Queer Life in Islamic History

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From the Prophet’s times to the Golden Age, from colonialism to the modern times, the LGBT community has been part of the history of Islam.

History is not kind to people who lie about the minorities in their societies. That is specifically the case when you are the leader of that country. In 2007, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who at the time was the president of Iran, proclaimed, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.”

Perhaps. But the truth of the matter is that Iran had homosexuals “like” the ones that are now legally roaming in the United States before the world even knew there was a United States. More importantly, there was not an “Iran” before the United States but “Persia.” So, one would have to look into these things when one proclaims such controversial things.

Why do some leaders lie about a minority from a society they lead? It has to do with what it is they want to hide. Iran has been known to execute gays. In order to escape international pressure, they created a system in which consensual sex becomes “understandably” awful when it is branded rape. Amnesty International notes that rape charges are created when you place rape as an exit out of persecution. “If the intercourse is deemed non-consensual, the ‘active’ partner receives the death penalty but the ‘passive’ partner is exempted from punishment and treated as a victim,” the human rights organization notes, adding, “This legal framework risks creating a situation where willing ‘recipients’ of anal intercourse may feel compelled, when targeted by the authorities, to characterize their consensual sexual activity as rape in order to avoid the death penalty.”

In that case, you can say “We don’t have homosexuals, we have rapists.”

Muslims, whether what is now in Iran or anywhere else, have always had “homosexuals.” We have had incredible queer personalities, love stories, and great tragedies. We have participated in the upbringing, the great historical heights, and the maintenance of the faith. There have been well known members of the LGBT community in every period of Islamic history.

 

Early Muslim History

Umm Salama, one of the wives of the Prophet, had an in-home male servant who was supposed to be gay but who proved to be otherwise. Faris Malik, an American Muslim researcher, says that the man “had been falsely assumed to be indifferent to women due to his being an ‘effeminate man’ [mukhannath]”. Malik says that the “mukhannath” in that era was expected to be what we would call today “gay.” Needless to say, he was kicked out from the house. The story was reported in both Bukhari and Muslim authentic Hadiths.

Researcher Everett K. Rowson, who had written about the ‘Effeminates’ of early Medina, noted that Islamic historians like Ibn Habib and al-Tabarani, who lived in the ninth and tenth centuries respectively, related that the mukhannathun were expected to be homosexually inclined, adding that “the Prophet’s words imply that the mukhannath’s awareness of what men found attractive in women was proof of his own sexual interest in them, and that it is ifor this reason that he and those like him should be barred from the women’s quarters” (p. 676).

It is important to note that although the Prophet did not have a problem with a man like the one mentioned above, had he been in reality what he was expected to be, the Prophet did have issues, according to the Hadiths, with effeminate men who dressed and/or acted like women. In one case, it was reported that there was such a “mukhannath” who was brought to the Prophet in which the Prophet replied “I’m forbidden from killing people who pray,” in response to Muslims who expected the Prophet would ask the man to be killed. I always found this Hadith to be interesting because it is there for no other reason than to point out that the Prophet’s companions had issues with early Islam as it clashed with their cultural understanding of things.

The contrast between the effeminate man that the sahabah, or the companions of the Prophet, drag in, a man who painted his hands with henna, and the man who comfortably goes in and out of the Prophet’s home, although they are both referred to as “mukhannath,” this contrast showcases that the Prophet was definitely open minded and that his companions were not always, as people of their time and understandably not always open to sexual diversity. Rowson reported this in that the ‘effeminates’ of early Islam enjoyed a lot of success as artists, both during the Prophet’s lifetime as well as the period immediately following that, until it was cut down by Caliph Sulayman of the Umayyad period.

 

The Islamic Golden Age

This period is where LGBT Muslim history thrives. After all, this was a period where we even had a Caliph who was open about his love for other men. But, more than anything else, this is a period characterized by references to same-sex history in literature, poetry, and even in the faith. The Islamic Golden Age, which basically dates from the eight to thirteenth centuries, was a time of diversity, openness, and where the larger community saw probably the most interesting Islamic period ever known. Under the Abbasid Empire the Muslim community transitioned from Arab-dominated society to a more diverse society composed of Arab, Egyptian, Persian, Turkic, and several European cultures.

During the Islamic Golden Age we see Arab scholars who are freaking out about the plentiful of open homosexuality within the new cultures, and who begin to demand that men lower their gaze the same way they were told to do with women (in the Qur’an, and in Sunnah traditions). One scholar, Malik Ibn Abbas, went as far to prohibit young men (beardless ones) from joining his study groups. Interestingly enough, during the Islamic Golden Age that fear was transformed into a spiritual ecstasy when the Sufis created a ritual of meditating on the young men (beardless ones). If the Sufis had not transformed that cultural homophobia into spiritual experience we would not have had Muslim queer love stores like the caliph Al-Amin and his partner Kauthar, which took place during that period; mystical master Rumi and his lover Shams, which took place a period immediately following that period; and poet Shah Hussain and his Hindu soulmate Madho Lal, which took place nearly 500 years after Al-Amin and Kauthar.

Of course, this was not just a period of spiritual contradictions. It was also a period in which poets like Abu Nuwas busted out homoerotic poetry in a time when such poetry would literally get you killed in Europe. The homoerotic poetry of Abu Nuwas and others from that period showcases the interesting lives LGBT Muslims were living in the Islamic Golden Age.

 

Colonial Times

LGBT Muslims were met with a very dark period during European Colonialism, a period that stretched from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. It was the first time when the hard-to-prosecute Muslim laws (where persecution of homosexuality required four reputable males witnesses attesting to the act) were replaced by foreign systems that did not need such strict rules to punish people for “sodomy,” which really affected men the most.

More than anything else, what these colonial powers did was empower the existing homophobia in some local cultures. Whereas before you could not be “black mailed” you suddenly had to deal with authorities, especially the police, where you had to bribe your way out of life.

Despite this, LGBT Muslims still lived in much better conditions in the East than their counterparts in the West. In fact, according to Robert Aldrich’s Colonialism and Homosexuality, many from the West fled to the East because they realized life was better in Muslim countries than democratic West.

 

Modern Times

Unfortunately, the colonialists left some nasty residue. Today, there are ten Muslim countries where the death penalty is applied to same-sex sexual activities. Most of them have inherited their sodomy laws from the British Empire. What they did, often, is take the laws to the extreme after independence by continuously refusing to revisit these laws. In some cases the Muslim madhab was operating under colonial attitudes, with local scholars giving legal rulings that would have been rather weird in some periods in Muslim history.

For example, Afghanistan is a country that is predominantly Hanafi, the madhab that does not call for the death of people for same-sex sexual activities, but modern day Afghanistan was a British subject where gays were hanged (the British law later changed from hanging to imprisonment). It is now one of the countries where you can get killed for same-sex sexual activities. In fact, a large number of countries where homosexuality is illegal today are Muslim, and large number of them is of British colonial background.

Although a very complex period, the modern times have allowed LGBT Muslims more advancement than any other time. The Western nations that once brought awful penal codes are now fighting to hold homophobic Muslim nations to a global understanding of equality. But the process is also taking place within the Muslim community. Now LGBT Muslims are welcomed and celebrated in non-LGBT Muslim organizations, there are also LGBT organizations in the Muslim World, and homosexuality is legal in some 22 Muslim countries. Further, we have LGBT Muslim activists who live and work all over the world. More importantly, we have openly gay Imams in the Muslim community today who are challenging Muslim homophobia.

Yes, we have come a long way in terms of rights and we are still on a queer jihad, if you will, but we have always been there. From the Prophet’s home to today, queer Muslims cannot be discounted or hidden under a rug.

Afdhere Jama is the author of  Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the FaithHe lives in the United States.

 

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