I saw a tweet the other day by a South African Muslim saying that there is no such thing as LGBTQI+ Muslims. That LGBTQI+ Muslims who claim their queer identity and their religion don’t know what Islam involves and that it’s not open for discussion. I haven’t used a direct quote nor embedded the tweet; the person is not a public persona so I have no interest in shining a spotlight on them. I do, though, want to talk about the ideas expressed.
I believe the Muslim community in South Africa – as elsewhere – needs to have some brave conversations about LGBTQI+ Muslims.
I know what Islam teaches us about gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer people. A lot of the time it’s not even taught as a “must not do” because it’s such a given that it is “wrong”. I know the Quran and Hadith and Shariah are cited when Islamic leaders condemn same-sex or any non-heteronormative relationships. I know that Islam, like traditional non-inclusive Christianity and other faiths, opposes same-sex relationships, and even the idea of homosexuality, with extreme prejudice. That to be gay is mutually exclusive from Islam and Islam from LGBTQI+ identities. That you have to choose, you can’t be both.
Homophobia is not exclusively a Muslim problem. It is widespread in almost all societies and cultures. But, as Imam Dr Rashied Omar of Claremont Main Road Mosque so accurately identified: “It would be disingenuous to claim it is not also a Muslim problem.”
Ignoring the lived experience of LGBTQI+ Muslims for dogma is erasure of identity. And it’s queerphobic (inclusive of but broader than homophobia). We do ourselves no favours trying to rules-lawyer away a challenge between faith and identity and what that means for our community. We achieve nothing by making absolutist claims based on a No True Scotsman fallacy that simultaneously erases actual Muslims and tells them that their very identity means Islam is not for them.
I am not going to get into a debate on Islamic law and teachings. I am not an Islamic scholar nor imam and know not to speak when I am out of my depth.
Having said that, even a cursory glance at Islamic history indicates that while homosexuality in pre-modern Islamic societies was never an identity, there was acknowledgement of same-sex attraction. Classical Muslim poets wrote in homoerotic tones. Ibn Daud (868-909) in Persia and Abu Nawus (756-814) during the Abbasid Caliphate (then a centre of Islamic thought and progress) were widely circulated and appreciated. One title might surprise us: The Book of Respective Merits of Maids and Young Men by Tunisian Sheikh Muhammad ibn Umar al-Nafwazi, noted for dealing, even explicitly, with sexuality in his time. In other words, black and white thinking is anachronistic to actual Islamic history and culture and continues to push an important matter underground, common when repression wins over radical inclusion.
But let’s put that aside and argue that they weren’t “proper” Muslims; that modern Islam now recognises being gay or transgender or lesbian or queer as wrong, as it ‘should’ be. What then?
For me and other progressive Muslims, excluding LGBTQI+ persons from the faith goes against another deeply embedded part of Islam, conveniently ignored when it suits us: inclusion and compassionate justice against all systems of oppression, even the ones that cause straight Muslims discomfort. So pro-Palestine, yes, but pro-Palestine and anti-homophobia.
More deeply, it goes against the inherent value Islam affords all persons as beings created by Allah. That human dignity is everyone’s right, irrespective of religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and other differences. This is the heart of the argument in reinvigorating an inter-sectional social justice lens in Islam delivered by Imam Omar in his 2016 Eid khutbah (sermon) Towards Intersectional Social Justice: Confronting Homophobia in our Communities where he reminds us that Islam contains radical equality before God and a duty to fight oppression in whatever form, linking it to Quranic verses. No one is lesser. That as Muslims we must confront our own complicity in the silence of prevailing phobia, generally, but especially within the Muslim community.
Aside from these wise linkages between scripture, social justice and inclusion of LGBTQI+ Muslims, we must also recognise the psychological and sociological effects of forced erasure. And our complicity in that. Denying someone their innate identity can lead to self-hate, self-harm, abuse, being bullied, victimisation and mental illness like depression and other disorders that make living hard. Suicide ideation, attempts, and suicide itself are real consequences. Studies have shown that religious young people are at disproportionate risk for experiencing these distresses through our collective abuse. This is interesting because, broadly speaking, religion is usually considered a protective factor against negative mental health. Yet religion fails LGBTQI+ persons. And our current practice and teaching of Islam fails LGBTQI+ Muslims. This is not compassionate equality before Allah.
Othering and hating LGBTQI+ persons tells Muslim LGBTQI+ people that there is something wrong with them. A society that tells them they are broken tells them that there is no acceptable path for them. Even the more compassionate stance (according to some) – that homosexuality as an identity isn’t a sin, acting on it is – sends a message to LGBTQI+ Muslims that they should live a life akin to neutered pets. That the impulses they feel are sinful and wrong. Where is the compassion and respect for human dignity in that? I can’t imagine the feelings this generates; the dissonance between identifying as Muslim, wanting to live life as a Muslim, and yet being talked about in derogatory, dehumanising and hateful ways by Muslims. Ways that push our brothers and sisters (and those who don’t fit this neat binary) deeper into the closet that denies their personhood. How would we live if the very sexual impulses we feel as straight people were decried by a religion of which we want to be a part?
Forcing LGBTQI+ Muslims to conform also harms others. The spouse they marry in a desperate attempt to conform only to realise that it just won’t work. And the harm that then causes the spouse as well. Adding in gender relations, where a closeted Muslim gay man marries a straight Muslim woman, a minefield is likely to lie ahead. And kids with parents who need to hide a truth about themselves also doesn’t tend to work out well. I would even go so far as to argue that our families all have stories of this kind, where it is known but unknown, and a bride is offered up to “correct gayness”. That is not compassion. That is not justice. That is not equality. Nor inclusion.
I submit that to be true to justice and human dignity as preached by Islam, the time to expand on the initial brave steps some in our community have taken to talk about “uncomfortable truths” is upon us. Or must we never talk about this? Is it a topic that must stay in the closet, out of sight of straight minds while our fellow Muslims suffer in silence? Is our comfort worth that price? Is the lack of disturbance to our straight Muslim privilege worth it? DM
Ayesha Fakie is the Head of Sustained Dialogues at the Institute for Justice & Reconciliation
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