By Mustafa Akyol
A recent piece of mine probed the question, “What Does Islam Say about Being Gay?” (The New York Times, July 28). I gave a response which is basically liberal: That Muslims should not attack or stigmatize gay people, assuming that this is what their religion demands from them. In return, I got lots positive feedback, but also some criticism, some of it harsh, from more conservative-minded Muslims. All of these criticisms were welcome, for we Muslims need to be able to discuss such thorny issues – just without heresy accusations, let alone death Fatwas.
To advance the discussion, let me elucidate my argument: I am not arguing that homosexuality is “Halal” (i.e., religiously permissible in Islam). The Qur’anic story of the Prophet Lot makes it clear to me that there is something wrong about men “approaching men with desire, instead of women.” The question I am probing is what Muslims should do when some among them (or other people) happen to be gay and act on it. Should the fact that we consider this a “sin” also call for despising, oppressing and punishing gay people?
There are many Muslims in the world that will readily say, “Yes, of course.” Because for them there is hardly any difference between “sin” and “crime.” But, as I argued in my book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” this equation of “sin” and “crime” is not a Qur’anic but a post-Qur’anic idea. It is developed by medieval scholars who used the method “analogy,” and controversial Hadiths, to decree punishments for almost everything that they considered sinful.
But we modern-day Muslims don’t have to blindly obey these medieval interpretations of Islam. We may still consider many things sinful, but our attitude toward the sinner can be more lenient. Imagine pork, for example. Eating pork is one of the very clear sins listed by the Qur’an. Every good Muslim should refrain from that. But do we also have to spend our lives hating pork-eaters? Should we have legal systems to fine them, to put them in prison, or even execute them – as Saudi Arabia or Iran are doing with regards to a plenty of sins?
My answer is no. We can disapprove sin, and even advise other people to stay away from it. But we cannot be coercive, for “there is no compulsion in religion,” (Quran, 2:256). We should also avoid stigmatizing sinners, for it would have two bad implications: Self-righteous arrogance on our side, and contempt for religion on their side.
But what does the Qur’an tell us about punishment? Punish nothing? No, as I argued in my book, there are several “Hududs” (punishments) in the Qur’an; but they are all about crimes where a second party gets hurt. If you kill or steal, for example, somebody gets hurt. If you eat pork, no one does. In the case of adultery, too, there is someone who gets hurt: The spouse who is cheated on.
Some argue that the Qur’an does penalize homosexuality and lesbianism as well, based on the verses 4:15-16. However, those verses are not explicit, and have been interpreted in various ways. What is clearly condemned there is “Fahishah” and it is worth recalling what Muhammad Asad, one of the greatest Muslim thinkers of late, wrote about it in his “Message of the Qur’an”:
“The expression Fahishah does not, by itself, connote illicit sexual intercourse: [It] signifies anything that is grossly immodest, unseemly, lewd, indecent or abominable in word or in deed, and is by no means restricted to sexual transgressions.”
The bottom line is that it is time to reconsider some legal and social aspects of Islam. And we have more flexibility in our religious sources than most of us assume.