling
Thus far we have primarily focused on the Qur’ānic motif “In Your Hand lies all good” for elaborating upon how Allāh’s Grace can be rationally discerned, while also focusing on an accompanying motif, “You might hate something while it is good for you, or you might love something while it is bad for you. And Allāh knows while you do not.” The flip side of this coin, however, cannot be ignored. That is to say, “The only saying of the faithful, when they are summoned to Allāh and His Emissary to judge between them, is the saying, ‘We hear and we obey.’ These are the saved ones.”8
The majority of Muslim theologians have viewed the commands of Allāh to be the exclusive source of morality. Hence we view them as the only binding guide to our behavior and actions. The Qur’ān informs us that we declared Allāh to be our Lord prior to embodiment, “[When Allāh] … had them bear witness about themselves, He said, ‘Am I not your Lord?’ and they replied, ‘Yes, we attest.’ Lest you should say on the Day of Judgment, ‘We were not aware of this.’”9 It is the right of the Lord to command and forbid. The Lord also cares and nurtures, but intrinsically Lordship means the right to command and forbid. Furthermore rationally the only Moral Authority that a human being should accept is the Master of the Day of Judgment. The Day on which the Emissary declared that even the animals will be given their rights; the sheep whose horn was broken by his fellow will seize his right from that fellow horned sheep. The Day on which not even an atom of good or evil will be overlooked as per the Qur’ān. It is only reasonable then for a human being who wishes to do well on that momentous day — and to avoid the wretched state of being an inmate of the Fire as well as attain the felicitous state of being a noble of the Garden — to abide by these transcendent Divine Ordainments. Even if one looks at existence only through the lens of attaining pleasure and avoiding suffering, the one who subjugates their desire to the Divine Law is the one who will truly attain pleasure and avoid suffering. We therefore ought to accept that our duty in relation to revelation is to hear and obey regardless of our personal opinions or reservations concerning revelation, as we affirm that our Lord knows best and has the right to command and forbid, it is He Who is aware of how we are to be tested and how we are to be treated; we affirm that He may do as He wills in relation to us. Our desires are primitive, worldly, and deceptive. They may incline us towards a detrimental action, or a decision that may make us miss that which is truly beneficial, as the Qur’ān affirms when it declares, “It may well be that you dislike a thing even though it is good for you, and it may well be that you like a thing even though it is bad for you. Allāh knows and you do not know.”10 Our inability to see the wisdom underlying a commandment, thus, does not and should not imply the absence of an existing wisdom, and our lack of knowledge and inability to be able to perceive a wisdom, in turn, should not thwart us from submission, when submission itself would be an affirmation, on our part, that Allāh is All-Knowing, the Wise.
This article will permit the reader to appreciate the immense thought that has been given to this issue in the Islāmic tradition, and the reader will be able to hopefully appreciate, even if he disagrees, the sophistication and depth of the Islāmic juridical framework or at the very least develop a fundamental grasp on how Muslims view the commandments of Allāh. Given the relevance of this subject to modern times, it is hoped that the Muslim reader understands that the Islāmic tradition is by no means an intellectually primitive one, but rather one that firmly stands on its own foundations. While often modern ideas, views, and ideologies have a rather relative nature, Islām remains firm despite such changes and does not forgo its right to insist that it is more right in this matter than those who challenge it. This article is intended to acquaint the Muslim reader with our side of the matter. It is also highly appreciated if a non-Muslim reader has taken the time so far to read this article and attempt to understand the rationale behind our positions. Should further clarifications be required or further engagement be desired, any Muslim or non-Muslim is more than welcome to engage with us in al-Zāwiyah, our Discord server.
- Charlotte Patterson, Sexual Orientation and Human Development.
- Lisa Duggan, Nan Hunter, Sex Wars.
- David Benkoff, “Nobody is ‘born that way,’ gay historians say,” Daily Caller.
- Khaled El Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World. P. 116-117
- Ibid. P. 19
- Al-Nawawī, Minhaj al-Ṭālibīn.
- For a more pastoral approach to LGBT Muslims, see this blog.