Here is a fact that many conservative Muslims either don’t know or don’t like: “Authentic” Hadith collections don’t call for the death of gay people. Here is also another fact: “Authentic” Hadith collections don’t call for the death of people who have gay sex, as long as they are single. Neither Bukhari nor Muslim, the two Sahih or “Authentic” Hadith collections, contain any of the capital punishments we have seen in ISIS, the Taliban, or al-Shabaab.
So, how the heck did we get here?
Sunnism is the largest denomination in Islam. It is believed that nearly 80% of the Muslim community follows this denomination. In Arabic the name of this denomination is “Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jamaa’ah,” which translates to English as “Adherents to the Sunnah and the community.” I left the word “Sunnah” in there in Arabic because it needs its own translation, as it is a word that is loaded with a lot of history, as it means “the orally transmitted history of Prophet Muhammad and his companions.” Essentially, the Sunnah is everything that took place during the Prophet’s lifetime, in what was later accepted by the mainstream Muslim community as the “perfect” period and with a lot of oral spiritual stories running around throughout the Islamic empires.
Those orally transmitted history of Prophet Muhammad and his early companions, according to Muslims who follow Sunnism or Sunni Muslims, has been recorded in writing in the “Kutub al Sittah” or “The Six Books”. These books are known as Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Al-Sunan Al-Sughra, Sunan Abu, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, and Sunan ibn Majah. The last one is not accepted by one of the main Madhabs, or Schools of Thought in Sunnism, precisely the Maliki. Instead, the Malikis rely on Muwatta Imam Malik. These, together with many others, form what is known as the Hadith.
Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, according to the Sunnis, are the most trusted of all hadith collections. The word “Sahih” means “Authentic” in Arabic, and therefore it is argued they are the most authentic. Sahih Bukhari is authored by Muhammad al-Bukhari, a Persian who was born on July 19, 810. Sahih Muslim is authored by Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, a Persian whose birthdate is not clearly known but believed to have born either in 817/818, 819/820, or 821/822 (these dates correspond to the Islamic years 202, 204, and 206).
Now, lets start with Bukhari. When he was at the age ten, according to Saudi-based Pakistani translator Muhammad Muhsin Khan (1994), Bukhari’s interest in the oral tradition began, and by sixteen he was in pursuit of his collection, and worked on it until he was in his early thirties—collecting over 300,000 narrations of which 200,000 he memorized and that “although he had memorised such a large number he only chose approximately 7,275 with repetition and about 2,230 without repetition of which there is no doubt about their authenticity” (p. 19).
In order to understand the period in which Bukhari was born, you have to know about the “Fourth Fitna,” which can best be described as “distress” in this case, the fourth civil war the Sunni world had experienced between Prophet Muhammad’s death and at that time. It was cooking for four years, and finally came to a violent end in 813. To understand it fully one must turn to historians like Ibn Tabari’s account of the period. Basically, this is a very important period in Muslim history because it is the first time that the Persians—through a half Persian man, albeit—slided into the caliphate during the Abbasid Dynasty.
“Within two hundred years the old Arab aristocrat lines had been diluted through intermarriage and al-Amin was the last Caliph born to an Arab mother,” notes Shirley Gurthrie (2000, ch. 6: no page numbers in this book) of the period.
The event is so important that Ibn Tabari dedicated an entire book to it. His “War Between Brothers” details the long conflict that started with land grabbing and ended in the death of al-Amin and the replacement of al-Ma’mun. However, it is important to understand that the half-Persian al-Ma’mun replaced his full Arab half brother al-Amin, a caliph who was openly queer and even had a male lover named Kawthar (named after a river in the Spirit World), not just with more Persian influence in politics but also in the culture at large. Like the previous rulers of his forefathers, including his own Harun al-Rashid, al-Amin’s reign was characterized by a period of openness, expression, and art. Al-Amin became a caliph on 809, just six months before Bukhari was conceived.
So, it is not a coincidence that the first time the Hadith is collected it is under half-Persian caliphs, by a Persian scholar, in a very Persian-influenced environment. Persia, unlike Arabia, was very homophobic—something you will need to understand in the larger Persian history to really get into the whys of that discussion. For example, before Islam the area that is now Iran was under the Sasanian Empire, which had Zoroastrianism as its official religion, and Zoroastrianism has had texts that directly forbid sexual diversity to the point that they considered same-sex sexual activities as devil worship, according to the Encyclopedia Iranica (2016).
Interestingly enough, Muslims have no problem to accept that the Roman Empire took Christianity to great heights while at the same time making it more Roman than any Jew could ever recognize. On the other hand, Muslims don’t want to accept that the Islam of Muhammad, the Islam founded in Arabia, had seen great influences from non-Arab people like Persians, Turks, or even others whose identity was robbed in the process and who are now “Arab” like Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, et cetera.
Persians, specifically, as you will see soon enough, have had a great impact on the faith. If Persian culture was indeed homophobic before Islam, why would Muslims think it would not be homophobic after? Of course, this is not an examination of homosexuality in Persian culture in particular, and it is certainly not meant to say Persian culture is to blame for all homophobia, but instead to look at how Muslim cultures filtered into the faith. Sometimes some of these cultural changes are not as innocent as one might think, as there are often political motivations for some cultural aspects in any society.
With that in mind, let us go back to the Arabs for a little bit and ask: How did the Arab-dominated leaders of the Abbasid Empire become so open and flexible about sexual diversity? Palestinian writer, researcher and scholar Samar Habib (2010) notes that it was the combination of three things: 1) despite being a vast empire the Abbasid leaders faced very little external challenges; 2) in order to have less issues with their subjects they did interfere less with the cultural life of the various groups in their empire; 3) and during al-Rashid’s reign they were already 200 years removed from the early Muslims. The queer poet Abu Nuwas, for example, lived at that time and Habib notes that it “was during this period that some of the most graphic textual works on sexuality, including same-sex desires and practices, proliferated” (p. 468).
Now, back to the other prominent authors of Hadith. Remember there were “Six Books”? Well, the other five were authored by Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, Ahmad al-Nasa’i, Abu Abdillah Ibn Majah, Abu Isa al-Tirmidhi, and Abu Dawud as-Sijistani.
They were all Persian.
Further, they were all born within 20 years of al-Amin’s reign. The tolerance towards sexual diversity gets less and less visible, the golden age of the Abbasid decaying decade after decade, until the dynasty slowly falls apart just 45 years after al-Amin’s death. In fact, less than 10 years after al-Amin’s reign, during al-Ma’mun’s rule, the process began as folks in what is now Syria fought for autonomy. However, by implanting Turkic slaves in Egypt it would prove to be a smart move as the capital moved to Cairo after the Mongol victory over Baghdad nearly 500 years later.
I’m bringing in those facts as to say that I understand the Muslim World was influenced by many different cultures. Between the advent of Islam in the 7th Century and the modern world of the 20th Century, the Arab World had changed hands, whether spiritually or politically, between Arab, Persian, Mongolian, and finally Turkish. Mix that in with European colonial powers and you get a nasty mix of East and West. The Abbasid Empire, therefore, saw Arab, and Persian, and Turkic (through the Mamluks in Egypt) drastically alter the cultural attitudes towards everything before it was sucked in by the Ottoman Empire. None of these things were ever so clean cut, as everything in that part of the world is more fluid. What came in as half-Persians ended up changing the culture drastically; what came in as Turkic slaves in North Africa ended up saving the Empire.
Yet, the Hadiths have systematically placed Persian sensibilities, through Persian collectors, often mixed in for a good measure the existing diverse attitudes to hosts of different ideas, and ultimately disguised as holy messages from the Prophet, in the midst of diverse Muslims from Africa to Europe, and everything in between. This would have been the case had the authors of the Hadiths been Turkish, or Kurdish, or any other group that withstood the Arabisation that swept through the Middle East under the disguise of Islam. Had it not been for the Persian collectors of Sunni Hadith, the Persian collectors of Shia Hadith, which came later, would have had a much harder time. As such, Persian influence through the Hadiths touched on many different parts of the culture, including homosexuality.
How did the Hadiths influence same-sex history in the Muslim World? Almost all the damning Islamic viewpoints on same-sex sexual activities come from the Hadiths. There are Hadiths that call for anyone guilty of same-sex activity to be thrown off a cliff, others call for burning them, and there are those who want stoning. Some of these are considered very strong in authenticity, others not at all. Yet, various Muslim leadership throughout the centuries had attempted to use one or more of these as their way of punishing people we would now call homosexuals, or LGBT, or people whose sexual or gender identity falls outside of the mainstream heterosexual normative. The practice of ISIS throwing men from buildings is based on these hadiths, as was the collapsing of walls over gay men during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, or the stoning gay men have seen in my country of birth in Somalia under the al-Shabaab.
So, what exactly do the Hadiths say about the subject? Khan (1994) presents Bukhari’s soft condemnations. In one example there is a Hadith in which one of the wives of the Prophet, Umm Salama, is quoted as saying that the Prophet “came to me while there was an effeminate man sitting with me, and I heard him (i.e. the effeminate man) saying to Abdullah bin Abi Umaiya, ‘0 Abdullah! See if Allah should make you conquer Ta’if tomorrow, then take the daughter of Ghailan (in marriage) as (she is so beautiful and fat that) she shows four folds of flesh when facing you, and eight when she turns her back.’ The Prophet then said, ‘These (effeminate men) should never enter upon you (0 women!)’” (p. 792).
The Arabic word translated by Khan as “effeminate man” is “mukhanath,” a word that in that case would mean feminine guy. However, soon enough we will encounter this word again when it refers to men who assume the manners of women in general:
Bukhari relates that the Prophet “cursed effeminate men [those men who are in the similitude (assume the manners) of women and those women who assume the manners of men] and he said, ‘Turn them out of your houses.’ The Prophet turned out such and such man, and ‘Umar turned out such and such woman’” (Khan, 1994, p. 949).
Here again we find the word “mukhannath,” in this particular case in its plural “mukhanathein,” referring to feminine men or men who take on the manners of women. But, we find a new word “mutarajalat,” which Khan translates as “women who assume the manners of men”. In other words, these women sound like what we would call “butch” women today. Although a man can be effeminate and not be gay, and a woman can be butch without being a lesbian, these kinds of reasoning don’t seem to occur to most Muslims. That said, Bukhari does not say anything about sexual relationships whatsoever between two men or two women. Sahih Muslim does not contain any references to that, as well. Same-sex sexual activities, as well as the punishments for them, appear in other non-Sahih Hadith collections. The other books include Sunan, or plural of Sunnah or in this particular case Sound. While the Sahih have only “Authentic” ones, Sunan Hadiths can include weak (da’eef) ones.
Yet, like everything else, Hadiths are at times contradictory, despite all being classified “Sahih” or “Authentic.” Sometimes, it is a matter of interpretation. For example, American researcher Faris Malik (2015) notes that the first Hadith is about how the man was refused entry to female quarters in the Prophet’s home because he displayed sexual interest towards women, as it was a “system that depended on household servants to be heterosexually indifferent, the main risk was that this indifference could be faked. In other words, an ordinary male could pretend to be an exclusive homosexual in order to gain free access to the private space of women” (para. 12). That is, homosexual men, the way we understand them to be today, were not a problem for the Prophet of Islam, or the time or place in which he lived. Similarly, Malik notes there is another Hadith, also from Bukhari, in which men are prohibited from marrying whose sons they had anal sex with. That is, a man could marry the mother of a son he had, let’s say, oral sex with.
To give this matter just a little stronger support, there is another Hadith, one from Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, collected in Sunan Abu Dawud, which quotes her telling the story from another angle in which she says that “an effeminate man (mukhannath) used to enter upon the wives of Prophet. They (the people) counted him among those who were free of physical needs. One day the Prophet entered upon us when he was with one of his wives, and was describing the qualities of a woman, saying: When she comes forward, she comes forward with four (folds in her stomach), and when she goes backward, she goes backward with eight (folds in her stomach). The Prophet said: ‘Do I not see that this (man) knows what here lies.’ Then they (the wives) observed veil from him” (Book 33, Hadith 4095).
So, like Malik pointed out, it was because the man was not what he was expected to be. Obviously, the expectation was not intellectual appreciation of women but that he probably sounded sexually interested, or perhaps he sounded as if he envied Abdullah bin Abi Umaiya.
So, while one set of Hadiths is talking about “mukhannath” being allowed to be in the home of the prophet, provided that they don’t have sexual feelings for women, there are others that give other ideas such as kicking them out of homes, as you saw in Bukhari, and others go further and call for them to be exiled from town. For example, in another Hadith also collected by Abu Dawud, Abu Hurairah, the most prolific narrator of Hadith, it says that “an effeminate man (mukhannath) who had dyed his hands and feet with henna was brought to the Prophet. He asked: ‘What is the matter with this man?’ He was told: ‘Messenger of Allah! He imitates the look of women.’ So he issued an order regarding him, and he was banished to an-Naqi’. The people said: ‘Messenger of Allah! Should we not kill him?’ He [the Messenger] said: ‘I have been prohibited from killing people who pray.’ Abu Usamah said: ‘Naqi’ is a region near Medina and not a Baqi’” (Book 42, Hadith 4910).
Al-Albani, the famed Hadith scholar, had graded both of the above Hadith from Abu Dawud as “Sahih” or “Authentic.”
Finally, there are Hadiths that deal with the People of Lut or Lot, as he is known in the West. These Hadiths, although not found in Bukhari or Muslim, are the Hadiths that call for the death of people. These hadiths are highly contested by LGBT Muslims, Progressive Muslims, or anyone who is not part of the conservative camp and mainly because the definition of what the people of Lut were guilty of differs. For mainstream conservative Islam the people of Lut were guilty of homosexuality.
Let us look at one of these Hadiths, again from Abu Dawud, a narration attributed to Abdullah ibn Abbas says that the “Prophet said: ‘If you find anyone doing as Lot’s people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done’” (Book 39, Hadith 4447).
This Hadith was graded “Hasan Sahih” or “Sound Authentic,” meaning it is stronger than sound but not as strong as authentic, by Al-Albani.
Like most progressive Muslims I do not believe that the People of Lut were guilty of homosexuality. Instead, I believe the People of Lut were probably extreme capitalists who devoured their societies and did not want to engage in human cooperation. Since this has to do with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sources claiming this idea I would like to present you with Jewish, Christian and Muslim sources that say it is not the case.
Most Jewish sources today argue that the punishment of Sodom was more about their wicked system of inhospitality. According to Rabbi Yuval Cherlow (2015) the “people of Sodom insisted on preserving their high quality of living to such an extent that they established a principle not to let the poor and homeless reside in their city” (para. 4).
John Boswell (1981), the late well-respected historian at Yale University, noted that since the 1950s Christian scholars began to acknowledge that the inhabitants of Sodom were actually destroyed for the “inhospitable treatment of visitors sent from the Lord” (p. 93).
Imam Daayiee Abdullah, the director of Mecca Institute, says that “there is a mythology that people have been taught about the 11 references relating to prophet Lut and the men of Sodom, supposedly being crimes against nature through sodomy. What is often not referenced is that the Quran does not speak about homosexuality, directly or indirectly, for it couches their actions as a result of their lusts – lust that are not necessarily limited to sexual intercourse – but various other kinds of criminal activity in which men could lust such as power and control over innocents through criminal activity and injustices within their government” (Politifonen, 2013, para. 11).
Now that we have covered an alternative Abrahamic point of view on the story of Sodom, let us get back to the Hadiths. How then could the Hadiths contain such references like “the one who does it and the one to whom its done,” as seen in one of the Hadith cited, if this story has nothing to do with homosexuality? The answer might lie in the actual reality of the Hadiths. Supposedly, the Hadiths of Bukhari and Muslim are the only Hadith collections in which all are Sahih or Authentic. Yet, there are Hadiths in these collections that I find absolutely un-Islamic and therefore I believe to have been fabricated. For example, Khan (1994) presents a Hadith in which Bukhari relates that the Prophet said, “Listen and obey (your chief) even if an Ethiopian whose head is like a raisin were made your chief” (p. 232). This is clearly a racist Hadith. In another one, Bukhari relates that the Prophet said “But for the Israelis, meat would not decay and but for Hawwa’ (Eve), wives would never betray their husbands” (p. 659-660). This is anti-Jewish and sexist, as well as being just absurd and untrue.
The sad thing about the Hadiths is that anyone could have taken any Qur’anic verse, which in fact might have meant for one particular event in one particular time, and apply it to all events for all times by simply attributing it to the Prophet. So, if you can really believe in racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic narrations of “Authentic” Hadiths, and find that to comply with Islamic spirit, then obviously you will also have no problem in believing in homophobic Hadiths that call for the death of sexual minorities in secondary Hadiths.
Boswell, J. (1981). Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cherlow, Y. (2015). The Sin of Sodom and its Impact on Creation. Retrieved from http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-sin-of-sodom-and-its-impact-on-creation/
Encyclopedia Iranica. (2016). Homosexuality in Zoroastrianism. Retrieved from http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/homosexuality-i
Guthrie, S. (2000). Arab Women in the Middle Ages: Private Lives and Public Roles. London: Saqi Books.
Habib, S. (2010). Islam and Homosexuality: Volume II. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
Khan, M. M. (1994). The Translation of the Meanings of Summarized Sahih Al-Bukhari, Arabic-English. Medina: Islamic University.
Malik, F. (2015). Queer Sexuality and Identity in the Qur’an and Hadith. Retrieved from http://www.well.com/~aquarius/Qurannotes.htm
Politifonen. (2013). Interview: Perspectives of a Gay Imam. Retrieved from https://politifon.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/interview-perspectives-of-a-gay-imam/
Afdhere Jama is the author of Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the Faith. He lives in the United States.