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Homosexuality

By:
Oliver Leaman
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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Homosexuality

The Qurʿān is generally taken to condemn homosexual acts and in particular sodomy (liwāṭ). There are references to the people of Lot (Lūṭ), at 7:81–82; 11:77–83; 15:61; 21:74; 22:43; 26:165; 27:55; and 29:29. At 26:165–173 the destruction of the people of Lot is often attributed to their sexual practices, although there is no explicit reference in the Qurʿān to precisely what those were. Punishment for such practices, apart from divine wrath, are referred to at 4:16, and both parties are blamed equally, something less common in the legal and other literature that followed. Some have argued that less severe punishments prescribed for homosexuality (anal intercourse between men) as compared with sexual infractions in male/female relationships indicates a less severe attitude toward homosexuality in Islam as compared with other religions. repentance and improvement mean that one will avoid punishment (4:16). However, advocates of punishment hold that this mild comment was later abrogated. In any case, it is not obvious that this passage refers to homosexuality at all, although it is often held to do so.

Punishment and the Islamic Legal Schools.

Within the Ḥanafī tradition often no physical punishment is suggested, because adultery, apostasy, and murder are not involved. For the Ḥanbalīs, by contrast, the hail of stones that destroyed the people of Lot are an indication of the severity of the punishment that is appropriate for this behavior. The Mālikī school insists on stoning, while the Shāfiʿī often distinguish “Shīʿī Islam… punishes both partners” and then says “no punishment is recommended” between the active and the passive partner with regard to punishment. Shīʿī Islam is very severe in its treatment of homosexuality and punishes both partners, even where no actual penetration takes place. However, no punishment is recommended, and the legal opinions tend to range from beating to stoning to death. As with adultery, though, evidence is not easy to come by, and there is a debate as to whether the passive and the active partner should be punished equally. This ambiguity is reflected in the ḥadīth of the Prophet, some of which make a distinction between the partners in a homosexual act, and many of which seem to permit homoerotic feelings, as long as those feelings are not translated into action. There are also many ḥadīth which are totally uncompromising in their opposition to liwāṭ. There certainly seems to have been a strong distinction made between the role of the ubnah or passive partner and the sodomizer, with the former being disgraced by their passivity. Stories abound of men being punished by being sodomized, for example, and the serious consequences this has for them and for the status of those associated with them.

Homosexuality and Islamic Society and Culture.

There are two approaches in the academic literature to homosexuality in the Islamic world. One is to regard homosexuality as a universal practice, so there will be homosexuals in the Islamic world as elsewhere. The other is to regard homosexuality as culturally determined and so not universal but instead formed and structured in each culture. There is of course a serious problem in examining a practice such as homosexuality, which is a taboo in many societies, and determining how prevalent it is and was. To add to the confusion, the orientalist tradition of representing the Islamic world as decadent and “other,” assumes a greater permissiveness toward homosexuality in Islam than in other cultures.

There should be no dispute about the prevalence of homoerotic literature and history in Islamic culture. Arabic and Persian poetry, history, political literature, songs, and so on from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries c.e. abound in homoerotic and phallic symbols. Friendship between men and boys is often given a significant role, and the feelings between the partners are described in often sexual ways. It is easy to assume that this is evidence of widespread homosexuality in Islamic culture during this period, yet such a conclusion would be misleading. There is a tendency in such literature to use various forbidden motifs—such as homosexuality and wine—to illustrate the wider social and political order through parody and satire. Greek motifs in particular became widely employed in Arabic and Persian, and while in Greece they may have accurately described current practice, in Islamic literature they may have been used to allude in a negative way to the prevailing social order rather than as a description of common activities of the time. On the other hand, there are many miniatures, especially from Ottoman Turkey, that portray acts of sodomy and pederasty directly, and these must represent activities then enjoying a certain popularity.

Much Islamic literature from the ninth to the nineteenth century includes phrases and themes that concentrate on the beauty of young boys, albeit in a purely aesthetic style that emphasizes beauty rather than homoerotic content. There are also more explicit narratives, often as part of a political satire or social critique, and young men occur very frequently as the object of adoration and as exemplars of grace and physical perfection. El-Rouayheb argues that this does not imply the prevalence or acceptability of homosexuality, because that notion in its modern sense, or in the meaning it has in non-Islamic cultures, did not exist in the period he considers in depth, 1500–1800 CE It is a mistake to conclude that just because young men were the objects of love in ādāb (usually translated as “belles lettres”) and a wide variety of other literature, ranging from poetry to mysticism, this proves that the sexual practices associated with homosexuality were widespread. However, the possiblilty for exploitation of young boys within educational institutions was much discussed in Arabic literature during the premodern period, and teachers were advised to take precautions against temptation through overly close relations with handsome beardless boys. Ṣūfī institutions in particular were criticized, generally by the enemies of Sufism, for the licentious behavior that was said to take place in the guise of religious and spiritual instruction. The lax attitude that some Ṣūfīs took toward legal rules encouraged, it was sometimes said, sexual advances toward young boys who were pupils or junior members of an order. The erratic behavior of those regarded as saints validated a variety of sexual attitudes and actions that would otherwise have been condemned, and the immature and relatively powerless were frequently the victims of this license.

El-Roueyheb suggests that in the Arab world of the early Ottoman Empire there was a radical disconnect between the portrayal in literature of young men as objects of desire and and the actual treatment of them as sexual partners. Such treatment would have been illegal and in any case would have brought social stigma. Modernity has led to more questioning of the prevalent poetic and mystical idioms that center on the beauty of young men. Much of the literature from this period describes levels of power, because the objects of passion often come from minority groups such as the Christians or even slaves and servants. The 2007 movie The Kite Runner, based on a novel of the same name, is set in Afghanistan, where the Sunnī Pashtuns have relatively high status. In one scene a Pashtun man rapes a Hazāra (Shīʿī) boy, replicating in modern times the tradition of seeing sodomy as much about differences of power and status as about sex. In recent years the greater influence of Salafī views has also lead to a greater disinclination to use imagery that could be taken to describe forbidden relationships, even obliquely, and also threatens those who explicitly represent homosexual acts in an Islamic cultural context. The celebration of beauty as personified in humanity and the view of its divine origins are features of Sufism and are suspected from a religious point of view by those who favor a stricter and more literal version of Islam. Traditional raunchy literature such as The Arabian Nights have been expurgated to remove stories with homosexual aspects, and poetry that celebrated the beauty of young men and seemed to countenance love for them by older men, however chaste this was supposed to be, is not acceptable in much of the Islamic world today given the new climate of modesty that prevails. Homosexuality is often regarded as a feature of Western decadence and something that does not and should not exist in Muslim communities, and if it does, then it is merely a reflection of the unwelcome spread of corrupt ideas from without.

There are very few references to homosexuality and especially to lesbianism in religious or even literary material, although there is plenty of speculation about them in the journals and reports of early travelers to the Arab world. Those antagonistic to Islam have often criticized it for having a lax attitude to homosexual activities, no doubt as a way of distinguishing between “normal” behavior in the home countries and deviant sexuality. The nineteenth century saw the rapid decline of the Ottoman Empire, and one of the themes of orientalist visitors to the empire was the putative contrast between the sexually transgressive Muslims in the Middle East and the much stricter morality that persisted in Europe. There has been concern in the Islamic world also with the literature dealing with love for young boys, and writers such as Taqī al-DīnAḥmad ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328 CE) and his disciple Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah (1350 CE) criticized naẓar or gazing, the subject of much of the literature describing the way in which the poet contemplated the object of his affection. In fact, the topic of who it was permissible to gaze at became a controversial issue in Islamic theology, a permissive line being taken by ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (d. 1731 CE), who seemed to allow gazing at anyone, man or woman, provided one was able to distinguish between appreciating the aesthetic form of the object contemplated from its actual matter. Gazing at an actual person was likely to lead to lust and sin, he accepted, but held that this could be separated from the act of contemplation of the form of the person alone. Here he represents the spirit of the literature dealing with young boys in premodern Islamic literature. This took itself not to be describing homosexuality and thus desires likely to lead to illegitimate actions, but aesthetic attitudes celebrating beauty wherever it was to be found.

Recent Developments.

In a speech at Columbia University (September 2007) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said there were no homosexuals in Iran. Although the audience laughed, he did represent accurately a common belief in the Islamic world, one not shared, of course, by those in the region who are homosexual. In recent years a discussion has arisen as to the possibility of reconciling Islam with homosexuality, in just the same way that the other monotheistic faiths have developed strategies for a more inclusive policy toward homosexuals. As in other religions, many Muslims insist on a rigid ban on the practice, although as we have seen there is some scope within Islamic tradition to accept the feelings if not the actions associated with homosexuality. Advocates for homosexuals in the Islamic world argue that the resources exist in Islamic thought to provide space for homosexuality within the ummah, but it is unlikely that this issue will come to the forefront of discussion in Islam—as it has in Judaism and Christianity—for some time to come.

See also SEXUALITY.

Bibliography

  • El-Rouayheb, Khaled. Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500–1800. Chicago, 2005.
  • Murray, Stephen, and Will Roscoe, et al.Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York, 1997.
  • Schmidtke, Sabine. “Homoeroticism and Homosexuality in Islam: A Review Article.”Bulletin of the school of Oriental and African Studies62, no.2 (1999): 260–266. Excellent summary of the recent literature.
  • Schmitt, Arno. Bio-Bibliography of Male-Male Sexuality and Eroticism in Muslim Societies. Berlin, 1995.
  • Schmitt, Arno, and Jehoeda. Sofer eds.Sexuality and Eroticism among Males in Moslem Societies. Binghampton, N.Y., 1992.
  • Wright, J. W., and Everett K. Rowson., eds.Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature. New York, 1997.
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