Sexual diversity in Islam:
Is there room in Islam for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims?
By Dr. Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle | Adapted for MPV by Tynan Power
© 2010 Muslims for Progressive Values
Page: Preface | 1 | 3 | Notes 1 | Notes 2 | Notes 3 | Notes 4
Homosexuality in the Qur'an
MPV thanks the generous contribution of the Human Rights Campaign for making this adaptation possible.
Does the Qur'an talk about sexuality?
Not exactly. Sexuality is a modern concept. The Qur'an refers to sex acts. The Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) and early scholars also talked about sexual acts and desire. However, classical scholars did not talk about the difference between sexual acts and identity.
Is there a difference between sex and sexuality?
Yes—and it is an important difference. "Sex" refers to sex acts. "Sexuality" has to do with feelings of desire and the way a person relates to other people, as well as actual sex acts. So sex may be part of sexuality—but sexuality is much more than sex. For example:
•If a woman is raped, she has sex—a sexual act occurs to her body—against her will. Rape does not have anything to do with her sexuality. The sex act of rape is not related to her desire or her identity. (This is true when the victim of rape is male, as well.)
•Sometimes a man has desire for other men, but does not have sex with men. His sexuality includes his desire for men, even if his behavior does not include sex acts with men.
Could sexual diversity be part of God's plan?
Yes. The Qur'an celebrates diversity. It even protects diversity of religion, by instructing Muslims to protect other religious groups, such as Jews, living under Muslim rule. The Qur'an says that variety in human appearance, culture, language and even religion were created by God's divine wisdom.
We know that homosexuality exists, among human beings with free will. It also exists among animals—and the Qur'an says animals do not have free will, they are only obedient to God. In the Qur'an, Surat al-Rum (Qur'an 30:22) says God has created human beings with different alwan, a word that can mean both "colors" and "tastes." Human beings certainly have different tastes in many things—including sexuality. It seems clear that sexual diversity must also be a type of human diversity that was created by God's divine wisdom.
Does the Qur'an specifically mention sexual diversity?
Yes. Surat al-Nur (Qur'an 24:31-24:33) specifically mentions "men who are not in need of women." These "men who are not in need of women" might have been gay or asexual, but by definition they were not heterosexual men. They are not judged or condemned anywhere in the Qur'an.
Does Islam say anything specifically about homosexuality?
No. First of all, we can not say "Islam says..." or "the Islamic law says..." because only people speak. Islam itself can not say anything. So where can we look for answers? We can look in the Qur'an, which is the basis of Islam. The Qur'an does not even mention the word "homosexuality," though. It does not refer to gays, lesbians, or bisexuals. In fact, scholars had to come up with a term for homosexuality in Arabic. They came up with al-shudhudh al-jinsi, a phrase that means "sexually rare or unusual." If the Qur'an mentioned homosexuality by name, scholars would have simply used that term.
Did the Prophet know of any kinds of sexual or gender diversity?
Yes. There were men in Arab society at the time of the Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) who fit the Qur'an's description of "men who are not in need of women." A detailed study of early Islamic literature also showed that the Prophet accepted men called mukhanath. Mukhanath were men who were seen as "acting like women"—they might be considered transgender today or they might have been gay men whose sexual orientation was seen as making them "like women."
The Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) seemed to recognize these men were different from others. His wife, Umm Salama, had a mukhanath friend named Hit. Unlike other men, Hit was allowed to enter both men's space and women's space—Muhammad even trusted the mukhanath enough to let him enter the private women's space of the Prophet's household.
Did the Prophet ever punish anyone for homosexuality or homosexual acts?
No. After the Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) died, his companions once discussed whether to punish a person for homosexuality. If the Prophet had ever done so, his companions would have simply referred to his decision. Since they didn't know what to do, we know that the Prophet gave them no example to follow.
In the case of Hit, Umm Salama's mukhanath friend, Muhammad did "punish" him in a way, but not for his sexuality. Muhammad found out that Hit described a woman's body to a man—which he could do because he was able to enter both women's and men's spaces. At that point, Muhammad told his wife not to allow Hit into the women's quarters anymore. However, Muhammad did not criticize Hit for his sexuality or for "acting like women"—he only criticized Hit for not respecting the privacy of women.
[More information about this story and its implications can be found in Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflections on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims by Scott Kugle (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2010), pages 91-97.]
Doesn't the Qur'an say that homosexuality is unnatural?
No. Using words like "natural" and "unnatural" as ways to describe sexuality is something that was started by European Christians. When today's Muslims use this argument to say homosexuality is against Islam, they are actually borrowing ideas from European Christians. The conclusion that homosexuality is "unnatural" is not based on anything in the Qur'an. Again, the word "homosexuality" is never even used and does not exist in the Qur'an!
Are there words used in the Qur'an to talk about sexual behavior that is not allowed?
Yes, there are a few:
Fahisha is a word that is used to mean "doing something that is not allowed" or "transgression." Fahisha can mean something that is sexual or something that is not sexual.
Zina is the only word used in the Qur'an for a transgression that is definitely sexual. Zina means "adultery."
The words fisq or fusuq mean "corruption." They are used to describe the state of mind of someone who is doing something that is not allowed—in other words, someone who is committing fahisha.
Some scholars try to connect fahisha, fisq and homosexuality. However this connection is not clear from the Qur'an. Some scholars also try to connect zina and homosexual acts, by saying homosexuality is like adultery. The problem is that this connection does not exist in the Qur'an—the Qur'an simply does not say that! Human jurists are the ones who say there is a connection.
The Qur'an only talks about heterosexual relationships. Doesn't that mean everyone should be heterosexual?
Not necessarily. The Qur'an assumes that heterosexuality is the most common kind of sexuality and discusses heterosexual relationships in some detail. However, just because something is unusual doesn't mean it is wrong. For example:
•The Qur'an refers to people who are intersex—those with signs of being both male and female. This is not a common condition, but it does exist. The Qur'an does not say this condition is "wrong." The Qur'an offers some guidance for how to treat intersex people in society, but there are many things it does not mention—including their sexuality.
•The Qur'an also refers to "men who have no need of women"—people we might call "gay" or "asexual" today. Yet the Qur'an does not condemn them.
Homosexuality and the Story of Lut
Wasn't the story of the Prophet Lut(PBUH) clearly about homosexuality?
Not exactly. The story of the Prophet Lut (PBUH) —called "Lot" in English—can be read and understood in different ways.
Isn't there only one way to read the Qur'an?
No. There are several ways to read the Qur'an. For example:
•People can read literally: reading word for word, using exact definitions.
•People can read semantically: thinking about a word's meaning in the sentence and in other places in the Qur'an.
•People also can read thematically: finding the meaning of a whole passage by looking at how it relates to themes in the Qur'an.
Why not just read the Qur'an literally?
Reading the Qur'an literally is not as simple as it sounds. It can lead to misunderstanding the whole passage and sometimes it is just confusing. For example, in English, the word "hot" can mean:
•something or someone has a high temperature ("Watch out! The stove is hot!")
•something or someone is popular ("The new electronic game system is hot this year.")
•someone is attractive ("I think that actor is hot!")
•something or someone is causing disagreement or strong feelings ("The status of women in Islam is a hot topic among Muslims.")
To make things even more complicated, meanings can change over time. Many years from now, someone might read the sentence "I think that actor is hot" and assume the actor had a high body temperature!
Since the words "homosexuality" and "homosexual" do not appear in the Qur'an at all, we must read the Qur'an in a different way if we want to find out what the Qur'an can tell us about homosexuality. If we insist on reading the Qur'an literally, we can only say "The word 'homosexuality' doesn't appear in the Qur'an, therefore the Qur'an tells us nothing about the subject."
How is a semantic reading different?
A semantic reading looks at the word in context. Above, we saw how a word can mean different things in different contexts. Even when a word means the same thing in different contexts, the overall meaning can be different. In the following examples "hot" always means "has a high temperature"—but in each case the relative meaning is very different.
•a hot cup of coffee -> good
•a hot bowl of ice cream -> not good
•a hot bath for an adult -> refreshing
•a hot bath for a baby -> dangerous
A semantic reading of the Qur'an lets the reader look at the meanings of words as they are used in the story of the Prophet Lut(PBUH). The reader then can look at how those words are used in other places in the Qur'an. From this, the reader can tell more about whether the words refer to sexual acts and whether the words are used to mean something good or something bad.
What is different about thematic reading?
Thematic readings let readers think about the bigger picture of what they are reading. It lets readers consider the time and place of the stories in the Qur'an, as well as other circumstances. Thematic reading is not a "new" way to read the Qur'an. It is actually something that Muslims do automatically when reading some parts of the Qur'an.
Classical stories of the Prophets, called Qisas al-Anbiya, also contain thematic readings. These stories are not exact records of the Prophets' lives. They are not intended to be read as fact. Instead, they were written to make sense of the Qur'an's short references to the lives of the Prophets. Without knowing the whole story, the short references in the Qur'an may not make much sense. The Qisas al-Anbiya try to fill in the blanks so that the Qur'an references make sense.
Do semantic and thematic readings reveal anything about why the people of Lut were punished by God?
Yes. In the story, the Prophet Lut (PBUH) first advised the people of the city of Sodom to follow God's path, but they ignored him. Later, the men of Sodom threatened to rape Lut's male visitors, who were angels disguised as men. God then punished the entire city of Sodom for rejecting their Prophet (Lut) and for "transgressions."
Some scholars interpret the "transgressions" in the story of Lut to refer to male homosexuality. Yet the word "transgressions" in the Qur'an can mean something sexual or something non-sexual. Men were not the only ones punished in the destruction of Sodom. According to the Qur'an, the whole city was destroyed. Lut's wife is specifically mentioned. Were Lut's wife, other women and the children of Sodom punished for male homosexuality? That does not seem to be a reasonable conclusion.
A thematic reading of the story of Lut can be found in the Qisas al-Anbiya (classical stories of the Prophets). A story written by the scholar Muhammad ibn Abdallah Al-Kisa'i puts the strange behavior of the men of the city of Sodom in a context that makes sense. Al-Kisa'i suggests that the people of Sodom had taken to showing their city's dominance by raping strangers. They were showing that they could take what they wanted from others. In that way, people became afraid to raid the city. This showed aggressiveness, stinginess and greed—all things that would justify their punishment. A thematic reading also tells us that the story's main purpose was to show that people had rejected their prophets in the past, as some rejected Muhammad during his lifetime, and how those who rejected prophets were punished. This is clear from the context of the story of Lut, which is placed among other stories with the same theme.
Was the behavior of the men of Sodom an expression of sexual desire?
No. The Qu'ran says that the men of Sodom wanted to have sex with the visiting angels by force. This is an example of rape, not an example of sexual desire. Rape is about power. It is used to coerce, control or punish the victim.
Is there any other reason to think this is the correct way to understand the story of Lut?
Yes. In two hadith—or stories of the Prophet Muhammad(PBUH)—there is support for this understanding of the story of Lut. In one, the Prophet Muhammad asked the archangel Jibra'il (Gabriel) why and how the people of Lut were destroyed. Jibra'il responded that they did not clean themselves after using the bathroom or having sex, they did not share their food, and they were covetous (wanting things that belonged to others) and stingy. In another hadith, someone asked the Prophet Muhammad about the penalty for stinginess and the Prophet told the story of the people of Lut.
Based on this reading, what should Muslims take as the lesson of the story of Lut?
Based on this reading, the story of Lut can instruct Muslims to:
•follow the example set by the Prophet Lut(PBUH) of hospitality, generosity and protection of people who are vulnerable, such as travelers.
•avoid stinginess and greed.
•condemn rape—and speak out against any use of sexual acts to coerce or control.
•uphold and respect relationships based on consent, fairness, mutual support and love for one another.
Is it right to treat homosexuality as a hadd crime in Islam?
What is a hadd crime?
A hadd crime is one where the person breaks a rule that:
•is clearly described in the Qur'an
•has a clear punishment.
For example, the Qur'an mentions adultery and gives a clear punishment for it. The only hadd crimes are: murder, highway robbery, theft, adultery and false accusation of adultery.
Why do some scholars say homosexuality between men is a hadd crime?
They are drawing an analogy between zina (or adultery) and homosexuality between men. However, this analogy is not clear. [More about this topic can be found in Dr. Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle's book Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2010).]
Does homosexuality meet the requirements of a hadd crime?
No. When scholars try to say that it is a hadd crime to be homosexual, they reduce being homosexual down to "anal sex between men." This does not make sense. Being gay, lesbian or bisexual is not a sexual act—it is a sexual identity. Not all gay, lesbian and bisexual people have "anal sex between men." Some may not have sex at all. Lesbians and bisexual women also do not have "anal sex between men." At the same time, it is not even true that anal sex between men is a hadd crime. The first requirement for being a hadd crime is that the rule must be specifically mentioned in the Qur'an—and anal sex between men is not mentioned in the Qur'an. It also doesn't meet the second requirement for being a hadd crime because there is no clear punishment that is spelled out.
Do major schools of Islamic thought agree about whether anal sex between men is a hadd crime?
No. Several schools of Islamic thought do say that it is a hadd crime, but Hanafi and Zahiri jurists do not. Hanafis do say that anal sex between men is immoral, yet they insist it is not a hadd crime. In fact, the Hanafi jurist Al-Jassas cites two hadith that say that it is injustice and oppression to apply a hadd punishment to something that is not a hadd crime.
In the Islamic schools of thought that say homosexuality is a hadd crime, what punishment do they believe is correct?
Stoning, because of the analogy they are making between homosexuality and adultery.
Was this punishment used by the Prophet Muhammad(PBUH)?
No. The Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) never described homosexuality as a crime and he never punished anyone for being gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Read on to learn about evolving Islamic thinking about homosexuality.