The above question has been the subject of a lingering controversy over the last few weeks, spawning heated, emotional reactions from all quarters. Two weeks ago, a mosque in Birmingham came under fire after hosting BBC Three’s “Free Speech” programme, for asking for a debate on the question not to take place there, allegedly due to threats to the safety of the venue. It was decided that the debate be postponed for a fortnight later in a neutral venue, however this was predictably spun by those with a particular agenda as “censorship”, “making demands” and “special treatment for minorities”, despite it being a decision taken by the BBC, apparently being gracious guests towards their hosts. The following week, the chairman of the mosque came under attack for a letter which he sent to some newspapers, who published redacted snippets to paint him out to be some kind of raving homophobe, successfully provoking a heated reaction.
The letter—which we obtained a copy of from the mosque—was in response to the accusation that Muslims were not prepared to speak about issues relating to sexuality. Its author explained that in Islām, sodomy is a sin and therefore if a Muslim has a desire to carry out that sin then he should try and prevent himself from succumbing to his desires, just like anyone with a desire to commit any other sin is expected to.
The author in providing examples mentioned “a compulsive murderer, gambler or paedophile”, which is primarily what sparked the outcry. Instead of reading the letter (or at least the parts that were published), wherein he expressly stated that homosexuals should not be discriminated against, he was vilified with ridiculous headlines like “Homosexuality Is Like Murder, Birmingham Mosque Chairman Says”, and other sensationalist misrepresentations.
There is always an argument for anyone, in this low-I.Q. age of short attention spans and logic-immune journalism, to be extra cautious when choosing the proximity of certain words in a letter. However, the fundamental tragedy in this debacle is that the actual rhetoric-free debate around homosexuality—which Muslim theologians have not shied away from for centuries—is still nowhere to be heard.
The mis-framed “debate”
The postponed debate took place on Tuesday night, and the tragic absence of a nuanced voice reaching the mainstream in lieu of sensationalist sound-bites is unfortunately still just as palpable, despite a few intermittent words from some Muslim audience members getting through the smokescreen. It seems that there has been a concerted effort to employ fallacies and spurious reasoning from every corner of the arena, suggesting that some people just do not want there to be a rational, nuanced discussion on this subject. Apart from discourse on the frontiers of science, discussions surrounding “homosexuality” are largely polluted with such emotionally-charged rhetoric and threats. Examples of these include: divorcing the concept of sodomy—the actual focus of religious prohibitions—from the discussion; the identity politics of a rights movement based upon the arbitrary creation of an identity; referring to historic laws against sodomy—which were for everyone, not just between two men—as laws against “homosexuality”; appeals to ridicule and name-calling, labelling people as “homophobic” or “old-fashioned”; and many other clever illusions and red herrings.
Unfortunately, the Muslim community doesn’t seem to get its nuanced voice heard on this topic, partly by failing to challenge the framing of this discussion. I believe that those steering the discussion away from a refined, logical methodology are doing so because it is extremely difficult to justify to the average person the basis and logical consequences of what is in essence, the extreme moral relativism of deciding right or wrong based on desires, let alone sexual ones.
The Islamic worldview
The Islamic worldview can be described from a western perspective as morally objectivist, as opposed to morally relativist. This means that right and wrong for Muslims is not decided based on social pressures and tastes, rather the moral compass of a Muslim is the same whether he or she happens to have been born in the 21st century UK, 1930s Germany, 18th century USA or 31st century Mars.
Of course for this morality to be rationally justified, one needs to have established that Islām is indeed revealed by Allāh, and if there is any debate on its rulings then it must occur on these grounds, regardless of what public opinion or peer pressure has to say on the matter. As such, it is largely a waste of time to argue on the specifics of Islamic rulings with someone who does not even understand the basis of the worldview, and positions themselves in a moral quagmire that is determined by those that shout the loudest or have mastered the art of influence and manipulation to the highest degree. To put it simply, merely saying that some people desire a thing does not make it morally acceptable to Muslims; ‘is’ does not necessitate ‘ought’.
The word “gay”
In order to get anywhere in this discussion, the most fundamental of all confusions must be clarified: what does one mean by “gay”? Almost without fail, an inconsistent definition among interlocutors on the subject rapidly leads to nowhere.
Muslims need to understand that by non-Muslims, the word “gay” or “homosexual” is mostly used to describe someone with the mere sexual attraction to the same sex, regardless of whether or not they act upon it. LGBT proponents need to understand that when Muslims use those terms they almost always refer to the act of sodomy, which is emphatically and indisputably prohibited in Islām. In the Islamic worldview, whether a man feels he is sexually attracted to another man (or anything else) is largely irrelevant, and what is relevant is whether he acts upon those sexual desires or not. With that in mind it is easier to see that having almost polar-opposite intended definitions prohibits meaningful discourse.
Another useful fact to remember is that Islām does not recognise distinct, rigid boxes of human identity based on sexuality or desires. The inherited Victorian paradigm of forcefully pigeonholing adolescents into manmade categories—as if they didn’t have enough to deal with—causes a great deal of confusion or crises of identity. People who might feel attracted to beauty in the “wrong place” feel pressurised into embracing it as some kind of identity when in their case it could simply be just a natural appreciation of perceived beauty, a neural crossed-wire impulse or even a one-off whisper from shaytān.
This is why Islamic jurists have highlighted that a man must lower his gaze not only from women, but even men and children who might have feminine or otherwise attractive qualities, to close the doorway to any sins. They did not label people as homosexuals, heterosexuals or paedophiles, but rather recognised that human beings are immensely complex and diverse creatures, each individual with its own particular disposition.
This is not to say that some men do not experience an extremely strong desire towards other men instead of the women they have come across. The term “sexual orientation” according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission “means the general attraction you feel towards people of one sex or another (or both).” The American Psychological Association (APA) adds that it “ranges along a continuum” rather than discrete categories. The movement to see homosexual feelings as “normative” has largely argued on the basis of its existence—because it is an engrained desire that emerges during puberty apparently with no choice, its manifestation must be accepted morally.
According to the Islamic worldview, however, this is a naturalistic fallacy, as something’s existence or historical occurrence does not necessitate any moral decision. This is where the oft-misconstrued analogy with paedophilia is frequently mentioned. Scientific research has increasingly labelled paedophilia as a sexual orientation, estimating that between one and five per cent of men are naturally “wired” towards an attraction to children, causing paedophilia to be increasingly seen by some (albeit perhaps provocatively) as the next “sexual rights revolution”. This has seen either paedophiles embracing their “identity” yet controlling their natural desires towards children, or campaigning for the legal age of consent to sexual relations being reduced.
The recent scandal surrounding the National Council for Civil Liberties’ (NCCL) alleged historic campaigning for this and their affiliation with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), highlighted that the general public is “not ready” to accept paedophilia as “normal”, just like homosexuality a few decades ago. In fact, paedophile activists use the same rhetoric of being “persecuted for falling in love”, “having no choice who you are attracted to” and their rejection leading to “suicidal tendencies” among young, confused paedophiles that are discriminated against for something they were “born with”.
At the risk of coming across as fighting for paedophiles, the point here is that most younger LGBT activists that do not remember the historic connection of paedophiles with their movement, currently regard paedophilia as a desire or sexual orientation not to be acted upon, either by a person looking at indecent pictures of children or engaging with consensual sexual relations with children. In other words, it is not alien to our society to expect people not to act upon their individual sexual orientation or desires, for a higher moral priority, and “I was born that way” does not necessarily justify a desire (even if they don’t act upon it) as socially or morally acceptable.
To brush-off this whole analogy with bringing up paedophilia’s connection with child abuse is completely fallacious, as it is like criminalising traditional sexual relationships because of the existence of rape. Despite that, some academics and activists have indeed even argued, as in a paper published in the APA’s official peer-reviewed journal, that child sexual abuse does not lead to statistically significant pervasive negative effects to the child!
It is clear that Muslim theologians and jurists throughout the ages did not shy away from discussing matters of peculiar sexual desires and orientations. Ibn al-Qayyim wrote his masterpiece, al-Dā’u wal-Dawā’u (The Disease and The Cure), wherein he responds in excess of 300 pages to a heart-broken, repentant question by a Muslim that is afflicted with a tormenting desire, which the author later alludes to being the desire for sodomy. The author masterfully weaves together advice around optimism, strengthening one’s desire for Allāh, the different types of permissible and impermissible love, the hideous and terrifying effects of disobedience and sins on the slave and on the earth, how to protect oneself from succumbing to sins, specific analysis of the paths to fornication and sodomy, as well as a range of other relevant topics.
If a Muslim is thus afflicted with a desire for something spiritually and/or physically destructive which Allāh has made harām, then one of the worst things to do is become alienated from his or her fellow brothers and sisters in Islām. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said “So stick to the congregation, for the wolf only eats or attacks sheep that are alone.” Scholars in the past have always treated this phenomenon with care and seriousness, and Muslims today need to mature their understanding of the topic, otherwise we will be doomed to follow a fundamentally flawed, over-simplistic framework that is at odds with human nature, sound reason and Divine Guidance.
Those among us with inappropriate feelings or thoughts must not be overcome by guilt but rather treat it as a test—indeed Allāh tests those whom He loves—and that test will only be passed by fleeing towards Allāh, not away from Him, into the company of those who have declared animosity and hatred towards His Path. We know that the purpose of this life is not to fulfil our animal desires but to be tested by Allāh, and as Muslims we lower our gazes and distance ourselves from those things which lead us towards sinful desires, and continually draw closer to our Ultimate Beloved, our Nurturing Lord and Master, and that which pleases Him.
The real danger: istihlāl
Finally we should remember that the most destructive outcome for one’s Imān when afflicted by a desire to sin, not only to sodomy but all sins: succumbing to one’s desires for sin and then repenting to Allāh is infinitely less evil than the underestimated abomination of istihlāl. This is when a person, instead of feeling remorse and returning to Allāh after he or she has sinned due to human weaknesses as we all do, transgresses beyond the bounds by trying to justify that sin as being permissible.
The person may not realise it—and indeed it is a natural reaction for some people—but doing this for something which was categorically considered a sin is actually a potential cause for the theological expulsion from the realm of Islām, and this is a terrifying mistake which we must be extra careful not to fall into; much worse than the initial sin itself. There is no amount of sin which Allāh is unable to forgive if you ask Him sincerely, however if someone commits istihlāl then he or she is risking removing themselves from the vast Mercy of Allāh completely.
So, “When will it be right to be Muslim and gay?”
As is hopefully evident, the initial question does not have a single, straightforward answer. Muslims need to rise above the sensationalism, rhetoric and propaganda from all sides and try to analyse the nature of the debate at hand with more nuance and caution than it is often presented with in mainstream media.
If a sincere Muslim is asking this question because they are torn between a society pressuring them to fit into a discrete mould and label them “gay”, and their love of Allāh and His Messenger (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam), then they must not be harmed as our brothers and sisters and instead must be helped to increase in their knowledge of the Religion of Allāh and increase in their closeness to Him, to save them from alienation and falling into more and more destructive desires to sin.
If, however, a hostile person enslaved to his or her desires is asking this expecting Islām and Muslims to one day suddenly change their methodology of determining right and wrong, then they will be bitterly disappointed. This is because the Light of Allāh will never burn any less brightly no matter what the time and place, and it will continue to permeate the heart of any sincere seeker of the Truth. This is why more and more people are abandoning the enslavement of material, animal desires in favour of the true liberation of the servitude of Allāh, the Mighty and Majestic.
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Notes: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/mar/14/bbc3-free-speech-debate-gay-muslim  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-26576673  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10710750/Mosque-leader-compares-being-gay-to-paedophilia-and-murder.html  http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/03/19/gay-muslim_n_4993241.html  http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03z1zv3/Free_Speech_Series_3_Episode_2/ from 32:40 onwards.  Cantor, J. M. Is homosexuality a paraphilia? The evidence for and against. Arch Sex Behav. 2012 Feb;41(1):237-47. http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/advice-and-guidance/your-rights/sexual-orientation/what-does-sexual-orientation-mean/  http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/orientation.pdf  http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2013/12/22/is_pedophilia_a_sexual_orientation.html  http://individual.utoronto.ca/james_cantor/  http://www.wnd.com/2014/01/pedophilia-the-next-sexual-rights-revolution/  http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/feb/28/harriet-harman-backs-patricia-hewitt-nccl-apology-decision  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9670820  Narrated by Abū Dardā, recorded by Abū Dāwūd, Nisā’i and Ahmad.
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.