Recognition vs. acceptance
Islamic discourses on ‘homosexuality’
December 22, 2005
“He who claims that he experiences no desire [when looking at beautiful boys or youth] is a liar, and if we could believe him, he would be an animal, not a human being.”
The claim of the 12th century jurisconsult Ibn al-Ghauzi, who was a scholar of the conservative Hanbalite school of Islamic law, plainly acknowledges the prevalence and normality of same-sex desire, specifically the desire to commit pederasty (or sexual relations between a man and a boy), among men in medieval Islamic society.
Such a statement would indeed seem shocking if voiced by clergy, Muslim or non-Muslim, today. It is appropriate to note before dealing with the subject matter at hand that to claim that pederasty represents some sort of inherent Muslim sexual depravity or Islamic endorsement of homosexuality, as some xenophobic and evangelical detractors have suggested in the past, would be as simplistic as it is wrong. In fact, even using the word ‘homosexuality’ to describe same-sex relations in an Islamic context, especially a historical one, is problematic.
Before European discourses about the ‘homosexual’ as a fixed and distinct sexual identity began to dominate perceptions of gender, no one was ‘heterosexual’ nor ‘homosexual’ in the Muslim world; sexuality was seen as much more fluid than late 19th century Western European/North American perceptions of gender (which were the first to demarcate the line between straight and gay) prescribed, and same-sex relations were seen as a simple consequence of carnal desire not necessarily based in a sexual orientation.
Labels denoting sexual orientation, at least as far as this debate is concerned, are relatively recent gender constructs of the wider Western intellectual tradition. Thus to speak of Islam and homosexuality as if both ideas have been developing parallel to one other since Islam’s inception is an exercise in futility.
This is not to say, however, that Islamic jurists throughout the centuries have not at times struggled with categorizing and judging same-sex relations, and have not at times even accommodated them in certain contexts. The stance taken by many apologists, who state that there is not and has never been a place in Islam for non-heterosexual intimate relations, is equally misleading.
Classical Islamic discourses surrounding sexuality outside the heterosexual marriage bed are numerous, often ambiguous, and certainly more complicated than both the detractors and the apologists would have one believe. Any attempt to categorize and place gay and ‘grey area’ sexualities in the Islamic consciousness requires taking into consideration the two main veins which sustain Islam: theological orthodoxy (further dependent on the specific school of jurisprudence), which has its own body of religious literature as well as myriad discourses and juristic opinions, and historical cultural practices, which vary according to pre-Islamic cultural identity, current nationality, ethnicity, degree of ‘Westernization’, and class, among other factors.
A look at some of these factors, coupled with an understanding of how sexuality is conceptualized in Islamic discourses, show that same-sex relations have until relatively recent times had accepted niches in cultures of the Islamic world. Trying to encompass all manifestations of gay and grey-area sexuality in Islam would certainly not do justice the topic at hand; for this reason, I shall limit my discussion to the scope of relevant background information surrounding the pre-Islamic world, pederasty (as opposed to alternative male sexualities as well as female and transgendered practices), the Qur’an, and certain Sunni juridical and non-juridical discourses encompassing the issue of same-sex desire and relations.
Turning first to the authoritative sources in Islam, namely religious texts and Islamic scholarship, one finds what amounts to a straightforward rejection of sodomy and ‘homosexuality’. The Qur’an is the Muslim holy book and the foremost authority in all issues surrounding lifestyle and religious fidelity, and the relevant passages therein concerning homosexuality are found primarily in reference to the story of Lot.
In fact, the closest indigenous Arabic word for ‘homosexuality’ is liwat, explained as ‘the doings of [Lot’s] people’, also known as sodomy (Schmitt & Sofer 8). In these Suras, sodomy is roundly condemned, and its practice by the men of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is the chief reason for Allah’s destruction of the two cities: “You come with lust to men instead of women. You are indeed a depraved tribe… We rained down a rain upon them. See the final fate of the evildoers!” (Qur'an 7:80).
When such acts occur within the Islamic community as opposed to the pagans in the story of Lot, however, the Qur’an takes a conciliatory position towards legal prosecution of same-sex relations between men: “And as for the two of you who are guilty thereof, punish them both. And if they repent and improve, then let them be” (4:16). Not only does it prescribe this and only this guideline for punishing same-sex relations between believers in particular for the Islamic jurist, but historically it was also quite difficult to prosecute such cases in court, being that four reliable Muslim male witnesses were needed to prove such a crime. Reports of such cases in legal documents are accordingly hard to come by (Murray and Roscoe 89).
Islamic schools of law also tend to differ widely on designating the appropriate punishment for sex between males, although all schools regard the practice as unlawful. Abu Hanifa, founder of the Hanafite school of Islamic law, for instance, does not prescribe any set punishment for same-sex relations (89). According to Abu Hanifa, “If a man enters a woman from the odious opening or commits [male anal sex], it is no case of hadd”, or mandatory punishment (Schmitt & Sofer 14). Sentences for such crimes were a matter of ta’zir, or punishments left up to the discretion of the qadi (Islamic judge) himself.
On the other end of the spectrum, the conservative Hanbalite school, which is followed today in Saudi Arabia, specifies that sodomy is a crime worthy of hadd punishment; recipients of hadd rarely survive sentences ranging from stoning to having a wall pushed upon them (Murray and Roscoe 90). Even so, it is worth noting that even the most conservative jurisprudents (such as al-Ghauzi) viewed homosexual desire as a natural and ubiquitous impulse, to be guarded against rather than eradicated in the form of human beings designated as ‘homosexual’. According to the Prophet Mohammad, sodomy was not among the crimes that ran most contrary to God’s will. Murray writes:
Despite the Prophet’s familiarity with the Talmudic tradition, and his view that sodomy ran contrary to God’s will (fasiq), he did not include it among the “abominations” offensive to Allah for which he related specific punishments. Nor did subsequent Islamic commentators draw on accounts of Sodom and Gomorrah… to condemn homosexuality, as did biblical commentators.
Furthermore, it seems that as well as the acknowledgement by jurists of the adult male desire to have sex with male youth, there are also Suras describing the presence of beautiful boy servants in Heaven: "And there shall wait on them [the Muslim men] young boys of their own, as fair as virgin pearls." (Qur’an 50:24). If this Sura does not suggest the fulfillment of pederastic desire, it at least shows an awareness of male beauty and a desire to be attended by attractive male youth; why else make at least two references to immaculate boys in the Holy Book’s description of Heaven?
The description of Heaven also lends a perspective on how sexuality is perceived in Islam, that is, as the exclusive prerogative of the adult male believer. During the classical era of Islam, men had sexual access to their first wife as well as three additional wives, unlimited concubines, and slaves (male or female), and it was the duty of the wife to have sex with her husband whether she wanted to or not.
Some Islamic jurists, such as ‘Abd al-Fattah bin Darwish al-Tamimi, openly sanctioned the raping of one’s wife in the event that she did not submit to sexual advances (Tucker 44). Restrictions on sexual behavior such as sodomy were enumerated according to the nature of the act, not the sex of the person whom it was performed on, and not whether sex was consensual or forced.
Save for wives, adult Muslim males with the financial means to do so had the power to sexually objectify the rest of the human race, especially unbelievers. In non-juridical texts, one finds countless references to pederasty as practiced on the dhimmi, or non-Muslims. The famous Arab poet Abu Nuwas “said that he slept with Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian boys because he regarded it as ‘the duty of every Muslim to sleep with them’”, and “a number of other poets also had a predilection for boys who were not Muslim” (Murray and Roscoe 92).
Another writer of the Golden Age, Ibn Falita, encouraged the Muslim male community at large that “Buggery is good for you, oh Arabs, bugger! Fuck a boy…” (Schmitt and Sofer 16). While this quote would certainly never be found in Islamic religious or juridical texts, the fact that it was published and tolerated in the 9th century Islamic world suggests that pederasty was an accepted practice both in the Arab Middle East and the Muslim world at large, as long as it was committed with non-Muslims in the case of the former.
However, it is hardly surprising that pederasty and same-sex relations would have a strong literary presence in the lands first conquered by Islam. Pederasty was openly practiced in the Sasanian Empire, and while Christian missionaries suppressed it in Egypt and the Byzantine Empire, it was still a common feature of pagan life.
According to Herodotus, “the Persians learned paiderastia from the Greeks, and… it was well-established in the fifth century B.C.E.” (Murray and Roscoe 61). Among the Greeks, this practice was institutionalized as an age and status-differentiated practice in the militaries of several city-states and appears frequently in classical Greek artwork as well as in literary accounts of such great minds as Socrates and Plato. Institutionalized or socially accepted same-sex relations and/or pederasty are certainly not due to exclusively Islamic cultural practices; it has a history which predates the religion and was absorbed into it to a certain extent.
All of this history brings us to the most recent, dominant Islamic discourses on ‘homosexuality’ and how it is dealt with in modern nation-states and religious communities. Today one finds less tolerance in predominantly Muslim countries for homosexual practices, perhaps due to the very fact that views on gay and grey area sexual relations have absorbed a considerable amount of Western intellectual influence.
The reevaluation of the nature of homosexual acts in countries as diverse as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia as a matter of sexual orientation (and in turn one that is identified today with ‘Western’ cultural influence/values almost as much as the practices of Sodom and Gomorrah) has heralded a more hostile and dangerous era for men and women who have sexual relationships with members of their own gender; what entailed ta’zir punishment yesterday carries the death penalty today.
Pederasty has historically had both a secular and religious literary presence in the Islamic world and continues today as a frowned upon, unspoken, yet tolerated form of male sexual expression in many countries and cultures under the crescent of Islam. If one is skeptical of this theory, he would be hard-pressed to explain why the practice continues predominantly in the far-flung rural areas of the peripheral countries of the Islamic world, such as Morocco (Schmitt and Sofer 25) and the Peshawar valley of Pakistan, having most recently witnessed an actual marriage between two males aged 42 and 16 in a remote village that attracted the outrage of the local community but nonetheless proceeded as planned (Asia Times).
While an occurrence such as the aforementioned marriage is bound to attract criticism from people of all religious stripes, including Muslims themselves, it cannot be denied that avenues exist for the expression of this sort of sexual expression in many Islamic societies, regardless of whether it is sanctioned by religious authorities. In terms of its legal consequences, pederasty is difficult to prosecute because of the necessity of four reliable, Muslim, male eyewitnesses to confirm the act, and the fact that neither male youths nor their families are often inclined to take up such matters with the authorities.
Adding these factors to increasing Westernization and growth in gay sex tourism in several Muslim countries, one finds that the traditional divide between the Muslim and Judeo-Christian views of ‘homosexuality’ is fast crumbling. Whether or not the discourses that have historically delimited Muslim sexual mores will crumble with it remains to be seen, but it is clear that if the traditional Islamic recognition and marginal tolerance of gender-undifferentiated sexuality is to survive, new discussion will be needed to reaffirm its nature and reevaluate its acceptability today.
-- Murray, Stephen O., and Will Roscoe. Islamic Sexualities. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
-- Schmitt, Arno, and Johoeda Sofer. Sexuality and Eroticism Among Males in Moslem Societies. New York: The Haworth Press, 1990.
-- Tucker, Judith. In the House of the Law. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.