Homosexuality in Islam
Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims
This is a book written by a Muslim scholar for the purposes of challenging Muslim viewpoints and beliefs. Out of necessity it will base its entire premise on the Qur’an and, to the best of its abilities, will also base its argument on what we know of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) words. At times this could be tedious for a reader who is not religious or Muslim as it assumes a belief in the authenticity of the Qur’an and its divine authority over our lives. To that end, the arguments in the book delve in great detail into the complex intricacies and minutiae of Qur’anic interpretation and hadith transmission and interpretation as practised by Muslim jurists and scholars over the centuries. Yet it is precisely this detail of Islamic theological and sociological examination that makes the arguments presented in the book so powerful.
Some background on me as this review weaves in and out of lived experience: I am a heterosexual Muslim convert/revert after having been raised in and committed to the Christian faith. For many years I was a professed agnostic before making my conversion to Islam. I am a nonsectarian Muslim despite the fact that my daily practice could be said to follow the Sunni tradition. I have studied equally under both Sunnis and Shiites during and after my time in graduate school, and it was a Shiite Sufi scholar who heavily influenced my final steps to Islam.
I came to the Islamic faith because I have found no other that best expresses my commitment to the idea of what we in Islam call Tawhid – or the idea that there is only ONE – Allah. This singular unity is expressed and worshipped in and through the Islamic faith and it is this idea of Tawhid that is central to Kugle’s arguments. Tawhid requires that we do the utmost in our lives to eliminate oppression and injustice in order that all may experience the Qur’anic ideal of equality. It is a radical notion of love, of both Allah and Allah’s reflection in humanity, that requires this of us. Kugle shares my vision of Tawhid, although his arrival at Islam was from a significantly different path than my own.
From the start, Kugle calls us to a radical re-evaluation of the practices of Islam. He never refutes the Qur’an, nor does he discard Shari ‘a. Shari ‘a – simplified – is the set of laws and moral guidelines that govern Islamic life. Despite the often negative connotations in the West, Shari ‘a is humanity’s attempt to live out the message of God as described in the Qur’an. Everything from political governance to private prayer life is spelled out in the Shari ‘a. Shari ‘a is nothing but the pragmatic application in lived experience of Qur’anic principles. Over the centuries jurists have attempted to make literal sense of the Qur’an through the Shari ‘a. It is precisely in this regard that we as Muslims are faced with perhaps our greatest challenge. How do we incorporate the laws of God into daily practice, and who is it that has the authority to make these laws?
In Qur’an 20:114, The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) says “My Lord! Increase me in knowledge.” We are encouraged through this and other verses to internalize the Qur’an, reflect on its meanings and to hold everything we do up to the light of the Qur’an. In answer to the above question, Kugle posits that we are all to practice ijtihad or “independent reasoning” when it comes to our lived experience of faith as understood in the Qur’an. This should not be (as is so commonly the case today) the job primarily of jurists or religious authorities in the Muslim world. Islam was originally meant to be a decentralized religion. The Prophet (pbuh) took on a life of poverty in order to have closer solidarity with the members of his community and to attempt to reduce any elitist pretensions as perceived in his earthly life. There is no centralized authority in Islam as in other religions and even imams do not carry the same status as pastors or rabbis. This is all part of the principles expressed in Tawhid – we are reflections of the singular unity, and in turn our lives are meant to be reflections of the Qur’an with no intermediary between us and Allah. No one in theory is to have more importance than anyone else in expressing the Islamic faith and life. It all goes back to the Qur’an, and the Qur’an is to be the final authority as it alone is the Word of God.
From this foundational understanding, Kugle then dissects how the law has been built up over the centuries and how homosexuality has come to be declared haram or forbidden. He shows that the laws around homosexuality have been established primarily based on Hadith or sayings of the Prophet (pbuh). These sayings have been passed down through chains of transmission or isnad. Kugle shows numerous examples of how the chains of transmission around the Hadiths concerning homosexuality and their punishments are open to debate. Many of the Hadiths referring to punishment for homosexuality rely on one transmitter, Ikirma, who was a slave of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and the fourth Caliph in the Sunni tradition. Ikirma was known by many to be one who exaggerated and was considered by some jurists to not be a reliable source. This was due to several reasons, including his being a member of a splinter sect that took a stand against the early Muslim community. Kugle then elaborates on the history of Hadith transmission and shows the influences of society, tradition and culture that have taken root over time and impacted how a particular Hadith is interpreted and applied, not to mention how the Qur’an itself is interpreted and applied.
It is this interpretation of the Qur’an that Kugle turns to in order to evaluate the passages most commonly used to declare homosexuality haram. In the passages which refer to “the deeds of the tribe of Lot” as later jurists have described them, Kugle effectively shows that there is more than one interpretation. He argues that the primary sin of the tribe of Lot – for which they were destroyed – was of joining partners with Allah and rebelling against the authority of Allah. Sexual violence, according to Kugle, was the emphasis here over and against homosexuality in and of itself. Yes homosexual rape was used, but it was the violence and rebellion against Allah that was focus of the passage.
It is interesting to note that sodomy as a term is never once mentioned in the Qur’an. Nor is there any reference in Hadith to the Prophet (pbuh) himself ever accusing an individual of homosexuality or carrying out a sentence for homosexuality. It is areas such as these in which Kugle argues for a reinterpretation in the light of the entirety of the Qur’an and its overwhelming emphasis on justice.
Kugle goes on to tackle the complex issues of sexuality as compared to classical Islamic understanding. He attempts to show how Islam has historically oversimplified gender identification into the clearly delineated male/female binary as anatomically and physically expressed. If we incorporate the understandings of the present day, and of members of the LGBTQ community, we are coming to see -with irrefutable scientific proof – that gender identification is a much more complex process than its outward manifestation. Internally there are great psychological considerations that come into play. Sexuality is much more than the act itself. It is the totality of a person’s essence – both internal and external that comprise sexuality. Kugle’s key question is: How does the Qur’an speak to us in light of this knowledge? How can we make room for all of God’s humanity in a spirit of equality? How does the Oneness or non-duality of Allah inform gender issues?
One of the primary problems that both Kugle and this reviewer recognize in our time is that any questioning of Islamic authority is immediately shut down with accusations of “innovation”. It is, in my experience, the common conception that any challenging of conventional Shari ‘a or Hadith transmission is an attempt to reform the faith as it was originally presented. Yet is this the case? Could the opposite actually be true? That is, could innovation have crept into early understandings of Hadith and Fiqh (jurisprudence) over the centuries due to tradition and political expedience – thus requiring us to return to the source which is the Word of God in the Qur’an? Kugle argues yes, and unless we are willing to say that jurists and scholars are infallible, we must also admit that this could be the case. So, is a return to a re-interpretation of the Qur’an in an attempt to discern its true meaning necessary in our time? This is an open-ended question that Kugle leaves to the reader. As he expresses in his introduction, he is not attempting to state a final decision, but to start a discussion. Homosexuality in Islam is a complex deeply-rooted issue and even broaching this topic will be problematic for many if not most.
There is a lot more that I could say on this work as it covers so much ground, but I will stop here. This is an extremely important book, one of the most important I’ve ever read, as it encourages and challenges all of us as Muslims to think and examine our faith and to constantly hold it up to the ultimate standard in the form of the Qur’an. We must constantly interpret what the Qur’an is saying during changing times and circumstances with an open mind to what Allah is telling us. The ultimate truth is one and unchanging, but its reflection on earth and in our lives will take on different forms as previously unknown discoveries come to light. As Kugle says, this has been true in the expansion of the Muslim community, astronomical knowledge and the issues of slavery and polygamy. Now he is calling us to a re-examination of patriarchy in our time and how it affects the various views we have on sexuality.
I had conflicting feelings throughout this book, but I guess that was me being impatient. A really amazing and important read. Scott Kugle does a very good job at presenting a complete and comprehensive study on Islam’s view regarding homosexuals and transgenders. The author provides the reader with views of Quran, Hadith (prophetic traditions), and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). He reads very carefully through these sources and criticizes the patriarchal interpretations of the Quran, the acceptance of false hadith, and the focus of jurists only on the outer human form while making their verdicts; dividing people in a binary manner into male and female based on the body shape, overlooking the importance of the inner self and its needs, its diversity.
The author did a great job criticizing all the traditional interpretations and Islamic medieval verdicts. He opened my eyes to many important things about the Quran that I had previously overlooked. However, I think his arguments in proving that Islam welcomes homosexuality aren’t as strong as they should be. Nevertheless, he’s done a great job helping me accept homosexuals and transgenders not only humanely, but also Islamically.
“When we really observe nature with humility, as the Qur’an urges us to do, how facile we find our simple notions of what is natural!” – Scott Kugle