Homosexuality is a controversial issue in many religious traditions. Religious arguments are frequently used to justify punitive and rejecting policies regarding homosexuality. Despite contemporary perceptions that homosexuality is a Western phenomenon, same-sex dynamics of many varieties are an integral part of Islamic history and culture. Islamic dialogue based on the Qur’an did not use a discourse of “natural” or “unnatural” to describe sexualities. Contemporary Muslims who explicitly denounce homosexuality as “un-Islamic” adopt this dichotomy of natural and unnatural, and apply it as if it were indigenous to the Islamic tradition and to the Qur’an. Contemporary Muslim scholars contend that all humans are ‘naturally’ heterosexual; accordingly, homosexuality is considered a sinful and a perverse deviation from a person’s true nature. All Islamic schools of thought and jurisprudence consider homosexual acts to be unlawful, but each differ in terms of penalty from severe punishment, including death (Hanabalites), to no punishment warranted (Hanafite).
The Qur’an contains no word that means “homosexuality” as an abstract idea denoting a sexuality of men who desire pleasure with other men or a sexuality of women who desire pleasure with other women. The Qur’an contains no word that means “homosexual” as a man or woman who is characterized by this type of sexuality as forming a core part of his or her identity. The terms that became popular in Arabic in later times (Liwat for acts associated with same-sex relations, and Luti for persons associated with these acts) are not found in the Qur’an at all. The Qur’an does not explicitly specify any punishment for sexual acts between two men or two women. Most modern commentators and demagogues insist that the Qur’an does do all these things, but their insistence is not rooted in a close reading of the Qur’anic verses with attention to specific terms and their narrative context. When one looks through the historical and literary records of Islamic civilization, one finds a rich archive of same-sex sexual desires and expressions, written by or reported about respected members of society: literati, educated elites, and religious scholars. This is so much the case that one might consider Islamic societies to provide a vivid illustration of a “homosexual-friendly” environment in world history.
It is admitted that the Qur’an assumes a heterosexual norm among its listeners, this does not automatically mean that the Qur’an forbids homosexuality or condemns homosexuals – it means only that the Qur’an assumes that sexual desire between men and women is the norm and that addressing and regulating this desire is the basis for establishing a moral society. In any society, homosexuals are a numerical minority and are discursively located at the margins of ethical regulations: whether they are condemned or admired, they are always unusual. This is exactly what the modern Arabic term “al-shudhudh al-jinsi” means: a sexuality that is uncommon, outside the general norm, and rare. However, despite being a numerical minority, homosexual women and men are also present in society and numerically persistent. In every historically documented society there is evidence of homosexual desire and activity and there are persons characterized by such desire and activities.
The closest the Qur’an comes to directly addressing homosexual people is the phrase “men who are not in need of women or have no sexual guile before women.” The Qur’an presents this phrase descriptively in neutral tone, not linked to denunciation or legal proscription. To such people, the Qur’an does not explicitly address its discourse.
Commentators and jurists have drawn analogies and presented arguments to conclude that the Qur’an does address such sexually unusual people, despite the Qur’an’s lack of a term for them or the actions that characterize them. Those are, however, arguments of jurists and commentators; they are not the words of the Qur’an itself.
The ‘Lut’ story is the constant reference for Muslims’ understanding of same-sex relationships. Word-for-word replacement in classical commentaries has given rise to the dubious equation of the Divine punishment of Lut’s people with a condemnation of homosexuality and juridically enforceable punishment for same-sex acts. This is a conclusion that looks less inevitable and less intelligible when we pursue different techniques of interpretation, like semantic or thematic interpretation. One scholar has applied this technique to the sexuality-sensitive interpretation of the Qur’an, in the first serious critical attempt to reassess the Qur’an’s view of same-sex relationships. Amreen Jamel analyzed the passages from fourteen surahs of the Qur’an that mention Lut and his relationship to the community of people to whom he was sent as a Prophet.
While it is clear that Lut’s people were wicked and were destroyed by Divine punishment for their wickedness, it is not clear at all whether the Qur’anic terms that describe their wickedness and destruction are terms that specify same-sex relationships.
The results of Jamel’s systematic and comprehensive study confirm that there is great ambiguity in the Qur’anic retelling of the story of Lut. It is possible to suggest that Lut’s people (specifically the men) were indeed destroyed right after they threatened to assault Lut’s male guests sexually; however, there are others, like Lut’s wife, who are destroyed for non-sexual indiscretions. This example alone confirms the premise that same-sex sexuality is not the ultimate abomination that causes people to be alienated from God. Jamel’s analysis is the first step in a serious analysis of the Qur’an from a sexuality-sensitive perspective. Jamel notes that the terms that the Qur’an uses to denounce Lut’s people are not unique to Lut’s people; some imply sexual activity but are not limited to sexual activity. Jamel’s conclusions could go one step further, to question whether the overall condemnation of Lut’s people was either about their sex practices in general or about the sexuality of specific persons in the community.
It is certainly hard to imagine a just God, whose most basic message through the Prophets is that “whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see the results and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see the results” (Surat al-Zalzala 99:7), would destroy women and children because of acts of anal intercourse that could occur only between men.
From this vantage point, it would seem that it was not sexual behavior or sexuality for which they were all punished, but rather something far more basic. It is crucial to pursue this point in Qur’anic analysis beyond the initial study by Amreen Jamel. That study notes how Lut’s people were destroyed after some of their men “threatened to assault Lut’s male guests sexually.” Why did these men threaten to assault them? What was the social, political, and moral context of this assault? Should readers of the Qur’an understand this “sexual assault” as an expression of sexuality (let alone homosexuality) or rather as an exercise of coercive power through rape? The context of the narrative focuses on acts of greed, selfishness, and inhospitality, which are taken to the extreme of violence against strangers. The sexual acts of the narrative are acts of violence more than acts of sexual pleasure; they are contiguous with acts of coercion and robbery. Worse, all these incidents of violent inhospitality are concentrated in rejecting the prophethood of Lut and disbelieving in the God whom Lut claims to represent. The narrative is clearly about infidelity through inhospitality and greed, rather than about sex acts in general or sexuality of any variation in particular. One hadith presents Muhammad asking Jibra’il why and how the people of Lut were destroyed. Jibra’il answers,
“The people of Lut were a people who did not clean themselves after excreting, and did not wash after sexual ejaculation. They were stingy and covetous in refusing to share food generously with others. Lut stayed among them for thirty years, living amid them without ever becoming like them, entering into intimate terms with them or establishing a family among them. Lut called them to follow Allah’s command but they never heeded his call or obeyed him as their Prophet.”
This hadith stresses that the sinful nature of the people of Lut was greed, avarice, covetousness, and a cruel lack of generosity.
The hadith that address the issue of punishing men for having anal sex are not linked to any specific case or event in the Prophet’s life. This is in marked contrast to the hadith that address the issue of adultery between a man and woman, which are linked to very detailed cases that preserve the names of the men and women involved during the Prophet’s lifetime. A review of hadith from the two most reliable collections “Sahih Muslim and Sahih al-Bukhari” reveals no
evidence that the Prophet asserted, in word or deed, that homosexual relations were a bad crime, or were to be equated with adultery, or ever punished any actual persons for “crimes” relating to homosexuality. Nor is there any hadith in these two most authentic collections in which the Prophet discusses Lut in relation to sexual acts or relationships. Most reports in which the Prophet reportedly condemns same-sex activities have weak chains of transmission and are found in hadith collections that are not the most authoritative. There is further historical evidence to suggest that these hadith were fabricated long after the Prophet Muhammad had died and were retrospectively projected back onto him.
The earliest incident in which a man was punished for same-sex relations occurred during the rule of Abu Bakr, after the death of Muhammad. It is clear from this incident that the closest Companions of the Muhammad knew of no precedent for such punishment. The Prophet had never punished anyone for same-sex relations and had not specified a method of punishment.
The Companions consulted together and decided to burn the man accused. This story is very revealing, since it shows the uncertainty of the Companions surrounding same-sex activity and confirms that the Prophet Muhammad himself had never specified it as a crime with a specific punishment. When Abu Bakr received report from a governor that he had found a whole town “doing the act of the people of Lut,” he gathered the Prophet’s closest Companions together to consult with them about what to do. ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib reportedly said, “This is a sin that no community from the known nations has perpetrated except one single community. Allah did to them what you all know. My opinion is that such people should be burned in a fire.” So the Companions agreed with ‘Ali’s idea that the punishment was burning.
This incident is certainly very disturbing. First, we don’t know exactly what the governor meant by “the act of the people of Lut.” If it were same-sex relations in general or anal sex between men in particular, it is difficult to imagine a whole town being involved in a way that would be significantly different from other towns. It is highly probable that the town might have resisted the governor’s authority as this occurred during the earliest years of the Islamic conquests when their rule was new and contested just like the people of Lut resisted Lut’s assertion of authority over them. It may not have had anything specifically to do with sexual acts. If the acts were sexual in nature, how could Islamic legal procedure have been applied (with four adult male witnesses to the actual act of penetration)? It is more probable that this was a case of putting down resistance to political conquest than enforcing Islamic “family values.” However, the Islamic jurists have interpreted this incident as the first case of actual punishment for same-sex activities. Even if that were the case, it shows us something more disturbing still. The earliest punishment was burning. It was based on Imam ‘Ali’s opinion about what to do (very roughly linked to his reading of the story of Lut from the Qur’an), but clearly not based on any precedent or oral teaching or exemplary conduct of the Prophet Muhammad. The supposed hadith that later circulated usually specify stoning as the punishment, not burning. This establishes that these hadith were later inventions, reflecting the jurists’ ongoing debate about whether anal sex between men was the legal equivalent to adultery with stoning as the hadd punishment. The conflict between stoning or burning as the appropriate punishment signals that the Prophet had not left any specific teaching about appropriate punishment, neither in word nor in deed.
Could it be that the Prophet never addressed the issue because he did not see it as an issue of crime and punishment, but rather as one variety of indiscretion?
The Prophet certainly did encounter people in his Arab society in Mecca and Medina who had uncommon sexual identities and practices that contradicted the heterosexual norm. Researchers in pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabic literature have uncovered a wealth of examples.
Salah al-Din Munajjad has documented that same-sex practices existed among both men and women in pre-Islamic Arabia, refuting ideologues who claim that these practices were unknown among Arabs until the Persians introduced them during the Abbasid revolution.
Everett Rowson has documented the very lively culture of “effeminate men” during the Prophet’s lifetime in Medina. These men took on women’s social characteristics and were especially noted as popular musicians and comedians; some of them were associated with same-sex sexual desire while others were not. These people were ambiguous in their gender and their sexuality. Yet the Prophet is not known to have censured any of them for sexual acts or sexuality in the wider sense. There is no report of the Prophet having any of them burned or stoned for sexual practices. The jurists’ narrow focus on punishment for sexual acts obscures the deeper meaning of the story and the force with which the Qur’an tells it to an audience struggling to meet the challenges of faith and realize the fullness of the Prophets’ teachings on tawhid. Leaving behind an obsessive attention to anal sex and stigmatizing same-sex sexuality can actually be a positive act for contemporary Muslims, one that brings new clarity to questions of sexual ethics.
On the educational and legal levels, many Muslim communities vociferously denounce homosexuals or acts associated with them (regardless of whether these are consensual), while maintaining a silence around men who coerce others (women, men, or children) through sexual acts in homes, schools, or work places. This silence, coupled with homosexual scapegoats, actually protects men who engage in rape and sexual abuse, guarding their patriarchal privilege to use sex as a weapon to maintain their position of power over others. What kind of society would denounce consensual sexual activity while protecting violent sexual abuse? Such a society could never be considered to uphold high ideals of justice. Will Muslims allow their societies to be counted among such as this? Will progressive Muslims allow such injustice to be legitimized through simplistic interpretation of scriptural sources? This problem highlights the interconnectedness of social ethics with sexual ethics. Muslims with a keen sense of justice should not let sexual relations be judged by the surface component of the gender of the partners, but should look rather to the content of the relationship. Moreover, Muslims need to understand that homophobia is as unjustified and irrational as is Islamophobia.