Muslims and Islam

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The faith of Islam and its adherents who call themselves Muslims have complicated relationships to homoeroticism and same-sex sexual relations. Many have interpreted the Koran, the sacred scripture that serves as the primary source of authority for Muslims, as condemning sex between men and as silent about lesbianism. The same is true for the Hebrew Bible. However, Islam has been more tolerant in practice than most types of Christianity and some branches of Judaism.

The Koran approaches the issue as a rhetorical question aimed at a male audience: "How can you lust for males, of all creatures in the world, and leave those whom God has created for you as your mates?" (Surah 26:165–166). The prophet Muhammad is also said to have addressed the issue in his farewell sermon, adding a prohibition also against anal intercourse with a woman, which indicates that the underlying assumption is that sex was regarded by him as procreative, not recreational.

The Shari a, Muslim law based on the Koran and the Hadith (recollections of the prophet's sayings and deeds, a secondary source of authority for Muslims), makes male sex acts with males a punishable offense, but without stated punishments. A large scope for interpretation is therefore possible.

One reason for the relative silence on the issue throughout most of Muslim history is that pre-Islamic Arabia and Persia both practiced a type of male-to-male mentoring similar to ancient Greece, in which an older man would act as a mentor to a young protégé, with whom he would also act as sexual initiator. Such men would be expected to marry women and produce families, and would not have identified as alternative in their sexuality at all.

Another reason might be the sexual segregation (purdah) of Muslim societies. Engaging in illicit sexual relations with another man's wife or his daughter would constitute a serious offense, because a family's honor rested on the reputation of its women. Same-sex relations would be more difficult to detect in such a system, and might afford more opportunities, particularly for adolescent experimentation.

Islam's mystical tradition, Sufism, has long been an exception on matters of same-sex sexual expression and eroticism. Sometimes the master-disciple relationship in Sufism became particularly close. Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī(c. 1207–1273), probably the best known of Sufi poets and founder of the Mawlawiyah order (whirling dervish), wrote some of his most moving love poetry to a disciple of his named Shams al-Dīn, but the poetry always carries a double meaning because the beloved one is, at the same time, the earthly Shams and Allah (God). Shams, whose name means "sun of religion," became, to Rūmī, an embodiment of the divine beloved, a symbol of divine-human relationship. He used his passion for Shams to give voice to his wild longing after Allah. Rūmī became so wrapped up in Shams that his other followers became jealous. They murdered Shams, hid his body in a well, and lied to Rūmī about his disappearance. Late in his life, another disciple, Husām al-Dīn Chelebi, became close to him and succeeded Rūmī as head of the order when Rūmī died. For some Sufi poets, a woman could represent the transcendent love of Allah. Rūmī had one poem in which he said that "Woman is a ray of God," but his strongest attachments were always to his male disciples.

Secular poetry also developed a homoerotic tradition in the cosmopolitan court of the Abbasid empire, centered at Baghdad, beginning in the eighth century. The most famous poet writing in Arabic was Abū Nuwās (c. 747 to 762–c. 813 to 815), who wrote love poems in praise of anal intercourse with adolescent boys. As Everett Rowson points out, once the boy became fully adult, signified by being able to grow a beard, he lost his allure, according to some poets, while others wrote in praise of the fully bearded youth. In either case, the hierarchical pattern was similar that found in ancient Greece. For adult males, the idealized status of penetrator validated his masculinity and authority. So for an adult male to be the recipient in anal sex was regarded as shameful, because the passive partner was seen as being in the female role.

The best-known poet writing secular homoerotic poetry in Persian was Sa';d al-Shirāz (c. 1213–1292). Like Rūmī, he wrote mystical religious poetry in Persian as well, in which the beautiful boy offers a glimpse of the transcendent divine. His secular poems imply that boys offer a richer range of sexual pleasures than do women.

Lesbianism has never been emphasized positively or negatively in Islam. Homoerotic attachments may have developed in the homosocial atmosphere of the harems, but since female authorship was rare in pre-nineteenth-century Muslim worlds, an extensive literature paralleling the male tradition did not develop. However, there are important literary examples of love between women among twentieth-century women writers. Perhaps the most famous was the fiction and film screenplay writer Ismat Chutgai, who ranked among the most important writers in the 1940s Urdu literary scene. In 1942 she published Lihaaf (The Quilt), which narrated the mysterious intimacy of an older woman and her maidservant, who are observed entangled beneath bedcovers by a visiting niece. The story aroused public controversy and led to an obscenity trial in Lahore, Pakistan.

The fairly tolerant legacy of Islam is rapidly disintegrating because of the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. As a reaction to colonialism, Islamic cultures are trying to define themselves against Western "decadence." The recent tendency is to define anything but reproductive sex as immoral and rooted in Western influence, even though Islamic tradition has always had a high view of the role of pleasure in sex.

LGBT Muslims in America

Muslims first arrived in the United States in significant numbers as African slaves and later, in the nineteenth century, as sailors and migrants from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and India. In the 1920s and 1930s, missionary movements including the Ahmadīya sect from India sent missionaries who developed mosques and converted African Americans in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. The black-dominated Nation of Islam also emerged during this period. Since the 1960s, Muslims have been part of the large migration streams of Arabs, South Asians, and Southeast Asians and have exhibited growing strength in black communities. Among the migrant groups have been members of many different Islamic sects and traditions. For example, the Ismīā';lī sect (also known as the Aga Khan movement) was originally dominant in Southwest Asia and India. When Indians in East Africa fled their homes in the 1960s, many came to Canada and the United States. Ismā';līs believe Islam to be a continuously evolving faith that must be reinterpreted to adapt to modern-day society and culture. Their spiritual leader, Prince Aga Khan, who is thought to be a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad, has been open to dialogue and communication with progressive movements within Islam, although he has not officially made any gay-affirming statements. Beginning in the 1990s, LGB Muslims began to organize various types of groups and networks in the United States. There are currently several organizations, primarily concentrated in major cities, for LGB Muslims, who often find themselves outside of the mainstream of Islam. If they come out, LGB Muslims often face expulsion from their mosques and rejection from their families. Forming groups and networks is a way for LGB Muslims to deal with homophobia in Muslim communities; religious, ethnic, and racial prejudice in American society; and other local, national, and global issues.

In August 2003, a group of about seventy LGBT Muslims and their supporters met in New York City for a national conference, Our Individual Lives; Our Collective Journey, to discuss LGBT Muslim life in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 and other world events. Speakers at the conference discussed what has come to be called the progressive Muslim movement as a location where LGBT Muslims can find acceptance. Sufism, because of its long history of LGBT acceptance, is another way that LGBT Muslims can reconcile with their religion, according to one speaker. A panel also discussed In the Name of Allah, a new documentary about LGBT Muslims.

The conference was sponsored by the Al-Fatiha Foundation, a Washington, D.C.–based support and advocacy group for LGBT Muslims. Al-Fatiha (Arabic for "the opening") started in November 1997 when its founder, Faisal Alam, created a listserv (an Internet-based e-mail discussion group). In 2003 the listserv hosted more than 275 subscribers from more than twenty countries around the world. Subscribers of the listserv decided soon after its establishment to meet in person at what became the First International Retreat for LGBT Muslims, held in Boston, Massachusetts, in October 1998. More than forty participants attended, representing thirteen ethnicities and nationalities and including participants from South Africa, Canada, Belgium, and the Netherlands. At the end of the three-day retreat, participants formally decided that an international organization was needed in order to address the specific issues and problems facing the "gay" Muslim community. Since the retreat, Al-Fatiha has grown to include chapters in the United States in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Local chapters hold social events, discussion groups, parties, and regional retreats and participate in local LGBT and Muslim events. The international perspective of LGBT Muslims has broadened and deepened through networks of affiliate and sister organizations. In London, Al-Fatiha UK and the Safra Project work with local LGBT Muslims. In Canada, there is Salaam Toronto, Salaam Halifax, and Salaam Vancouver.

Another international organization that often focuses on Muslim issues is the Gay and Lesbian Arabic Society (GLAS), established in 1988 in the United States, but with chapters in other countries as well. GLAS serves as a networking organization for LGB people of Arab descent and LGB people living in Arab countries. It aims to promote positive images of LGB people in Arab communities worldwide and to combat negative portrayals of Arabs within the LGB community. The group also provides a support network for members, fighting for human rights wherever oppression exists. It regards itself as a part of the global LGB movement seeking an end to injustice and discrimination based on sexual orientation. GLAS added a lesbian division, Lazeeza, which has its own Web home page that features information about its mailing list, news of interest to Arab lesbians, articles, poetry, and other relevant material.

The Internet has proven to be a valuable means of communication and organization among LGBT Muslims. An important online source for Muslim Arab lesbians is Blint al Nass, a cultural e-zine. Ahbab is a more general online community for LGBT Arab Muslims. Queer Jihad, another online community of support, is not a formal organization or a movement. Its home page states that Queer Jihad is an "idea." Recognizing the difficulty of being queer and Muslim in America (and elsewhere), Queer Jihad is interested in "encouraging queer people to remain true to their Creator, to grapple with the issues, to come to terms with who they are in whatever manner and fashion they are capable of." The issue of Islam and homosexuality, the home page declares, is complicated, requiring struggle within oneself and within the community. Queer Jihad is defined as "the queer Muslim struggle for acceptance: first, the struggle to accept ourselves as being exactly the way Allah has created us to be; and secondly, the struggle for understanding among Muslims in general."

"Jihad" is a misunderstood word in the West. It means to struggle, to endeavor. Traditionally, the first and most important jihad is the struggle with one's self and one's desires. Queer jihad refers in part to the internal struggle with sexuality, with accepting it, dealing with it, and moving on, but it is also an endeavor to provide knowledge and foster understanding with the larger community. Both tasks are difficult for queer Muslims in the United States, but through Web sites and organizations like Al-Fatiha, GLAS, Lazeeza, Ahbab, and Queer Jihad, LGBT Muslims are breaking down the barriers that keep them isolated.


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Khan, Badruddin. Sex, Longing, and Not Belonging: A Gay Muslim's Quest for Love and Meaning. Oakland, Calif.: Floating Lotus, 1997.

Murray, Stephen O., and J. Will Roscoe, eds. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Rowson, Everett K. "Middle Eastern Literature: Arabic." In Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage. Edited by Claude J. Summers. New York : Henry Holt, 1995.

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Skjaervo, Prods Oktor. "Middle Eastern Literature: Persian." In Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage. Edited by Claude J. Summers. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

Woods, Gregory. A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Lori Rowlett

see alsoafrican americans; anti-semitism; arab americans; asian americans; churches, temples, and religious groups.

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Muslims and Islam

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