RE-EDUCATING MUSLIM MINDS
By Imam Daayiee Abdullah
Following today’s media, whether print, television or internet, Muslims worldwide are bombarded with politically laced anti-Islamic, clash of civilization rhetoric, claiming Muslims and their faith are incompatible with the modern world. Two of the most commonly used themes to highlight the “otherness” of the Islamic faith are the status of Muslim women and Muslims proposed hatred of LGBTQI people. Sadly, these claims far too often ignore the truth that throughout orthodoxy within the Abrahamic faiths, whether the believers are immigrant, first-generation or natives of the USA – Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have their pockets of anti-LGBTQI movements. As an Islamic scholar who is also Muslim and gay, I disagree with these often false and misleading views that LGBTQI people are demonized within Islamic theological belief. I write this article as a brief overview to look at the efforts by LGBTQI Muslims towards the re-education of modern-day Muslims on the LGBTQI question.
The adage “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing,” is a clear indicator of how media promotes a misguided and misleading understanding of sexual diversity within Islamic theological thought. Overall, the problem stems from a melding of political Islamism and Islamic theological thought, for Islamic extremists falsely claim that the faith promotes homophobia. Yet with the Quranic texts one does not find such theological support for their claims. For nearly 200 years, Islamic support for LGBTQI people has been misrepresented both within misguided scriptural interpretations, and Islamic law. In 1858, the Ottoman Empire removed prohibitions for homosexuality 100 years before the West. However, I am not saying that many Muslim cultures did not continue to hold on to the colonialist laws that criminalized homosexuality, as we can see from today’s news that homosexuality is still criminalized by imprisonment to sentences of death in at least 12 Muslim states. Support for these abusive laws are based in the overall form of patriarchy which establishes an anti-sexual freedom theme that harms men, women, children and LGBTQI persons.
Furthermore, since the 1970s, Arab culture has been promoted as the epitome of what is Islam/Muslim. Of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, Indonesia is the largest Islamic society with 260 million Muslims, dwarfing the Arab-Gulf culture which is some 13 times smaller in population. Additionally, the many sects of Islam again emphasize that not all Muslims follow Arab culture. Finally, the ways in which Muslim states and the West have prevented a better understanding has been the lack of modern educational methods and the demonization of the Muslim other.
The areas where clarification of LGBTQI life are generally needed are (a) Islamic historical references; (b) Quranic scriptural references; (c) the theological and political history of adaptation for condemnation; and (d) the progressive interpretations that utilize Quranic scriptural texts to support acceptance of LGBTQI Muslims.
If one was to have a discussion with a traditionally trained Imam, one would find certain “beliefs” against homosexuality are based on extra-scriptural texts, and promoted as being Quranic. This reveals a systemic lack of study on the subject of LGBTQI people, whether it is from historical personalities or theological treatises, far too often the default stance is that all of the Abrahamic faiths use the Lot/Lut story as its foundational frame to prohibit normalization. Needless to say, when these Imams and scholars learned there is nothing against same-sex relationships within the Quran, their first response is to hold steady to their secondary sources, hoping they provide the credence to abuse LGBTQI Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
From the nascent beginnings of the Muslim community (CE 610 through 632), Prophet Muhammad’s teachings never promoted hatred towards sexual minorities. In fact, living in the households of several of his wives were individuals referred to as Mukhannath, which would be similar to a Hijrah or transgendered person of today. Therefore, the misrepresentation that those individuals were not conidered part of the sexual diversity of the Muslim community is not historically accurate. Additionally, as we will see below, even after the Prophet’s death in CE 632, and the final compilation of the Quran does include scriptural texts that directly supports sexual minorities as part of the believers. Thus, when religious leaders state that sexual diversity, i.e., homosexuality is not permitted within Islam, you can be assured this is based upon cultural prejudice.
Quranic Scriptural References
Of course, most people know that the Islamic faith is the youngest of the Abrahamic faith, i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Thus, earlier Judaic and Christian traditions derived from the Torah and New Testament lead to the misunderstanding towards homosexuality within the Quranic scriptural texts. Historically, renderings of Jewish prohibitions against homosexuality and Christian prohibitions against pedophilia were combined and filtered into the Muslim understanding of homosexuality through stories transmitted by Jewish and Christian converts to Islam during its nascent development.
Quranic scriptural references provide support for a positive LGBTQI interpretation, depending upon which aspect of sexual diversity one seeks to support, individual and or several collectively. Before highlighting specific Quranic references, it needs to be stated that within the Islamic theological context, everything is permissible unless it is proven through scriptural references that it is not permissible. Therefore, Surah 24:31, speaks to gay men…” men who have no desire [irbat] for women,” 24:60 speaks to lesbians and gay men…”non-reproducing [aqeeman] women and men,” 43:49-50 for transgenders…”sexual and gender diversity as products of our Creator’s creative will,” and 30:22 speaks for the outer and inner diversities of human nature “fitra,” that our tongues provides both outer languages and inner tastes, our colors for both outer races and inner temperaments. These Quranic references provide ample support for sexual diversity. Therefore, creating an opportunity to re-educate Muslim people.
Theological and Political History of LGBTQI Within Islamic Law
As with any aspect of antiquity, Empire building and the methodologies of hegemony developed a harmony between governmental and theological arenas. This semi-bionic relationship supported each other. It is through the development of secondary sources called hadith, supposed references recording what Prophet Muhammad said or did, that one finds both positive and negative references on LGBTQI people. Of course, the negative ones far outnumber the positive ones. From the 9th through 12th-centuries, the compilation of hadith collections proliferated throughout the Islamic Empire—and not all of these collections passed scrutiny, or in other instances they were fabricated out of a need to support certain arguments before the courts, thus adding undue influence over legal rulings of the time. These juristic rules continued to be utilized to make sure the traditional laws are maintained rather than developing to meet the human rights standards of today. In modern times, Muslim states still under despotic and dynastic control continue to adapt these abusive hadith in order to maintain governmental control.
Progressive Interpretations for Our Modern World
Besides the legalistic history, the Islamic empire’s development of great literature such as the Thousand and One Nights tells stories of great same-sex love and popular tales revealing a world where life was not always limited to the views of the theologians. But expressed a much more open and fluid understanding of sexual diversity. Sexual diversity was found in the courts of Amirs and Khalifs who lived openly with their lovers, as well as women openly living together as partners, and it was not considered abhorrent. Overall, the Muslim world was not a center of religious piety as is promoted by modern day myths of a pristine theological period until modern times.
Today, progressive Islamic scholars through online seminaries like the MECCA Institute are promoting the re-education of Muslim societies. By gleaning our extensive Islamic histories to not only understand Islamic societies of antiquity, but to also take from the long literary and medical/scientific histories of the Golden Age to seek the Quranic ethics therein to decide if they have importance for today’s contemporary world. It is through this form of review and revival of these standards, as well as adding much needed modern standards for Muslims living in a multifaith and secular society that Muslims and non-Muslims alike can be re-educated to Quranic ethical standards applicable for modern times.
Finally, over the past 20 years a slow but steady movement forward has occurred, revealing greater growth in acceptance of LGBTQI people. Recent Pew research reveals that over 40 percent of Muslims in the USA support LGBTQI human rights, and the rate rises to 60 percent among younger generations. Muslims and the LGBTQI community, generally, are combining to confront human right abuses in our land. We can look forward to the next generation of Muslims and LGBTQI people of all ages to support our causes.
IMAM DAAYIEE ABDULLAH is Executive Director of MECCA Institute (Muslim Education Center for Creative Academics), a Muslim think tank and online Islamic theological seminary, teaching an inclusive Quranic liberation theology and continuing education courses.