Recent controversies over the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people have raised a host of important questions. How should LGBT be treated in the largest Muslim majority country? How can they articulate their rights in overtly hostile social climates?
Do queer Muslims have to give up Islam? Is there any possibility for a “reform position” on the question of homosexuality? Do LGBT people have to continue to be ostracized by the traditional Muslim society? Is the only way out either repentance or total rejection?
Interestingly, conservative Muslims often associate mental health issues and fatal disease with “homosexuality” rather than societal hostilities. And the current debate over LGBT seems to head to the wrong direction, namely, science versus religion.
Those who argue on the basis of scientific research tend to go in favor of giving a legitimate status to LGBT on the ground that sexual orientation is an outcome of both genetic and environmental factors. They refer to the American Psychiatric Association that removed homosexuality from the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. In fact, over the years, major health and mental health professions, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have stated that “homosexuality” is not a mental illness and thus requires no treatment.
The religious explanation, on the other hand, perpetuates the status of gays and lesbians as sinners. Conservative Muslims condemn LGBT persons and regard homosexuality as an abnormality and a disease which exposes Muslim gays and lesbians to discrimination.
Some progressive Muslim scholars call for more respectful treatment of LGBT by alluding to scientific evidence. Although this approach is not problematic, it is certainly not strategic.
In my view, to advance the goal of LGBT rights in Indonesia, what is needed is to propose persuasive arguments to the religious elements in society. Scientific evidence might be useful, however, that is not the language with which Muslims in general contend in their approach to issues of LGBT.
To reconcile religious elements to LGBT rights, strong religious discourses must be presented to those who pursue policies of suppression against lesbian and gay persons on the basis of religious conviction.
Rather than making the admittedly essential argument that LGBT rights must be protected and respected, I seek to make the more ambitious contention that Islam should allow for same-sex marriage.
This support for same-sex marriage has been expressed by a number of Muslim scholars, including Mohammad Fadel, a professor of law at the University of Toronto. “We can support the idea of same-sex marriage,” Fadel argues, “because what we want is to make sure that all citizens have access to the same kinds of public benefits that other people do … Islamic law can at least qualify the endorsement of the idea, at least in the context of democratic, non-religious states.”
I would like to substantiate this argument by challenging, and offering an alternative interpretation of, some scriptural proof-texts that conservative Muslims often present to reinforce their position, namely, the Qur’an and the hadith (tradition of the Prophet).
My contention is that the Qur’an and hadith, when understood properly, do not justify the prohibition of same-sex marriage. Conservative Muslims wrongly refer to the story of the prophet Lot in the Qur’an (Q.26/160-175; 7/80-81), which is inherited from the Old Testament, to develop the argument that homosexuality is haram (forbidden).
These Qur’anic passages cannot be the basis for the case of the prohibition of same-sex marriage, not because the story is taken from the Old Testament, rather because the main issue there is that the people of Lot committed an extramarital sex with male travelers who visited Sodom.
The Qur’an admonishes them, “Do you approach male among the creatures and leave what your Lord has created for you as your wives?” (Q.26/165-166).
Let me put this passage in a context. The Qur’an narrates that the people of Lot approached men, especially the travelers, who are non-receptive to their advances. They certainly have wives, but instead of having sexual intercourse with them, the people of Lot pursued non-willing male partners without their consent. In a nutshell, what happened was a one-sided sexual pursuit, which can be called rape.
Another unsubstantiated reference to this story is the common assumption that they were destroyed for the sin of their homosexual acts. From the Qur’anic narratives we learn that same-sex sexual acts were not the only abusive acts committed by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, but also murder and robbery, and some commentators have also included idolatry.
It seems clear that superimposing the above verses on the people of Lot onto Muslim gays and lesbians is unreasonable and unjustified.
As for the prophetic tradition, several hadiths have been cited. It is reported, for instance, that Ibn ‘Abbas narrates from the Prophet to the effect that anyone caught in the act of sodomy shall be put to death, both the active and passive actors.
While the transmission of this and similar hadiths has been called into question, early Muslim jurists differed greatly as to the nature of their punishment and how to conceptualize it. It is worth noting that, according to Shiite jurisprudence, anal sex with one’s own wife is permissible with her approval albert it is strongly discouraged.
Of course, no medieval Muslim jurist would allow for same-sex marriage as their rulings were informed by the socio-cultural mores and medical knowledge of their times.
However, there are examples where the prophet Muhammad treated persons acknowledged as intersex (hermaphrodites) and transgender (mukhannath) with respect, without declaring them as illegitimate or worthy of punishment.
It is reported that an eunuch servant, a person with ambiguous gender, served the Prophet’s concubine, Mariyah the Copt, during her time in Medina. So, the Prophet’s respectful treatment of eunuchs provides a starting point for the conceptualization of the status of LGBT.
To conclude, Muslims must be prepared to chart a new exegetical course on the LGBT and same sex marriage.