Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?
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In light of the recent US Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, we have seen a number of Muslim scholars reiterate the position of Islamic law on same-sex acts. What we have not seen much of, however, is reasoning explaining why Islamic law prohibits same-sex acts. Clearly many people today including Muslims do not understand why Islam or any religion would forbid homoeroticism. As it is often put, if two people love each other and want to consummate their love, what difference does it make if they happen to be of the same sex? What could be wrong about this?
To understand what is wrong requires addressing several large assumptions about sexuality and morality. These assumptions make it virtually impossible for people today to understand the moral reasoning and intuitions inherent to Islam’s stance on homosexuality. But once those assumptions are addressed, then Islam’s position starts to look more and more compelling. At the very least, Islam’s position stops looking like sheer hate, bigotry, prudery, etc.
The way that I have framed my thoughts on this issue is in the form of a “debate” with myself. Over the years, we have all heard the typical arguments and one-liners in support of homosexuality, so much so that these arguments have become embedded into the way most of us think about the topic. I give voice to this position in the form of questions and charges that a typical pro-gay advocate would raise against Islam’s stance on homosexuality. I then respond to these in turn, defending the Islamic view.
Q1: First of all, there are some Muslims who think that Islam is fine with homosexuality. Does Islam even prohibit same-sex acts in the first place?
I understand that there are a handful of outspoken Muslims who try to argue that Islamic law does not prohibit same-sex acts, despite the consensus of scholarly opinion to the contrary. I will not address the claim here mostly because the claim itself is so implausible and confused, frankly, that it hardly deserves recognition, let alone rebuttal. Typically, those who claim that Islamic law accommodates gay sex argue by radically redefining Islamic law and the methodology of Islamic jurisprudence and exegesis. It is on the basis of that redefinition that they then try to stake their claim. This is not unlike a person who claims that US federal law permits grand larceny, and when he is shown the copious amount of relevant legal and historical documentation to the contrary, responds by disavowing the relevance of legal precedent, historical documentation, and conventional juristic methodology in determining US federal law.
As far as same-sex acts are concerned, the legal precedent and historical record shows complete unanimity on the part of Muslim jurists — not a single dissenting opinion can be found permitting same-sex acts in nearly a millennium and a half. The primary reason for this, no doubt, goes back to the many clear and unambiguous statements of the Qur’an and hadith themselves that categorically prohibit all forms of sexual activity between members of the same sex, as well as the clarity of the Sunna of the Prophet , Companions, and early community in this regard. Obviously, if one believes the weight of juristic consensus, combined with the unambiguous pronouncements of divine revelation and Sunnaic precedent, to be irrelevant in determining what God requires of us today, then it is hardly surprising (or interesting) that such a person would have divergent opinions on Islamic law vis-à-vis those who do put weight on that consensus, formed on the basis of those texts and those normative precedents.
Besides all this, some academics will also point out that premodern Muslim scholars worked with different categories of sex and gender than what would strictly map onto the modern categories we are familiar with today. What about the mukhannathun, the amrad, and so on? We will delve into some of these distinctions below, but for our purposes, what are germane are the moral implications of sexual relations between two adults of the same sex. This is the category of behavior the modern “gay rights” movement is primarily concerned with and, as it turns out, the type of behavior Islamic law unequivocally proscribes.
Q2: Let’s just cut right to the chase. Why should anyone regulate what people do in private? What business is it of anybody’s if two men want to have sex behind closed doors?
Even secular law regulates some of what people do behind closed doors. The distinction between “public” and “private” is irrelevant when it comes to issues of immorality and criminality. Part of this is because many things we do in the private sphere have an effect on the public sphere.
One straightforward example is drug use. We might think that if a person abuses heroin in private, that is his business. After all, the heroin addict is only hurting himself and what right does the state have to tell people what to do with their bodies? But if enough people start using heroin such that an appreciable size of the population consists of “junkies,” then this will clearly have a negative impact on society as a whole. Even in US political debates on the “War on Drugs,” both the “liberal” and “conservative” side acknowledge the negative societal impact of drugs. They just disagree on what is the best way for the state to regulate and curb drug use, i.e., whether to criminalize it outright or impose government programs to treat drug abusers and discourage drug use in the population. Either way, in the case of drugs, even liberals agree that what someone does behind closed doors very much is the business of a higher authority, i.e., the authority of the state, which aims to promote public welfare overall.
Another example is abortion. Studies have shown that the legalization of abortion in America and other countries correlated with drops in crime rates. Researchers believe this happened because legalizing abortion made it easier for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies. This, in turn, meant that fewer unwanted children were born and, hence, that fewer children grew up in detrimental environments and households that would make them prone to a life of crime.
Liberals often use these studies to argue that abortion is a good thing, that it has clear benefits to society as a whole. But, implicit in this argument is the idea that private behavior, namely whether or not women have abortions, has significant consequences for the public good. And if we acknowledge that private behavior has the potential to impact society at large and hence, impact each member of society individually, then why shouldn’t that private behavior be the business of a higher authority? As I argue elsewhere, this is one possible argument justifying Islam’s prohibition of premarital/extramarital sex. But, we could imagine other ways that a governing authority might regulate birth rates in order to protect society from the possible negative repercussions of private behavior.
Many other examples can be given, but the point is that the whole distinction between “public” and “private” easily breaks down when it comes to at least some questions of morality and protecting people in society from the negative impact of what others do behind closed doors.
Q3: Fine, drug abuse and abortion are two examples, but what does that have to do with homosexuality? How does two men having sex negatively impact society as a whole?
Well, the answer to this depends on what you think about homosexuality in the first place. The implicit assumption in this question is that same-sex activity is inherently harmless, but not everyone believes that. Muslims, for example, believe that certain sexual activities are deeply destructive — spiritually, mentally, and physiologically — to the person doing them, even if the person is physically enjoying him or herself. If enough people engage in these sexual activities, this will impact the character and health of society as a whole.
This is not unlike the drug abuse example above. While drug abuse is quite enjoyable for some, the fact is that drugs debilitate a person, and the cumulative impact of many such debilitated persons will negatively impact society.
Q4: But drug abuse is objectively harmful, not so with same-sex intercourse. Some Muslims might believe that, but that’s personal religious belief and has nothing to do with public law and morality in general.
Actually, drug abuse is not “objectively” harmful. Most people — liberal, conservative, religious, secular — all agree that drug addiction is harmful. But we can imagine someone that does not agree with this.
Imagine someone who truly believes that abusing hardcore drugs is a good thing. We might ask this person, “Don’t you see the harmful impact of drugs to the body, how drugs can cut someone’s life short, etc.?”
But our hypothetical drug advocate could respond, “Yes, I absolutely recognize the effects of drugs; I just do not believe that those effects are a bad thing.” In other words, while the empirical impact of drugs to the body is objective, considering that impact “harmful” is a judgment call based on a person’s normative outlook. For example, the drug advocate could try to justify his views by giving us an involved story about how life should be spent in a substance-induced euphoria, how the body was meant to be transcended, that self-destruction of the body is necessary for us to see the transience of life and the everlasting nature of the spirit, that a short and euphoric life is infinitely superior to a long but corporeal one, etc. Now imagine that this was not the view of one person but an entire community or demographic.
Obviously, given our contemporary assumptions about drug use, not many people would accept this story or find it the least bit plausible (unless the drug in question is alcohol, in which case some of our hypothetical drug advocate’s beliefs are widespread). But, ultimately, this is a dispute about what people believe about the human body, mind, spirit, the nature of life, death, and so on. Even if everyone agrees on the empirical, scientific aspect of drug abuse, they can still disagree on these metaphysical, value-laden questions.
Nonetheless, the liberal secular state must take a position on these questions, and it does: it deems drug abuse harmful and attempts to systematically curb it, either with criminalization or intervention, education, market manipulation, and other programming. The drug advocate, however, will experience these government programs as a forceful imposition on his beliefs, either by way of locking up “believers” or the use of public funds to “stigmatize” those beliefs and spread “propaganda” against them.
Islamic norms against same-sex acts could be cast in the same light. There are those that believe there is nothing harmful about homoeroticism, but Islamic law takes a different view. My point here is simply that what is or is not deemed harmful is ineluctably normative and far from objective. And since one’s notion of harm is so important in determining what is considered morally permissible or prohibited and whether an action should be subject to public scrutiny, we cannot so easily dismiss the Islamic view of same-sex acts as being harmful.
Q5: But it is still not clear how same-sex acts could be considered harmful, even from a religious perspective. It’s just sex. What’s the big deal?
Sex is a big deal, and it is not just Islam that thinks so. All cultures have extensive beliefs about the significance of sex, its meaning, its impact to the people engaged in it, its impact to society and to the world and beyond. Think about modern Western culture. If sex were not significant, there would not have been a whole “Sexual Revolution.” If sex were inconsequential, people today wouldn’t associate sex with human freedom itself. And look at Western popular culture and how much attention is given to sex and sex appeal. Sex even has implications for the economy since, as we know, “sex sells.” Freud, of course, went the farthest in interpreting literally all of human activity in terms of latent sexual drives and frustrations. And Darwin put sex in an even more pivotal, almost deified role by conceiving it as the fundamental force that creates new life and new species ex nihilo, as the most “fit” are those organisms that can out-reproduce and out-sex the competition.
Given this importance of sex on the individual, communal, physical, and metaphysical levels, it is only natural that cultures would feel the need to “regulate” sex, to define its proper bounds and its correct expression. And when those bounds are violated, it is always a big deal. And that is what we see. All cultures — even modern Western culture, as we will see — have specific beliefs about certain sexual acts being offensive and immoral and other sexual acts being deep violations.
As for “harm,” what we have to realize is that — regardless of whether we are Muslim or not, liberal secular or not — our senses of right and wrong are very complex and based on a multitude of different factors beyond just physical harm. The drug abuse example above was just a taste of that. Along those lines, consider that not all of our moral judgments are purely consequentialist, i.e., based on the tangible consequences of an action. For example, is it immoral for a person to daydream and fantasize about brutally raping and murdering someone? It’s just a daydream, so no actual consequences or physical harms result from that momentary act of imagination. But most of us would be at the very least disturbed by this, even if we cannot articulate why in purely consequentialist terms.
When we look at sexual morality specifically, all cultures — even modern Western culture — have specific beliefs about sex that go beyond consequences and physical harm. What is interesting is that each culture views its own set of beliefs as being preeminently rational and apt and the beliefs of other cultures as being nothing more than irrational taboos and prudishness, on the one hand, or lascivity and lewdness, on the other.
So while Western liberals might view Islam’s objections to same-sex behavior as just a cultural taboo with no basis in reason, other cultures view, for example, Western statutory rape laws in the same light. Or how about contemporary Western attitudes towards polygamy, adultery, public indecency, sexual harassment norms, and so on? Even among Western countries, different cultures have varying sex norms and view each others’ differences as either prudery or promiscuity. And when we look at how secular norms have changed over time…
Q6: Let me stop you right there. Sure, Western attitudes towards different sexual practices have changed over the past 300 years, from the Enlightenment, through the Sexual Revolution, and now culminating in the legalization of same-sex marriage. But that change is based on liberal tolerance and moral progress. Muslims, in contrast, are stuck in the 7th century.
The Western progressive narrative has it that, through the light of reason and science, Western civilization has been able to transcend puritanism as well as all other forms of sexual taboo and barbarity. This keen sense of triumphalism is dripping from, for example, the recent US Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage, which is seen by many as the culmination of the Sexual Revolution or even the Enlightenment. Accordingly, the belief is that we live in a sexually liberated age: Everything goes! Do what feels right (so long as it’s consensual, etc.). Depending on one’s outlook, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” this state of affairs is either a utopia or the End of Times. Whether it is cause for celebration or consternation, however, both sides of the political spectrum agree that moral inhibitions and taboos have been collectively chucked. Unfortunately, Muslims have also accepted this narrative.
A closer look, however, shows that this progressive myth has little basis in reality. It may sound strange to our culturally conditioned ears, but plenty of sexual inhibitions and taboos still stand in the West today, even though they are typically not conceived of in those terms. Contrary to popular belief, Western society is as judgmental as it ever has been on matters pertaining to sex, just not about exactly the same things and not in exactly the same ways. This stridence can be seen in how liberal secularists react to certain features of Islamic sexual ethics, e.g., polygyny, the age of `Aisha when she married the Prophet , divorce (back when divorce was still taboo in the West), even marriage itself (back when liberal theorists were more forthright about their belief that marriage is tantamount to slavery), etc. Obviously, liberal secularists believe they have good reasons for these reactions, and as hard as it is for them to see beyond those feelings, the fact remains that from another perspective, from another set of normative assumptions and beliefs about the world, Islamic sexual ethics are perfectly reasonable and morally sound. Beyond Islam, there are also plenty of other cultures and religions that have sex practices and rituals the average liberal secularist would be squeamish and outraged about if those practices were common or prominent enough to show up on the West’s radar in the way Islam and Muslims, as subjects of colonialism, have over the past 200 years.
Beyond the cross cultural, further stringency can be seen in other areas of Western sexual morality. Consider views on voyeurism, indecent exposure, public masturbation, sexual harassment, etc. An imposing legal system with severe consequences for offenders enforces these points of Western sexual normativity. The question of legality aside, we see further sexual restrictiveness in the ever expanding realm of gender identity politics and policing, where even the most insignificant perceived slight is met with abhorrence and swift, harsh rebuke. To use “non-gender neutral” language, for example — simply using the impersonal pronoun “he” more than “she,” “he/she,” or “xe” in one’s writing — is a grievous crime tantamount to rape in the eyes of some. Offenses of this nature typically do not have legal consequences, but anything not caught in the legal process is handled in the court of public opinion, where one’s reputation, career, and livelihood are all on the line.
These examples show that there are many entrenched norms and taboos that continue to govern the sexual morality of Westerners, even though these restrictions are not experienced or conceived of as taboos or restrictions on sexual expression and autonomy. From a certain perspective, however, these could be seen as precisely that: overbearing restrictions on how individuals can express themselves sexually. When, for example, a person has to worry about something as seemingly small as pronoun usage in their writing, that is an indication of how objectively expansive and imposing the regime of modern Western sexual morality really is, as opposed to the free-for-all it is caricatured as. So this Western triumphalism, sense of superiority, and notion of progress toward more freedom and sexual autonomy are misplaced.
Q7: Even if it is conceded that Western sexual norms are extensive in quantity, they are nonetheless qualitatively less restrictive than their Islamic counterparts.
What does it mean for sexual norms to be more or less restrictive or more or less conducive to a person’s sexual autonomy? To answer this, we have to take a more theoretical look at the concept of desire.
What is desire? Plenty of religious and philosophical opinion has been expressed in both Western and Islamic discourse on this question. What is salient for us is the modern Western notion that any authentically experienced desire is worthy of satisfaction. Modern psychology, with its roots in Freudian psychoanalysis, tells us that if a man carnally desires another man, it would be harmful and, hence, oppressive to subjugate that desire. If an adolescent carnally desires another adolescent, it would be harmful and, hence, oppressive to insist on abstinence. Yet, if a person carnally desires an immediate family member, that desire must be repressed.
This connection between the satisfaction of desire and health (and human happiness generally) is important because that is how the typical modern Westerner conceptualizes sexual autonomy. The only just legal-ethical system is one that permits the maximum number of authentic, natural desires to be fulfilled while prohibiting the fulfillment of all inauthentic, unnatural desires, which inevitably lead to harm for the individual “perpetrator” himself as well as for possible victims.
From this it is argued that Western sex norms are the most just and liberating because they take into account people’s natural desires and allow them to fulfill all of them. Religiously-based sexuality, however, is unjust and restrictive because it recognizes people’s natural desires yet requires them to repress some of those desires for the sake of God.
There is much that can be said against this narrative, not least of which the question of how Western thought believes itself to have discovered what, in fact, is natural for a human being to desire. What constitutes essential human nature is very clearly a metaphysical question and, hence, cannot be answered by scientific inquiry. Tests in a lab are not going to reveal what human nature amounts to and what desires are in fact natural. And looking at the animal kingdom and trying to infer human nature by analogy to other species amounts to nothing more than the Naturalistic Fallacy.
In this way, conventional Western liberal attitudes about human desire are not based on any robust, objective theory of human nature. Without such a theory, there is no basis for liberals to claim that their sexual mores are more in line with natural human desire as opposed to, say, Islamic ones.
Islamic metaphysics, in contrast, does have just such a theory. Muslim scholarship frequently delves into metaphysical questions like the nature of man, his desires, his relationship to the cosmos and to God, etc. And the epistemological avenue Muslim scholars rely on is revelation, i.e., what God and His Messenger have said about these topics, coupled with the notion of the fitra (roughly translated as “normative primordial human nature”). Of course, non-Muslims may be skeptical about this source of knowledge, but at least Muslims purport to have a source of knowledge at all, whereas liberal secularism floats aimlessly, with no mooring from any consistent, principled standard of knowing.
Postmodernism, at least, is up front about this failing of modern epistemology and its resultant nihilism. Liberal secularism, in contrast, is in constant self-denial, insisting that liberalism and its sexual morality are what is most aligned with human nature but then failing to proffer a metaphysical account of what human nature is. By the same token, Islam and traditional religion are accused by liberal secularists of being contrary to human nature and, hence, oppressive, again without any underlying theory of human nature to give traction to these weighty accusations. How, then, can liberal secularism’s charge against Islam as “oppressing homosexuals” be taken seriously?
Q8: Look, I don’t care about whether or not Islam has a theory of human desire, etc. All I know is that homosexuals desire same-sex partners. They cannot help that. So to block the satisfaction of that desire is inhumane. Should we consign gays and lesbians to a life without sexual pleasure? What kind of religion wants people to be tortured like that?
Everyone has desires that cannot be fulfilled, whether due to social sanction, personal self-constraint, or sheer physical circumstance. That is just a part of being human. How we view the lack of fulfillment of those desires, however, depends on our beliefs about sexual morality. If someone cannot be sexually satisfied unless he publicly masturbates in full view of pedestrians, we would be fine “consigning” this person to a life without sexual satisfaction. The person himself might be sexually frustrated at not being able to fulfill his desires, but even he himself would not experience this frustration as torture. This is because he lives in a cultural milieu where public masturbation is socially frowned upon. Growing up, he was socially conditioned to understand that this is not appropriate behavior, that this is not what decent people do. Decent people must, as a matter of decency, morality, social cohesion, etc., learn to train their impulses and bring these under the disciplining force of moral habit and custom. So the would-be public masturbator does this, since he understands that public masturbation is not an actual, objective “need” that must be fulfilled for the sake of his physical and emotional health. In actuality, the impulses themselves will most likely decrease in frequency and strength or may disappear completely over time. And everyone, including the person himself, will see this as a good thing.
The point is that what we believe about which desires we must control and which we are free to pursue fundamentally depends on our moral commitments. Not only that, but our actual experiences of those desires will change depending on that normative worldview. Individuals today with same-sex attraction may feel that the inability to have intercourse with the same sex is a life of continuous frustration and misery, but that is in large part because that is what our current Western moral commitments entail. Individuals in different social contexts under different ethical frameworks would have a very different experience of these same-sex desires. And this is documented in both anthropology and history.
Furthermore, Western philosophers like Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Talal Asad, and others have argued that ethical systems play a deciding role in determining and shaping our desires as well as our experience of those desires. Ethics and desire are intimately connected and interdependent in this way. This may sound counter-intuitive because we typically think that our deepest impulses are completely natural and authentic and are not the products of outside influences. But, in actuality, outside forces can deeply impact what desires bubble up in our consciousness in the first place.
For example, children who are taught that public masturbation is wrong will internalize that injunction, which will in turn affect their thoughts and desires later in life, often preventing the impulse from even arising. And if it does arise, it will be experienced as a waywardness of the concupiscent self that must be disciplined and denied in the name of decency, morality, social cohesion, and the like. Of course, children do not have to be explicitly “taught” such things. The fact that certain behaviors are not done, at least not openly in society, in itself does a great deal to socialize and discipline children. Similarly, if children are taught that public masturbation is normal, legitimate behavior, that there is nothing wrong with this, etc., then even if they were not inclined to publicly masturbate otherwise, they may nonetheless feel a desire to do so where no desire existed before. (Note, however, that societal endorsement is not the only way socialization can occur. The fact that a person grew up in an anti-public-masturbatory culture and, as an adult, may even feel great psychologically distress at experiencing the urge to publicly masturbate does not contradict the notion that those desires are nonetheless socially constructed. In fact, it is to be expected that cultures that obsess and fixate on a certain taboo will also see a higher incidence of people violating or feeling the urge to violate that taboo. The more forbidden the fruit, the stronger people feel the urge to eat it despite themselves, whereas if the fruit were not there or if it had not been forbidden or if it had not been called “fruit,” etc., fewer people would experience the temptation.)
In these ways, we can see how some desires, for all intents and purposes, are implanted or produced by one’s social and cultural context. Or, more tenuous, amorphous urges that a person might passively feel in the course of the day are highlighted by society, reinforced by social acceptance, and then interpreted by the person as a deep, inherent desire to, say, relieve himself at the mall. In this way, socialization goes a long way in influencing our appetites.
Of course, this is not to say all human desire is purely a function of socialization, though postmodernist thinkers like Foucault do go to that extreme. Islam, however, recognizes that some desires are purely natural in the sense that that is how Allah created human beings. But there is also a recognition that this sound nature can be corrupted, or reformed and recovered if corruption has already occurred.
In the Islamic view, same-sex attraction in the sense of desiring intercourse with the same sex is not natural. As the Qur’an records, Lut said to his people, “Do you commit lewdness such as no people in creation ever committed before you? For you practice your lusts on men in preference to women — you are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.” (7:81)
That being said, finding members of the same sex attractive in the sense that a man recognizes another man as handsome or a woman recognizes another woman as beautiful is not unnatural. Similarly, it is not unnatural for a man to prefer the company of other men and prefer social interaction with them over women. Given this, it is not hard to imagine how a hyper-sexualized society could socialize children and adults to interpret such natural feelings as latent signs of same-sex sexual attraction. This would especially be the case in societies beholden to Freudian theories of sexuality, where a person’s every psychological impulse and conscious thought is somehow connected to some prior Oedipal frustration or childhood psycho-sexual encounter, where even something as nonsexual as breastfeeding an infant is understood to have sexual undertones. In such a society, these natural, nonsexual sentiments could be cast in a sexual light and then reinforced such that a person increasingly feels and is completely convinced that he desires the same-sex and that he is a “homosexual,” whether he is happy, neutral, or distressed by that “discovery.” Ultimately, the normative and metaphysical assumptions of that society — in addition to other psychological, emotional, or developmental issues — will crucially impact the way individuals see themselves in relation to their desires.
As it turns out, Islamic spirituality and metaphysics conceive the development and evolution of desire in much the same ways, as we will see below.
Q9: We don’t need to get into the dirty business of spirituality or metaphysics to know that, as long as two (or more) people consent to a sexual act, there is nothing morally objectionable about them going through with it. The fact that Islam restricts people from engaging in consensual behavior is plenty proof of the religion’s oppressiveness.
Actually, consent itself is a concept fraught with metaphysical assumptions.
On a theoretical level, the notion of consent is notoriously difficult to pin down. For example, feminists (and law makers) to this day have been struggling to define consent so that they can decide once and for all what constitutes rape. Rape, for nearly all people, is the ultimate example of sexual violation, so in many ways it has served as an archetype of sexual immorality in Western sexual ethics and liberal thought. And, of course, what makes rape a violation is the absence of consent. And while, in the case of a stranger sexually assaulting an unwilling person, the meaning of consent and its relevance to the moral status of the act is crystal clear, for other sexual behaviors and scenarios the meaning and relevance of consent is far less obvious.
Some extreme feminists, for example, argue that for a sexual encounter between a man and woman to be fully consensual, the man must continuously ask for permission throughout the act of intercourse since, at any moment during the act, his partner might change her mind and not want to proceed, in which case, what was permissible intercourse becomes rape.
In this vein, it is argued that for sex to be truly consensual and hence morally sound, every act between the sheets must be preceded with an, “Is this okay?” and a verbal affirmative from one’s partner. Before any change of position, any touch, kiss, or movement, a partner must stop and get formal authorization in the course of what would be a normal sexual encounter. (Yet, we are to believe that it is Islamic law that is autocratic in its regulation of sex compared to the supposed “Caligulan permissiveness” of the modern West!)
Other feminists and liberal theorists wonder whether the institution of marriage can ever be anything other than slavery and institutionalized rape. After all, given the existence of patriarchy even in modern society and how men are comparatively more powerful than women on average in terms of wealth and influence, how can any woman be independent enough to provide meaningful consent?
Beyond internal debates within feminism, there are other sexual behaviors where the significance of consent and its connection to morality are opaque. Again, let’s consider voyeurism. A man spies on women in a dressing room without them ever knowing about it. Since the women do not consent to being watched, consent-based sexual ethics deems the man’s action as morally wrong. But from a purely secular materialistic perspective, what impact does the man’s spying have on these women? Clearly, there is no physical or psychological harm to the women since they are none the wiser. One might say, well, maybe the man records what he sees and passes that along to friends and the overall reputation of the women is harmed. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that this does not happen, that the man does not record anything and just enjoys what he sees in the moment. In this case, presumably we still believe this is morally wrong, but why? From the perspective of secular materialism, what is so special about consent that it can operate beyond the realm of physical or mental harm? Does consent have some kind of metaphysical or supernatural significance that is not captured by any physical factor? Wouldn’t this mean that even secular sexual norms, insofar as they invoke consent, have a metaphysical component, not unlike religious sexual morality? But I digress.
Necrophilia and bestiality are two other examples where consent is for all intents and purposes irrelevant, but most liberals would consider the act in question as morally objectionable and deviant.
There are also examples of acts considered morally despicable despite the existence of consent. Incest is one example. Consensual cannibalistic fetishism is another. The number of such actions eliciting disgust and moral condemnation from even the most permissive liberal are as limitless as one’s imagination. Of course, there are those extreme liberal secularists who bite the bullet and argue that all these activities, including incest and cannibalism by consent, are perfectly permissible so long as all parties mutually agree to participate. But, again, most people feel in their bones that these actions are fundamentally disgusting and wrong. Shouldn’t such intuitions factor into our moral reasoning and what we ultimately consider right and wrong?
Q10: No, these moral intuitions are irrelevant. They are purely subjective after all. People used to feel that homosexuality was viscerally disgusting, but now no such reactions arise.
Premodern thinkers — Muslim and non-Muslim alike, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Fakhr al-Din al-Razi and beyond — almost took the reprehensibility of same-sex acts for granted, as if it were perfectly lucid and beyond the need for elaborate justification. Furthermore, these thinkers appealed to human nature, what we might call a person’s conscience, as plainly recognizing that such acts are vile. Modern readers interpret these appeals to conscience as evidence that the expressed abhorrence and categorical sanction are simply crass bigotry, prudery, and hatred.
But let’s examine this interpretation more closely. Is it that modern Western sexual ethics deny that viscerality and intrinsic human conscience per se are ever valid sources upon which to base our moral judgments?
From the perspective of the Islamic worldview, intuition and viscerality are very much a part of morality, whether in terms of how individuals exercise personal moral agency in their lives or in terms of how theologians theorize right and wrong. Modern liberal ethics and Western moral philosophy, in contrast, downplay the role of moral intuition and oftentimes completely disregard it.
Islamic sexual morality grounds the importance of our moral intuitions with the notion of the fitra. Certain moral reactions, tendencies, and postures are associated with the fitra in Islamic thought, as indicated in direct statements by the Prophet and passages in the Qur’an. A full treatment of this topic is beyond the scope of this essay, but we should note how the notion of the fitra is conceived as the ground not only for the highest moral sentiments — such as the knowledge of God, His Oneness, and the yearning to worship Him — but also the source of more visceral elements of a person’s normative outlook, e.g., one’s involuntary abhorrence to fahisha (i.e., sexual impropriety), disgust at feces, attraction to purity and cleanliness, shame surrounding nakedness, and so on.
Due to one’s God-given fitra, a person will intuitively recognize goodness and feel repulsed at corruption and depravity. In a famous hadith, the Prophet said, “Take a fatwa [i.e., take moral counsel] from your heart. Moral goodness [birr] is whatever your heart feels ease at doing, and sin [ithm] is whatever brings discomfort to the heart even if people counsel you otherwise.” Of course, this does not mean that a person’s heart or fitra is immune to corruption, which is why a Muslim must defer to Islamic law whenever applicable rather than automatically assume that his intuition on a matter is valid. That being said, the idea is that the sound fitra will perfectly align with Islamic law because both were set in this harmony by Allah.
Numerous Islamic scholars stressed this relationship between fitra and normativity. What is significant for our purposes is that, when it comes to moral reasoning, Islamic ethics has a seat at the table for these visceral elements of our normative Umwelt as human beings, factoring in this universal aspect of human nature where applicable.
Liberal secular philosophies, by contrast, either downplay or completely disregard this dimension of the human experience. It is not that liberal individuals themselves do not experience visceral normative reactions — everyone has a conscience and an intuitive sense of right and wrong after all. It is just that liberal ethics and meta-ethics do not make much of this type of visceral sentiment. This is a significant oversight considering that if we survey the moral attitudes of any religion or culture, including modern Western culture, we will always find a class of normative reactions that can only be described, for example, as categorical revulsion (though the actions eliciting such revulsion may vary from one culture to the next). Revulsion specifically concerns actions that are so odious that to simply think about them causes one to gag in disgust and horror. It is significant that these reactions are non-cognitive, meaning they are not obtained through conscious thought or carefully considered moral reasoning. Rather, they are immediate in a way that instantaneously impresses upon the mind prior to any ratiocination.
Incest with one’s own mother is a straightforward example of an act that elicits this response in virtually all cultures and religions. No in-depth moral reasoning, no consideration of practical ends, harm, virtue, consent, utility, or anything else needs to be theorized or reflected upon prior to a person’s instantaneous and visceral reaction of abhorrence and a sense that something is seriously wrong.
What place does this intuitive sense have in liberal secular ethics? Clearly, visceral abhorrence does exist in the Western mind, even if it is not conceived as such. Typical sexual examples evoking this reaction include incest, necrophilia, pedophilia, vorarephilia (i.e., erotic desire to be consumed by, or to consume, another person), coprophilia (i.e., sexual arousal and pleasure from feces), and bestiality (even though public opinion on the latter has recently been shifting toward tolerance) — and, until very recently, homosexuality. But, when pressed to justify or explain their position on these acts, Western ethicists fall back on an often convoluted, over-intellectualized discussion of harm, objectification, and consent. Rather than admit that people find these acts intuitively repulsive and that this is the central, plain, and overriding reason such acts ought to be deemed immoral, liberal secular thought attempts to theorize and base its moral condemnation on a pragmatic analysis, in terms of a rationalized harm and consent.
As mentioned before, this tendency is in accordance with liberal modernity’s own self-image of being preeminently rationalist, pragmatic, and free of purely emotive considerations or irrational “taboos.” And while not all Western philosophers in history made short shrift of conventional moral intuition in their ethical theories, the predominant view among Western ethicists in the liberal secular tradition is that intuition is subjective and carries no normative force.
Q11: Right, our intuitions and conscience are subjective! If Muslims want to argue that the fitra is important and that the “pure fitra” recognizes that same-sex acts are abhorrent, why should anyone else care? What significance does that have for determining the moral status of homosexuality?
Saying that the conscience is “subjective” is an epistemological point. It means that there are no “objective” ways by which we can know what moral intuitions are truly natural and hence universal to all human beings. But the question of what we can or cannot know objectively is separate from the question of what does or does not exist. In the parlance of analytic philosophy, we cannot conflate questions of epistemology with questions of ontology.
What does this mean? Well, Muslims can concede that there is no “objective” way to know that the fitra as described in revelation exists. We can concede that there are no scientific experiments that will unveil true primordial human nature. But, just because science cannot opine on this does not mean that the fitra does not exist and does not operate in the way Islamic thought describes. After all, science cannot opine on a lot of things that we nonetheless experience as realities, e.g., human consciousness, the nature of time, or normativity and our sense of right and wrong itself.
To recap, we have already discussed how moral intuitions and our conception of human nature are important in determining our beliefs about right and wrong and sexual norms specifically. We have also discussed how Islam proposes a robust theory about our intuitions, human nature, and how all that relates to Islamic law and its attitude toward same-sex acts. Modern Western secular thought does not provide much of an alternative theoretical view. This is in large part because secular thought sees itself as scientific to a fault and thus avoids metaphysical debates about human nature and the human essence, despite itself. This is significant because Islamic sexual norms against same-sex acts are underwritten by a full intellectual discourse with the weight of 1400 years of unanimity on the issue, whereas the West’s very recent acceptance and normalization of homosexuality is not based on anything other than changing cultural attitudes of the last fifteen to twenty years.
Q12: It’s not “changing cultural attitudes” that have led to sexual liberation for LGBTQ individuals. It’s recognizing human rights and rejecting illegitimate religious taboos against gay love.
Again, this is the progressive myth that “homosexuals” — as a category of people — have been oppressed for millennia and it is only the modern West that has recognized and stopped that oppression.
In actuality, the “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” and “sexual orientation” in general are modern Western social constructions (which is not to say that these categories are not experienced as real). Both religious and secular academics have made this point, while anthropologists, sociologists, and intellectual historians have documented the cultural variance in conceptions of sex, sexuality, and gender. Even contemporary queer theory proposes a social constructionist account of same-sex identity and sexuality in general. (And academics like Joseph Massad go even further in arguing that the hetero/homo binary and Euro-American conceptions of sexuality in general are often forcefully imposed in an imperialistic way on other cultures and colonized peoples who, naturally, do not share these Euro-centric categories of “sexual identity.” Sexuality politics and a mission to “save the oppressed Muslim homosexual” thus becomes a pretense for “intervention” in the Muslim world, in much the same way Euro-American feminism and the mission to “save the oppressed Muslim woman” became and continues to be a pretense for Western imperial presence throughout the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and beyond.)
As far as Islam’s “oppression of homosexuals,” we should note that classical Islamic scholars did not even have a conception of “heterosexuality” let alone “homosexuality” (as was also the case in other cultures, including Europe up until the late 19th century). In Islamic law, what is impermissible is simply anal intercourse between two males and other male-male (as well as female-female) actions done with sexual desire. These sexual norms were on the books for centuries, despite the fact that same-sex activity did occur in Muslim-majority lands throughout history. Even though people were engaging in same-sex activity, they did not self-identify as “homosexuals” or as a separate category of people that could have even become a subject of systematic oppression.
So which narrative is more plausible?
1. For millennia across hundreds of different cultures across the globe, “homosexuals” — as a distinct, identifiable category of people within any given population — have been subjugated and repressed, and only the modern West of the past forty years or so has had the clear-mindedness and bravery to recognize this subjugation and “emancipate the homosexuals.” The modern West, after all, is the most enlightened and moral of all peoples of all times, so it should come as no surprise that they would be the first to “discover” what literally 99% of humanity throughout human history was too stupid or too cruel to see.
2. For millennia across hundreds of different cultures across the globe, people have experienced the full gamut of sexual desire. Different cultures regulated the expression of those desires in different ways, but the satisfaction of same-sex sexual desire was almost universally prohibited on the basis of robust theories of human nature and sexual morality. Then the Enlightenment happens, religious and non-Western notions of human nature and moral reasoning are deemed “unscientific” and eventually discarded, effectively unmooring cultural practice from the grounding of tradition or moral principles embedded in a larger ethical view of human meaning and life. Sanction of same-sex acts continues for a while due to cultural inertia, but little by little, attitudes change. What used to be moral deviancy is recast as a “psychopathological disorder” and then, finally, as just another normal, acceptable facet of a person’s “sexual orientation,” until “homosexuality” is recognized as such and no one can see why the “homosexual” should be constrained by “archaic” sexual mores.
To me, it is far more plausible that current views on same-sex behavior are the product of changing cultural attitudes that have been dressed up in the language and conceptual framework of emancipation. The alternative view, as expressed in the first narrative above, is nothing more than an ethnocentric, self-aggrandizing myth based on historical revisionism and a marked disdain for conceptual rigor and consistency.
Q13: If the West is so lacking in “conceptual rigor and consistency,” what conceptually rigorous and consistent account of sexuality does Islam provide?
The Islamic account of human sexuality begins with Adam , the first human being God created. As the Qur’an recounts, Adam resided in Paradise with his wife until Satan deceived them into eating from the forbidden tree. Upon consuming the fruit, they became aware of their nakedness for the first time and felt the shame of this. So they used leaves from trees to clothe themselves. Realizing their mistake, they turned to Allah for forgiveness and He turned unto them in forgiveness while also sending them out of Paradise and placing them on Earth, a place of pain and hardship.
What Islamic scholars have taken from this event at the precipice of human history is that human beings naturally incline towards breaking the rules. God has set limits for us, but Satan, the evil inclinations of our own selves, and our tendency to immerse ourselves in the satisfaction of our desires push us to transgress these bounds. Violating the limits set by Allah is the epitome of ingratitude because He has given humanity many licit ways of satisfying our desires and enjoying life. Unlike Christianity and other religions, Islam does not consider bodily enjoyment and partaking in worldly pleasure to be inherently sinful. Rather, to imbibe of the permissible in life and, in doing so, to remember and be thankful toward one’s Lord and Master is a major part of what Islam considers as part and parcel of righteousness. Diametrically opposed to this are israf (i.e., wasteful overindulgence) and ghafla (i.e., heedlessness), in other words, to transgress beyond what Allah has made permissible and to do so in a heedless, ignorant manner without regard for the One who has provided all these bounties and blessings in the first place.
Accordingly, sexual misdeeds are the essence of such transgression. Here, a person’s nakedness and those parts of the body associated with nakedness are used in indecent ways. And that indecency is the cause of shame and human suffering, as a person debases and humiliates himself before God and all creation. By putting aside the permissible pleasures in order to taste the forbidden fruit, human beings show the utmost disregard for the Almighty and the very purpose of their creation and place on this earth. It is in this sense that, in the Qur’an, the people of Lot are labelled “musrifun” (from israf): “For you practice your lusts on men in preference to women — you are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds [i.e., musrifun].” In these ways and more, sexual morality very literally has a cosmic significance.
In Islamic spirituality and ethics, desire is always something that needs to be controlled so as not to exceed these boundaries set by God. Even natural, God-given desires, like the desire to eat, sleep, or have relations with the opposite sex, must be tempered so as not to lead a person into transgression. If a person perseveres in keeping his desires in check and in accordance with what God wants, then eventually that person’s desires will transform such that even the thought of violating the Shari`a becomes abhorrent to him. But, if a person succumbs to his desire, transgressing sacred norms repeatedly without repenting to Allah, then this too leads to a transformation.
Islamic metaphysics, interestingly, does acknowledge the mutability of desire in the sense that a person may experience a desire for something, but that desire is not natural in the sense of it arising from human nature, i.e., the primordial normative form — the fitra — upon which human beings were created by God. A person’s fitra, after all, can be corrupted, whether by social circumstance, parental influence, or even the whisperings of shayatin (i.e., satanic demons).
As classical scholars like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali describe, according to Islamic metaphysics, no amount of indulgence of a desire can lead to complete satiety. Only temporary gratification is possible, so if a person becomes accustomed to yielding to his desires, eventually he will lose the ability to abstain until the desires themselves grow ever more demanding and take over the person.
Whereas modern Western thought distinguishes desire for intimacy with men versus desire for intimacy with women, Islamic thought (along with many other civilizations, both historical and contemporary) identifies the primary natural urge for males as the urge to penetrate, whereas females urge to be penetrated. As scholars like Ibn Taymiyyah describe, the same desire to penetrate women can be corrupted such that it is directed towards men, but that desire is not sui generis. Any man who gives free reign to his lust for women may eventually be driven toward craving to penetrate other men, animals, and beyond. A male who desires to be penetrated, however, is understood to be suffering from a kind of abnormality known as “ubna.” In this way, the “active” and “passive” partners are distinguished respectively, as has been the case in many cultures throughout history including ancient Greek civilization.
To this day, many Middle Eastern men who participate in same-sex intercourse in this active role do not typically consider themselves to be “gay.” They perceive themselves simply as men since they continue to play the typically “male” role even in an encounter with another man. Again, the operative distinction here is primarily one of role rather than of gender. The Western homosexual, in contrast, understands his very desires to be completely distinct from those of the heterosexual. Furthermore, it is his desire for sexual contact with a male, regardless of the respective role played, that marks him off distinctly as a “homosexual,” highlighting the modern West’s (culturally and historically bound) prioritizing of gender over role or any other potentially relevant consideration. This is the “orientation” a person is supposedly born with. As such, a homosexual man could never truly desire the opposite sex or have his desires satisfied by a woman.
Finally, when it comes to the prohibition of same-sex acts, Islamic scholars typically express four main ideas in their reasoning against male-male anal intercourse (i.e., liwat) as well as same-sex sexual acts generally (though female-female tribadism, i.e., sihaq was less discussed):
1. An expression of disgust and abhorrence as well as condemnation in the strongest terms while citing not only the Quranic account of the people of Lot (i.e., qawm Lut), but also human nature (or conscience) as immediately recognizing the evil of this act.
2. Appeals to nature and teleology, specifically regarding the natural, God-given roles of males as penetrators and females as recipients of penetration and how liwat subverts this normative order. This language is especially prominent in legal treatises. Beyond jurisprudence, some theologians go further in discussing the inherent complementarity of the male and female bodies as well as other characteristic traits essential to each sex as well as how that complementarity bears life, propagates the “descendants of Adam,” and provides the basis for familial and societal flourishing, in contrast to same-sex acts which undermine all these.
3. Characterization of liwat as being driven by extreme, blameworthy desire where men who, in their lust and desire for sexual variety, turn to other men instead of females.
4. Mention of physical and mental diseases caused by liwat as well as characterizing a male’s desire to be penetrated as a mental affliction, i.e., “ubna.”
Obviously, the classical Islamic view of desire and how it leads to same-sex intercourse, as well as the reasoning for prohibiting that intercourse, are all outrageously offensive to the modern liberal mind. But this offense is due to specific cultural attitudes and assumptions that we have questioned and deconstructed throughout this “debate.”
Q14: I have gay and lesbian friends. Ultimately, what they say they feel and makes them happy is all I care about.
Islam cares about what people feel and what makes them happy, too.
It should be recognized that from the Islamic perspective, we all have to be constantly critical of ourselves and question whether or not what we believe about ourselves is true. A Muslim, for example, could spend his whole life believing that he is a just, righteous believer only to discover on the Day of Judgment that he was in fact a hypocrite because his false piety was only for the sake of people and not for God alone. In the same way, a person might see himself as a “homosexual” and subjectively experience what he thinks are immutable desires, but, in reality, he is only deceiving himself.
Even liberal secularists recognize this capacity for self-deception. Consider the latest identity groups that have entered the scene, such as the otherkin. For the uninitiated, otherkins are individuals who believe themselves to be partially or entirely non-human. For example, some otherkins have very strong feelings that they are partially animals, e.g., foxes, rabbits, kangaroos, etc. These feelings constitute a significant part of their sense of self such that otherkins feel an overwhelming biological or psychological connection to the species in question. Some have argued that being otherkin even has a genetic basis. Indeed, many otherkin activists have adopted the language of social justice and minority rights to fight for respect, acceptance, and equal treatment in society at large, which they believe to be deplorably “human-centric” and “kinphobic.”
One does not have to come from a religious perspective to see all this as ludicrous. Even gay-rights activists bristle at the audacity of otherkins and take offense at the comparison with homosexuality. After all, sexual orientation has a real basis in constituting people’s identities, they argue, whereas otherkins are a bizarre, invented subculture. Otherkins, however, interpret this animosity to their cause as not unlike the prejudice homosexuals had to endure prior to mainstream acceptance.
Otherkins obviously feel very strongly about their animal identities and believe that they were “born this way” and that being otherkin is an important component of human nature. Regardless of how strongly they experience these feelings, however, that does not mean the rest of us are wrong to think they are crazy. Analogously, self-identifying homosexuals may feel very strongly about sexual orientation, its place in the human psyche, and its role in generating desire. Nonetheless, all that subjective feeling is irrelevant to the derivation of moral norms and legal rulings in light of a robust theory about human nature as given in Islamic thought, especially given the fact that, from the Islamic perspective, individuals and entire societies can systematically mislead themselves about right and wrong, purity and filth, as demonstrated by the story of Lot and his folk. Simply put, what God tells us concerning human nature and the fulfillment of desire trumps what people subjectively feel or claim about themselves.
Ultimately, it is unfortunate that modern society has bombarded individuals with the unchallenged idea that same-sex attraction is natural, that having a “gay sexual orientation” is immutable, that same-sex behavior is acceptable and even healthy. Given this, it is not surprising that that is what so many in our communities and in our society deeply believe and feel about themselves. But there is nothing wrong with us problematizing these assumptions and working in a compassionate manner to get people to see and experience an alternative reality that proceeds from an elevated and holistic account of who we are, what our purpose is, where we are going, and to Whom we shall ultimately all return.
About the Author: Daniel Haqiqatjou is a columnist at MuslimMatters, where he maintains his column The Muslim Skeptic. He attended Harvard University, majoring in Physics and Philosophy. He completed a Masters degree in Philosophy at Tufts University. Haqiqatjou is also a student of the traditional Islamic sciences. He writes and lectures on contemporary issues surrounding Muslims and Modernity. Contact: Email, Twitter, Facebook.