Why does gay sex scare modern Muslims?

Islamic literature once revered & celebrated same-sex love. Why not now?

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“We are delighted to publish this challenging article by Maajid Nawaz. It reveals the hidden, suppressed history of an era when same-sex love featured in some of the greatest, most revered Islamic literature. The current homophobic trend in Muslim communities is a modern phenomenon. Its impact on LGBT Muslims today is often devastating. Although not all Muslims are anti-gay, many are. We are seeking to change this through the Peter Tatchell Foundation’s LGBT-Muslim Solidarity initiative. This initiative promotes dialogue with the Muslim community, supports LGBT Muslims and gives a platform to Muslims – gay and straight – who speak out for LGBT acceptance and equality.”

Maajid Nawaz writes:

Colonialism taught Muslims to be ashamed of many things, including sexual orientation. Now they are more intolerant (and maybe more hypocritical) than the Victorians.

Half of British Muslims say being gay “should be outlawed.” Thus ran the headline in London’s Sunday Times.

Even more opposed gay marriage, while almost half thought it was unacceptable for a gay or lesbian person to teach their children.

These findings from an ICM poll were presented in a Channel 4 documentary, What British Muslims Really Think, in April.

The programme portrayed the growing divergence between mainstream Britain and its Muslim communities.

Poll after poll of British Muslims has revealed statistically significant levels of illiberal opinion. Polling methodology and data may contain errors, as some critics note, but this is only scientifically rectified by more data, not by defensive posturing.

A 2009 poll by Gallup found that 0 percent of Britain’s Muslims believed homosexual acts to be morally acceptable.

What previous polls have shown us time and again is more of the same.

The April ICM poll asked a slightly different question, about whether homosexual acts should be legal rather than viewed as morally acceptable. Despite half saying no, this time 18 percent did say being gay should remain legal. Progress? Well, if our baseline was zero, there could only ever be progress.

Such numbers ought to prompt an urgent conversation about why Britain is having trouble integrating its Muslim communities. And it is likely that the answer, in part, relates to rising neo-fundamentalist approaches to scripture among Muslims.

There was a time when it was not like this.

Traditionally, Islam was open to exploring beauty and sexuality, especially when Islamic culture flourished and Europe was in what were known as the Dark Ages.

The Prophet Muhammad taught that “God is Beautiful, and loves Beauty.” The 11th century Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm wrote “The Ring of the Dove,” a treatise on the different stages of love, including some rather explicit real-life stories.

It is true that many early Muslim scholars condemned homosexuality, and cited scripture to justify their position. But the themes of love and sexuality have been debated and discussed by Muslim theologians and artists for centuries.

The word “homosexuality” is not even used in the Quran. In fact, it did not exist in the Arabic language. The modern Muslim conclusion that homosexuality is “unnatural” is therefore not based on anything in scripture.

The Quranic story of the prophet Lot is often invoked by religious-conservative Muslims to denounce homosexuals. But even here, there has been debate. A renowned traditional authority on the Quran, al-Kisa’i al-Kufi, took the view that the story of Lot referred to heterosexual men who raped other men.

The chapter of al-Nur (Quran 24:31) specifically recognises “men who are not in need of women.” As the context of the passage shows, these are men who are not attracted to women. They may have been gay or asexual. By definition, they were not heterosexual men. They are also not judged or condemned anywhere in the Quran. The Prophet’s own example shows that he accepted men living around him who were called “Mukhannath,” seen to be “acting like women.”

This subtle early recognition grew to a point where it was open within the courts of various caliphs in the Muslim Golden Age. Abu Nuwas (756-814) was one of the greatest classical Arab poets. He flourished during the start of the Abbasid era Golden Age (750-1258), based in Baghdad.

As was normal during this period, sexual roles were only imagined in terms of active and passive participants, not as gay or straight sex. What we would today describe as homosexuality was clear and present in this society.

Biographies of the bohemian Abu Nuwas recount his many sexual relationships with women and teenage boys, especially under the patronage of Caliph al-Amin (809-13), with whom Abu Nuwas shared many experiences. One of Abu Nuwas’s most famous compilations of poetry is known as Ghazal. In it, he celebrates his love for 15-year-old teenagers (khumasi), young men in military training or even those who have started growing facial hair (muaddir). In his “Love in Bloom,” Abu Nuwas describes his bond with a male lover as an “unbreakable rope.”

Many other excellent classical Muslim poets wrote in homoerotic tones, including the Persian Ibn Dawud (868-909), Andalusian Ibn Quzman (1080-1160), and the Arab Sicilian Ibn Hamdis (1053-1133).

Lovemaking manuals are also to be found, such as The Perfumed Garden (al-Rawd al-Atir fi Nuzhat al-Khatir) by the Tunisian Shaiykh Muhammad ibn Umar al-Nafwazi, between 1410 and 1434, and The Book of Respective Merits of Maids and Young Men (Kitab Mafaharat al-Jawari wa al-Ghilman) by the prolific al-Jahiz (777-869).

Later on still, Omar Khayyam (d. 1126) set the tone for sexuality in his Quartets (Ruba’iyyat), and Sa’di of Shiraz (1184-1291) graphically discusses his love of young men.

Most famous of them all, Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), passionately writes about his deep affection for the wandering mystic Shams al-Din Tabriz, leading many modern academics to conclude that he must have been deeply in love with him.

But as prudish Victorian values spread from Europe to the Middle East through colonialism, and as 19th century neo-fundamentalist Wahhabism began to take hold in the Arabian peninsula, and as 20th century Islamism gained ground, spreading from Egypt around the globe, censorship, misogyny and homophobia began to spread among Muslims worldwide.

The best example of the way in which Muslim attitudes to sex have gone backwards is found in the Arabian fantasy A Thousand and One Nights. Keen to read a version of this masterpiece in its original Arabic, I once excitedly rushed to purchase a copy from an Egyptian bazaar. Imagine my disbelief when I came home to find “family version” stamped on the inside. The famed court of the late Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, where this story was originally related, was able to tolerate the racier parts of this classic Arabic tale while parts of modern Egypt apparently could not.

Despite this diverse history, homosexuality is forbidden today in almost every modern Muslim-majority country, while censorship, homophobia, and misogyny reach worryingly high levels.

Previous Orientalist assumptions that fetishised Eastern sexuality have given way to a new form of generalisation that accepts as normal the overbearing religious conservatism that has swept across Muslim-majority societies.

In response to this current climate of fear, and to the backdrop of ISIS thugs throwing gay people off buildings in Syria, my organisation Quilliam commissioned an art exhibition at the Free Word Centre earlier this year, in order to throw open this debate by displaying some of the sexual diversity within past and contemporary Muslim traditions.

Curated by Harry Seymour and Rachel Maggart (full disclosure: we’re married), and named after the line from the Abu Nuwas poem, “Unbreakable Rope” was an artistic response to this rising neo-fundamentalist prejudice.

The show involved a panel discussion featuring LGBT Muslims responding to the alarming rates of homophobia present within our communities.

For too long, populist demagogues, xenophobes and racists have been able to use coded language about Muslim anti-gay intolerance to argue that Muslims have no place in Europe. We must begin to discuss these issues with courage and candor, rather than trying to pretend there is no problem, or shying away from the difficult conversation we all must have around the non-integration of Europe’s Muslims.

In this way, if we are able to bank the progress that has been made, admit to the progress that is yet to be made, and throw open the conversation for all to participate, perhaps, just perhaps, we will be able to pull the rug out from under the feet of right-wing populists who want us to believe that all Muslims are irredeemably homophobic and that the only good Muslim is a deported Muslim.

But the only way to achieve this is by owning the conversation, not fearing it, nor by ceding it to those who seek to use these depressing homophobic survey results for their altogether different, hostile aim.

Photo by Benson Kua [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons