A couple of weeks ago, Abu Eesa Niamatullah’s publicly expressions of misogyny was met with a spate of posts and tweets from Muslims from different walks of life who made their opposition to this clear. In a number of these posts as well as some comments on them, disgust, shock and a sense of betrayal were palpable. How could a scholar be doing this? It was clear that not only did many Muslims feel revolted by Abu Eesa’s comments, but that they do not think that this kind of thing is acceptable… and they were determined that this would not stand uncontested as a public representation of “what Muslims really think” about women.
Down through the years, I have encountered plenty of sexism and straight-up misogyny in North American Muslim circles (to say nothing of pamphlets and books written about Islam by Muslims, for Muslims). So, it was rather strange for me to watch this negative and very public backlash against Abu Eesa. But I also allowed myself to hope: Was this a proverbial straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back moment? Is there now a critical mass of Muslims in North America who are fed up enough by this sort of thing that they will publicly speak out about it?
Who knew. Only time would tell.
Well, we didn’t have to wait long.
Because now a hateful article written by a Muslim lawyer on the Huffington Post, “Why Gay Marriage May Not Be Contrary to Islam” is making the rounds. I was sent the link, and stupidly clicked on it, thinking that while the title seemed a bit oddly worded, it would probably be a step or two forward in the tolerance department. Maybe it would even be a useful resource for kids like mine.
After reading it, I wanted to curl up and die.
I felt a weird sense of numbness. HuffPo doesn’t usually give a platform to the likes of, say, the Westboro Baptist Church. Why would they post such a thing? An article that basically says that “we” (heterosexual Muslims) can tolerate “them” (the gayz) according to some interpretations of Islamic law just as—wait for it—a medieval jurist argued that Muslims should tolerate the Zoroastrian practice of men marrying their mothers or sisters. Yes, we Muslims should of course be thoroughly repulsed by something as immoral as incest, especially when it is publicly sanctioned through marriage, but hey, it’s their thing, and as long as they misguidedly think it’s ok AND it doesn’t end up in our pristine religious courts then let them do as they like.
But let’s not forget that Islamic law holds us Muslims to a morally superior standard:
Islamic law, as interpreted today, unanimously classifies same-sex sexual activity as haram (prohibited). Islamic law encompasses fiqh (from pre-modern times to contemporary times) as well the state sanctioned derivatives and laws. The prohibition is derived from the normative Islamic position that the institution of the family (preservation of which is one of the maqasid al Sharī’ah, higher objectives of the Sharī’ah) created through marriage is the only sanctioned avenue for sex. This policy objective is reinforced through comprehensive regulations found in classical fiqh, which is the human articulation of God’s will as expressed in the Sharī’ah.
Under this public policy guise, homosexuality — as well as extra and pre-marital sex — are all outlawed ostensibly because they threaten the narrowly defined institution of family. Indeed, even the sexual space within marriage is further restricted through prohibitions against bestiality, anal intercourse (liwaat), masturbation, necrophilia and other such conduct considered unnatural.
Ok, so… somehow homosexuality is right up there with bestiality, necrophilia (!?)… and as we have already seen, same-sex marriage is somehow comparable to incest, in the writer’s mind.
What on earth would be the point of making such implicit (and inflammatory) comparisons except to convey the idea that LGBQ people are disgusting? To dehumanize us by reducing our lives, relationships, and families to sex acts? And to imply that really, the fact that “Islam” even tolerates the existence of such people—provided they don’t act on their appalling sexual desires, of course—is almost unbelievably generous.
But then, accuracy isn’t exactly the author’s strong suit here. In classical fiqh marriage is NOT “the only sanctioned avenue for sex.” Slave-concubinage is presented in classical fiqh as divinely sanctioned and legally permissible. Just to be clear, that means that men were legally entitled to have sexual access to their unmarried female slaves. Whether the female slave was willing or not didn’t matter one whit. Nor did her age matter that much; even if she was regarded as too young to be able to endure vaginal intercourse without suffering significant physical harm, she could be lawfully made by her master to take part in other sexual acts.
Most Muslims today find slave-concubinage horrifying, and see it as morally objectionable. Many find it absolutely mind-blowing that classical fiqh books speak about it so matter-of-factly. But they do. And, I would be very surprised if the author doesn’t know this (and if he really doesn’t, then what on earth is he doing writing about classical Islamic law anyway?)
How exactly does this compute, in the author’s mind? Sex with a dead person is disgusting and immoral, but sex with an unwilling live person who is your property is just fine , because God says so—but still, let’s not admit that that’s in the fiqh books because it sounds kinda, umm, disgusting, immoral, and what we nowadays would call rape??
Admitting that classical fiqh is based on ideas about sexuality and gender that raise serious ethical problems for us today can be difficult —especially those of us who have been assured over and over again by scholars and community leaders that classical fiqh has all the answers to the questions Muslims face today. So, I can see how it could seem easier to take refuge in hateful, ignorant rhetoric about gay people than to question what the jurists had to say about same-sex sexual acts. Unfortunately, I remember this kind of thought-process as it can unfold with die-hard conservatives all too well:
- God says X (in the Qur’an, the hadith, or according to the scholars)
- God is just (after all, the Qur’an says so)
- Therefore, X is just
- Even if X sure doesn’t seem just, and it isn’t anything I’d ever want to happen to me or to anyone I care about, I still have to believe that it is just or my whole world will implode. So, I’ll ignore any evidence that X isn’t just. If X is something that hardly happens any more, that’s easy—I’ll just pretend it never really took place. And if X is something that still goes on today, and anyone tells me how X has caused harm to them, I will just tell myself that they aren’t doing it right, or they don’t have enough faith, or God must be testing them.
Understandable, but sad, really. And in the end, it’s a pretty fragile faith.
To my mind, everyone has the right to agonize over their own faith at their own pace. But when this agonizing results in such hateful rhetoric, then it is no longer an issue of one person’s religious rights, and that person should be held to account by the community for causing harm to others.
Because it does cause harm.
Really, what is the effect of comparing same-sex relationships to necrophilia, bestiality and incest on young people struggling with their sexual orientation? On their families and friends? On schoolyard bullies? Haven’t there been enough suicides of LGBTQ young people already? Haven’t there already been enough LGBTQ young people kicked out of their homes and living on the streets? How many more tragedies will it take before this sort of hate-mongering becomes unacceptable in North American Muslim communities?
If my kids see this article, how will they feel? How will all the others who have gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer relatives or friends feel? Is the aim to tear families apart? Is it to drive our straight, cisgendered relatives and friends out of Muslim communities?
The writer of this article avoids acknowledging this by writing as though there’s the Muslim community over here, and “the gays” over there… and there’s little or no overlap. The gays (non-Muslim by definition, apparently) need not fear North American Muslims, he implies, because we aren’t about to start stoning or lashing people… and “[p]rominet [sic] Iranian scholar Abdolkarim Soroush even notes that any persecution or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation would be wrong.” And anyway, classical Islamic law is a lot more “sophisticated” than the behavior of some modern Muslims might suggest.
The real point of the article becomes clear at the end, when the writer states that
“same-sex advocates must accept that others cannot be forced to approve of what they sincerely believe is wrong. They can demand full constitutional entitlements, but not the right to dictate or interfere in the religious dogma of others. The essence of religious freedom is that individuals and communities must have freedom to determine their core doctrinal beliefs and they must be tolerated in the public sphere.”
In other words, the gays and their supporters should stay on their own side of the imaginary fence. We Muslims aren’t going to bother you, and in return, we Muslims can be as hateful as we want in our own mosques, our own schools, our own homes, our own communities. How’s that for a deal?
But the thing is, there is no fence. There are plenty of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer and questioning Muslims. We—and our straight families and friends—are everywhere. Including Muslim communities.
The writer of this article may think that it sounds very enlightened to say that there’s no punishment “for merely being homosexual.”
And not only that, but
“some jurists attempted to understand those who behaved effeminately (mukhannath) based on whether it was innate or by choice. He quotes Shaikh Yahya b. Sharaf al-Nawawi (1277 CE) as writing that ‘there is no blame, censure, sin, or punishment on this type [one acting out of natural inclination] because he is excused by virtue of having no hand in that condition.’Shaikh Ali also refers to classical jurist, Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (1448 CE) who cited Imam Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (922 CE) to conclude, that when men exhibited feminine characteristics due to their innate nature then rather than being condemned they should be taught to gradually unlearn this, because they may have been created this way.
Islamic law did not seek to regulate feelings, emotions and urges, but only its translation into action that authorities had declared unlawful. Indeed, many scholars — including prominent 11th century jurist Abu Muhammad Ali Ibn Hazm — even argued that homosexual tendencies themselves were not haram but had to be suppressed for the public good.”
But to LGBTQ Muslims, their families and friends, this sort of rhetoric is at best patronizing… that is, when it isn’t positively spine-chilling. Because really, what sort of a life for gender nonconforming, queer and trans people today in our Muslim communities is being envisaged here by this writer? One in which such people are labeled and scrutinized by scholars, imams, community elders and straight parents, who speculate about whether they are “really” born this way, or merely “choosing” it? One in which such people are experimented on, and subjected to procedures that are condemned by reputable psychologists, that do not work, and that have resulted in severe depression and even suicide? Maybe al-Tabari didn’t realize the serious psychological harm that results from being treated like this. But there is no excuse for us today, in this wired world, to be ignorant of the devastation that these practices cause.
And I wonder what conceivable “public good” is served by people trying to suppress same-sex desires—whether of themselves, or of others. Most people can’t manage an entire lifetime of celibacy. Is the idea a sort of “out of sight, out of mind” approach? As long as gay sex is happening in secret, then we don’t have to think about it? Is it that he really doesn’t care to know what a lifetime in the closet does to people? There is no excuse today for not knowing that either.
If an article making such hateful and inaccurate claims had been written back in the 1950’s, it would have been understandable. After all, back before Stonewall, what opportunity did most straight people have to learn about LGBTQ lives? The only media representations of gays were sensationalistic news coverage of alleged threats to national security or sordid sex scandals. In those days, it was easy for most straights to ignore LGBTQ people,or to speak of us as disgusting and monstrous, or to believe that there weren’t any of them in their religious communities. But in the year 2014, anyone who writes these things is actively choosing ignorance, actively choosing not to see others as fully human. It’s not as if there aren’t enough LGBTQ Muslim films, books, stories and websites out there to learn from about the diversity of our lives and experiences.
To conclude: Muslims in North America have a choice. Will they choose to call out this (and other) homophobic and transphobic articles and statements, or not? Is this how they want to be represented?