By Ziauddin Sardar
September 23, 2008
When we look at how the word Fahisha - "transgression" - is used in different places in the Qur'an a somewhat different picture emerges.
"In the verse that communicates Lot's prohibition", writes Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, a leading scholar of the Progressive Muslims group, "al-Fahisha comes in the definite nominal form, 'the transgression', whereas the verse about adultery mentions Fahisha in the indefinite nominal form 'transgression'. This suggests that transgression is a general category including many different specific kinds of acts; one could speak of a particular transgression in specifying an act or one could speak of transgression in general to imply a whole range of acts that transgress the boundary of decency, righteousness, or legality. Not every term mentioned as 'transgression' would be equivalent, morally or legally or punitively. In fact, the Qur'an often uses the term 'transgression' in the plural in the narrative sections about Lot and his conflict with his community." ('Sexuality, diversity and Ethics' in Progressive Muslims, edited by Omid Safi, One World, Oxford, 2003, p217).
If we read Lot's story (scattered as it is throughout the Qur'an) thematically, Kugle suggests, we discover that it is not so much about homosexuality but a string of gross sexual transgressions, including widespread promiscuity, paedophilia, bestiality, the use of rape as a weapon of intimidation and power, and the sexual denigration and abuse of guests. Lot's lot were exceptionally stingy, greedy, covetous, and wallowed in filth; they robbed travellers, humiliated strangers, and exploited the needy. In7:81, it is not just any men that Lot's people lust after. They lust after male guests in order to humiliate and intimidate them, to use rape as an instrument of power. The sexual acts in Lot's story are acts of violence, above and over anything else. This is why God "showered upon them a rain of destruction" (7:84).
We should not confuse the story of Lot as it appears in the Qur'an with that which appears in the Bible. As in the case of evolution, Muslims have accepted and adopted the Biblical view of homosexuality both in history and contemporary times, instead of engaging with the text of the Qur'an and thinking things out for themselves.
There is another theme that runs throughout the Qur'an in reference to human sexual behaviour: the need for modesty which is repeatedly mentioned as the need for men and women to "lower their gaze". In Qur'anic terms while we are sexual beings, male and female, we are not exclusively and solely sexual but also moral agents in all spheres of human activity. Modesty is the counterbalance to our sexual natures, which should be fulfilled away from the public sphere. Modesty is enjoined on both males and females, it concerns not wearing sumptuous clothes as much as revealing designs that emphasise sexuality and it is practised by "lowering one's gaze". In public modesty is the rule. But as we have already seen in previous blogs, the Qur'an makes it clear there is no bar to sexual fulfilment for men and women. What this suggests to me is that our activities in the privacy of our own homes are not for prying eyes or active imaginations. Privacy, of course is not a licence for anything goes, since all our activities are known to God to whom we will be answerable. But modesty and privacy do stand guardians to the private fulfilment of our sexual nature, that much seems clear.
Reading the Qur'an in terms of contemporary circumstances, is it not right to question whether the commodification of sexuality, the constant bombardment with sexualised images in advertising, for example, as well as the insistence on explicit display of sexual behaviour on tv and in the movies, has taken things to absurd limits and got the balance totally wrong? The pressure such commodification puts on people, especially young girls, to conform to the current fashion in body form, behaviour and acquisition of male company, far from being a "liberation", can be a nightmare. It is the kind of waking nightmare that far from encouraging personal fulfilment of the whole of our being emphasises one aspect of our nature to the detriment of all others. So, it seems to me modesty and privacy would have a large role to play in countering the excesses of consumer culture while they present no impediment to fulfilling our sexual nature in the privacy of our own homes.