Sexuality, Gender and Islam

(Male) Homosexuality and Islam

This section should be read with the sections on ‘Women’s Sexuality and Islam’ and ‘Frameworks for Progressive Islam’. Some of the techniques used to develop new interpretations of Qur'anic verses about women and women’s rights in Islam have also been used to develop new interpretations of verses supposedly referring to homosexuality. This has been done mostly by male scholars looking specifically at male homosexuality in Surah Lut. (Jamal, Nahas, Yoesuf website, Kugle).

It is widely believed in Muslim societies that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam. This perception is also embodied in Muslim laws to the extent that in some countries homosexuality is a crime punishable by death (by stoning). (For a more detailed discussion of the banning on homosexuality in Muslim laws see Kugle).

The word ‘homosexuality’ does not exist in the Qur'an. The assumptions made about homosexuality and Islam are often based on references to the story of Lut in the Qur'an. Recent scholars (Jamal, Nahas, Kugle) have analysed the verses* that are thought to mention homosexuality and come up with new interpretations based on techniques of interpretation used by reformist scholars and feminist scholars working on gender topics. In doing so they have tried to challenge the heterosexual bias of former interpretations in order to clarify and dissolve the widely held misconceptions and assumptions underlying Muslim laws and within Muslim societies about same-sex sexuality and same-sex relationships.

The words that are often translated or taken to be referring to (male) homosexuality include:

Al Fahisha (e.g. in 7:80 & 27:54) Atrocity or gruesome deeds
Al Khabaidh (e.g. in 21:74) Improper or unseemly things
Al Munkar (e.g. in 29:29) That which is reprehensable
As Sayyi'aat (e.g. in 11:78) Bad or evil deeds
(For more detailed analysis of these words see Jamal).

The word fahisha is most often quoted as referring to homosexuality. Although some scholars reinterpreting these verses have accepted that this term includes homosexual behaviour they also explain that it does not refer explicitly or only to homosexuality but to all kinds of ‘illicit sexual behaviour’ being carried out on a large scale (Nahas, Kugle).

They argue that the story of Lut is not specifically about same-sex sexuality and/or same-sex relationships. They believe that the story is about a people who are punished for committing several forms of unlawful (sexual) behaviour, including widespread promiscuity, bestiality, paedophillia, inhospitality towards guests as well as abuse of power, rape and intimidation. Another argument is that in the story of Lut, similar to other stories about the rejection of a prophet (Noah, Ibrahim, Musa), the people are punished not just for a particular sin or sins but for rejecting their prophet (Jamal). From these analyses it can be concluded that the verses in the story of Lut are not referring to homosexuality in the sense of same-sex sexuality or relationships as we understand them in the West today. (For more detailed analysis of the Qur'anic verses and the story of Lut see Yoesuf Foundation, Nahas, Kugle, Jamal).

It should also be noted that there is a similar but not identical Biblical story of Lot in which homosexuality is more explicitly mentioned. It has been argued that the biblical story and the Christian interpretations of it have significantly influenced Muslim interpretations of the story of Lut in the Qur'an (Kugle). The harmful influence of biblical interpretations on similar Qur'anic stories has also been talked about on the status of women. (See a discussion of how the biblical perception of Eve has influenced the male Muslim notion of women in Hassan).

Interpretations of the Qur'anic verses in the story of Lut supposedly referring to homosexuality seem to concentrate on male homosexuality only. For more information on female homosexuality see the section on ‘Same-sex relationships between women and Islam’.

7:80-84, 11:69-83, 15:51-77, 21:71&74-75, 22:42-43, 25:40, 26:159-175, 27:54-58, 29:28-35, 37:133-138, 50:12-13, 54:32-40, 66:10

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Glossary of Key Terms
Biological sex / Physiological sex: the biological classification of physiological bodies as male or female usually determined by external sex organs, internal sex and reproductive organs, chromosomes, hormones and secondary sexual development at puberty. Bodies with an ambiguous biological sex, i.e. with both male and female characteristics are sometimes characterised as hermaphrodite or intersex. A person’s biological sex usually – but not always - corresponds with her/his gender identity. (See also transgender and gender dysphoria).

Bisexual(ity): a category of sexual orientation, referring to person who can experience emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction to persons of both their own sex and the opposite sex. There are various forms of bisexuality, varying from being primarily attracted to persons of the same-sex and only occasionally to persons of the opposite sex (and vice versa) to being equally attracted to persons from the same sex and the opposite sex.

Feminists (Feminism): the Safra Project defines feminists as scholars and activists challenging gender bias and/or working towards gender equality.

Gay: A term used as a synonym to homosexual. The term ‘gay’ is usually preferred to the term ‘homosexual’ when describing a person’s sexual orientation, i.e. she or he “is gay”. Sometimes the term gay is used to describe only male ‘homosexuals’ (see also gay man).

Gay man: a man who experiences emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction only, or primarily, to another man or other men. His sexual orientation is categorised as homosexual.

Gender: refers to the social and cultural codes used to distinguish between what a particular society considers ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ qualities, characteristics, attributes or behaviours. The definition of gender varies widely and is often the subject of exhaustive debates, although most agree that gender is largely socially and culturally determined. People are attributed a social and cultural gender that usually corresponds to their (assumed) biological sex and they are then expected to behave in accordance with gender roles as defined by their social and cultural context. Gender can be expressed in physical appearance, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns, and social behaviours and interactions. The attribution of gender to a person by others is a (unconscious) categorisation of a person as being a man or a woman. A person’s own gender identity, i.e. their deeply felt (or psychological) sense of being male or female (or both, neither or other), usually - but not always - corresponds to their biological sex and to how they express their gender. (See also transgender, transsexual and gender dysphoria).

Gender dysphoria: a medical term referring to people who have a compelling sense that their gender identity is not in conformity with the physiological or biological sex they are born with. In other words, persons who feel that they are born in the ‘wrong body’, i.e. biological women who feel they should have been born as men and vice versa. These persons are generally referred to as transsexual or transgender.

Gender equality: refers to people receiving equal opportunities to realise their full human potential according to their wish, irrespective of gender. This can for example include equality in opportunities to take part in social, economic, cultural and political developments and benefiting equally from the results. It can also refer to the equality in protection of (human) rights. Gender equality does not necessarily mean ‘identical conditions’ or ‘identical rights’ as these conditions and rights may in themselves already be gendered. To achieve gender equality, recognition is needed that current social, economic, cultural, and political systems are gendered (i.e. constructed according to gender roles) which lead to women being disadvantaged in all areas of life (gender bias). This pattern is further affected by other factors of oppression and inequality such as race, ethnicity, culture, immigration status, class, age, disability, sexuality, gender identity and/or other status. Gender equality requires the empowerment of women in their particular contexts, taking their experiences and perspectives into account.

Gender identity: is a person’s deeply felt (or psychological) sense of being male or female (or both, neither or other). A person’s gender identity is the gender to which a person feels she/he belongs. This usually corresponds to a person’s biological sex and to how they express their gender. However, some people have a compelling sense that their gender identity is not in conformity with their physiological or biological sex or feel and/or express a gender identity that is other than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’. These people are usually referred to as transsexual or transgender (see also gender dysphoria). Gay men, lesbians and bisexual people are usually content with their gender identity and/or their biological sex, including those who are not content with their gender roles. For example those who dress or behave similar to what is socially and culturally perceived as the opposite gender, such as a woman who behaves or dresses according to what is perceived to be a ‘masculine’ manner.

Gender roles: Gender affects how people perceive themselves and others and how they expect themselves and others to behave, that is, either in a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ manner. These gender roles are learned and culturally and socially determined. They are also affected by factors such as education and economics. Therefore, gender roles can evolve over time. Gender roles and expectations are often identified as factors hindering gender equality. In practice gender roles usually affect women adversely in relation to many aspects of their life, such as family, socio-economic status, health, life expectation, independence, freedom and rights (gender bias).

Heterosexual(ity): a category of sexual orientation, referring to a person who experiences emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction only, or primarily, to (a) person(s) of the opposite sex. This is also called ‘being straight’.

Homophobia: an irrational fear of, or hatred against, lesbian, gay and bisexual people and homosexuality.

Homosexual(ity): a category of sexual orientation, referring to a person who experiences emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction only, or primarily, to (a) person(s) of the same sex. Persons with a homosexual orientation are also referred to as gay (both men and women) or as lesbian (women only). Referring to a person as (a) ‘homosexual’ is usually avoided as this can be considered inappropriate or even offensive. The reasons for this are diverse and include the previous derogatory usage of the term, its medical association and the fact that ‘homosexual’ and ‘homosexuality’ in most Muslim societies and cultures refers to certain specific sexual behaviour not resembling the contemporary ‘Western’ understanding of homosexuality as a category of sexual orientation. Instead the Safra Project prefers using the term ‘same-sex sexuality’. In addition, the term homosexual does not express the diversity of sexualities as it ignores bisexuality nor is it gender specific. When referring to persons, preference is given to the statement that someone is ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ or that someone is ‘a lesbian’, ‘a gay man’ or ‘a bisexual person’. (In plural - LGB people).

Islam: Islam can mean many different things to different people. Sometimes people talk about 'Islam' when referring to the culture or traditions from a particular country or from a specific group of people. Sometimes people use the word ‘Islam’ to refer to the practice of religious rituals and/or to spirituality. People also use the term 'Islam' to talk about a political viewpoint and sometimes they are referring to what is known as 'Islamic law' or shari’ah. This body of rules, norms and laws is itself made up of several schools of thought and differing individual opinions of Muslim scholars. The Safra Project uses the term ‘Muslim laws’ to refer to both shari’ah as well as to modern state laws said to be based on it.

Lesbian: a woman who experiences emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction only, or primarily, to another woman or other women. Her sexual orientation is categorised as homosexual.

LGBT(Q) (people): is the acronym of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (and/or queer) (people). It is an inclusive term for identities sometimes also associated together as ‘sexual minorities’.

Polyamory: This is a new term that has emerged in the debates about non-monogamy in recent years. It literally translates into ‘many loves’. Polyamory circumscribes a particular relationship philosophy that assumes that it is possible (and indeed desirable) to love many people and to maintain multiple relationships. Within polyamory there is a strong emphasis on love, intimacy, commitment and honesty. Some have defined polyamory as ‘responsible non-monogamy’. Polyfidelity is a concept closely related to polyamory. Polyfidelity is based on the understanding that the partners in a multiple relationship will be faithful towards each other, an assumption that is not clearly spelled out or implied in polyamory. While for some polyfidelity marks a very specific approach to polyamory (or even one distinct from it), others tend to equate both concepts.

Reformists: scholars who have sought to challenge classical or fundamentalist interpretations of the Quran and other sources of Muslim law.

Same-sex sexuality (& Same-sex relationships): a category of sexual orientation, referring to a person who experiences emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction only, or primarily, to (a) person(s) of the same sex. Same-sex relationships are emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional consenting relationship(s) between people of the same sex, that is, between two women or two men. Same-sex sexuality is sometimes used as a synonym for homosexuality. However, the Safra Project normally uses the term ‘same-sex sexuality’ instead of, and/or distinguished from, ‘homosexuality’ as the notions of homosexuality that exist within most Muslim societies and cultures do not resemble the contemporary ‘Western’ understanding of homosexuality. In most Muslim societies and cultures, ‘homosexuality’ refers to certain specific sexual behaviour rather than to a category of sexual orientation that includes a wider scope of (sexual) behaviours, feelings and self-identity.

Sex: can refer to certain forms of sexual behaviour, i.e. ‘having sex’. It can also refer to a person’s biological sex, i.e. someone is from the male sex or the female sex. The term sex is sometimes confused with the term gender, just like the term biological sex is sometimes confused with gender identity. The term sex can be distinguished from sexuality and sexual orientation.

Sexual behaviour: the factual behaviour of a person in relation to her/his sexuality, either publicly or privately, including - but not limited to – having intercourse. Sexual behaviour is different to sexual orientation as sexual behaviour refers to actions whereas sexual orientation (also) refers to feelings and to self-identity. Persons may or may not express their sexual orientation in their sexual behaviours.

Sexual orientation: refers to emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction from one person to another person or persons. Someone’s sexual orientation is categorised according to the gender(s) or biological sex of the people he/she has these feelings for, that is, it describes whether a person is attracted primarily toward people of the same or the opposite sex, or to both. Sexual orientation exists along a continuum that ranges from exclusive homosexuality to exclusive heterosexuality and includes various forms of bisexuality. Sexual orientation is an important part of a person’s total self-identity: how we see ourselves and how others see us. A person’s experience and understanding of her/his sexual orientation can vary during their life. Sexual orientation is different from sexual behaviour because it refers to feelings and to self-identity, rather than mere actions. Persons may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviours. Sexual orientation can be distinguished from other aspects of sexuality such as biological sex, gender identity and gender roles.

Sexuality (Sexualities, Sexual diversity): Sexuality refers in its broadest sense to the quality of being sexual. The term sexuality is also used in plural, i.e. ‘sexualities’, to reflect the diversity of sexuality, also known as ‘sexual diversity’. The main aspects of sexuality are sex, biological or physiological sex, gender, gender identity, gender roles and sexual orientation.

Shari’ah: A body of rules, norms and laws according to which Muslims (are supposed to) live their lives. These rules, norms and laws are found in, and derived from two main sources: the Qur'an and practices and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith). The Qur'an and hadith are known as the primary sources of Muslim law.
Shar’iah was formulated between the eighth and the fourteenth century AD. In the eight and ninth century AD several Muslim schools of thought (madahibs) emerged in different geographical locations, deriving legal and religious rules from the Qur'an and hadith. These schools also formulated (legal) opinions known as jurisprudence (fiqh), including the assessment of the reliability of hadith. For situations that were not explicitly mentioned in the Qur'an or hadith, the schools used certain methods of legal reasoning to formulate rules. These methods include the formulation of a consensus opinion (ijma), drawing an analogy (qiyas) from an existing rule or law or making a decision on the basis of (principles of) social justice (maslaha). Differing opinions between the schools as well as between individual scholars, combined with influences of local customs and regional differences, caused variations in the rules, norms and laws within and between the schools. This body of rules, opinions and laws, is referred to as ‘classical Muslim law’ or shari’ah. Four Sunni schools (Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi’i) and one Shi’a (Jafari) school remain dominant today.
The process of understanding and formulating legal and religious opinions from the Qur'an and hadith is known as interpretation (ijtihad).It is believed by traditional Muslim scholars that somewhere between the tenth and the fourteenth century ‘the gate of ijtihad’ was closed, preventing new interpretations of the Qur'an being recognised as shari’ah. Ijtihad was then replaced by the doctrine of taqlid or imitation of the rules, norms and laws that already existed. The idea of taqlid has made it difficult for reformists to challenge the shari’ah and formulate new interpretations of the Qur'an.
Many countries with significant Muslim populations have developed so-called ‘shari’ah laws’ as state law, particularly in the area of ‘personal status’ or family laws. These are either based on, or are variations of, the jurisprudence of one or more of the five schools of thought.
The Safra Project uses the term ‘Muslim laws’ to refer to both shari’ah as well as current state laws that are said to be based on shari’ah.

Transgender (Transgender people): Some use transgender/transgender people as a synonym for transsexual(s) or to refer to persons medically diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Others use the term ‘transgender’ more widely to refer to all expressions of gender identity other than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’. Transgender can vary from a surgical change to someone’s biological sex (transsexual(ity)) to occasionally dressing in the clothing of the ‘opposite’ gender (transvestite). A transgender person can also transition - sometimes with the help of hormone therapy and/or cosmetic surgery - to live in the gender role of choice, without undergoing or wishing to undergo (complete) surgery. The term transgender can also include those who identify and/or express themselves as neither male nor female and/or those born with an ambiguous biological sex. The International Foundation for Gender Education defines a transgender person as “someone whose gender display at least sometimes runs contrary to what other people from the same culture would normally expect” (www.ifge.org). Female to male (FTM) transgender people are born with female bodies but have a predominantly male gender identity, male to female (MTF) transgender people were born with male bodies but have a predominantly female gender identity. The Safra Project uses the widest possible definition of transgender and includes those who feel not able to express or display the gender identity of their choice, for example for fear of negative reactions.

Transphobia: an irrational fear of, or hatred against, transgender people.

Transsexual(ity): refers to people who have a compelling sense that their gender identity is not in conformity with the physiological or biological sex they are born with (see also: gender dysphoria). This may lead some to seek gender (or sex) reassignment surgery to make her/his biological or physiological sex correspond to her/his gender identity. Some people include under the term transsexual only persons who have already undergone (complete) gender (or sex) reassignment surgery, others include those who wish to undergo gender (or sex) reassignment surgery. Some also define the term more widely and use it partially or completely as a synonym for transgender. As the Safra Project uses the term transgender in the widest possible sense, it usually refers only to those having undergone gender (or sex) reassignment surgery when using the term transsexual but respects the rights of others to self-identify as transsexual.

Transvestite (‘Crossdresser’): a person who dresses in the clothing of the ‘opposite’ gender, either occasionally or always. Generally, these persons do not wish to alter the biological (or psysiological) sex of their body.

Queer: a term often used as a slur in English to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) persons. The term has been reclaimed by many LGBTQ people, often in a activist or political context, as an expression of pride in sexual diversity and variations of gender identity. The word queer has now become a commonly used term in social science studies and many universities offer for example courses in Queer Studies.