Here is a fact that many conservative Muslims either don’t know or don’t like: the Qur’an does not call for the death of gay people. Here is also another fact: the Qur’an does not call for the death of people who have gay sex.
There is a chapter, or sura, in the Qur’an entitled “The Believers,” and the first portion of this chapter describes what a believer is supposed to look like. In the fifth and sixth verses we read, “And those who guard their private parts; except before their mates, or those whom their right hands possess, for surely they are not to be blamed” (23:5-6). In other words a believer, a mu’min, is supposed to “guard” the sexual organs except with their mates, azwaj, a word that is ambiguous that neither says “husbands” or “wives.” The second group, those whom their right hands possess, ma malakat aymanuhum, is generally accepted to mean slaves (an entire discussion separately).
Most LGBT Muslims live in countries in which their love is illegal. After writing about the stories of many queer people in the Muslim World I decided to have the title of my book be “Illegal Citizens” because that is what we are. There are also ten countries, or regions within countries, in which that illegality can land one in death. That is, where loving same-sex is so outrageous that they actually execute you.
Most of these societies use the Qur’an (and other holy texts) to justify their discrimination.
What does the Qur’an really say about homosexuality? Before we get there, we first need to define homosexuality by first looking at the terminology and then looking at what it describes. The word “homosexuality” is a 19th Century word that was coined by a German psychologist named Karoly Maria Benkert. For the first part of the 20th Century it was used in the academic, clinical, and religious settings in conjunction with the same-gender-loving community.
Today, in the West, the word has actually evolved into an offensive word, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation or GLAAD. Instead, GLAAD prefers that the word “gay” be used in media in reference to same-gender-loving individuals in general.
Yet, the term homosexuality describes a phenomenon: sexuality between same-sex or same-gender individuals (homo).
I don’t like the term “homosexuality” for reasons not very different from GLAAD’s: 1) it reduces same-gender-loving individuals to sex; 2) it is very cold (clinical, academic, religious, etc).
So for those reasons I use it when it deals with cold discussions.
I personally prefer the term “queer” instead, and therefore you will find it in the titles or sub-titles of some of my books (“Queer Jihad” or “Queer Lives in the Muslim World,” etc). What is queer? For me, queer is an inclusive term that is an umbrella for anyone and everyone outside the heteronormative equation. That is, anyone who has a “different” sexuality or gender identity, an identity which is not traditionally sanctioned or accepted by mainstream society.
In Somali, my own mother tongue, we have a similar term. As a kid I used to hear the phrase, “Qajac, qajac, Khadiijo Warsame!” I never knew exactly who Khadiijo Warsame was, but I definitely know what the qajac part meant. It meant weird, strange, and it was also a word used against feminine men or masculine women, men and women outside of heteronormative sexuality or gender identity.
Similarly, queer is a term that was once used by society to describe weirdness, strangeness, and it was also a word used against gay and lesbian people.
As such, I’m owning that history by using that word in a positive way. I liken it to the way that young Black men in the United States use the word “nigga,” to own and celebrate a word that has been used against Black people.
In Arabic, there were several words. That has to do with Arabic being the primary or secondary language of couple of a dozen people in the Arab World. Their diverse culture allows them to have access to different kinds of Arabic. For example, in the early 2000s, while living in San Francisco and a member of SWANABAQ (Southwest Asian & North African Bay Area Queers), a group as diverse as the Arab community at large, there was a need to come up with positive terminology for the LGBT community.
This discussion, which was led by Lebanese-born Bassam Kassab, ended with a list of couple of dozen positive words. These words included “mithli,” which literally means “same” and was to be used for same-sex or gay. Then there was “ahrar el jins,” which literally means “free sex/gender/sexuality” and was to be used as an umbrella term much like queer. The later was purely new, while the former was a compromise on what good scientists have used in the later part of the 20th Century, “junusiya mithliya” (people of same sexuality), much like “homosexuality”.
So, what did people call gay people before these words? You can’t really refer to people to something that is not really accepted. So, there were many words. The most interesting one I have heard in the United States is “members of the wedding party,” something an older friend recently told me. More like a phrase, but whatever.
The People of Lut:
Now, back to the Qur’an. There is nothing in the Qur’an dealing with homosexuality in that sense. There is not a word that refers to homosexuality. Instead, there are things both sides of the camps (people who say the Qur’an is against homosexuality and the people who say the Qur’an is not against homosexuality) use to support their cases.
When conservative Muslims say the Qur’an is against homosexuality, they generally use Qur’anic verses found in the story of Prophet Lut (or Lot, as he is known in Jewish and Christian Bibles). These verses are all over the Qur’an (7:81, 26:165-166, 27:55, and 29:28-29) and would deal with male homosexuality, if they were about homosexuality.
There is a particular phrase about men “approaching men” in lust that appears in several verses, including 7:81, 26:165, and 27:55.
Here is how some LGBT Muslims reconcile these issues:
Junaid Jahangir, a professor at MacEwan University in Canada, says that “dissenting Muslims argue that such a reading fails to appreciate context and linguistics. They also mention how extreme fanatics have bastardized the sacred texts by quoting verses stripped of their context.” He adds that based on “a contextual analysis, it becomes clear that the Qur’an is portraying a picture of coercion, exploitation and inhospitality. Specifically, verse 29:29 alludes to highway robbery and verse 15:70 refers to Lot’s people prohibiting him from entertaining guests.”
Imam Daayiee Abdullah, the first openly gay imam in the United States, agrees. “The sexual acts that are condemned in the Qur’an were done without the consent of the other. They were torture. Sexual acts are not the same as sexuality. The Qur’an doesn’t condemn any sexuality, anywhere,” said Imam Daayiee.
Faris Malik, a Muslim researcher in the United States who is the current custodian of the website queerjihad.org, has a different viewpoint. He believes there is nothing against gay men in the Qur’an. Malik proposes that the Qur’anic verses are misunderstood, and that in fact the Qur’an is not against homosexuality between two gay men but homosexuality between straight men:
“The Qur’an generally scorns ‘approaching males in lust’, as well as the castration of males, as the sin of the people of Lot (Qur’an 7:81, 26:165-166, 27:55, 29:28-29),” writes Malik. “But the Qur’an does not prohibit using, as passive sex partners, the ancient category of men who by nature lacked desire for women, since such men were not considered ‘male’ as a result of their lack of arousal for women. This kind of man is often known as ‘gay’ in modern times, but in the ancient world he was identified as an anatomically whole ‘natural eunuch.’ Although the Qur’an never uses the word eunuch, the hadith and the books of the legal scholars do. Furthermore, the Qur’an recognizes that some men are ‘without the defining skill of males’ (sura 24:31) and so, as domestic servants, are allowed to see women naked. This is a reference to natural eunuchs, i.e. innately and exclusively gay (if not totally asexual) men.”
Whether you choose to follow the logic of people like Jahingir and Imam Daayiee or Malik, that leaves the question of what Islam would expect of gays.
Imam Muhsin Hendricks, who is the first openly gay imam in South Africa, has said that his work “aims to make the individual realize that he is innately a sexual being but at the same time he needs to take responsibility for his/her actions and to keep the relationship with the Creator constant. The individual’s sexuality is but a fraction of who s/he is. It should not become the overriding factor in the individual’s life. We were created to worship Allah, and we should do so with whatever fate we were handed.”
However, Hendricks believes that the Qur’an “makes room for same-sex relationships. The Qur’an is clear. Take surah 30:21: ‘And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are Signs for those who reflect.’”
The Qur’anic story of Lut / Lot comes to the Muslims through the Bible, in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. As such, I want to touch on how the Jewish and Christian communities explain that story today. Most Jewish sources today argue that the punishment of Sodom was more about their wicked system of inhospitality. According to Rabbi Yuval Cherlow 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.” Similarly, John Boswell, the late well-respected historian at Yale University, noted in his 1981 book 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” (on page 93).
The Qur’an, like the Bible, was presented at a time when humans did not fully understand sexuality, and when cultures had diversity to issues that relate to sexual minorities. For example, one of the arguments presented in the Qur’an is that the people of Lot were guilty of something that “no one had done before” (7:80). For the sake of argument let’s say the people of Lot were homosexuals. In all of Jewish records, Abraham (who lived the same time period as Lot) was born around 1800 BCE. If that is the case, then the story about the ancient Egyptian homosexual couple, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, whose tomb in Egypt is circa 2400 BCE, predates the people of Lot. There are also others.
So, how did these types of interpretations ended up in these faiths? Why did it take Christian and Jewish scholars until the 20th Century to point out this inequality in interpretation? The story around the Hadiths, the secondary holy text for majority of Muslims, reveals a little bit more information on how we ended up here.
For more detailed information on these secondary holy texts and queer sexuality, click on Hadiths and Homosexuality.
Afdhere Jama is the author of Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the Faith. He lives in the United States.