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Blogging the Quran by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 53: Homosexuality - Part 1



By Ziauddin Sardar

September 22, 2008

4:15-16; 7:80-84; 24:30; 52:17-24; 79:19; 17:84; 24:31

Well, Madeleine, you are determined to put things in boxes. You have given me a binary choice. Either I agree with your interpretation that 4:16 is an unequivocal denouncement of homosexuality or accept that, as you put it, "religious texts are not absolute truths but reflect the context of their times".

Given that I have argued that "absolute truth" is known only to God and consistently pointed out that the first rule of Qur'anic interpretation is to see the context in which a verse is revealed, I find it surprising, to say the least that you think I will disagree with this proposition.

I have also argued that individual verses of the Qur'an should not be lifted and interpreted on their own as "absolute truths" but seen in connection with other verses of the Qur'an, elsewhere in the text. The whole purpose of looking at themes is to show how a particular concept, image, metaphor, or person makes multiple appearances in the Qur'an, some of which may even look contradictory, to illuminate a theme from different perspectives. I was also tried to show that the meaning of certain terms changes with context in different parts of the Qur'an. The purpose of the exercise is to provide a more composite picture without privileging one verse over another. I recall, Madeleine that you were sceptical about moving backwards and forwards through the Qur'an reading so many verses on the same theme or topic. But a thematic analysis is essential to get a more composite picture of how the Qur'an views homosexuality.

It is worth pointing out that the term homosexuality does not occur in the Qur'an. But the Qur'an does mention "men who have no need of women" (24:30). We are not explicitly told who these men are but we can guess: either they have no sexual desire at all or they desire other men. And if such men are "mindful of God" they could, in the hereafter, be in "gardens and in bliss, rejoicing in their Lord's gifts" which include, amongst other things, "devoted youths like hidden pearls" (52:17-24). Elsewhere we are told: "Everlasting youth will attend them - if you could see them, you would think they are scattered pearls" (76:19). There are two points to note here. The positive way male beauty is portrayed; and the fact that no negativity is attached to "men who have no need of women". This suggests to me that wholesale condemnation of homosexuality is against the spirit of the Qur'an.

There is another point to consider. Given the Qur'an's emphasis on diversity, it seems strange to me that the sacred text would not recognise sexual diversity. When we are asked, in 17:84, to "Say, 'Everyone does things in their own way, but your Lord is fully aware of who follows the best-guided path", should we not include homosexuals in 'everyone'?

It seems that the Prophet Muhammad did. One reason the Qur'an mentions "men who are not attracted to women" is that such men existed in Medina during the time of the prophet. They lived outside the dominant patriarchal economy but moved freely amongst the women. Along with "their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husband's sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their womenfolk" and "children who are not aware of women's nakedness" (24:24), such men could witness the "charms" of women. The prophet accepted these men as citizens of the diverse society that was Medina with the usual stipulation that they should not break the ethical and moral codes of society.

Moreover, if it is an integral, natural disposition of certain men not to desire women - which is what science seems to be telling us - then it would be unjust of the Qur'an to condemn them. Indeed, such a condemnation would go against all the overwhelming emphasis on justice and equity that we find in the Qur'an.

Now, Madeleine, you are in the good company of many classical and traditionalist scholars when you suggest that 4:16 condemns homosexuality. In the previous verse, 4:15, we read: "if any of your women commit a lewd act, call four witnesses from among you, then, if they testify to their guilt, keep the women at home till death comes to them or until God shows them another way". What could this "lewd act" be? It could be any kind of sexual indiscretion from adultery to fornication or prostitution. But the fact that four witnesses are required suggests that it is an act performed in public, or at least in the full view of four adults, which really makes it indecent. The passage goes on to say: "if two men commit a lewd act, punish them both" (4:16). The same word, Fahisha, is used to describe the lewd nature of the act which suggests that it is also something that happens in public, in full view of adult witnesses. I would argue that it is the public gaze that is the issue here and not just the nature of the act itself.

Nevertheless, the term fahishah has come to designate homosexuality in Muslim circles. So a lot depends on how we understand this term as the term can mean anything from gross indecency and transgression to gruesome deeds and even atrocity. It is in the story of the Prophet Lot, mentioned in a number of places in the Qur'an, where we find the term used most frequently. In 7:80-81, for example, we read: "We sent Lot and he said to his people, 'how can you practice this outrage? No one in the world has outdone you in this. You lust after men rather than women. You transgress all bounds'". The word for transgression here is Fahisha which is classical commentaries is said to mean "sexually entering males". But there is a problem with this simplistic reading - as I will try to show tomorrow.



Boxed Into a Corner

By Madeleine Bunting

September 22, 2008

Well, Zia all I can say is that these verses seem pretty clear to me. I can't see how one can reconcile the Qur'an with homosexuality. On many other issues there is room for interpretation, but not here. It's4:16 which seems absolutely unequivocal.

I know that similar verses appear in the Bible, but I would argue that that is exactly why such religious texts are not absolute truth for all time but reflect the context of their times and the prevailing customs.

I'm curious as to whether you are going to use 17:84 to find a way of wriggling out of this conundrum. I just don't see how you can when this verse almost certainly does not apply to homosexuality and other verses are so clear in their condemnation.

It seems like there are only two options: the first is to stand by the Qur'an and agree that homosexuality is a "lewd act" and an "outrage" and the second is to acknowledge the historical nature of the Qur'an. I can't see you would be happy with either. I fear you are finally boxed into a corner. How on earth can you reconcile homosexuality and the Qur'an?


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