Anthropology student Lykke Bjørnøy sent me an article on homosexuality and islam that she wrote as part of her studies at the University of Cairo. She tries to understand why homosexuality often is demonized. Not only in Islam, but also in Christianity (and other religions I suppose), homosexuality is a touchy subject.
It is (as always) work in progress and Lykke Bjørnøy is interested in getting feedback and comments:
Are homosexuals impure according to Sunni Islam?
Written by Lykke V. Bjørnøy
Last year I lived in the noisy metropolitan city of Cairo. Living there as a western, blond girl, my thoughts about discrimination and womens’ rights was flourishing in my head. I have never been so visible in my life and I wondered: Are there other groups that are invisible, but feel even more visible than I did? I looked different than all the others. However, I didn’t feel different.
Almost every religion has an opinion about homosexuals, or at least a view on sodomy. In Christianity sodomy is considered as “a sin against nature” and it’s the same in Judaism where it’s written in Leviticus: “[A man] shall not lie with another man as with a woman” Leviticus 18:22), both Christians and Jews are referring to this particular verse when the issue about homosexuality is questioned.
Islam doesn’t have the same clear restrictions on this subject, like other religions, but there are several hadiths and views on the topic. Islam contains much more written and boundary filled sexuality than Christianity. The Qur’an for instance is filled with restrictions according to sex, how it’s done, who it’s ought to perform and what time it should be done. One of the reasons for this can be the prophet Muhammad behavior, he was a sexual man in a contrast to Jesus. For the Prophet to cope with all the difficulties that could appear concerning sexual actions and the interaction with all his wives, he made restrictions and rules that would help the participants to deal with the conflicts that could emerge.
However, rules that are related to the control and restrictions against sodomy and sex in general is not just special for Islam, but all the religions, there is a set of laws in most holy texts, especially about the outsiders and the un-traditional actions that can take place in a society. The religion creates boundaries for the participants hence; it’s a way to deal with elements that need restriction or are considered unusual. Homosexuals have a different position and status than the mainstream in a society, and sometimes they are not even acknowledged. The president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, said on Fox News that they didn’t have a problem with homosexuals because they didn’t exist. Even though Ahmadinejad is seen as a Shi’a, his point still stands, his impression of homosexuality is just another act of sodomy which is not prohibited.
In order to understand the reasons why homosexuals often are considered as heathens, and why they are frequently demonized, it is therefore necessary to examine the basis of the condemnation. Demonization is often related to sickness and disturbances and these themes will be discussed further as we go along.
Homosexuality as a sickness
If you ask any religious scholar about homosexuals you get many different answers. One of the issues that are frequently discussed is the linkage between homosexuality as a disease. And if it is a sickness is it curable? There are scientists who do research on this matter right now; the internet is loaded with organizations and pages that discuss this issue (www.narth.com). So why do some people have the cravings to solve the “un-normalities” in the society and why is it so frowned upon?
What is it about the homosexuals that are so obviously wrong that needs to be solved? One argument that has been questioned is the fact that homosexuals have no function in the society and in the world in general, hence there has to be something wrong with them. The lion eats the zebra, the zebra eats grass; the circle of life. With homosexuals the circle of life is not being fulfilled.
Mary Douglas argues in her book “Purity and danger” that every human has a certain feeling of order. That objects or people are seen as impure if they don’t fit in a specific system. If homosexuals don’t fit in circle of life, they cannot reproduce, for this reason they are seen as impure according to Douglas. Several imams states that “if everyone was a homosexual, the world would go under”, which is true in the long term, because there would be no reproduction. Or as I see it a perfect solution to solve the global problem of constant increasing world population.
Levi-Strauss’ argument about impurity builds around the imam’s statement. For him, impurity is often linked to progress and logic. He proves this by looking at why incest is prohibited in most societies. He claims that one of the reasons that incest is prohibited is because it only reproduces defected human beings, which in the long term would lead to the extinction of human kind. If homosexuality is seen as impure because of their lack of reproducing skills, then why would God created them?
Most religious scholars reject the fact that it’s biological, by that I mean that homosexuality is something one is born with or can inherit. This is often stated because God doesn’t differentiate between people, we are all children of Adam according to the Sunni tradition. The hollowness in our stomachs, the lack of control, these are all factors that make us all similar (Katz, 2002:177.) In spite the fact that we all are made from the same foundation, Adam lost his purity in the Garden of Eden because apparently - no man is perfect. Since humans are not faultless there are stories in the Qur’an and in the Bible about what happens to people that don’t behave themselves, commit sins or disobey God.
The most famous one is the story about “The People of Lot” that exist both in the Quran and in the Bible. “The people of Lot” commits sins, like sodomy. The word homosexuality is of course not mentioned in the Qur’an or the Bible because it’s a modern expression. We can’t find an expression that is even comparable with the English term that was first used in the early 19th century, but the closest we get to homosexuality in is the act of sodomy (Qur’an:302).
The People of Lot got punished by God for their behavior and their towns were “turned upside down, and rained on them stones of backed clay, in a well arranged manner one after another” (Quran: 82) Apparently, these cities were in Palestine which today is the Dead Sea. This is the only punishment mentioned towards sodomy, however it’s pretty brutal. There are discussions about how sodomy ought to be punished today in some countries especially the Arab world, some scholars say that they should be stoned to death and get the same treatment as those who commit adultery, on the other hand this interpretation of the Qur’an has been created after the time of the Prophet Mohammed and has its origins from the hadiths and not the Holy script itself.
In the legal sources there has been differentiated between a grand and a petty sodomy. The grand sodomy is the action that takes place between two men and requires death of both participants (Wright & Rawson 1997:116) according to legal sources. A petty sodomy is anal sex between a man and a woman, although sexual intercourse with the opposite sex is” legal” this action is also forbidden by the Sunni tradition (Ibid). Since the Qur’an doesn’t differentiate between peoples’ feelings for the same sex and the actions of sodomy, means that the acts of sexual intercourse is the factor that makes sodomy impure and forbidden, not the homosexuals themselves.
As I mentioned in the introduction, sexuality has been an important part of literature and has played a much bigger part in Islam rather than it has in Christian societies. The grand example of this sort of literature is “One Thousand and One Nights” that were written in the early 1900’s and is filled with stories which all have elements of sexual actions, including sodomy. The simplicity of the sexual actions that were taken place in these stories say that sexual actions were not frowned upon, but rather appreciated. Why sodomy has the status of being “The Sin” contains an arsenal of meanings. The sexual act of sodomy is seen as animalistic, and naturally the sexual image of dog sex may have it’s similarities to sodomy, since the modern term of anal sex is called “doggy-style” is not taken out of the blue.
Islam has its restrictions and guidelines toward sexual actions and distinguishes between minor and major ahdaths. One example of a major ahdath can be regular sexual intercourse. Reinhart argues in is article “Impurity no Danger” that there is no danger in being in an impure state as an answer to Douglas’ article. He argues that there is a lack of control that makes something impure, not that an object is out of place. Reinhart says that Douglas’s argument don’t stand because semen, tears and mothers milk is not seen as impure objects in Islam. So it’s the action of ejaculation that is seen as a lack of control and therefore gains the same status a laughter break-out during prayer.
On the other hand another anthropologist named Julie Marcus agrees with Douglas and says that the fluid of sexual liquid across the body boundaries is seen as crucial (Marcus 1992:78). In other words the only solution to prevent oneself from getting in a position of impurity, is control. Therefore, if one compares adultery with sodomy as comparable sizes the only way the actor cannot become impure, is restriction. And in fact if you resist your desires you get paid in heaven according to the Qur’an (Qur’an:200).
The social sexual hierarchy in Islam
One of the foundations in Islam are that women and men are ought to be treated equally since they are both made from the same soul (Qur’an:7.189). Men and women are different biologically and Islam has rules on how the sexes cooperate with their biologically differences towards Islam. There are restrictions on menstruation, childbirth, sexual actions etc. and these are all considered major ahdath so they require major ablution before entering a mosque or pray.
Marcus argues in is article “Islam, Gender and hierarchy” that there do exist a basic social hierarchy in Islam. She says that women are naturally under men in the social hierarchy. She claims that since women menstruate and give birth they are considered below men in the social hierarchy. The lack of control concerning menstruation places women in an impure position regularly, without the possibility to change her status. She continues in her article “hierarchy is achieved at the point at which women are constructed as uncontrolled (…)”(Marcus 1992: 88.). By this statement she says implicit that men have a way to control their impurity, hence achieve then the higher rank in the hierarchy.
I will take Marcus’ theory a little bit further and make the comparison with homosexuals. Where do they fit in Marcus’s theory? If we state Marcus theory as a fact, man to man sex doesn’t fit into the system. If the regular dichotomy doesn’t hold its normal position, the factor is then according to Douglas’s theory impure, because it’s a matter out of place, in other words it’s un-placeable. If the natural order in the sexual hierarchy is not maintained and when the inferior is changed with the superior we end up with two sizes that are exactly the same.
This theory still stands if one just discusses sodomy which could happen between the same sex and the opposite sex. It is honorable to be the penetrator and it’s a disgrace to be the one’s being penetrated (Wright & Rowson 1997:199). The ones who is the penetrator has the power and the ones receiving are the inferior and when the action is between two men the action itself creates a hierarchy not the actors themselves.
The concept of same-sex sexual interactions has a tendency to disgust religious scholars and an attempt of legalizing homosexuals’ rights is seen as another “Western influence". One of the reasons why religious scholars don’t acknowledge homosexuals is that it is not written implicit in the Qur’an how to handle them, just the actions of sodomy. Homosexuality is “The Sin” in Islam; the causes are that the well-known and “normal” social hierarchy that is presented in the holy scripts and in nature as we know it, is being tampered with.
A meddled system always creates chaos, and at the same time destructs the natural order as well as creating impurity. Since the impurity is characterized by actions that are located in social hierarchies, the status of a homosexual is not seen as impure.
The fact that there are two masculine human beings having sexual intercourse Marcus’ hierarchy is not being fulfilled, where there ought to be one superior and one being the inferior. When the sexual hierarchy is in chaos, who is then there to help us get the system back on track, when religion is the one factor, according to Durkheim that creates a system in chaos. Since the sexual actions between two men create an unbalance, will there ever be a system that accepts the interactions between homosexuals?
Douglas, Mary “Purity and Danger” 1966
Marcus, Julie, “A world of difference. Islam and gender hierarchy in Turkey”, Sydney 1992
Katz, Marion Holmes, “Body of Text: The Emergence of the Sunni Law of Ritual Purity”
Ithaca, New York, U.S.A.: State Univ of New York Pr 2002,
Reinhart, Kevin “Impurity / No Danger” University of Chicago;1990
Wright, W Jr. & Everett K. Rowsen “Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Litterature” Colombia University Press: 1997
Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali & Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan “Al-Quran” Islamic University, al-Medinah al-Munawwarah
i’m not sure what exactly the argument in this essay is, but the author may want to check foucault’s work on the history of sexuality (i know, a very banal advice, but it might help re-frame the argument and thus guide the analysis).
Comment from: A-M [Visitor]
the restrictions arent from mohamed but from god mohamed and jeses christ peace be upon them all don’t forbide anything except what ALLAH forbids so don’t say that mohamed only thought about sex he is the greatest creature in the world he and the prophets peace be them.
Comment from: Saahir Rahman [Visitor]
There is a lot more to it all than what can be documented. Having suffered a whole lifetime being bottled up and nearing suicide turning into a rat in a cave scared of light, I am forced to believe Allah could not have meant my life to be such while I had no control over the way was or am. I wonder if I had to spend 40 years like that. Surely Ghafoor ur Rahim could not have planned such for me. And then I read upon the ways and means of expression of love between those of high stature and things get even more confusing. Surely a lot of those ways might be considered sinful today. Yet since these acts were that of those high in ranks, somehow it is all respected. Some of those ways are followed to date in the Arab world. Oh Allah. What to do. I surely wish I was “normal". For the people you created and the constant judgements made my life a living hell. I am sure you had or have better plans for those like me.
“Islam Recognizes Homosexuality”
Comment from: Wes Hagen [Visitor]
“Doggy style” is not anal sex in modern SAE usage.
It is generally vaginal intercourse where the woman is on all fours and the man enters her from behind, either on his knees, or standing.