Archive Sections: letters | music | index | features | photos | arts/lit | satire Find Iranian singles today!

Beyond bounds
A brief history of male homosexuality in Islamic culture

Keyan Keihani
December 11, 2005

The lack of consistent information pertaining to Islam and homosexuality is generating a global indifference in a world where gender norms are deeply internalized. The modern attitude in Islamic countries has not been constructively explored, let alone recognized through a homosexual perspective. It has been reinforced that the aim of natural sexuality is procreation--lawful and natural sexual relations between man and woman has been designed by Allah to preserve the human race here on earth.

However, aside from this generalized notion, Islam does recognize the reality or validity of the existence of various factors which influences a man to partake in homosexuality. In a statement by the Islamic Society of North America, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi says, "homosexuality is a moral disorder. It is a moral disease, a sin and corruption... No person is born homosexual, just like no one is born a thief, a liar or murderer. People acquire these evil habits due to a lack of proper guidance and education." These words of angst are far from the truth, but they portray one side of the universal argument against homosexuality and its social implications. Many theologians, past and present, promoting ethics in the Middle East have utilized a similar condescending stance when discussing transsexuality.

Although it is not explicitly reiterated in the Qur'an, homosexuality has been prevalent before the advent of Islam and its permissiveness has been recessed in modern countries in the Middle East. Sexual relations in Middle Eastern cultures, resembling other Western ideologies, have historically reinforced social hierarchies, that is, "dominant and subordinate social positions: adult men on top; women, boys and slaves below", although the Qur'an makes no distinction amongst men and women relative to their relationship with Allah. Once Islam was accepted with fervor, behavior was seemingly manipulated utilizing moral absolutes, though nothing dramatically changed; contrastingly, what was said and written about sex did change.

In this paper, I will confer the historical significance regarding homosexuality and analyze the contemporary dynamics of gays in Saudi Arabia and Iran while exploring the belief that it is not the existence of same-sex sexual relations that is new, but rather their association with essentialist sexual identities. Furthermore, I will derive parallels from within the Saudi Arabian and Iranian penal codes and note their prevalence with regards to Islamic law.

The Qur'an makes brief mentioning of homosexuality as a societal issue, although it is very specific on many social and familial rules of conduct. Islam recognizes both males and females as possessing "sexual drives and rights to sexual fulfillment and affirms heterosexual relations within marriage and lawful concubinage. All other sexual behavior is illicit." There are five references in the Qur'an which have been cited as referring to gay and lesbian behavior. A predominantly discussed, notable reference is as follows: "We also sent Lut: He said to his people: "Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds."

The verse is rather docile-it recognizes the male behavior of homosexuality, but does not explicitly state any course of action-rather, the "people" are notified for straying away from arbitrary communal norms. "Lut" is referred to as "Lot" in the Hebrew Scriptures. This passage is an "apparent reference to the activities at Sodom and Gamorah. It seems to imply that there was no homosexual behavior before it first appeared in Sodom. This is a uniquely Islamic concept; it does not appear in Jewish or Christian beliefs. The passage also links the sin of Sodom (the reason for its destruction) to homosexuality." In the fall 1993 issue of The Arab Studies Journal, As'ad AbuKhalil mentions another reference in the Qur'an "which contains a double standard for homosexuality among men and women."

The holy scripture states that "if any of your women commit al-fahishah (apparently referring to a homosexual relationship) bring in four witnesses from amongst you against them: If they confess, confine them to their houses till death overtakes them or till God finds a way for them. If two men among you commit al-fahishah, punish them both. If they repent and mend their ways, leave them alone. God is forgiving and merciful." Here, God seems to be the ultimate authority in deciding the punishment for homosexual actions, and he can be forgiving if the two parties are penitent. As I will discuss later in the text, the nation-state of Saudi Arabia derives its state laws from this verse when dealing with witnesses and punishment.

Preceding the death of Muhammad, as the Arab/Islamic civilization grew, "Islamic scholars created a detailed system of behavior called the Hadith (meaning the 'tradition'). Eventually, there were around 600,000 of these sayings which, surprisingly, were often in conflict...But they are not as helpful in understanding that place that homosexuality had in Islamic society as one might suppose." Thus, the interpretation of homosexuality has been left upon theologians who lack collective legitimacy -- certain individuals accept the transsexual paradigm, while others condemn its upheaval in a very adamant fashion. Some Hadiths discuss liwat, or sexual intercourse between males.

Examples include: "When a man mounts another man, the throne of God shakes" and "kill the one that is doing it and also kill the one that it is being done to" (referring to the active and passive partners in gay sexual intercourse). Shortly after, some theologians produced "a variety of non-sahih hadiths to ban the practice, albeit in theory. We find Khumayni, for example, going into details to elaborate on the manner in which a homosexual is to be killed, and this is clearly against the intention of the Qur'an."

However, early Islamic cultures, especially ones where homosexuality was entrenched into their Pagan culture were renowned for their cultivation of a homosexual aesthetic. They reconciled their innovative religion using a Hadith ascribed to Muhammad declaring male lovers who die uncorrupted to be martyrs, "He who loves and remains chaste and conceals his secret and dies, dies a martyr". The aura of sexuality is somewhat confusing in the Qur'anic/hadith context-while the Holy Scripture bans sodomy, it reinforces the male transsexual notion by inserting references of free young boys to be used at one's disposal.

Saudi Arabia
The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is generally considered poor, as mentioned by many Western scholars. The authoritarian rule of the Saudi royal family has generated and enforced strict laws under the state doctrine of Wahabism. Wahabism theology advocates "a puritanical and legalistic stance in matters of faith and religious practice... they see it as their role as a movement to restore Islam from what they perceive to be innovations, superstitions, deviances, heresies and idolatries."

Numerous basic freedoms as described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do not exist, and it is seemingly correct to say capital punishment is invoked without a Saudi-form of "due process". I am in no way implying that the nation-state of Saudi Arabia is inherently bad, or that these oppressive components of the Saudi state should be attributed to Islam or Wahabism, rather the domineering regime of the royal family has been manifesting a disdain for individual freedoms, and a monarchical institution can exacerbate human rights anywhere across the globe.

The Saudi royals' attitude towards homosexuality is scornful and yields, in many cases, lashes and execution. The Wahabism mandate reinforces the notion behind the illegality of sexual activity outside a traditional heterosexual marriage. The International Lesbian and Gay Association's description of discriminatory sexual offense laws denotes that "a very conservative form or Shar'ia law is followed in Saudi Arabia. Accordingly, homosexual acts are illegal, and subject to a maximum penalty of death." However, homosexuality in itself has various levels with regards to sexual actions and practices.

In 1928, the Saudi judicial board advised Muslim judges to look for guidance in two books by the Hanbalite jurist Mar'I ibn Yusuf al-Karmi al Maqdisi (d.1033/1624). Liwat (sodomy) is to be "treated like fornication, and must be punished in the same way. If muhsan (married, or within a legal concubinage) and free, one must be stoned to death, while a free bachelor must be whipped 100 lashes and banished for a year." Sodomy is thus proven either by the perpetrator confessing four times or by the testimony of four trustworthy Muslim men. If there are less than four witnesses, or one of them is not upright, they are all to be chastised with 80 lashes for slander. However, there exists an underground gay community which is allegedly endorsed by the Green Party of Saudi Arabia; they have also called for greater public openness about sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

The syndicated columnist, Mubarak Dahir, mentions in 2002 that in Saudi Arabia it seems unlikely that simply being discovered as gay will yield some sort of capital punishment. In his trip to Saudi Arabia, Dahir conducted in-depth interviews with five gay Saudi men-three in Riyadh, the largest city and the seat of government, and two in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's most progressive city, as noted by Mubarak Dahir. One of his interviewees, Salim (who asked that his real name not be utilized for this purpose), gave a personal reaction to the homosexual model in modern Saudi Arabia. He incongruously mentions that he thinks there is more sex between men in Saudi Arabia than other places because men simply do not have the opportunity to interact with women in Saudi society. "If you are quiet about it, you can have as much sex with men as you want, he says, and it's easy to find."

Dahir's interview insists that there are homosexuals throughout the globe, and that non-heterosexuality is prevalent in Saudi Arabia, amongst other countries in the Middle East, although their treatment of gays remains stringent. Salim explores the real dangers if the police discover men cruising or having sex, he says "they might threaten to expose you to your family if you don't pay them money, or they might abuse you." If you are arrested for gay conduct, the standard reaction/punishment is to be sent to a hospital for reparative therapy with intentions of making the male heterosexual. The other interviewees formulate the discussion that if as a gay person you are seen as "too open", in a way that might "threaten society", it is possible for the government to organize an execution. Or "if you are seen as doing anything that might resemble gay political organizing-whether it be in the Western tradition, or on a much more basic level, such as trying to construct too much of a gay community-then your life might be in danger."

In the "Strange Emergence of Gay Culture in Saudi Arabia" John Bradley's thesis promotes the tenet wherein homosexuality used to be a death sentence in Saudi Arabia, but now believes that the rigidity of the government has unraveled. Like Dahir, Bradley emphasizes the development in Jeddah, a Saudi city that has become an asylum for gay men. He writes, "gay Saudi men now cruise certain malls and supermarkets, openly making passes at each other, and one street in Jeddah is said to have the most traffic accidents in the city because it is the most popular place for Saudi drivers to pick up gay Filipinos." The article suggests that many gay-oriented chat rooms have become popular, and that Saudis discuss the best places to meet people for one-night stands.

Like the Western world, the gay community in Saudi Arabia has utilized the Internet in a constructive fashion. Bradley asserts, "in recent months, Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto ruler, has called for greater intrasocietal debate and more freedom expression in the press (I question the validity of this claim knowing the history of the royal family's treatment of journalists and media in general). Consequently, previously taboo subjects are discussed more openly in Saudi society, and some Saudis have begun to question the harsh tactics of the fearsome religious police, who enforce public morals." Considering the common Western generalization of Saudi oppression and unchanging public opinion, progress has been prevalent within the nation-state and Saudi citizens themselves are exploring sexuality.

Subsequent to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the legal code has been based on a conservative interpretation of Islamic Shar'ia law. All sexual associations that occur outside of a customary, heterosexual marriage, i.e. sodomy or adultery, are illegal and no legal distinction is made between consensual or non-consensual sexual activity. Transsexual relations that occur "between consenting adults in private are a crime and carry a maximum punishment of death, with teenage boys as young as fifteen being eligible for the death penalty, evidenced by the executions of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni. Approved by the Islamic Republic Parliament on July 30, 1991 and finally ratified by the Iranian High Expediency Council on November 28 of the same year, Articles 108-140 of the Law of Islamic Punishment distinctly talk about homosexuality and its punishments in details."

In 1987, the Embassy of Iran wrote in "The Hague" that "homosexuality in Iran, treated according to the Islamic law, is a sin in the eyes of God and a crime for society. In Islam, generally, homosexuality is among the worst possible sins you can imagine." Adhering to the 1991 Islamic penal law, Iran's position regarding transsexuality is as follows: In dealing with male homosexuality, sodomy is a crime, for which both partners (passive and active) are punished. The castigation is death if the participants are adults, of sound mind, judgment and consent-the method of execution is reliant on the Shar'ia judge's decision. "A non-adult who engages in consensual sodomy is subject to a punishment of 74 lashes. (Articles 108 -- 113) Sodomy is proved either if a person confesses four times to having committed sodomy or by the testimony of four righteous men. Testimony of women alone or together with a man does not prove sodomy. (Articles 114 -- 119)." Similar to Saudi law and Qur'anic verses, the notion of four reasonable men as prosecuting witnesses is reoccurring as seen in the Iranian mandate.

"Tafhiz" (the rubbing of the thighs or buttocks) and the like committed by two men is said to be punished by 100 lashes. On the fourth juncture, the punishment is death. (Articles 121 and 122). If two men "stand naked under one cover without any necessity", both are punished with up to 99 lashes; if a man "kisses another with lust" the punishment is 60 lashes. (Articles 123 and 124). The articles do not mention the instrument in measuring lustful kissing, nor what lustful kissing entails. If the men have practiced sodomy, or any of the lesser crimes referred to above, and present themselves as proved by confession, and the person concerned repents/attempts to appease authorities, the Shari'a judge may request that he be pardoned. If a person who has committed the lesser crimes referred to above repents before the giving of testimony by the witnesses, the punishment is nullified. (Articles 125 and 126).

The Iranian government's execution of homosexual men has been unrelenting-human rights organizations from across the globe are reporting numerous recent capital punishments. Since 1979, the Iranian government has executed over 4,000 people on charges of illicit homosexual acts. The Human Rights Watch addresses the current situation: On Sunday, November 13, 2005, the semi-official Tehran daily Kayhan reported that the Iranian government publicly hung two men, Mokhtar N. (24 years old) and Ali A. (25 years old), in the Shahid Bahonar Square of the northern town of Gorgan. The government supposedly executed the two men for the crime of "lavat." "Iran's Shari'a-based penal code defines lavat as penetrative and non-penetrative sexual acts between men. Iranian law punishes all penetrative sexual acts between adult men with the death penalty. Non-penetrative sexual acts between men are punished with lashes until the fourth offense, when they are punished with death. Sexual acts between women, which are defined differently, are punished with lashes until the fourth offense, when they are also punished with death."

Furthermore, and in a very naïve fashion, Human Rights Watch advised Iran to reform its judiciary in accordance with principles apparently enshrined in the Iranian constitution (i.e. fair trials) and international human rights laws. To conclude their suggestion, Human Rights Watch called "upon Iran to cease implementation of capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty, irreversibility, and potential for discriminatory application." Under the rule of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last monarch of the Pahlavi Dynasty, while many inherent civil liberties were infringed upon by the SAVAK (the secret police), homosexuality was tolerated, "even to the point of allowing news coverage of a same-sex wedding... in the late 1970s some Iranians even began to talk about starting up a gay rights organization, similar to the Gay Liberation movement that exist at the time in the United States of America, Canada and Great Britain."

Similar to Arabic literature, pre-modern Persian poetry/literature makes countless references to same-sex love. A great number of "ghazals (love poems) and texts in Saadi's both Bustan and Golistan are devoted to praising the same-sex love. Another example, the Qabusnameh, a text on the moral guideline by one of the medieval Persian sultans to his son, the author indicates the object of romantic lover or partner can be either male or female. There are many occasions in the book in which the father guides his son through this issue, teaching him how to deal with a romantic homosexual love."

On the other hand, punishment and condemnation before Islam in Persia was being written by numerous thinkers such as Zarathustra. According to Zoroastrianism, the religion allegedly founded by Zarathustra and once the official religion of Sassanid Persia, the universe is divided into two warring camps, those of the Good and Evil Spirits. Homosexuality is assigned to the latter. In the Avesta, "homosexuality is mentioned only a few times, but it is literally demonized. For example, in the Videvdad, both the active and passive partners in sodomy are described as demons, demon worshippers, and incubi and succubi of demons." Thus, before the predominant Shar'ia paradigm, homosexuality was being explored in what is now Iran-and as noted above, feelings towards transsexuality varied greatly.

The literal definition for the term Shar'ia is a "path or way to a water hole in the desert." In an essay entitled "Christianity, Islamic Shar'ia, and Civil Rights" William Wagner assesses Shar'ia law without substantial evidence and empirical claims-he does not consider Shar'ia law as an option for the Muslims, but rather an obligation. Like the nation-state of Iran, if a country becomes "an Islamic Republic, then this Muslim legal system becomes the law of the land. All living in the country, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are under its rules and regulations." So according to this assertion and its relationship in modern-nation states (Iran), can we promote the claim that Islamic governments advance their position by utilizing Qur'anic tenets? I believe the execution of homosexual men in Iran and Saudi Arabia is a hybrid of man-made law and Allah's law-and the distinction amongst them is incoherent because man-made law in Iran and Saudi Arabia is seemingly obtained through variants of Islamic law, i.e. different schools of jurisprudence.

In conclusion, the Middle East, like its global counterparts, has seen a plethora of homosexual activity. In this paper, I outlined the central tenets regarding transsexuality apparent throughout the Qur'an and various Hadiths, or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Key features discussed in these scriptures are ubiquitous amongst modern Islamic nation states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, although they vary in their underlying societal and governmental structures. The behavior of these current countries was not to be expressed and solely attributed to an ancient scripture such as the Qur'an, but rather, discussed through a relevant Islamic perspective. Before Islam existed in the Middle East, homosexual/illicit tendencies were being written about as seen through the Zoroastrianism example. Thus, literary heritage is full of passages written by homosexual advocates or those individuals who wish to condemn the practice.

The Saudi Arabian monarchy still implements the execution of those partaking in homosexual activities, but the requirements to be charged with this illicit behavior are being disputed at the moment. Likewise, the human rights abuses by the Iranian government are unrelenting-the Islamic Republic still enforces their domineering homophobic mandate. In both countries, defiant homosexual conduct is flourishing, and rightfully so. The gay communities have utilized the Internet to their advantage; reporting events and history with intentions of awareness and ideological change. In the Western and Eastern worlds alike, homosexuals face several impediments in their quest for same-sex love. Political hierarchies, as discussed throughout this text, advance their regimes against transsexuality on religious and racial grounds. Love is love, all other extraneous factors are futile.

"A brief history of male homosexuality in the Qur'an, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Arab-Islamic culture" was written for a university course at University of California, Berkeley, Political Science Department. See full text document with notes.


For letters section
To Keyan Keihani


Book of the day

My Uncle, Napoleon
A Comic Novel
by Iraj Pezeshkzad
translated by Dick Davis
>>> Excerpt




Copyright 1995-2013, Iranian LLC.   |    User Agreement and Privacy Policy   |    Rights and Permissions