Homosexuality in Islam


The term homosexuality represents a modern category with no direct equivalent in Islamic vocabulary. The Arabic term liwat (anal intercourse) comes closest to describing homosexual encounters between men. Homosexuality remains a highly taboo subject for many

Muslims and the permissibility of homosexual behavior is an issue of reasonable intellectual and social contestation in the Islamic tradition. Like any concern of ethical importance, both Western and non-Western Muslims have addressed the issue of homosexuality in Islam in myriad ways—some in the form of utter condemnation and disapproval, others with full acceptance and even celebration, and still others with a general sense of indifference toward the whole issue.

Homosexuality is forbidden in the Qur’an, with strict punishments commanded for those who engage in homosexual acts. The following major Qur’anic passages address same-sex encounters between men:

If two of you commit it, punish them both. If they repent and mend their ways, then leave them alone. Allah is truly All-forgiving, Merciful. (Qur’an 4:16) You approach men instead of women lustfully; you are rather a people given to excess. (7:81)

And (remember) Lot, when he said to his people: “you are committing the foul Act [that is, Sodomy] which no one in the whole world ever committed before you.” (29:28) “You approach men and waylay the traveler and commit in your gatherings reprehensible acts.” To which the only reply of his people was: “Bring upon us Allah’s punishment, if you are truthful.” (29:29)

Prophet Muhammad also condemned homosexual behavior strongly. In a tradition reported by one of his foremost companions, Ibn ‘Abbas, he is said to have declared that “whoever is found conducting himself in the manner of the people of Lot, kill the doer and the receiver” (Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan 1:152). At another instance, he pronounced that “The thing I fear most about my people is that they should conduct themselves in the manner of Lot” (Ibn Majah, Sunan 1:856). He further stated, “Whoever comes upon a forbidden being, kill him, and whoever comes upon an animal, kill him and the animal” (Ibn Hanbal, Musnad 1:856).

The issue of homosexual encounters was also addressed by the ‘ Ulama (religious scholars) of medieval Islam. Prominent thinkers such as Malik bin Anas and al-Shaf’i contended that a person who commits sodomy “should be stoned, whether he refrains or not.” The noted medieval jurist and thinker Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali is also said to have commented that, “It is shameful for a man to look at the face of the beardless boy when it may result in evil” (Ghazzali 1984, 38). The Islamic legal tradition is also clear on the limitations placed by sodomy on marriage: A male sodomite is prohibited from marrying female relatives of the boy or man with whom he committed sodomy —mother, sister, and daughter.

Several gay Muslim activists and thinkers have attempted to revisit the Qur’an and other sources of Islamic law to challenge the widely held notion that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam. Such efforts are most visible on the Internet, where a variety of gay Muslim activist Web sites—for instance, www.al-fatiha.org (the largest online community of gay Muslims)— have sprung up and remain fiercely active in their attempt to shift the tide of this debate in their favor.

The most formidable scholarly contributions in this trend are based on a comprehensive reading of the Qur’an and other scriptural sources of Islamic authority that emphasize the symbolic rather than the literal aspects of textual exegesis. In these progressive readings of the Qur’an, the story of Lot is regarded as signifying a general championing of ethical conduct over immoral behavior and not as a literal condemnation of homosexuals or homosexual behavior. The key variable that underscores this tension between conservative and liberal readings of scripture is the relationship between language and meaning, and the question of whether the latter precedes the former or the other way round. For the conservatives and the dogmatists, language precedes meaning, thus erasing the possibility of reading a text in any way other than in its strictly literal form. But progressives challenge this kind of literalism by adopting a hermeneutical paradigm that opposes the primordial character of language and that allows for greater liberties in interpreting the written word. This creative tension between literalism and liberalism marks most significant issues of contention in the Islamic tradition, and the case of homosexuality is no exception.

The influence of progressive gay-Muslim movements, both scholarly and activist, is now mostly limited to North America. The conditions of normative Islam in Muslim-majority contexts are still heavily unfavorable toward the recognition of homosexuality as a legitimate condition, and there is sizable evidence in the textual traditions of the religion that support such a viewpoint.

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