Muslim scholars have had diverse viewpoints about sexual diversity throughout Islamic history, and global modern ethics are challenging them to step up. In the above photo Imam Daayiee Abdullah, of MECCA Institute, part of a growing number of progressive scholars in the Muslim community, speaks to the world through a TEDx Talk about Islamic Reform.
An article in the Washington Post last year declared that the new US Congress was 80 percent white, 80 percent male, and 92 percent Christian. The Senate, reported the article, was 92 percent white. As the political representatives of these United States, if one were to just look at that as a representation of society in general, one would imagine the United States is a country of mostly white males. Of course, the United States is not a society of white males, but it is a society dominated by white males.
Likewise, the Muslim World is mostly dominated by an Arab identity today, even though Arabs are a minority in the Muslim World. The truth of the matter is that it is not even all Arabs. If you were to survey the Islamic mainstream culture of today, especially through the lenses of what you might see in the news, you would notice there is a growing trend to choose Wahhabism, imported from Saudi Arabia.
How do the Saudis do this?
Through cultural, spiritual, and political influence, much like the way white males do it in the United States. Sometimes they use the locals to bring that message, other times they bring foreigners to reinforce that message. When they are really smart they try to make a correlation, so that they are free from judgment. For example, in my last look at the issue of homosexuality in Islam, through the Hadiths, we saw how Persians authored the majority of the important Hadiths collections. In that article I used the English translation of Bukhari by Muhammad Muhsin Khan, who at the time was a professor at the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia. What I didn’t tell you in that article is that Muhammad Muhsin Khan is Persian, too. He was born in Pakistan to a Persian family. Why is this important? When an Arab institution hires a Persian man to translate the work of a Persian scholar, it removes the Arab institution from inquiry when or if that Persian translator might translate something differently, or even when he or she might work differently. For example, the translation I used in the article is a part of a book that is a summarized version of Bukhari. I will give you two guesses about who decided what was to be summarized.
But, Arab influence is not just limited to Saudi Arabia. It is exported worldwide, to both Muslim and non-Muslim nations. When I was a kid, growing up in Somalia, there was a watchdog over what kind of Islam was taught to the Somali public. The dictatorship did not allow the Saudis, or anyone else for that matter, to teach their version of Islam. However, when that government was dismantled, during the civil war, it created the opportunity needed by the Wahhabis to radicalize the society. From teaching in schools, to radically taking over the country, we ended up with a society that was much more closer to the Islam of recent Saudi history than the Islam of our ancestors, as the BBC noted last year that “Al-Shabab advocates the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi version of Islam, while most Somalis are Sufis.”
That story is the same in Muslim-majority countries like Mali, Kosovo, and Malaysia, but it is also the same in countries with large Muslim populations or where Islam was secular like Nigeria, India, or even Turkey. What these diverse societies in the Global South have in common is the growth of Saudi-style Islam slowly replacing the local Islam. Much like what happened in my country of Somalia these kinds of shifts do not take place overnight, but the widespread use of technology is definitely making it faster and faster.
In the non-Muslim world, that is also the case. However, instead of only directly radicalizing the Muslim minorities in these societies, which they successfully do, the Saudis are also indirectly interested in the non-Muslims by focusing on the larger society. They fund mosques and educational institutions, with the aim of limiting the local understanding of the larger diversity in Islam. As such, you end up a society that is really ignorant about Islam and which radicalization is easily manageable. For example, there was a fear that the mainstream educational institutions being funded by the Saudis in the United Kingdom compromised the educational standards of that country, as the “academics were nervous about handling topics that might upset their sponsors,” as was reported in the Guardian. The same happens in the rest of Europe, as well as North America.
In other words the uluma, the scholars, are highly influenced by several interrelated items. First and foremost, their own cultural background influences them. Then, they are influenced by the times in which they are living as human beings, the historical context of their time. Finally, the leadership under which they operate influences the scholars. As you have seen in the above examples, sometimes the imported diverse Muslims give that extra push needed to bring influence on both local and foreign communities. For example, in Somalia they imported and trained Somali scholars in Saudi Arabia in order to translate the Qur’an the Wahhabi way into the Somali language for the Somalis back home.
When it comes to homosexuality, therefore, one has to understand the context in which the early Muslims lived, a context which somewhat continued into middle Muslim history, and to which many contemporary Muslims ended up yet again: same-sex sexual activities are plentiful in cultures in which men and women are separated. That is, Muslim scholars have had to deal with societies in which sexuality was reduced to a physical need rather than a spiritual need. To understand this more deeply, let us turn to an article published in the journal of Islamic Law and Society in which Sara Omar describes a Muslim culture in which early Muslims like Malik ibn Abas, one of the earliest scholars in Islamic history as well as, as you will soon find out, the founders of the four madhab schools, feared the company of boys so much that he forbade them from his study groups. Omar describes this period as one in which the scholars emphasized the importance of lowering gazes in front of beautiful boys, and even in which some in that time going so far as attributing two devils (double the temptation) to boys in comparison to the one devil attributed to girls.
Omar also describes a period a little later in history in which Muslim poets like Abu Nuwas dedicated almost entire volumes of poetry to male love. Abu Nuwas lived around 200 years after the Prophet, and this was a period in which Arabs were still in control, and when a host of other cultures had come into contact with the growing Muslim empires and the empire had no choice but to allow diversity in all walks of life. During the time of Abu Nuwas the Muslim empire reached parts of what is now Istanbul, which at the time was actually the capital of Byzantine Empire. The Greeks, as well as many other people in the Byzantine Empire, were not exactly homophobic, even if they lived under a recent political situation in which the dominant faith, Christianity, had done things similar to what Islam was slowly having to face.
Finally, she describes a spiritual phenomenon that came later in history, a phenomenon she calls al-naẓar ilā al-murd, or contemplation on the beardless, in which mystical Muslims intentionally gazed upon beardless boys. Although the practice is supposed to be platonic, Omar quotes Muhammad bin Ibrahim Abu Hamza, one of the earliest mystics, as saying while some “succeed without effort in keeping this association free of sensuality, others intentionally expose themselves to ascetic tests of strength” (p. 223). That is, what the scholars of early Islam feared was now becoming an actual spiritual practice! You no longer needed to run away from beautiful boys, you invited them and worked hard to reach a spiritual ecstasy.
With that understanding in mind, let us look at how attitudes towards homosexuality evolved in the Muslim scholarship. As discussed in the Homosexuality in the Hadiths article, there are four schools of thought, or madhab, in the Sunni Islam, which account for about 80 percent of the Muslim community and on which this article focuses. These schools of thought are based on the work of four scholars named Abu Hanifa, Malik ibn Anas, Al-Shafi’i, and Ahmad ibn Hanbali. Although all of them considered sexuality outside of marriage, including the sexual activity between members of the same sex, as haram or sin, the differences between their jurisprudence is what type of sin it is and what the punishment for it should be.
Abu Hanifa, the earliest of the four classical scholars and for whom the Hanafi madhab is named, is the only one of out the four who proposed that same-sex sexual activities are less sinful than sexual activities between members of the opposite sex and therefore the punishment for it is less (not hadd or death), and should be left to the judge (ta’zir or discretionary). It should be noted he was Persian, and if you followed this series you will know I made a point of the Persian influences, and therefore not all Persians influenced the attitudes towards homosexuality negatively. The Hanafi school of thought is the largest in the Sunni community, and is predominantly in societies once ruled by the Turkic people in places like the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, northwest China, as well as the later Ottoman Empire. It was, therefore, partly how homosexuality was decriminalized in the Ottoman Empire in the mid 1800s.
At the same time, even the three scholars whose legal viewpoint is capital punishment for same-sex sexual activities, the process is so strict that it makes it difficult to prosecute. For example, the Shafi’i madhab requires four reputable male witnesses, if self confession is not available, in order to prosecute. Shafi’i madhab has been the predominant madhab in Somalia, as well as 30 percent of Muslim World at large, and it was only under the non-Shafi’i rulings of Al-Shabab that the LGBT Somali community ever saw death sentences. Simply put, it was impossible to prosecute before that. This type of institutionally relaxed attitude towards sexuality was what made the Muslim World a haven for LGBT persons who lived under Christianity. All you had to do in the Muslim World was not confess, avoid public sex, and you could live a relatively happy life as an LGBT person.
In the recent past, especially in the last 200 years, Muslims, under colonialism has seen a great deal of diversity, as well. Depending on whether your colonialist was cool with homosexuality or not, you ended up living under a different context. For example, Indonesia, which has seen one kind or another European colonialism since the 1500s, had never seen laws that made homosexuality illegal in its penal code. Indonesia, which is a Shafi’i society, did not have to deal with the madhab’s punitive attitude towards homosexuality as a country. How did that happen? The influence of their European colonialists, who did not impose anti-sodomy laws, spared them. On the other hand, just across from them is Malaysia, which has anti-sodomy laws placed in it by its European colonialist, the British, who had such a law.
That said, there has also been great diversity of understandings, as far as it relates to homosexuality, within those madhabs since the time of their founding. For example, Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, the head of Zaytuna College’s Islamic law program, notes that “scholars have been keen to differentiate between those people who do such things due to tendencies which are ‘innate’ and those who do so by ‘choice’” (p. 17). However, bin Hamid Ali is careful to make sure his audience does not mistake his assertions and makes it clear that Muslim scholastic history has been unanimous about the fact that sexual activities between men is a pervasion against nature, but also admits that sexual activities between women had been seen as less severe.
In other words, keeping in mind that this very article is being written in a modern non-Muslim society in which homosexuality was illegal until 2003, Muslim scholars had been part of a global community that has seen a huge back-and-forth issues with sexual experiences between men. The promoters of the French Revolution was highly influenced by the Muslim experience, especially what came out of Muslim Spain, but it was needed later on by the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire to modernize its hold in order to compete with the big boys of Europe. In other words, Muslim scholars are not living in caves and they participate in the world. Bin Hamid Ali, for example, makes sure his audience understands the diversity of human history with homosexuality, as well, describing even some societies in which heterosexuality was considered sinful, as well as others in which homosexuality was considered as normal as heterosexuality.
Today, however, there is a new hope on the horizon for LGBT Muslims. There is a growing Progressive Muslim community that welcomes and celebrates LGBT Muslims. There is also a growing number of openly LGBT imams that are fighting for a different kind of interpretations of the Islamic texts. Together, their voices are being heard globally on both traditional Muslim media and social media, and on the Internet at large. All of this means that the traditional scholarship is facing a growing challenge to re-visit its own historical homophobia, as we have seen in bin Hamid Ali and others.
Afdhere Jama is the author of Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the Faith. He lives in the United States.