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Islam: Waging a Queer Jihad

By Sulayman X

muslim4.jpg - 15.90 K When I founded a web site devoted to the needs of queer Muslims I called it 'Queer Jihad', believing the meaning would be quite self-evident. It was not. While provoking outrage in the Muslim community for using a sacred term in a profane way, it was also greeted with genuine puzzlement by many queer Muslims who didn't see the connection, or saw other meanings and shades of meanings not necessarily there - the most humorous being the image of queer folks taking up scimitars and ransacking villages.

It was a lesson about words, about what they mean, and what we think they mean, and what they do mean.

'Jihad' is a word easy to misunderstand. It does indeed mean a holy war, but only in the sense of spiritual warfare with oneself. The task of any Muslim is to wage this Jihad with one's lower, baser instincts, to struggle to do good, to be good, to live what the mouth preaches, to achieve some consistency between the inner and outer man. That's Jihad. Only in a narrow, highly technical sense does it mean a physical confrontation between disputing parties, and in that situation it can only be waged in self-defense.

The funny thing about words is that they are so often not up to the task of conveying the truth of things. Pictures can get painted with them, an idea shared, a small glimpse offered of the reality - but no more. Extreme care must be taken with them, and it must be understood that words are only symbols, a means to an end, and not an end in themselves.

I am reminded of these things each day because many Muslims believe that the proper response to homosexual activity is a whipping, a jail sentence or even death - punishments that are carried out in Muslim countries by people who believe they are doing the will of God and cleansing their community of what they believe to be an unimaginable evil.

These punishments are based on words supposedly spoken by the Prophet Muhammad, words such as "homosexuals should be killed wherever you find them" or "effeminate men and masculine women should be driven from your homes".

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Such sayings, known as hadith, carry great weight in Muslim circles and along with the Qur'an form the basis of Islamic law. Thus one reads of the Taleban, in Afghanistan, putting homosexuals to death by bulldozing brick walls on top of them. And too, one comes across the peculiar Islamic notion that one cannot be a 'gay Muslim', that to be gay is so contrary to Islam as to put one outside the realm of Islam altogether.

Islam bases its condemnation of homosexuals on both what the Prophet is supposed to have said, and the Qur'anic version of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah involving the prophet Lot and the destruction of Sodom (the Qur'an does not mention Gomorrah).

The story will sound familiar: two angels visit Lot and warn him that the city is about to be destroyed; the people of Sodom show up on Lot's doorstep demanding he turn over the visitors so that they might, presumably, rape or molest them; Lot refuses, chastising them for 'leaving off their natural affection for women and approaching men with lust'; the city is destroyed while Lot escapes; his wife turns to look back and is destroyed.

This story has been interpreted by Muslims as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. But we come back to the problem of words, of what they convey, and what they are meant to convey, and of how they often fail in these tasks.

gaymuslims.jpg - 12.89 K There are, in the language of the Eskimos, many words for "snow" - dozens and dozens, in fact. In English, we have one. The shades of meaning are lost to us since snow isn't much part of our daily lives, not the way it is to those who live with it day in and day out throughout most of the year.

Likewise, there are many words in certain languages for "homosexual". In English, we have perhaps three: homosexual, gay, queer, with lesbian denoting female homosexuality. We also have words for transvestite and transgendered, and not much more. But other languages - like Arabic, the language of the Qur'an - have a wider variety to choose from.

An Arabic scholar would know, for example, the difference between a "gay man" and a "straight man who enjoys raping young boys". It's this latter category that many references to homosexual activity are most likely meant to condemn, not the former. Raping young boys was a favourite pastime in many cultures, and the Arabs were no different. Rape was also employed as a way to humiliate men defeated in battle.

These things were understood, once upon a time, and the words used to describe these things were also properly understood, once upon a time.

There was, for example, an Arabic word to denote men who were not "complete men" - they had no sexual attraction to women. It was customary during the time of the Prophet Muhammad for such "men" to spend time with women, to be employed as their servants. They were not to be included in the segregation of the sexes since they were not interested sexually in women and thus posed no danger to their virtue. In fact, on one occasion, when such a young "man" began to show interest in the beauty of a certain woman, the Prophet ordered that he separate himself from women because of the uncertainty over his true sexuality.

Christians have begun to confront this problem of words and cultural understandings. Biblical research has turned up a similar fondness for raping boys and straight men in Roman culture, which St Paul rightly condemned in some of his Epistles. That those condemnations are now used to condemn homosexuality reflects ignorance of the society in which St Paul lived and not necessarily any Divine outrage over two men who love each other and want to express their love physically.

Islam has many stated values that seem to have been forgotten when it comes to the Islamic treatment of queer peoples, treatment which can involve physical punishments like whippings or jail sentences, or the more likely treatment of silencing, shaming, or shunning. The Qur'an is filled with impassioned pleas for justice, fairness, honesty, forthrightness, caring for widows and orphans and the disadvantaged, honesty in one's business dealings, paying a fair wage, creating just societies that value the contributions of each member. Men and women are equal in the eyes of Allah, the Qur'an says. And one cannot be truly Muslim until one does for his brother what he would do for himself, or so Muhammad is supposed to have said.

Do these stated values apply only to heterosexual members of the Muslim family?

muslim3.gif - 16.04 K One is touched, when reading the Qur'an, by the numerous times Muslims are urged to care properly for widows and orphans. Muhammad himself was an orphan, and one can safely conclude the experience coloured his life - an orphan in a society such as his could find life harsh indeed. Is it any wonder he so often demanded his followers care for the disadvantaged, the small, the fragile, that they honour one's parents and kin and family ties, that Muslims unite in one brotherhood of submission to Allah?

In tale after tale, Muhammad is depicted as a man of compassion and fairness, a man who sacrificed greatly on behalf of the poor, who lived simply and gave most of his wealth away, who was ever sensitive and attentive to all of the peoples under his care.

Where, then, does this virulent homophobia of today's Muslim come from? How does it square with Islam's stated values of justice and compassion? If the Muslim models his life on that of the Prophet, where is the compassion, the care for the disadvantaged, the concern for the suffering? Where are the Muslim voices of outrage at the way some of their number are treated by the ignorant and misguided? Since when has Islam become a religion where certain segments within it can be killed with impunity, can be shamed and silenced and burdened with unimaginable guilt and self-hatred?

It's a matter of words, of what they mean, of what we think they mean, of what they were meant to mean.

Muslims will say this homophobia is justified, that the destruction of Sodom indicates Allah's disgust with homosexuals, that Muhammad's injunctions to "kill them wherever you find them" should be taken seriously.

However, many Muslims - myself included - question the value and authenticity of many of the sayings attributed to Muhammad. Would this man of great spiritual stature and compassion and widely-recognised leadership skills advocate the killing of certain groups of people? Would any genuine spiritual person - Jesus, Buddha, Ghandi - advocate such killings?

It is well known that many of these sayings were fabricated for one reason or another. One of the mail compilers is said to have collected three million of such sayings, only to accept 7,000 as being valid. Further, these efforts at collecting the sayings of Muhammad were not undertaken until at least 200 years after his death. Trying to reconstruct what someone said 200 years ago is, of course, fraught with peril.

I am not alone in my questioning of these sayings. Some Muslims reject them entirely as having nothing to do with Islam, impossible to verify, and in many instances directly contradictory to the Qur'an itself. Libya's Quadafi, for example, instituted a form of Islam based solely on the Qur'an, as have others. There is even a breakaway group within Islam which calls itself the "Religion of Submission" which rejects all these sayings entirely as being contrary to the Qur'an itself and an unnecessary addition.

The story of Sodom presents the next problem. A few things seem clear, and are generally accepted as fact by the Muslim world: the people of Sodom were either homosexual, or heterosexual men experimenting with homosexuality - "Do you leave off your natural affection for women to pursue your lust for men?" as the Qur'an asks. Homosexuals don't have a natural affection for women, so it would seem likely that something else is going on. The people of Sodom were also known to be bandits and thieves and rapists - of straight men and young boys -- who did not honour the hospitality laws of their society.

Was it, then, their sexuality or their behaviour that was condemned in the Qur'an? Rapists, thieves, banditry - are these not enough reasons to arouse Divine wrath? The conclusion seems obvious, yet many otherwise pious, educated Muslims look at the story of Sodom as being nothing more than a condemnation of homosexuality, and some even assume - incredibly - that homosexuality leads to rape, theft and banditry, and that all queer folks are involved with these things. Needless to say, experience has shown otherwise.

Will today's Islamic scholars and linguistic experts take a second look at Sodom and begin to educate the public as to what the Qur'an really says, rather than what the man on the street assumes it says? Is not an accurate understanding of the Qur'an essential to modern man?

muslimman.jpg - 7.71 K These and more are questions and issues Muslims must face, a task to which some queer Muslims have already devoted themselves. Al-Fatiha, a group began last year and based in the US, has been at the forefront of this effort, hosting retreats and conferences and gaining attention worldwide. It's next retreat for queer Muslims is scheduled for late May in London. The group is actively searching for scholars who can speak authoritatively on the Qur'an and put to rest the controversy surrounding the story of Sodom. And although the Queer Jihad web site used to be the only site devoted to this issue, it has since been joined by others, with many more gay and lesbian Muslims coming forward and breaking their silence.

Much work needs to be done, especially among queer Muslims themselves. The unbending condemnation of homosexual activity is so ingrained that most cannot even begin to conceive of how they can remain true to Islam and yet be true to themselves, much less live an openly gay life. Many view their homosexuality as a test from God that must be struggled with each and every day, a never-ending source of frustration and travail. All too often the only way out of this intense psychological pain is to abandon Islam - whether one wishes to do so or not.

Some would argue - as I do - that it is possible to be a good Muslim and a gay person, that there is no inherent contradiction between the two. Islam is only hurting itself when it shames and silences its gay sons and lesbian daughters, when it refuses to deal with the question of sexuality, when it relies on interpretations handed down hundreds of years ago to answer challenges posed by today's world.

Words, words and more words.

Sometimes the simplest are the best, like 'love', and 'truth', and 'goodness'. To love another person, to be truthful, to be good, to turn away from deceit and dishonesty, to honour the feelings and yearnings of one's heart - how is it possible these things can be construed as evil when, of course, they are not? And how is that so many queers, Muslim and otherwise, can be rendered so uncertain?

The whole concept of 'jihad' was born from a verse in the Qur'an which gave Muslims the right to fight when their access to 'holy places' - mosques and places of prayer -- was denied.

Ironically enough, queer Muslims find their access to 'holy places' denied by often well-intentioned by mislead Muslims who shun, shame and silence them, and oftentimes drive them from homes and communities, refusing them the right to be spiritual people. In this sense, the queer Muslim has the right to declare 'jihad', to demand access to the holy places, to question mullahs and scholars who promote oppression against them and who encourage the Muslim faithful to shame and silence them. A Muslim cannot remain silent in the face of injustice, especially when that injustice involves brothers and sisters in Islam.

By the same token, queer Muslims must wage the true jihad with themselves, struggling to do good, to be good, to achieve consistency between the inner and the outer man.

We expect too much from words and easily get caught up debating endlessly the finer points of the story of Sodom and what the prophet did and did not say, all the while ignoring their own experience, their own hearts and souls and feelings and what they know to be true, deep inside, a truth that does not need words to make it valid: love is never sinful. We are what we have been made to be. Love is good, kind, healing. It is right to love one another.

Jesus, considered one of Islam's holiest prophets, had it exactly right: "God is love."
Sulayman X is the founder of Queer Jihad, a web site devoted to the needs of queer Muslims. He lives in Asia where he works as a journalist for a major newspaper.

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