In light of the recent US Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, we have seen a number of Muslim scholars reiterate the position of Islamic law on same-sex acts. What we have not seen much of, however, is reasoning explaining why Islamic law prohibits same-sex acts. Clearly many people today including Muslims do not understand why Islam or any religion would forbid homoeroticism. As it is often put, if two people love each other and want to consummate their love, what difference does it make if they happen to be of the same sex? What could be wrong about this?
To understand what is wrong requires addressing several large assumptions about sexuality and morality. These assumptions make it virtually impossible for people today to understand the moral reasoning and intuitions inherent to Islam’s stance on homosexuality. But once those assumptions are addressed, then Islam’s position starts to look more and more compelling. At the very least, Islam’s position stops looking like sheer hate, bigotry, prudery, etc.
The way that I have framed my thoughts on this issue is in the form of a “debate” with myself. Over the years, we have all heard the typical arguments and one-liners in support of homosexuality, so much so that these arguments have become embedded into the way most of us think about the topic. I give voice to this position in the form of questions and charges that a typical pro-gay advocate would raise against Islam’s stance on homosexuality. I then respond to these in turn, defending the Islamic view.
Q1: First of all, there are some Muslims who think that Islam is fine with homosexuality. Does Islam even prohibit same-sex acts in the first place?
I understand that there are a handful of outspoken Muslims who try to argue that Islamic law does not prohibit same-sex acts, despite the consensus of scholarly opinion to the contrary. I will not address the claim here mostly because the claim itself is so implausible and confused, frankly, that it hardly deserves recognition, let alone rebuttal. Typically, those who claim that Islamic law accommodates gay sex argue by radically redefining Islamic law and the methodology of Islamic jurisprudence and exegesis. It is on the basis of that redefinition that they then try to stake their claim. This is not unlike a person who claims that US federal law permits grand larceny, and when he is shown the copious amount of relevant legal and historical documentation to the contrary, responds by disavowing the relevance of legal precedent, historical documentation, and conventional juristic methodology in determining US federal law.
As far as same-sex acts are concerned, the legal precedent and historical record shows complete unanimity on the part of Muslim jurists — not a single dissenting opinion can be found permitting same-sex acts in nearly a millennium and a half. The primary reason for this, no doubt, goes back to the many clear and unambiguous statements of the Qur’an and hadith themselves that categorically prohibit all forms of sexual activity between members of the same sex, as well as the clarity of the Sunna of the Prophet , Companions, and early community in this regard. Obviously, if one believes the weight of juristic consensus, combined with the unambiguous pronouncements of divine revelation and Sunnaic precedent, to be irrelevant in determining what God requires of us today, then it is hardly surprising (or interesting) that such a person would have divergent opinions on Islamic law vis-à-vis those who do put weight on that consensus, formed on the basis of those texts and those normative precedents.
Besides all this, some academics will also point out that premodern Muslim scholars worked with different categories of sex and gender than what would strictly map onto the modern categories we are familiar with today. What about the mukhannathun, the amrad, and so on? We will delve into some of these distinctions below, but for our purposes, what are germane are the moral implications of sexual relations between two adults of the same sex. This is the category of behavior the modern “gay rights” movement is primarily concerned with and, as it turns out, the type of behavior Islamic law unequivocally proscribes.
Q2: Let’s just cut right to the chase. Why should anyone regulate what people do in private? What business is it of anybody’s if two men want to have sex behind closed doors?
Even secular law regulates some of what people do behind closed doors. The distinction between “public” and “private” is irrelevant when it comes to issues of immorality and criminality. Part of this is because many things we do in the private sphere have an effect on the public sphere.
One straightforward example is drug use. We might think that if a person abuses heroin in private, that is his business. After all, the heroin addict is only hurting himself and what right does the state have to tell people what to do with their bodies? But if enough people start using heroin such that an appreciable size of the population consists of “junkies,” then this will clearly have a negative impact on society as a whole. Even in US political debates on the “War on Drugs,” both the “liberal” and “conservative” side acknowledge the negative societal impact of drugs. They just disagree on what is the best way for the state to regulate and curb drug use, i.e., whether to criminalize it outright or impose government programs to treat drug abusers and discourage drug use in the population. Either way, in the case of drugs, even liberals agree that what someone does behind closed doors very much is the business of a higher authority, i.e., the authority of the state, which aims to promote public welfare overall.
Another example is abortion. Studies have shown that the legalization of abortion in America and other countries correlated with drops in crime rates. Researchers believe this happened because legalizing abortion made it easier for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies. This, in turn, meant that fewer unwanted children were born and, hence, that fewer children grew up in detrimental environments and households that would make them prone to a life of crime.
Liberals often use these studies to argue that abortion is a good thing, that it has clear benefits to society as a whole. But, implicit in this argument is the idea that private behavior, namely whether or not women have abortions, has significant consequences for the public good. And if we acknowledge that private behavior has the potential to impact society at large and hence, impact each member of society individually, then why shouldn’t that private behavior be the business of a higher authority? As I argueelsewhere, this is one possible argument justifying Islam’s prohibition of premarital/extramarital sex. But, we could imagine other ways that a governing authority might regulate birth rates in order to protect society from the possible negative repercussions of private behavior.
Many other examples can be given, but the point is that the whole distinction between “public” and “private” easily breaks down when it comes to at least some questions of morality and protecting people in society from the negative impact of what others do behind closed doors.
Q3: Fine, drug abuse and abortion are two examples, but what does that have to do with homosexuality? How does two men having sex negatively impact society as a whole?
Well, the answer to this depends on what you think about homosexuality in the first place. The implicit assumption in this question is that same-sex activity is inherently harmless, but not everyone believes that. Muslims, for example, believe that certain sexual activities are deeply destructive — spiritually, mentally, and physiologically — to the person doing them, even if the person is physically enjoying him or herself. If enough people engage in these sexual activities, this will impact the character and health of society as a whole.
This is not unlike the drug abuse example above. While drug abuse is quite enjoyable for some, the fact is that drugs debilitate a person, and the cumulative impact of many such debilitated persons will negatively impact society.
Q4: But drug abuse is objectively harmful, not so with same-sex intercourse. Some Muslims might believe that, but that’s personal religious belief and has nothing to do with public law and morality in general.
Actually, drug abuse is not “objectively” harmful. Most people — liberal, conservative, religious, secular — all agree that drug addiction is harmful. But we can imagine someone that does not agree with this.
Imagine someone who truly believes that abusing hardcore drugs is a good thing. We might ask this person, “Don’t you see the harmful impact of drugs to the body, how drugs can cut someone’s life short, etc.?”
But our hypothetical drug advocate could respond, “Yes, I absolutely recognize the effects of drugs; I just do not believe that those effects are a bad thing.” In other words, while the empirical impact of drugs to the body is objective, considering that impact “harmful” is a judgment call based on a person’s normative outlook. For example, the drug advocate could try to justify his views by giving us an involved story about how life should be spent in a substance-induced euphoria, how the body was meant to be transcended, that self-destruction of the body is necessary for us to see the transience of life and the everlasting nature of the spirit, that a short and euphoric life is infinitely superior to a long but corporeal one, etc. Now imagine that this was not the view of one person but an entire community or demographic.
Obviously, given our contemporary assumptions about drug use, not many people would accept this story or find it the least bit plausible (unless the drug in question is alcohol, in which case some of our hypothetical drug advocate’s beliefs are widespread). But, ultimately, this is a dispute about what people believe about the human body, mind, spirit, the nature of life, death, and so on. Even if everyone agrees on the empirical, scientific aspect of drug abuse, they can still disagree on these metaphysical, value-laden questions.
Nonetheless, the liberal secular state must take a position on these questions, and it does: it deems drug abuse harmful and attempts to systematically curb it, either with criminalization or intervention, education, market manipulation, and other programming. The drug advocate, however, will experience these government programs as a forceful imposition on his beliefs, either by way of locking up “believers” or the use of public funds to “stigmatize” those beliefs and spread “propaganda” against them.
Islamic norms against same-sex acts could be cast in the same light. There are those that believe there is nothing harmful about homoeroticism, but Islamic law takes a different view. My point here is simply that what is or is not deemed harmful is ineluctably normative and far from objective. And since one’s notion of harm is so important in determining what is considered morally permissible or prohibited and whether an action should be subject to public scrutiny, we cannot so easily dismiss the Islamic view of same-sex acts as being harmful.
Q5: But it is still not clear how same-sex acts could be considered harmful, even from a religious perspective. It’s just sex. What’s the big deal?
Sex is a big deal, and it is not just Islam that thinks so. All cultures have extensive beliefs about the significance of sex, its meaning, its impact to the people engaged in it, its impact to society and to the world and beyond. Think about modern Western culture. If sex were not significant, there would not have been a whole “Sexual Revolution.” If sex were inconsequential, people today wouldn’t associate sex with human freedom itself. And look at Western popular culture and how much attention is given to sex and sex appeal. Sex even has implications for the economy since, as we know, “sex sells.” Freud, of course, went the farthest in interpreting literally all of human activity in terms of latent sexual drives and frustrations. And Darwin put sex in an even more pivotal, almost deified role by conceiving it as the fundamental force that creates new life and new species ex nihilo, as the most “fit” are those organisms that can out-reproduce and out-sex the competition.
Given this importance of sex on the individual, communal, physical, and metaphysical levels, it is only natural that cultures would feel the need to “regulate” sex, to define its proper bounds and its correct expression. And when those bounds are violated, it is always a big deal. And that is what we see. All cultures — even modern Western culture, as we will see — have specific beliefs about certain sexual acts being offensive and immoral and other sexual acts being deep violations.
As for “harm,” what we have to realize is that — regardless of whether we are Muslim or not, liberal secular or not — our senses of right and wrong are very complex and based on a multitude of different factors beyond just physical harm. The drug abuse example above was just a taste of that. Along those lines, consider that not all of our moral judgments are purely consequentialist, i.e., based on the tangible consequences of an action. For example, is it immoral for a person to daydream and fantasize about brutally raping and murdering someone? It’s just a daydream, so no actual consequences or physical harms result from that momentary act of imagination. But most of us would be at the very least disturbed by this, even if we cannot articulate why in purely consequentialist terms.
When we look at sexual morality specifically, all cultures — even modern Western culture — have specific beliefs about sex that go beyond consequences and physical harm. What is interesting is that each culture views its own set of beliefs as being preeminently rational and apt and the beliefs of other cultures as being nothing more than irrational taboos and prudishness, on the one hand, or lascivity and lewdness, on the other.
So while Western liberals might view Islam’s objections to same-sex behavior as just a cultural taboo with no basis in reason, other cultures view, for example, Western statutory rape laws in the same light. Or how about contemporary Western attitudes towards polygamy, adultery, public indecency, sexual harassment norms, and so on? Even among Western countries, different cultures have varying sex norms and view each others’ differences as either prudery or promiscuity. And when we look at how secular norms have changed over time…
Q6: Let me stop you right there. Sure, Western attitudes towards different sexual practices have changed over the past 300 years, from the Enlightenment, through the Sexual Revolution, and now culminating in the legalization of same-sex marriage. But that change is based on liberal tolerance and moral progress. Muslims, in contrast, are stuck in the 7th century.
The Western progressive narrative has it that, through the light of reason and science, Western civilization has been able to transcend puritanism as well as all other forms of sexual taboo and barbarity. This keen sense of triumphalism is dripping from, for example, the recent US Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage, which is seen by many as the culmination of the Sexual Revolution or even the Enlightenment. Accordingly, the belief is that we live in a sexually liberated age: Everything goes! Do what feels right (so long as it’s consensual, etc.). Depending on one’s outlook, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” this state of affairs is either a utopia or the End of Times. Whether it is cause for celebration or consternation, however, both sides of the political spectrum agree that moral inhibitions and taboos have been collectively chucked. Unfortunately, Muslims have also accepted this narrative.
A closer look, however, shows that this progressive myth has little basis in reality. It may sound strange to our culturally conditioned ears, but plenty of sexual inhibitions and taboos still stand in the West today, even though they are typically not conceived of in those terms. Contrary to popular belief, Western society is as judgmental as it ever has been on matters pertaining to sex, just not about exactly the same things and not in exactly the same ways. This stridence can be seen in how liberal secularists react to certain features of Islamic sexual ethics, e.g., polygyny, the age of `Aisha when she married the Prophet , divorce (back when divorce was still taboo in the West), even marriage itself (back when liberal theorists were more forthright about their belief that marriage is tantamount to slavery), etc. Obviously, liberal secularists believe they have good reasons for these reactions, and as hard as it is for them to see beyond those feelings, the fact remains that from another perspective, from another set of normative assumptions and beliefs about the world, Islamic sexual ethics are perfectly reasonable and morally sound. Beyond Islam, there are also plenty of other cultures and religions that have sex practices and rituals the average liberal secularist would be squeamish and outraged about if those practices were common or prominent enough to show up on the West’s radar in the way Islam and Muslims, as subjects of colonialism, have over the past 200 years.
Beyond the cross cultural, further stringency can be seen in other areas of Western sexual morality. Consider views on voyeurism, indecent exposure, public masturbation, sexual harassment, etc. An imposing legal system with severe consequences for offenders enforces these points of Western sexual normativity. The question of legality aside, we see further sexual restrictiveness in the ever expanding realm of gender identity politics and policing, where even the most insignificant perceived slight is met with abhorrence and swift, harsh rebuke. To use “non-gender neutral” language, for example — simply using the impersonal pronoun “he” more than “she,” “he/she,” or “xe” in one’s writing — is a grievous crime tantamount to rape in the eyes of some. Offenses of this nature typically do not have legal consequences, but anything not caught in the legal process is handled in the court of public opinion, where one’s reputation, career, and livelihood are all on the line.
These examples show that there are many entrenched norms and taboos that continue to govern the sexual morality of Westerners, even though these restrictions are not experienced or conceived of as taboos or restrictions on sexual expression and autonomy. From a certain perspective, however, these could be seen as precisely that: overbearing restrictions on how individuals can express themselves sexually. When, for example, a person has to worry about something as seemingly small as pronoun usage in their writing, that is an indication of how objectively expansive and imposing the regime of modern Western sexual morality really is, as opposed to the free-for-all it is caricatured as. So this Western triumphalism, sense of superiority, and notion of progress toward more freedom and sexual autonomy are misplaced.
Q7: Even if it is conceded that Western sexual norms are extensive in quantity, they are nonetheless qualitatively less restrictive than their Islamic counterparts.
What does it mean for sexual norms to be more or less restrictive or more or less conducive to a person’s sexual autonomy? To answer this, we have to take a more theoretical look at the concept of desire.
What is desire? Plenty of religious and philosophical opinion has been expressed in both Western and Islamic discourse on this question. What is salient for us is the modern Western notion that any authentically experienced desire is worthy of satisfaction. Modern psychology, with its roots in Freudian psychoanalysis, tells us that if a man carnally desires another man, it would beharmful and, hence, oppressive to subjugate that desire. If an adolescent carnally desires another adolescent, it would beharmful and, hence, oppressive to insist on abstinence. Yet, if a person carnally desires an immediate family member, that desire must be repressed.
This connection between the satisfaction of desire and health (and human happiness generally) is important because that is how the typical modern Westerner conceptualizes sexual autonomy. The only just legal-ethical system is one that permits the maximum number of authentic, natural desires to be fulfilled while prohibiting the fulfillment of all inauthentic, unnatural desires, which inevitably lead to harm for the individual “perpetrator” himself as well as for possible victims.
From this it is argued that Western sex norms are the most just and liberating because they take into account people’s natural desires and allow them to fulfill all of them. Religiously-based sexuality, however, is unjust and restrictive because it recognizes people’s natural desires yet requires them to repress some of those desires for the sake of God.
There is much that can be said against this narrative, not least of which the question of how Western thought believes itself to have discovered what, in fact, is natural for a human being to desire. What constitutes essential human nature is very clearly a metaphysical question and, hence, cannot be answered by scientific inquiry. Tests in a lab are not going to reveal what human nature amounts to and what desires are in fact natural. And looking at the animal kingdom and trying to infer human nature by analogy to other species amounts to nothing more than the Naturalistic Fallacy.
In this way, conventional Western liberal attitudes about human desire are not based on any robust, objective theory of human nature. Without such a theory, there is no basis for liberals to claim that their sexual mores are more in line with natural human desire as opposed to, say, Islamic ones.
Islamic metaphysics, in contrast, does have just such a theory. Muslim scholarship frequently delves into metaphysical questions like the nature of man, his desires, his relationship to the cosmos and to God, etc. And the epistemological avenue Muslim scholars rely on is revelation, i.e., what God and His Messenger have said about these topics, coupled with the notion of thefitra (roughly translated as “normative primordial human nature”). Of course, non-Muslims may be skeptical about this source of knowledge, but at least Muslims purport to have a source of knowledge at all, whereas liberal secularism floats aimlessly, with no mooring from any consistent, principled standard of knowing.
Postmodernism, at least, is up front about this failing of modern epistemology and its resultant nihilism. Liberal secularism, in contrast, is in constant self-denial, insisting that liberalism and its sexual morality are what is most aligned with human nature but then failing to proffer a metaphysical account of what human nature is. By the same token, Islam and traditional religion are accused by liberal secularists of being contrary to human nature and, hence, oppressive, again without any underlying theory of human nature to give traction to these weighty accusations. How, then, can liberal secularism’s charge against Islam as “oppressing homosexuals” be taken seriously?
Q8: Look, I don’t care about whether or not Islam has a theory of human desire, etc. All I know is that homosexuals desire same-sex partners. They cannot help that. So to block the satisfaction of that desire is inhumane. Should we consign gays and lesbians to a life without sexual pleasure? What kind of religion wants people to be tortured like that?
For More: http://muslimmatters.org/2015/07/20/debating-homosexuality/