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Tuesday, November 3, 2020
Taming The Hydra Of Muslim Homophobia
By Junaid Jahangir, New Age Islam
3 November 2020
The hydra is a monster with many heads in Greek mythology whom Hercules had to vanquish as part of his twelve labours. The interesting feature about the hydra was that cutting off one head gave rise to two more in its place. The metaphor here is that Muslim homophobia is channeled through many arguments and not just through the story of the people of Lut. Addressing one argument simply opens room for other arguments to take its place. Generally, many gay Muslims online have successfully argued that the story of the people of Lut is about the subjugation of fellow men instead of intimacy, affection and companionship. But here are various other ways that Muslim homophobia manifests itself based on the religious orientation of one’s interlocutor.
The Salafi approach is based on intimidation and rests on the primacy given to the Hadith texts. Often Salafi conversation partners or rather monologue dictators copy paste the Ibn Abbas text on killing the active and the receptive partners. This approach is ubiquitous in online spaces because of the accessibility of translated Hadith texts. Such folks uphold draconian weak texts by alluding to the Salafi scholar Albani (d. 1999). One prominent example of this approach is found in the book “The Forbiddance of Homosexuality” translated by a white Muslim convert that assembles all the death texts in one place. However, this approach is the easiest to address, as many traditional scholars have rejected all such Hadith texts as inauthentic. The arguments go that these texts were not accepted by Bukhari, Muslim and other Hadith experts, that the narrator Ikrimah in the transmission chain has been branded as a liar, and that the Hadd (Qur’anically prescribed punishment) is not applicable beyond the crimes expressly stated in the Qur’an. Yet, even with such strong counter arguments, a prominent white Muslim academic has gone to great lengths writing a paper to show how such texts were supported by a few past jurists like Suyuti (d. 1505). This reminds one of the observation that just as past Christian converts to Islam brought anti-Semitic tropes to the nascent Islamic faith, so too are some current white converts bringing in their western homophobia to Islam. To go back to the metaphor, severing one of the heads of the Hydra only gives rise to another, so that such ideologues rarely change their opinions or at best shift from the Salafi to the traditional outlook.
This approach defines the mainstream Sunni Muslim position in North America as projected by institutions like Seekers Guidance, Bayyinah, Zaytuna, Al Maghrib and Yaqeen with popular Muslim leaders like Nouman Ali Khan, Omar Suleiman and Yasir Qadhi amongst others. Their opinions are presented as part of a never changing Muslim consensus on the issue. Initially, older leaders like Muzammil Siddiqi opined that “No person is born homosexual” and that “we should not associate with them.” Even younger leaders like Omar Suleiman expressed, “Days are very near that disagreeing with homosexuality will be just as bad as being a racist. ... If as Muslims we don't take a clear stance on this, we will be forced to conform and watch this disease destroy our children.” Over time, however, the narrative shifted. Now, such leaders emphasize the trope of humanity and express solidarity with the non-Muslim LGBTQ community on civil rights issues. On LGBTQ Muslims they have shifted from the “no one is born gay” trope to the counsel that LGBTQ Muslims should not act on their desires and remain patient as a test from Allah. However, such opinions are not in concordance with verses like 28:68, which indicate that Allah creates whatsoever He wills. The commentary on verse 24:33 used to counsel patience shows that it was a temporary directive for Allah takes it upon Himself to help those who seek marriage to guard their chastity. Moreover, the test trope indicates that tests are stronger for those with greater faith and lighter for others, which necessitates asking that when did LGBTQ Muslims get upgraded to super normal beings, as Ibn Taymiyyah’s (d. 1328) commentary of verse 4:28 shows that humanity was created sexually weak. However, traditionalists have no incentive to change their position, as several Muslims struggling with same-sex desires only confirm their narrative by creating groups like the “Straight Struggle.”
The Qur’anist approach came into vogue in the Indian subcontinent with Ghulam Ahmed Perwez (d. 1985). While Perwez did not reject all Hadith, the same does not hold true for those inspired by his works or by those of Syrian thinker Muhammad Shahrur (d. 2019). The Qur’anist approach emerges from folks negotiating with modernity but who are also shaped by the homophobia of their times. This means in building their narrative they rejected the Hadith texts that prescribed death but had to find a relatively softer proscription of homosexual conduct. In order to sustain their approach, they accessed two highly ambiguous texts from the Qur’an, verses 4:15 and 4:16. However, like the Salafi approach, this move by the Qur’anists is easily countered for it does not enjoy the backing of 1400 years of Islamic scholarship. Traditionally, only the Mutazilite scholar al-Isfahani (d. 934) connected these verses to homosexuality, otherwise a vast majority of scholars opined that these verses related to Zina (fornication) and were later abrogated by verse 24:2. Contemporary scholars like Moiz Amjad expressly argue that 4:15 pertained to prostitution and 4:16 to a male and female involved in Zina. Even an influential thinker like Maududi (d. 1979) who laid the foundations of political Islam, analogous to Syed Qutb (d. 1966), critiqued al-Isfahani for connecting these verses to homosexuality. Yet, despite the overwhelming weight of tradition against them, Qur’anists are not easily dissuaded from their narrative, as they claim everybody else got it wrong and they alone got it right.
This rationalist approach is best signified by Javed Ahmad Ghamidi from Pakistan, who gives primacy to the Qur’an and only accepts those Hadith that are in concordance with the Qur’an. His approach has earned him the unreasonable epithet of munkare Hadith (rejector of Hadith) from his reactionary detractors. However, his viewpoints seem to be in concordance with the Hanafi jurists of the past that used aql (reason) to derive Islamic law instead of upholding weak Hadith texts. Such an approach has allowed him to take bold positions on the permissibility of women leading prayers and the optionality of the headscarf in contrast to the traditionalist position. However, on homosexuality he continues to argue that there is no scientific proof behind such an orientation and that the prohibition must be sustained to protect the institution of the Muslim family system. While his opinions are not necessarily mainstream, he enjoys a considerable following of his own across the globe. His viewpoints are actually confirmed by radical queer activists who argue that sexuality is a social construct and is not necessarily rooted in biology, possibly out of the fear that biology-based arguments would simply lead conservatives to switch to cure based approaches on homosexuality even if there is currently none. Additionally, such activists sometimes justify open and polyamorous relationships which lends credence to the argument that the Muslim family system must not be allowed to weaken as it has happened in the West. Thus, it is the confluence of the Islamic rationalist and the radical queer views that allows for the status quo to sustain.
This approach generally emerges from older sympathetic Muslim leaders who try to reconcile the tradition with the reality of LGBTQ Muslim youth struggling with their predicament. Zaki Badawi (d. 2006) from the U.K. and Maher Hathout (d. 2015), hailed as the father of the American Muslim identity, both exemplified this approach. When civil partnerships were legalized in the U.K. in 2004, Dr. Badawi encouraged two brothers or two sisters to enter into civil unions to make use of the benefits provided they remained chaste. Similarly, Dr. Hathout opined in a podcast in 2013 that whereas the straight person has the option of release through marriage, the gay individual has no alternatives and that we should at least guarantee dignity and privacy to such an individual for “whatever happens” in privacy. However, this approach may be rejected by radical queer activists on the basis of the argument that it sustains patriarchy. Equally, this approach may be rejected by younger conservative Muslims who downplay the burdens of gay individuals arguing that not every straight Muslim can afford to get married either and therefore the prescription of life-long celibacy should be uncompromisingly sustained.
The above approaches show how Muslim homophobia manifests itself in various forms, and that addressing one approach only leaves others to take its place. The status quo is retained because of the conservative Muslim narrative, the response by closeted gay Muslims who uphold the “Straight Struggle” and the response by radical queer activists, whose narrative goes beyond the classical Muslim paradigm. All of this impedes Islamic scholarship from affirming LGBTQ Muslims in Islam in a fashion parallel to the Conservative Rabbinate when they issued their Responsa on observant gay Jews by affirming same-sex unions in 2006 and then same-sex marriage in 2012. Coming back to the metaphor, while Hercules was able to vanquish the Hydra, LGBTQ Muslims will have to learn to tame it for homophobia isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But they do not stand alone, for they have the liberating scholarship of Scott Kugle, Samar Habib, Junaid Jahangir and Hussein Abdullatif, and the pastoral care of Imam Daayiee Abdullah and Sheikh Muhsin Hendricks amongst others. Such scholarship and pastoral care from family and friends, biological or adopted, would hopefully remind them that Allah creates whatsoever He wills and that Allah Loves Us All.
Junaid Jahangir is an Assistant Professor of Economics at MacEwan University. He is the co-author of Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions. With Dr. Hussein Abdullatif, a paediatric endocrinologist in Alabama, he has co-authored several academic papers on the issue of same-sex unions in Islam.