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And the Male Is Not like the Female: Sunni Islam and Gender Nonconformity

Mobeen Vaid

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This article contains many extensive notes, rendered here as end notes. Click here to download a PDF version in footnote format for easier reading and navigation of the notes.

“And the male is not like the female” [1]

I. Introduction

In April 2015, Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete Bruce Jenner declared publicly his formal reconstitution as a transgender woman during an interview with Diane Sawyer. Having suffered years of gender dysphoria, Jenner had learned to repress his inhibitions but now felt the suppression disingenuous. Rather than persist in this masculine impersonation, Jenner announced that, moving forward, he would go by the name Caitlyn, be addressed by the feminine pronoun “she,” and dress the part as well. As a member of the notorious Kardashian family, Jenner’s announced gender modification quickly became the subject of intense public debate: Should gender dysphoria be accommodated or treated? Is gender a socially constructed set of roles that only arbitrarily aligns with biological sex, or are gender and sex one and the same? And how should society seek to create space for transgender persons, if it should do so at all?

The impact of Jenner’s public pronouncement cannot be understated. Dubbed as a “turning point”[2] for the transgender community, Jenner’s interview with Sawyer was watched by an estimated 17 million people,[3] making it the most watched 20/20 interview in over 15 years, the most watched interview on any network for a non-sports Friday night in over a decade, and the ninth-most watched interview in television history.[4] In its wake, political controversies have emerged over transgender accommodation in the public space. Perhaps the most pronounced has been related to North Carolina’s bill mandating individual bathroom use according to sex as identified at the time of birth and not gender identification.[5] Passed into law in March 2016, North Carolina’s bathroom bill was immediately met with severe public backlash. Citing the “climate created by the current law,” the NBA pulled the annual All-Star Game from North Carolina, relocating it to the transgender-friendly city of New Orleans.[6] Thereafter, more than 100 executives from top companies jointly signed a letter expressing their opposition to the “anti-LGBT” legislation North Carolina had ratified.[7] Progressive celebrities, politicians, and cultural critics all quickly joined the fray, entrenching opposition to the “bathroom bill” as a cause célèbre of the political and cultural left. Under the weight of mounting pressure, North Carolina lawmakers approved legislature repealing the controversial “bathroom bill” in March 2017, just one year after the bill’s enactment.[8]

The North Carolina case is merely the most visible in what has become a ubiquitous stream of executive litigation and public debate negotiating the future of transgender persons, their concomitant “rights,” and the varying ways in which those rights must be honored by private citizens and public institutions. Indeed, as recently as this past April (2017), the U.S. Supreme Court remanded a transgender rights case back to lower courts,[9] while the Virginia Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to Fairfax County’s transgender policy.[10]

In light of the foregoing circumstances, a conversation has commenced concerning the position of Islam as it relates to the phenomenon of transgenderism. Drawing from hadith reports speaking of the mukhannath (effeminate male), some writers have asserted congruities between legal discourse related to the mukhannath and transgender persons who also exhibit characteristics that diverge from their constitutional anatomy. Moreover, existing “third-gender” communities in Pakistan (‘hijras’) and Indonesia (‘warias’) have only served to intensify this confusion. The current paper, therefore, attends to the topic of gender nonconformity in Sunni Islam. I will begin by establishing terms and conceptions indigenous to the Islamic tradition, then proceed to synopsize the salient legal and moral questions that have occupied scholarly writings about gender obscurity. Finally, drawing from the legal and moral questions examined in the paper, I will conclude with a synopsis of Islam’s position as it relates to the various forms of gender nonconformity countenanced by Sunni jurists.

II. Elucidating Terms

The words mukhannath and khunthā are both derived from the triliteral Arabic root kh-n-th which denotes various meanings. Works of lexicography generally explicate the root kh-n-th by using the terms takassur and tathannī, which can both be rendered as “pliability,” “languidness,” or “suppleness.” In a hadith narrated by both al-Bukhārī and Muslim, ʿĀʾisha (ra) reports that during the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) last moments, he rested with his body falling limp into her lap (inkhanatha fī ḥijrī), using the cognate inkhanatha to describe his limbs as having become flaccid, or limp, in her lap.[11] Other definitions speak of an inversion, as one may invert the mouth of an animal skin used for drinking (ikhtināth al-asqiya),[12] a practice that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) forbade.[13]

Of the two categories of gender ambiguity drawn from the root kh-n-th, only the term mukhannath appears in hadith reports. In some reports, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is recorded as cursing “effeminate men and mannish women (al-mukhannathīn min al-rijāl wa’l-mutarajjilāt min al-nisāʾ).”[14] A number of the “cursing” reports include additional instruction to “evict them (i.e., the mukhannathūn and the mutarajjilāt) from your homes.”[15] In a hadith reported in al-Ṭabarānī, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) describes as cursed in this world one whom “God has made a man then he feminized himself and imitated women.”[16] In another “cursing” report, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) states that “three will never enter paradise,” including the “mannish woman” (al-rajila min al-nisāʾ) as one of the accursed three categories.[17] In other reports, a mukhannath man named Hīt[18] is said to have had permission to sit in the private assemblies of women—until, that is, he revealed the physical features of one of the women to a man in the company of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) whilst suggesting her to the man for marriage.[19] Upon hearing Hīt’s depiction of the woman’s physical features, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) forbade him from the women’s assemblies and, in some reports, banished him to the outskirts of the city. In one hadith related by al-Bukhārī, al-Zuhrī (d. 124/741) remarks as a matter of opinion that one should not pray behind a mukhannath unless absolutely necessary.[20] In a report recorded in the Sunan of Abū Dāwūd, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) encounters a mukhannath who has dyed his hands and feet with henna. Upon witnessing the man’s dyed limbs, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) inquires of others as to why the man has done this, to which they respond, “He imitates women.” Afterwards, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) decides to banish this man to a town called Naqīʿ.[21] In yet other reports related in the Sunan of Ibn Mājah and al-Tirmidhī, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) specifies a punishment of twenty lashes for falsely accusing someone of being a mukhannath.[22] Finally, in a few lesser-known hadith collections, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is described as “not entering homes in which a mukhannath was present.”[23]

The foregoing reports inform legal works which, drawing from them, delineate three categories of gender atypical individuals: (1) al-khunthā al-mushkil (the ambiguous khunthā); (2) al-mukhannath al-khilqī (the congenital mukhannath); and (3) al-mukhannath ghayr al-khilqī (the affected, or non-congenital, mukhannath). The following sections elucidate this trifurcation.

III. al-Khunthā al-Mushkil (The Ambiguous Khunthā)

An “ambiguous khunthā” is “one who possesses both male and female organs, or one who possesses neither and urinates from an opening in the body.”[24] Citing as evidence Qurʾānic verses stating that God “created the two mates—male and female” (al-Najm 53:45) and “dispersed from both of them (i.e., the male and the female) many men and women” (al-Nisāʾ 4:1), scholars have maintained that there only exist in reality two discrete genders. Accordingly, they have generally viewed it as desirable to ascertain the true gender of the ambiguous khunthā whenever possible. Though various methods of gender determination have been registered in the books of fiqh, the most frequently mentioned signifier of gender has been the organ by which urine passes: if it be the penis, then the ambiguous khunthā is regarded as a male, and if it be the meatus, then the ambiguous khunthā is regarded as a female. If the place of passing urine is anatomically ambiguous, gender can be established by way of secondary features after the onset of puberty such as the growth of a beard, menstruation, the appearance of breasts, and related anatomical developments. It should be noted that once gender is established, the individual is then regarded as either male or female and no longer “ambiguous,” as the qualifier “ambiguous” (mushkil) refers to the indistinctness of gender only so long as the individual does not have a clearly established gender.

Relative to mukhannathūn (discussed below), the cases of ambiguous khunthās are uncommon. Given that the ambiguous khunthā includes both those without any genitalia whatsoever, as well as hermaphrodites/‌‌intersex persons who possess both male and female sex organs, it is important to distinguish between the two.

Absence of Genitalia

The complete absence of genitalia corresponds to what is clinically referred to as agenesis—penile or vaginal, depending on the gender. Despite the absence of critical male or female sexual organs, agenetic individuals generally possess an otherwise normal male or female anatomy. Accordingly, Islamic law regards the presence of discernable male or female anatomical characteristics as sufficient for establishing gender even in the absence of sexual organs. Should genital agenesis be coupled with indeterminate anatomy (such as the lack of both male and female hormones, distinctive male and female features, etc.), then the person would be subject to the same set of considerations outlined in the following section concerning intersex individuals.

Presence of Both Male and Female Sexual Organs

Of the two phenomena subsumed under the category of ambiguous khunthā—absence of genitalia or simultaneous presence of both male and female organs—it is this latter category of physiological androgyny to which the fuqahāʾ have paid more attention. As previously noted, the principal aim is to arrive at a concrete gender determination despite the presence of both male and female sexual organs. Before puberty, if the ambiguous khunthā urinates exclusively from either the male or the female organ, gender is established according to the organ through which the urine passes. Ibn Qudāma (d. 620/1223) cites this as a method agreed upon by scholars (ajmaʿa kullu man naḥfaẓu ʿanhu).[25] This preliminary step is rooted in two reports. The first is a hadith wherein the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is asked about distributing inheritance to a person with both male and female organs, upon which he instructs that the distribution be carried out in correspondence with “where the urine passes” (min ḥaythu yabūl).[26] The second report is a response given by the caliph ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (ra), in which he likewise instructs that the distribution of inheritance for one possessing both male and female sexual organs be carried out in accordance with “where the urine passes.”[27] The purported hadith of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is recorded in the Sunan of al-Bayhaqī (d. 458/1066) via two separate chains of narration, but its authenticity has been contested. The contemporary hadith scholar Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī (d. 1420/1999) has classified the report as fabricated (mawḍūʿ),[28] while al-Bayhaqī himself regards al-Kalbī, a key narrator in one of the two chains, as unreliable.[29] The second chain relies upon Ibn ʿAdī, a man about whom al-Bayhaqī says, “His chains are among the weakest chains possible.”[30] Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1200) includes Ibn ʿAdī’s chains in his work on fabrications (al-Mawḍūʿāt), elsewhere mentioning that al-Kalbī was a known liar.[31] As for the report attributed to Imam ʿAlī (ra), it is recorded in the Muṣannaf of Ibn Abī Shayba (d. 235/849), and I have not come across any classical works that have questioned its authenticity.[32]

If the urine test proves inconclusive, Sunni madhhabs have differed slightly over how then to proceed in determining gender. The majority of jurists accepted secondary examinations in order to ascertain which of the two sexual organs was dominant. This included investigating whether the male or the female organ produced more urine, or in other cases, which discharged urine first.[33] Some jurists disagreed with examining the volume of urine if precedence could not be established otherwise, and this is the reported position of Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 150/772) [however, his two principal students, Abū Yūsuf (d. 182/798) and Muḥammad al-Shaybānī (d. 189/805)—known as the “two companions” (ṣāḥibān) of the school—disagreed].[34] The 6th/12th-century jurist Abū Bakr al-Kāsānī (d. 587/1191) regarded this position of Abū Ḥanīfa’s as having been from the “perfection of his fiqh.” In his treatment of gender determination, al-Kāsānī includes a report of Abū Ḥanīfa’s displeasure vis-à-vis the variant view of the ṣāḥibān. When these latter informed their teacher of their position, he retorted, “Have you ever seen a judge weighing urine?”[35] Disagreement over urinary volume examination notwithstanding, jurists frequently made use of both sequence and volume as a secondary method for determining gender (with precedence generally being given to sequence). After maturity, scholars differed over which physical development would be regarded as decisive in the event of physiological ambiguities. Some scholars regarded as definitive the form of discharge (seminal or vaginal) released upon arousal, while others took discharge into account alongside features such as the presence or absence of a beard, the size of the breasts, the presence or absence of menstruation, and related indicators. It should be noted that some scholars have also considered sexual attraction (shahwa)—in the absence of any form of conclusive biological indicators whatsoever—as a possible indication of gender, though one possessing attraction to both men and women concurrently, or one free of sexual attraction altogether, would remain “ambiguous” (mushkil) if no other features were available to establish gen­der.

Should the above methods fail, the ambiguous khunthā remained ambiguous and was not permitted to marry according to the majority of jurists.[36] A minority position is reported from Imam al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820) allowing the khunthā to make a non-retractable gender selection, after which he or she would be required to live by the conventions and abide by the rulings of the chosen gender.[37] If physiological gender can be established according to one of the methods mentioned, many current-day fuqahāʾ are of the view that surgery would be permissible to provide a corrective removal of the superfluous sexual organ.[38]

In summary, Sunni legal schools premise gender determination on the basis of a gender binary—that is, the principle that all individuals are, in essence, either male or female—and that the task at hand with respect to a khunthā is determining to which of the two genders he or she properly belongs. The principal means by which this was done in the past was by examining urination, with schools differing over how to adjudicate gender in the event that both organs passed urine. A secondary point of consideration occurred after maturity, when a khunthā would be classified as either male or female depending on how he or she developed physically. If any of these methods allowed for discernment, then the khunthā would no longer be considered “ambiguous” and instead be ascribed definitively to either the male or the female gender. If the foregoing methods failed to provide clarity, then the khunthā would remain “ambiguous” and be considered “agendered,” with marriage—premised intrinsically on the complementarity of the genders—impermissible for such a person.

IV. al-Mukhannath al-Khilqī (The Congenital Mukhannath)

Unlike the khunthā, the mukhannath has no anatomical or developmental ambiguities. The mukhannath is identifiably and unambiguously male (the conceptual analog to mukhannath for a female being the mutarajjila), who nevertheless manifests, ineluctably, the mannerisms and affectations of females. These traits may include the pitch of the voice, gait, the involuntary absence of facial hair, and related attributes that may be deemed feminine. The source of this feminine predisposition is considered by the jurists to fall well outside of any reasonable control, with the result that the congenital mukhannath is considered blameless insofar as he exhibits traits that are dispositional (khilqī) to him and that he has no reasonable ability to change.

In commenting on the hadith of “cursing,”[39] Imam al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277) states that because this is a “disposition (khilqa) upon which God created him,” the congenital mukhannath carries “no blame, no rebuke, no sin, and no penalty, and he is excused as he has no hand in that.”[40] Likewise, the Shāfiʿī jurist al-Shirbīnī (d. 977/1569-70) writes, “Whoever behaves with the affectations of women in his mannerisms and behavior, that is impermissible . . . but if that is his disposition (khilqa), then there is no blame.”[41] Ibn Baṭṭāl (d. 449/1057) states that holding a dispositional mukhannath liable for feminine affectations would be akin to holding a person blameworthy for the color of his skin or the shape of his body.[42] In his own explanation of the “cursing” tradition, Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449) writes, “Blame for imitating [women] in their speech and gait is specifically for the one who does so deliberately. As for him who, rooted in his created disposition (min aṣl khilqatihi), is like that, then he should be ordered to do his utmost to leave his affectations and what he has been habituated to gradually, for if he does not do so and persists in his ways, then he will be subject to blame.”[43] Unlike Imam al-Nawawī, Ibn Ḥajar asserts an obligation upon the mukhannath to endeavor to modify those traits that can, in fact, be normalized. For example, if a man’s walk is effeminate, then perhaps he can correct that through a prolonged attempt at habituating himself to walk without feminine affectations.

The unelected effeminate mannerisms manifested by the congenital mukhannath do not, however, give license for him to take on those affectations that are avoidable. While one’s speech or gait may not be the result of conscious volition, the way one dresses or adorns himself is. Accordingly, even the congenital mukhannath is barred from adopting the sartorial appearance of women; likewise, the mutarajjila is prohibited from taking on the sartorial appearance of men. This may also explain why Imam al-Bukhārī, in his Ṣaḥīḥ, places the “cursing” report specifically in the chapter on dress (kitāb al-libās).[44] Aware of the inherent subjectivities corresponding to gender-specific dress codes in different cultures, Ibn Ḥajar mentions that it is indeed possible that a given culture display no difference between the dress of men and women whatsoever. In such a case, Ibn Ḥajar holds that the mukhannath would minimally be required to refrain from observing hijab and from covering in accordance with other requirements specific to women.[45] Likewise, al-Shayzarī (d. 590/1194) states in his manual on market inspection (ḥisba) that the mukhannath’s beard should not be shaved,[46] an instruction not altogether uncommon in ḥisba works.[47]

Commenting on the hadith of Hīt, Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463/1071) writes:

Among the jurisprudential [rulings] drawn from this hadith is the permissibility of the mukhannathūn entering the company of women, even if they are not their unmarriageable kin (maḥram). The mukhannath for whom remaining in the company of women is not problematic is [the one] known among us today by [the term] muʾannath (feminine, effeminate); he is the one who lacks sexual desire for women, nor does he indicate [to others] matters that are [private] to them. This is the muʾannath mukhannath, for whom remaining in the company of women is not problematic. But if he comprehends [the distinct] characteristics of men and women as this mukhannath (i.e., Hīt) did in recounting [what he did] in the hadith, then it is not permissible for the women to sanction entry [for such a mukhannath] into their assemblies, nor is it permitted for him to enter their company in any way whatsoever. [By comprehending the interactive relations between women and men], he is no longer [considered] from those of whom God has said “the attendants who possess no sexual desire” (Q. al-Nūr 24:31). The mukhannath is not the one specifically known for committing a (grave) sexual transgression (fāḥisha)[48] and has it attributed to him. Rather, the mukhannath is [the one who] possesses acute effeminacy in his disposition to the point of resembling women in his gait, speech, [manner of] looking (i.e., at others), tone of voice, and in his mindset (ʿaql) and behavior, and this is the same whether he possesses the blemish of sexual transgression or not.[49]

Conspicuous in Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s description of the congenital mukhannath is his inclusion not only of effeminate mannerisms of gait and speech, but of mindset (ʿaql) as well. Mindset did not figure into the definition of effeminacy for the majority of jurists,[50] who limited their definitions of effeminacy to discrete physical manifestations. Such characteristics included, but were not limited to, effeminate speech, gait, gestures, and related features. In this regard, Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s definition of mukhannath represents a departure from the norm.

Scholars went to great pains to distinguish the blameworthy, affected character of the non-congenital mukhannath from the irreproachable nature of the congenital (khilqī) mukhannath. Indeed, rarely does a scholar cite the cursing report without making it clear that God’s curse is exclusively upon the non-congenital mukhannath who has deliberately taken on gender atypical affectations that are not constitutional to his nature. In writing about the congenital mukhannath, by contrast, the famous Mālikī jurist Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī (d. 684/1285) quotes the equally eminent Mālikī scholar Ibn Yūnus (d. 451/1059), who stated that “it is possible that [a mukhannath] be upright and God-fearing (muttaqī), for there was a mukhannath who would enter the home of God’s Messenger.”[51]

The blameless character of the congenital mukhannath constituted the basis of a number of legal rulings, some of which are synopsized below.

Sexual Relationships for the Congenital Mukhannath

Jurists often acknowledged, either explicitly or implicitly, a correlation between the behavioral idiosyncrasies of a congenital mukhannath related to gait, comportment, and speech, and the possibility—perhaps even the likelihood—that a congenital mukhannath’s sexual interest be directed towards members of the same sex. In explaining the hadith of Hīt, Ibn al-Jawzī writes, concerning the congenital mukhannath, “It is said [that they are from] ‘those who possess no sexual desire (ghayr ulī ’l-irba),’ meaning, need for women”[52]—precluding sexual desire for women, but not necessarily for men. Likewise, in his commentary on the same Hīt report, Ibn Ḥajar writes, “He is called mukhannath whether he commits sexual transgression (fāḥisha) or not,”[53] employing the very term for sexual transgression (fāḥisha) used in the Qurʾān with reference to the people of Lot (as).[54] In describing the blameworthy mukhannath, the Ḥanafī jurist Badr al-Dīn al-ʿAynī (d. 855/1453) writes, “Al-Qudūrī—may God have mercy on him—states, ‘Do not accept the testimony of the mukhannath.’ What is meant by this is the mukhannath whose behavior is corrupt, meaning behaving like women in their adornment and dress, imitating them in their actions and speech, and carrying out acts like that of sodomites (liwāṭa).”[55] The Damascene Ḥanafī mufti Ibn ʿĀbidīn (d. 1252/1836) defines the term mukhannith (with medial vowel i as opposed to a, denoting the active rather than the passive participle) as being synonymous with the term lūṭī, or sodomite,[56] though it should be noted that this was a rather uncommon vocalization of the word.[57]

Aside from these inferences of sodomy (liwāṭ), it does appear at some point that colloquial use of the term mukhannath became synonymous with maʾbūn, a term used to describe one who assumes the passive role in male-male anal intercourse. Exactly when this reinterpretation of mukhannath assumed idiomatic adoption is difficult to determine, though Khaled El-Rouayheb demonstrates its circulation in both “bawdy-erotic literature” and juristic works, including the writings of the prominent later jurists ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn al-Ḥaṣkafī (d. 1088/1677) and Aḥmad b. Aḥmad al-Dardīr (d. 1204/1786).[58] Everett Rowson affirms a synonymous usage of the terms mukhannath and baghghāʾ (a vernacular equivalent of maʾbūn) beginning as early as the ʿAbbāsid period.[59] The famous Arabic lexicographer al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī (d. 502/1108) employs the term mukhannath in this manner in his belletristic adab[60] work entitled Lectures (Muḥāḍarāt). In this work, al-Rāghib records a story of a mukhannath who boasts, “We are the best of people, for when we speak, you laugh; when we sing, you delight; and when we sleep, you ride.” Thereafter, this purported mukhannath meets an (active-role) sodomite (lūṭī) who says to him, “I am better than you, for I am on top (in sexual intercourse) and nearer to the sky,” to which the mukhannath responds, “I am humbler than you, being nearer to the ground (i.e., during intercourse as the passive partner, or maʾbūn).”[61]

Despite this development, it is quite clear, given a full accounting of juristic and scholarly writings, that a distinction between congenital and non-congenital effeminacy was maintained, and that moral reprobation was limited to him who took on feminine mannerisms voluntarily (or, in the case of involuntary effeminacy, did not sufficiently work to mitigate those mutable dispositional affects, as per some jurists like Ibn Ḥajar). Colloquial usage only factored in juristically when examining mitigating considerations for suspending a ḥadd punishment for slanderous accusation (qadhf)—given the socially damaging effects of calling someone a mukhannath—or in belletristic literature which held no legal or theological weight to speak of.

Though the sexual attractions of a congenital mukhannath may predominate towards the same sex, scholars were unanimous in upholding Islam’s unqualified prohibition of same-sex acts. However, because the mukhannathūn—in contrast to the khunthā mushkil—are unambiguously male, they are permitted to marry and have sexual relations with females, should they so desire, within the bounds of a religiously sanctioned relationship.

The Imāma of the Congenital Mukhannath

In a tradition recorded in the canonical work of al-Bukhārī, ʿUbayd Allāh b. ʿAdī inquires of the then caliph ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān regarding the imāma (or leadership of the prayer), as prayers were being led by the very people carrying out acts of sedition against the caliphate. In response, ʿUthmān advises him to follow others in prayer, because virtuous conduct is worth emulating, and nothing is more virtuous than prayer.[62] After the narration concludes, al-Bukhārī cites al-Zuhrī as saying, “In our opinion one should not offer prayer behind an effeminate person (mukhannath) unless there is no alternative.”[63]

The use of “mukhannath” here by al-Zuhrī is understood to refer to one who has consciously taken on feminine traits, not to the one who is congenitally effeminate.[64] The impermissibility of praying behind a non-congenital, or deliberate, mukhannath corresponds to discussions surrounding the permissibility—or lack thereof—of praying behind someone who is morally corrupt (fāsiq).[65] Although many scholars regarded prayer behind such a sinner as reprehensible (makrūh), others held it as formally impermissible by default and only permitted it on grounds of necessity. As for the congenital mukhannath, his serving as an imam for prayer does not pose any legal difficulties, as there is no moral corruption (fisq) associated with his conduct.

Keeping the Company of Non-Maḥram Women (Ajnabiyyāt)

A notable dispensation provided by the majority of jurists to the congenital mukhannath is the permissibility for him to remain in the company of non-maḥram marriageable women (ajnabiyyāt) whilst unveiled, contingent on the mukhannath not possessing any desire (shahwa) for women. This permission is rooted in the aforementioned prophetic tradition in which the mukhannath Hīt sat in the assemblies of women with the tacit permission of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Additionally, the verse in Sūrat al-Nūr delimiting specific groups of people in front of whom women are permitted to unveil includes “male attendants who possess no sexual desire (al-tābiʿīna ghayri ulī ’l-irbati min al-rijāl)” (al-Nūr 24:31), a reference commonly understood to include congenital mukhannathūn amongst others (e.g., the elderly, eunuchs, etc.).[66] In a number of the Hīt reports, the Prophet’s wife ʿĀʾisha (ra) describes Hīt as having been deemed from among those males who “possess no sexual desire (for women).”[67]

A minority of jurists forbade the congenital mukhannath from staying in female assemblies, citing the same report concerning Hīt who, after relating the belly folds of one of the women to a man, was thenceforth forbidden from keeping the company of ajnabiyyāt. At the conclusion of one of the Hīt reports, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) instructs the women saying, “Do not allow those (i.e., the mukhannathūn) to enter into your company.” The use of the third person plural pronoun “those” (hāʾulāʾi) is interpreted by these jurists as denoting a broader normative proscription, i.e., that the prohibition applies to the mukhannathūn as a class and not just to Hīt as an individual—a position held by the Shāfiʿīs[68] as well as by jurists of the Ḥanafī school.[69]

V. al-Mukhannath Ghayr al-Khilqī (The Non-Congenital Mukhannath)

Aside from those congenitally predisposed to effeminacy, the category of mukhannath includes a second class of people who, unlike the previous group, are not congenitally predisposed thereto but who choose, rather, to adopt such affectations deliberately. In so doing, this second class of mukhannathūn are subject to the curse of God as reported in the well-known hadith, “God has cursed effeminate men and mannish women.”[70] This is because those congenitally predisposed to effeminacy are seen as merely manifesting behavioral patterns that are beyond their conscious control—and, therefore, moral agency—whereas those not congenitally mukhannath who deliberately take on feminine mannerisms are subject to moral opprobrium on account of their impersonation of gender traits proper to the other sex that are not dispositional to them. Additionally, it was generally understood that many such persons affected effeminacy for the express purpose of carrying out immoral acts, typically as prostitutes offering themselves to other men as the passive partner.[71]

Scholars classified the non-congenital mukhannath as a profligate, and subsumed such persons under the profile of the morally corrupt (fāsiqūn). Accordingly, jurists differed over whether one was permitted to pray behind a non-congenital mukhannath, admit his testimony in court, eat the meat he slaughtered, or marry upright women to him. To be sure, the act of deliberate effeminacy is no grounds for anathematization (takfīr) and the non-congenital mukhannath indeed remains a Muslim, albeit a sinful one. Moreover, scholars cautioned against using the term mukhannath as a derogatory epithet, with the majority of madhhabs going so far as to regard it as a slanderous accusation (qadhf) categorized under the divinely stipulated ḥadd crimes. This classification was rooted in the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) prescription of twenty lashes for falsely accusing someone of being a mukhannath. Aside from a like slur being considered a ḥadd offense, early reports indicate that scholars disliked the term’s usage when deployed speculatively, even if done in a non-accusatory context. In one such report, the famous Successor ʿAṭāʾ b. Abī Rabāḥ (d. 115/732) instructed his students to “repeat ritual purification (wuḍūʾ), prayer, and fasting” for having referred to a man with overtly effeminate traits as a mukhannath after his departure.[72]

VI. Conclusions Concerning Gender Nonconformity in Sunni Islam

On the basis of the above discussion, we can make a number of normative assertions concerning Sunni Islam’s position on gender nonconformity:

  1. Gender is of two discrete types: male and female.
  2. Gender is normatively presumed on the basis of unambiguous biological constitution.
  3. In the event of physiological ambiguities, either on account of hermaphroditism or genital agenesis, the Sharīʿa provides methods by which gender can be established. Should these methods fail, a minority of scholars permit the ambiguous individual to make a non-revocable gender selection, after which he or she is treated in accord with the gender chosen, while the majority continue regarding the individual as “ambiguous” (mushkil) and consider marriage impermissible for such a person.
  4. Mannish behavior (for women) and effeminate behavior (for men) are impermissible if taken on deliberately. If, however, effeminate behavior manifests in a male dispositionally (khilqatan)—hence lying outside of his conscious control—then those (unelected) mannerisms are not deemed sinful. The effeminate male (mukhannath) is required, by some jurists, to attenuate to the extent possible those traits—such as gait, voice, and other mannerisms—that may be liable to correction through conscious habituation.
  5. If male effeminacy is paired with an absence of sexual desire for women, then the effeminate male is permitted to remain in the private company of marriageable non-maḥram women (ajnabiyyāt) according to the majority of scholars. This permission is contingent on the effeminate male upholding the confidentiality of the women in question, not divulging the specifics of their physique to unrelated men.
  6. Aside from the specific permission to enter into the company of non-maḥram women, a constitutionally effeminate male (al-mukhannath al-khilqī) is regarded and treated as a man in all other respects, subject to the same Sharīʿa rulings that would apply to any other male. Accordingly, he may lead prayer, testify and bear witness as a man, and marry a woman if he so desires. Conversely, he is required to refrain from liwāṭ (sodomy) and other forbidden sexual acts, even if his lack of desire for women is accompanied by a persistent inclination towards men.
  7. It is categorically impermissible for either a male or a female to dress in a manner that conclusively imitates the opposite sex. If men and women in a given culture dress in ways that are indistinguishable, then men must at least abstain from veiling and from covering in other ways that are specific to women.

In light of the normative Islamic categories, prescriptions, and proscriptions examined above, Part II of this study will consider contemporary discourses surrounding the issue of gender identity (in comparison to biological sex), gender roles, and transgenderism with a focus on the multifarious ways in which modern discourses surrounding these topics can or cannot be accommodated given the legal, ethical, and moral boundaries established by the Sharīʿa.

And Allah knows best. 

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NOTES

[1]wa laysa ’l-dhakaru ka’l-unthā‍ ‍” (Qurʾān, Āl ʿImrān 3:36).
[2] Haley Branson-Potts, “For Transgender Community, Bruce Jenner Interview Feels like Turning Point,” The Los Angeles Times, accessed May 28, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/‌lanow/la-me-ln-for-transgender-community-bruce-jenner-feels-like-turning-point-20150425-story.html.
[3] Itay Hod, “How Caitlyn Jenner Went from Icon to Outcast,” The Wrap, accessed May 28, 2017, http://www.thewrap.com/how-caitlyn-jenner-went-from-icon-to-outcast.
[4] Dominic Patten, “Bruce Jenner Interview Ratings Hits Newsmag Demo Record In Live 3,” Deadline, April 29, 2015, accessed April 17, 2017, http://deadline.com/2015/04/bruce-jennerinterview-ratings-diane-sawyer-20-20-1201416149.
[5] Elena Schneider, “The Bathroom Bill That Ate North Carolina,” POLITICO Magazine, March 23, 2017, accessed April 12, 2017, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03‌/the-bathroom-bill-that-ate-north-carolina-214944.
[6] “NBA moves North Carolina All-Star game over ‘bathroom bill’,” BBC News, July 22, 2016, accessed May 5, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36863216.
[7] Katherine Peraltak, “Updated list: Who has spoken for, against NC’s new LGBT law,” The Charlotte Observer, accessed May 10, 2017, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/business/article69251877.html.
[8] Madison Park, Eliott C. McLaughlin, and Jason Hanna, “North Carolina repeals ‘bathroom bill’,” CNN, March 30, 2017, accessed May 3, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/30/politics‌/north-carolina-hb2-agreement.
[9] “U.S. Supreme Court Sends Landmark Transgender Rights Case Back to Lower Court,” Americans United, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.au.org/church-state/april-2017-church-state/people-events/us-supreme-court-sends-landmark-transgender.
[10] Moriah Balingit, “Court dismisses lawsuit by student ‘distressed’ over schools’ transgender policy,” The Washington Post, April 13, 2017, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/court-dismisses-lawsuit-by-student-distressed-over-schools-tran‌sgender-policy/2017/04/13/32035504-2077-11e7-a0a7-8b2a45e3dc84_story.html?utm_term‌=.2b4860927209.
[11] See Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 1 ed. (Damascus: Dār Ibn Kathīr, 1423/2002), no. 2590.
[12] See Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-ʿarab, 1 ed., 6 vols. (Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1429/2008), 1272
[13] “Allah’s Messenger ﷺ forbade turning water skins upside down and drinking from their mouths” (nahā al-nabiyyu—ṣallā ’Llāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam—ʿan ikhtināth al-asqiya). See Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj, al-Jāmiʿ al-ṣaḥīḥ, ed. Abū Qutayba Naẓar b. Muḥammad al-Faryābī, 1 ed., 2 vols. (Riyadh: Dār Ṭayba li’l-Nashr wa’l-Tawzīʿ, 1427/2006), no. 2023.
[14] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, no. 5546.
[15] Ibid., no. 5547.
[16] See Muḥammad al-Saffārīnī, Ghidhāʾ al-albāb fī sharḥ Manẓūmat al-Ādāb, ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Khālidī, 1 ed., 2 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1417/1996), 2:131-132. See also Sulaymān b. Aḥmad al-Ṭabarānī, al-Muʿjam al-kabīr, ed. Ḥamdī ʿAbd al-Majīd al-Salafī, 1 ed., 25 vols. (Cairo: Maktabat Ibn Taymiyya, 1429/2008), no. 7827.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Hīt is the most common name given for this mukhannath, but others have speculated that he was called Mātiʿ or Hinb. See ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Ibn al-Jawzī, Talqīḥ fuhūm ahl al-athar fī ʿuyūn al-tārīkh wa’l-siyar, 1 ed. (Beirut: Dār al-Arqam b. Abī al-Arqam, 1418/1997), 511.
[19] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, no. 4069.
[20] Ibid., no. 663.
[21] Abū Dāwūd al-Sijistānī, Sunan Abī Dāwūd, ed. Muḥammad b. Ṣāliḥ al-Rājiḥī (Riyadh: Bayt al-Afkār al-Dawliyya, n.d.), no. 4928.
[22] Muḥammad b. Yazīd Ibn Mājah, Sunan Ibn Mājah, ed. Muḥammad Fuʾād ʿAbd al-Baqāʾ, 1 ed., 2 vols. (Cairo: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Kutub al-ʿArabiyya, n.d.), no. 2568 and Muḥammad b. ʿĪsā al-Tirmidhī, Sunan al-Tirmidhī, ed. Abū ʿUbayda b. Ḥasan Āl Salmān, 1 ed., 6 vols. (Riyadh: Maktabat al-Maʿārif li’l-Nashr wa’l-Tawzīʿ, n.d.), no. 1462.
[23] See, for instance, Ibn Abī Shayba, al-Adab, ed. Muḥammad Riḍā Qahwajī, 1 ed. (Beirut: Dār al-Bashāʾir al-Islāmiyya, 1420/1999), 236, as well as idem, Muannaf, ed. Kamāl Yūsuf al-Ḥūt, 1 ed., 7 vols. (Riyadh: Maktabat al-Rushd, 1409/1988), 5:319.
[24] Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-ʿarab, 1272.
[25] Ibn Qudāma al-Maqdisī, al-Mughnī, 10 vols. (Cairo: Maktabat al-Qāhira, 1388/1968), 6:336.
[26] Abū Bakr al-Bayhaqī, al-Sunan al-kubrā, ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Qādir ʿAṭā, 3 ed., 11 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1424/2003), 6:427.
[27] Jamāl al-Dīn al-Zaylaʿī, Naṣb al-rāya li-aḥādīth al-Hidāya, ed. Muḥammad ʿAwwāma, 1 ed., 5 vols. (Jeddah: Dār al-Qibla li’l-Thaqāfa al-Islāmiyya, 1418/1997), 4:417.
[28] See Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī, Irwāʾ al-ghalīl fī takhrīj aḥādīth Manār al-sabīl, 1 ed., 9 vols. (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islāmī, 1399/1979), 6:152.
[29] al-Zaylaʿī, Naṣb al-rāya, 4:417.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī examines the probative value of transmissions containing the wording “from where the urine passes” in his Talkhīṣ al-ḥabīr. In this work, he questions the hadiths that have been mentioned here, but considers this statement of Imam ʿAlī (ra) to have a sound chain of transmission (isnād ṣaḥīḥ). See Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Talkhīṣ al-ḥabīr fī takhrīj aḥādīth al-Rāfiʿī al-kabīr, 1 ed., 4 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya: 1419/1989), 1: 355.
[33] See Abū Bakr al-Kāsānī, Badāʾiʿ al-ṣanāʾiʿ fī tartīb al-sharāʾiʿ, 2 ed., 7 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1406/1986), 7:327-330. See also Muḥammad al-Ḥaṭṭāb, Mawāhib al-Jalīl fī sharḥ Mukhtaṣar al-Khalīl, ed. Muḥammad Yaḥyā b. Muḥammad al-Amīn al-Shanqīṭī, 1 ed., 7 vols. (Nouakchott: Dār al-Riḍwān, 1431/2010), 6:639-643.
[34] al-Kāsānī, Badāʾiʿ al-ṣanāʾiʿ, 7:327-330.
[35] Ibid., 328.
[36] Ibn Qudāma, al-Mughnī, 7:207. See also Muḥammad b. Ṣāliḥ al-ʿUthaymīn, al-Sharḥ al-mumtiʿ ʿalā Zād al-mustaqniʿ, ed. ʿUmar b. Sulaymān al-Ḥufyān, 1 ed., 15 vols. (Riyadh: Dār Ibn al-Jawzī, 1422/2002), 12:73.
[37] Badīʿa ʿAlī Aḥmad, al-Jawānib al-fiqhiyya al-mutaʿalliqa bi taghyīr al-jins (Alexandria: Dār al-Fikr al-Jāmiʿī, 2011), 117.
[38] See, e.g., AMJA Fatwa Committee, “Fatwa-21701 – The Inheritance of a Transsexual Person,” accessed May 4, 2017, http://www.amjaonline.org/fatwa-21701/info. This is in contrast to a surgical procedure carried out to modify or remove healthy genitalia as part of a so-called “gender reassignment,” which is prohibited by the consensus of Sunni legal scholars.
[39] See section “II: Elucidating Terms” above.
[40] Abū Zakariyyā al-Nawawī, al-Minhāj fī sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 1 ed., 18 vols. (Cairo: al-Maṭbaʿa al-Miṣriyya bi’l-Azhar, 1347/1929), 14:164.
[41] Muḥammad b. al-Khaṭīb al-Shirbīnī, Mughnī al-muḥtāj ilā maʿrifat maʿānī alfāẓ al-Minhāj, ed. Muḥammad Khalīl ʿAytānī, 1 ed., 6 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Maʿrifa, 1418/1997), 4:573-574.
[42] Abū al-Ḥusayn Ibn Baṭṭāl, Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, ed. Abū Tamīm Yāsir b. Ibrāhīm, 1 ed., 10 vols. (Riyadh: Maktabat al-Rushd, 1423/2003), 9:141.
[43] Aḥmad b. ʿAlī Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Fatḥ al-Bārī bi sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, ed. Naẓr b. Muḥammad al-Faryābī, 1 ed., 19 vols. (Riyadh: Dār Ṭayba, 1426/2005), 13:381-382.
[44] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, no. 5546, 5547.
[45] Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī, 13:381-382.
[46] ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Naṣr al-Shayzarī, Nihāyat al-rutba al-arīfa fī alab al-isba al-sharīfa, 1 vol. (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat Lajnat al-Taʾlīf wa’l-Tarjama wa’l-Nashr, n.d.), 88.
[47] See, for instance, Muḥammad b. al-Ukhuwwa, Maʿālim al-qurba fī alab al-isba (Cambridge: Dār al-Funūn, n.d.), 156.
[48] Although Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr does not expressly use the term sodomy, it is likely that this is a reference to it. See following section entitled “Sexual Relationships for the Congenital Mukhannath” for a more detailed treatment of the relationship or lack thereof between effeminacy and sodomy.
[49] Yūsuf b. ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Tamhīd li-mā fī al-Muwaṭṭaʾ min al-maʿānī wa’l-asānīd, ed. Saʿīd Aḥmad Aʿrāb, 2 ed., 26 vols. (Morocco: Wizārat al-Awqāf wa’l-Shuʾūn al-Islāmiyya, 1410/1990), 22:269-275.
[50] In my research I was unable to identify a single scholar echoing the definition furnished by Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (with the exception of those who simply cited Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s own statement).
[51] Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī, al-Dhakhīra, ed. Saʿīd Aḥmad Aʿrāb and Muḥammad Ḥijjī, 1 ed., 14 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1414/1994), 12:93.
[52] ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Ibn al-Jawzī, Kashf al-mushkil min ḥadīth al-Ṣaḥīḥayn, ed. ʿAlī Ḥusayn al-Bawwāb, 4 vols. (Riyadh: Dār al-Waṭan, 1418/1997), 4:400.
[53] Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī, 11:691.
[54] See, for example, al-Aʿrāf 7:80.
[55] Badr al-Dīn al-ʿAynī, al-Bināya fī shar al-Hidāya, ed. Ayman Ṣāliḥ Shaʿbān, 1 ed., 13 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1420/2000), 9:264.
[56] See here Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-muḥtār ʿalā al-Durr al-mukhtār, 6 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1992/1412), vol. 4, 69. It should be noted that in al-Mawsūʿa al-fiqhiyya al-Kuwaytiyya, this definition is cited from IbnʿĀbidīn by way of Ibn Nujaym (d. 970/1563), though Ibn ʿĀbidīn makes no such attribution in his Radd al-muḥtār. See al-Mawsūʿa al-fiqhiyya al-Kuwaytiyya, Wizārat al-Awqāf wa’l-Shuʾūn al-Islāmiyya, 1 ed., 45 vols. (Cairo: Dār al-Ṣafwa, 1417/1996), 36:264.
[57] Many scholars—including those cited in this article—state that the mukhannath is explicitly not defined by the practicing of a particular sexual transgression (i.e., sodomy), and is instead viewed as an effeminate male on the basis of observable and constitutional features. The late Salafi scholar ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Ibn Bāz (d. 1420/1999) expressly repudiates what he regards as a modern misconception, namely, that the term mukhannath is synonymous with lūṭī (sodomite). Additionally, the 18th-century lexicographer al-Murtaḍā al-Zabīdī (d. 1205/1790) writes that the usage of mukhannath to refer to an act of sexual indecency was “unknown to the Arabs, is non-existent in their speech, and is not an intended use of the term in ḥadīth.” See ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Ibn Bāz, Majmūʿ fatāwā Ibn Bāz, ed. Muḥammad b. Saʿd al-Shuwayʿir, 1 ed., 30 vols. (Mawqiʿ Ibn Bāz, n.d.), 3:369 and al-Murtaḍā al-Zabīdī, Tāj al-ʿarūs min jawāhir al-qāmūs, 40 vols. (Dār al-Hidāya, n.d.), 5:241.
[58] Khaled El-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 22.
[59] Everett K. Rowson, “The Effeminates of Early Medina,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 111, no. 4 (1991), 685-689.
[60] The term adab here should not be confused with its colloquial and classical usage denoting moral refinement. In the medieval period, a genre of writings under the heading adab comprised works anthologizing poetry, prose, maxims, religious invocations, and more. For a fuller treatment of the subject, see Francesco Gabrieli, “Adab,” in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., accessed June 21, 2017, http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1573-3912_islam_SIM_0293. See also Encyclopædia Britannica, “Adab,” accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.britannica.‌com/art/adab-literature.
[61] al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī, Muḥāḍarāt al-udabāʾ wa muāwarāt al-shuʿarāʾ, ed. ʿUmar al-Ṭabbāʿ, 2 vols. (Dār al-Arqam, 1420/1999), 1:277-278.
[62] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, no. 663.
[63] Ibid.
[64] See al-Mawsūʿa al-fiqhiyya al-Kuwaytiyya, 11:63 as well as 36:267. See also Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī, 2:578, where Ibn Ḥajar states that al-Zuhrī’s statement is intended for the one who impersonates women deliberately and not the one who resembles women in his mannerisms dispositionally.
[65] Ibid.
[66] Ibn Qudāma, al-Mughnī, 7:104. See also al-Ṭabarī’s Tafsīr, in which he cites a report from the Successor ʿIkrima (d. 105/723) explaining “attendants who possess no desire” as meaning “a mukhannath who does not experience arousal.” Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān, ed. ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbd al-Muḥsin al-Turkī, 26 vols. (Cairo: Dār Hajr li’l-Ṭibāʿa wa’l-Nashr wa’l-Tawzīʿ, 1422/2001), 17:270.
[67] See, for example, Muslim, al-Jāmiʿ al-ṣaḥīḥ, no. 2181.
[68] See, for example, al-Bayān fī madhhab al-Imām al-Shāfiʿī: “It is not permissible for a eunuch to see the body of an ajnabiyya. Ibn Ṣabbāgh stated, ‘unless he be aged and enfeebled such that his sexual desires have gone. And [this is] likewise for the mukhannath.’‍ ‍” The eminent Shāfiʿī jurist Abū al-Qāsim al-Rāfiʿī (d. 623/1226) reports both the position permitting the mukhannath who lacks sexual desire to see ajnabiyyāt unveiled, as well as the dominant view reported here. In explicating the dominant position of impermissibility, al-Rāfiʿī notes in his al-Sharḥ al-kabīr that the marriageability of the mukhannath factors into the treating of him like any other male (at least in this regard). For details, see Shams al-Dīn al-Ramlī, Nihāyat al-muḥtāj ilā sharḥ al-Minhāj, 8 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1404/1984), 6:187, as well as Abū al-Ḥusayn Yaḥyā b. Abī al-Khayr al-ʿImrānī, al-Bayān fī madhhab al-Imām al-Shāfiʿī, ed. Qāsim Muḥammad al-Nūrī, 1 ed., 13 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Minhāj, 1421/2000), 9:128. See also ʿAbd al-Karīm b. Muḥammad al-Rāfiʿī, al-ʿAzīz sharḥ al-Wajīz (al-maʿrūf bi al-Sharḥ al-kabīr), ed. ʿAlī Muḥammad Muʿawwaḍ and ʿĀdil Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Mawjūd, 1 ed., 13 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1417/1997), 7:473. Also Abū Zakariyyā al-Nawawī, Rawḍat al-ṭālibīn wa ʿumdat al-muftīn, ed. Zuhayr al-Shāwīsh, 3 ed., 12 vols. (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islāmī, 1412/1991), 7:23.
[69] See Muḥammad al-Sarakhsī, al-Mabsūṭ, 30 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Maʿrifa, 1414/1993), 10:158 and Muḥammad Jamāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī al-Bābartī, al-ʿInāya sharḥ al-Hidāya, 10 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, n.d.), 10:36-37.
[70] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, no. 5546.
[71] See Robert Irwin, “Futuwwa: Chivalry and Gangsterism in Medieval Cairo,” Muqarnas Online 21, no. 1 (2004), doi:10.1163/22118993-90000062, 165.
[72] Muḥammad b. Jaʿfar al-Kharāʾiṭī, Masāwiʾ al-akhlāq wa madhmūmuhā, ed. Muṣṭafā b. Abī Naṣr al-Shalabī (Jeddah: Maktabat al-Sawādī li’l-Tawzīʿ, 1412/1992), 316. See also Ibn Abī al-Dunyā, al-amt wa ādāb al-lisān, ed. Abū Isḥāq al-Ḥuwaynī, 1 ed. (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʿArabī, 1410/1989), 126.

Mobeen Vaid is an activist in his local community, regularly delivering khutbahs and volunteering with Muslim non-profits. He is a student of traditional islamic sciences, and is a contributing writer for MuslimMatters.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Yusuf Smith

    July 24, 2017 at 3:16 AM

    السلام عليكم

    Aside from the non-permissibility of adopting the mannerisms of the other gender, another issue that makes the purported switching of gender problematic in Islam is the deception it necessarily involves, particularly in the early stages: someone adopts a feminine persona with a woman’s name, wears female clothing (often more so than many real women do) and then expect others to refer to them as a woman, and woe betide anyone who refuses. Nowadays the prevailing dogma is that you don’t have to even intend to have surgery – you can be a “non-op” transgender person and be no less a woman than someone who is actually female, which we are now informed is a “social construct”! Lying is known to be haraam in Islam other than in specific circumstances, but these people put words like real, true etc in quote marks.

  2. Avatar

    Ibn Khalid

    July 25, 2017 at 12:54 PM

    Asalaamu Alaikum,

    Thank you for this wonderful and deeply researched article! May Allah bless you and and your family, insha’Allah.

    I had a question: could you define, or point to sources that define “Mannish” or “Effeminate” behavior, or is that something to be defined by local scholars based on local, normative definitions? If the latter, than it seems to me the practical application of these ideas, especially in western societies, is akin to kicking a football at a moving goalpost.

    If a brother/sister goes to an Imam or a Mufti and expresses their gender dysphoria while asking for guidance, what guidelines should that person use outline the boundaries of appropriate behavior (aside from the obvious don’t engage in homosexual sex, don’t spend time with non-mahram persons of the opposite gender, etc.) If, in order to avoid the Curse of Allah (may Allah be pleased with all of us), the brother or sister needs to be less “womanly” or “mannish” respectively, what framework can scholars use to define that for their society, particularly when those definitions are so fluid?

    For example, my friends and I are not homosexuals, nor do we suffer from Gender Dysphoria. We’re also practicing Muslims, Alhamdulillah. However, we are incredibly affectionate with one another. Hugging, jokingly blowing kisses, declaring our brotherly love openly in ways that would most certainly be considered “effeminate” by even modern standards. I’ve never met any scholar who would consider this unacceptable behavior, but if you asked 100 people, most would consider it “effeminate”, which by the logic of this writing, would make it impermissible…at least until it became normatively male or unisexual behavior.

    I hope my example illustrates the practical issue here. What is “effeminate” in one society is not in another, even among things that are generally considered permissible. I think this is an important issue for Islamic Scholarship to explore so that we can give community leaders and advisors frameworks to help them navigate this complex issue.

    • Mobeen Vaid

      Mobeen Vaid

      July 25, 2017 at 11:11 PM

      Salam Ibn Khalid,

      I pray you are well and thank you for the thoughtful question. The fluidity of mannish and effeminate constructions would certainly obscure what those two things entail in a given society. The congenital mukhannath is one whose effeminacy is dispositional and reflected in his actual conduct (namely gait and voice). One who impersonates those traits (by consciously taking them on) would belong to the category of accursed individuals, and the principle characteristic outside of those that have been mentioned (i.e., gait and voice) is dress and associated adornment (i.e., think lipstick, etc.). Certain things like declaring one’s love is rooted in the Shari’a, even between two people of the same gender – The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said: “If one of you loves his brother, let him tell him.” Narrated by al-Tirmidhi (2392).

      Aside from that, some conduct may not necessarily fit within the category of impermissible takhannuth, but may, however, be viewed as “unbecoming” according to custom and circumstance. Scholars referred to such conduct using the term “khawarim al-muru’a,” or those things which are regarded as unsuitable for a person in a given situation/environment, or perhaps just seen as undignified. It is my sense that some scholars may view some of your groups conduct as fitting into this latter category of activity, but again I’m not sure as I dont know you or your friends. I am certainly not equipped to provide you a definitive response, and I would encourage you to find an imam that you consider trustworthy, socially aware, and willing to provide you honest feedback if you are indeed concerned about your conduct and wanting to please Allah. That desire and concern itself is praiseworthy, and I ask Allah to reward you for it. Allah Knows Best.

      Sorry for not being of more help, and thank you for the kind words. May Allah bless you and your family as well, and may he reunite us and your friends in Jannah. Ameen.

  3. Avatar

    Farhan

    July 25, 2017 at 1:40 PM

    Aside from the summary you provided, our system of behavior is prescriptive for behavior, not descriptive. Its really interesting that they had a method to determine one’s gender.
    Both here obviously differs from a lot of modern thought. Interesting.

  4. Avatar

    Deborah Elaine DeWitt

    July 27, 2017 at 8:51 AM

    For more than 1200 years, Islamic Scholars encouraged female circumcision. Did the practice of female circumcision remove gender ambiguity literally?

    • Avatar

      Yusuf Smith

      July 27, 2017 at 3:08 PM

      No, because female circumcision is not the same as surgery performed on ambiguous genitals (which was widely performed by surgeons in western hospitals on nearly all such children until very recently, intended to make them look more normal).

  5. Avatar

    Aisha

    August 6, 2017 at 10:47 PM

    JazakAllah khair for this article! Desperately needed especially in today’s times.

  6. Avatar

    zaynab elbustan

    August 24, 2017 at 6:54 PM

    he Body of the Condemned Sally: Paths to Queering anarca-Islam:

    Abstract

    The ‘case’ I investigate is of Sayyid-Sally, an Egyptian transsexual medical student at Al-Azhar University, a pre-eminent institution for Islamic religious studies, who was expelled in 1982 because of her gendered identity. In this article I examine Al-Azhar’s position, judicial edict, or Fatwa, regarding Sayyid-Sally. For even after the revelation of Sayyid-Sally’s identity, her sex change operation and even after Al-Azhar admitted the existence of the category of the “Hermaphrodite” in certain Islamic legal interpretations, heteronormative gender orientations were still re-established and re-worked by Al-Azhar. I make the case that Al-Azhar’s position corresponds to a binary logical order which makes distinction between Natural Hermaphrodite and Un-natural Hermaphrodite. Sayyid-Sally was tolerated at best, even when 9 years later the Administrative Court of Cairo repealed Al-Azhar’s decision of expelling Sayyid-Sally. I argue that Anarchism as a political and philosophical orientation, can uniquely inform Islam, and move the debate beyond a practice or mere tolerance to help develop a doctrine of acceptance. I do this to help open-minded (non-essentialist/non-dogmatic) Muslims and anarchists better understand each other, and therefore to more effectively collaborate in the context of what Richard J.F. Day has called the ‘newest’ social movements.

    https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/mohamed-jean-veneuse-the-body-of-the-condemned-sally-paths-to-queering-anarca-islam

  7. Avatar

    Zahra

    February 5, 2019 at 12:32 AM

    Salaam!
    Looking for part 2 and not finding it. Mind linking it here?
    Thanks!

  8. Avatar

    Yusuf

    March 9, 2019 at 11:56 PM

    Assalamualaikum,
    I have a few questions which I would greatly appreciate being answered as I have not been able to find anything anywhere else.If a male wanted to have a more pleasant look like a younger male is this considered haram since a younger male is also less masculine? What would the legality be of one who has a more masculine than average body, who does not dress nor act like a member of the other gender but attempts to make this body less masculine by reducing/limiting the growth of his more outstanding characteristics (thick beard,muscular appearance,etc.)I’m not sure if this falls under the scope of this article or if it is an appropriate question to ask you, but if it’s not could you direct to where I can find the answers to my questions?

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#Islam

The Spirituality Of Gratitude

Shaykh Tarik Ata

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Gratitude

The Quran tells the reader of the importance of gratitude in two ways. First, worship, which is the essence of the relationship between man and the Creator, is conditional to gratitude “and be grateful to Allah if it is [indeed] Him that you worship” (2:172). The verse suggests that in order for an individual to truly worship Allah then they must express gratitude to Allah and that an ungrateful individual cannot be a worshiper of Allah. The second verse states the following “And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me” (2:152). The Arabic word used, translated here as ‘deny,’ is kufr which linguistically means to cover up. The word was adopted by the Quran to refer to someone who rejects Allah after learning of Him. Both the linguistic and Quranic definitions are possibly meant in this verse and both arrive at the same conclusion. That is, the absence of gratitude is an indicator of one’s rejection of Allah; the question is how and why?

What Does Shukr Mean?

Understanding a Quranic concept begins with understanding the word chosen by the Quran. The word shukr is used throughout the Quran and is commonly translated as gratitude. From a purely linguistic definition, shukr is “the effect food has on the body of an animal” (Ibn Qayyim v. 2 p. 200). What is meant here is that when an animal eats food it becomes heavier which has a clear and visible effect on the animal. Therefore, shukr is the manifestation of a blessing or blessings on the entirety of a person. From here, spiritualists understood the goal of shukr and added an extra element to the definition and that is the acknowledgment that those blessings are from Allah. Thus, the definition of shukr as an Islamic spiritual concept is “the manifestation of Allah’s blessings verbally through praise and acknowledgment; emotionally on the heart through witnessing the blessings and loving Allah; and physically through submission and servitude” (Ibid).

Based on this definition, the goal of shukr can be broken into five categories. First, gratitude that brings about the submission of the individual to his benefactor. In order for an act to be worthy of gratitude, the beneficiary must conclude that the benefactor’s action was done for the sake of the beneficiary – thus making the benefactor benevolent. In other words, the benefactor is not benefiting in the least (Emmons et al 2004 p. 62). When the individual recognizes his benefactor, Allah, as being completely independent of the individual and perfect in of himself, one concludes that the actions of the benefactor are purely in the best interest of the beneficiary resulting in the building of trust in Allah. The Quran utilizes this point multiple times explicitly stating that Allah has nothing to gain from the creations servitude nor does he lose anything from because of their disobedience (Q 2:255, 4:133, 35:15, 47:38). Through shukr, a person’s spirituality increases by recognizing Allah’s perfection and their own imperfection thus building the feeling of need for Allah and trust in him (Emmons et al 2002 p. 463).

Gratitude in Knowing That Allah Loves Us

The second category is love for the benefactor. Similar to the previous category, by identifying the motive of the benefactor one can better appreciate their favors. “Gratitude is fundamentally a moral affect with empathy at its foundation: In order to acknowledge the cost of the gift, the recipient must identity with the psychological state of the one who has provided it” (Emmons 2002 p. 461).[1] That is, by recognizing Allah’s perfection one concludes that his blessings are entirely in the best interest of the beneficiary despite not bringing any return to Him. Thus, the Quran utilizes this concept repeatedly and to list a few, the Quran reminds the human reader that he created the human species directly with his two hands (38:75), he created them in the best physical and mental form (95:4), gave him nobility (17:70), commanded the angels to prostrate to him out of reverence (38:72-3), made him unique by giving him knowledge and language (2:31), exiled Satan who refused to revere him (7:13), allowed him into Paradise (7:19), forgave his mistake (2:37), designated angels to protect each individual (13:11) and supplicate Allah to forgive the believers (40:7-9), created an entire world that caters to his needs (2:29), among plenty of other blessings which express Allah’s love, care, and compassion of the human.

The remaining three categories revolve around the individual acting upon their gratitude by acknowledging them, praising Allah for them and using them in a manner acceptable to Allah. In order for gratitude to play a role in spirituality the blessings one enjoys must be utilized in a manner that connects them with Allah. Initially, one must acknowledge that all blessings are from him thus establishing a connection between the self and Allah. This is then elevated to where the individual views these blessings as more than inanimate objects but entities that serve a purpose. By doing this one begins to see and appreciate the wisdoms behind these created entities enlightening the individual to the Creators abilities and qualities. Finally, after recognizing the general and specific wisdoms behind each creation, one feels a greater sense of purpose, responsibility, and loyalty. That is, engaging the previous five categories establishes love for the benefactor (Ibn Qayyim v. 2 p. 203). Observing the care and compassion of the benefactor for his creation establishes the feeling of loyalty towards the one who has cared for us as well as responsibility since He created everything with purpose.

Blessings Even in Hardship

One may interject by referring to the many individuals and societies that are plagued with hardships and do not have blessings to appreciate. No doubt this is a reality and the Quran address this indirectly. Upon analysis, one finds that the blessings which the Quran references and encourages the reader to appreciate are not wealth or health; rather, it is the sun, the moon, trees, and the natural world in general. Perhaps the reason for this is what shukr seeks to drive us towards. There are two things all these objects have in common (1) they are gifts given by Allah to all humans and all individuals enjoy them and (2) humans are dependent upon them. Everyone has access to the sun, no one can take it away, and we are critically dependent upon it. When the Quran draws our attention to these blessings, the reader should begin to appreciate the natural world at a different level and Surah an Nahl does precisely that. This chapter was likely revealed during the time of hijrah (immigration); a time when the companions lost everything – their homes, wealth, and tribes. The chapter works to counsel them by teaching them that the true blessings a person enjoys is all around them and no matter how much was taken from them, no one can take away the greater blessings of Allah.

In sum, these verses bring light to the crucial role shukr plays in faith. It serves as a means to better know Allah which can be achieved through a series of phases. First, the individual must search for the blessings which then leads to a shift in perspective from focusing on the wants to focusing on what is available. This leads to greater appreciation and recognition of the positives in one’s life allowing the person more optimism. Second, the person must link those blessings to the benefactor – Allah – which reveals many elements of who He is and His concern for His creation. Once this is internalized in the person’s hearts, its benefits begin to manifest itself on the person’s heart, mind, and body; it manifests itself in the form of love for Allah and submission to him. Shukr ultimately reveals the extent of Allah’s love and concern for the individual which therein strengthens the trust and love of the individual for Allah and ultimately their submission to Him.

Allah knows best.

Emmons, Robert A., and Charles M. Shelton. “Gratitude and the science of positive psychology.” Handbook of positive psychology 18 (2002): 459-471.

Emmons, Robert A., and Michael E. McCullough, eds. The psychology of gratitude. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Jawziyyah, Ibn Qayyim. madārij al-sālikīn bayn manāzil iyyāka naʿbud wa iyyāka nastaʿīn مدارج السالكين بين منازل إياك نعبد وإياك نستعين [The Levels of Spirituality between the Dynamics of “It is You Alone we Worship and it is You Alone we Seek Help From]. Cario: Hadith Publications, 2005.

[1] Islamically speaking, it is not befitting to claim that Allah has a psyche or that he can be analyzed psychologically.

Download a longer version of this article here: The Sprituality of Gratitude

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Lessons From Surah Maryam: 1

Shaykh Furhan Zubairi

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Alhamdulillah, it’s a great blessing of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) that He has given us both the opportunity and ability to come here tonight to study and explore the meanings of His words in Surah Maryam. I’m truly grateful for this opportunity. May Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) accept this effort from all of us and place it on our scale of good deeds.

Alhamdulillah, in our last series we were able to complete the tafsir of Surah Al-Kahf. InshAllah, in this next series, we’ll be exploring the meanings, lessons, and reminders of Surah Maryam. Tafsīr is an extremely noble and virtuous discipline. The reason why it’s so noble and virtuous is that it’s the study of the divine speech of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). As mentioned in a hadith the superiority of the speech of Allah over all other speech is like the superiority of Allah over all of His creation. There’s nothing more beneficial and virtuous than studying the Quran. And by doing so we’ll be counted amongst the best of people. As the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “the best amongst you are those who learn the Quran and teach it.”

All of us need to build a stronger relationship with the Quran. The Quran is full of wisdom and guidance in every single verse and word. It’s our responsibility to seek that guidance, understand it, contextualize it and more importantly act upon it. Tafsīr is such a unique science that it brings together all of the other Islamic sciences. While exploring a Surah a person comes across discussions regarding Arabic grammar and morphology, rhetoric, Ahādīth, fiqh, sīrah and all those studies that are known as the Islamic Sciences. One scholar described the Quran as an ocean that has no shore, بحر لا ساحل له. The more we study the Qur’ān the stronger our relationship with it will become. We’ll become more and more attached to it and will be drawn into its beauty and wonder. The deeper a person gets into tafsir and studying the more engaged and interested they become. They also recognize how little they truly know. It develops humility. That’s the nature of true knowledge. The more we learn the more we recognize we don’t know. May Allah ﷻ allow us all to be sincere and committed students of the Qur’ān.

Surah Maryam

Surah Maryam is the 19th surah in the Quran. It is a relatively long Makki surah made up of 98 verses. Some commentators mention that it’s the 44th Surah to be revealed, after Surah Al-Fatir and before Surah Taha. It has been given the name Maryam because Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mentions the story of Maryam (as) and her family and how she gave birth to Isa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) miraculously at the beginning of the Surah. Just like other Makkan surahs, it deals with the most fundamental aspects of our faith. It talks about the existence and oneness of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), prophethood, and resurrection and recompense.

The Surah is made up of a series of unique stories filled with guidance and lessons that are meant as reminders. One of the main themes of this Surah is mercy… It has been mentioned over 16 times in this Surah. We’ll find the words of grace, compassion and their synonyms frequently mentioned throughout the sūrah, together with Allah’s attributes of beneficence and mercy. We can say that one of the objectives of the Surah is to establish and affirm the attribute of mercy for Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). That’s why all of the stories mentioned also have to do with Allah’s mercy.

Another objective of the Surah is to remind us of our relationship with Allah ﷻ; the concept of Al-‘Ubūdiyyah. These are the two major themes or ideas of this Surah; the concept of Rahmah and the concept of ‘Ubūdiyyah (Mercy and Servitude).

The Surah can be divided into 8 sections:

1) Verses 1-15: The surah starts with the story of Zakariyya (as) and how he was given the gift of a child at a very old age, which was something strange and out of the ordinary.

2) Verses 16-40: mention the story of Maryam and the miraculous birth of Isa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) without a father and how her community responded to her.

3) Verses 41-50: The surah then briefly mentions one part of the story of Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), specifically the conversation he had with his father regarding the worship of idols. The surah then briefly mentions a series of other Prophets.

4) Verses 51-58: Mention Musa and Haroon 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), Ismail 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and Idrees 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) to show that the essence of the message of all Prophets was the same

5) Verses 59-65: compare and contrast the previous generations with the current ones in terms of belief and actions.

6) Verses 66-72: Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) addresses the Mushrikoon rejecting their false claims regarding life after death and judgment.

7) Verses 73-87: continue to address the Mushrikoon and warn them regarding their attitude towards belief in Allah and His messengers. They also mention the great difference between the resurrection of the believer and the resurrection of the non-believer.

8) Verses 88-98: contain a severe warning to those who claim that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has taken a child. They also express that Allah is pleased with the believers and mentions that one of the objectives of the Quran is to give glad tidings to the believers and to warn the non-believers.

Story

From various narrations, we learn that this surah was revealed near the end of the fourth year of Prophethood. This was an extremely difficult time for Muslims. The Quraysh were frustrated with their inability to stop the message of Islam from spreading so they became ruthless. They resorted to any method of torture that they could think of; beating, starving and harassing. When the persecution became so severe that it was difficult for the Muslims to bear it, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) gave permission to migrate to Abyssinia. “For in it dwells a king in whose presence no one is harmed.” 10 men and 4 women migrated in the 5th year of Prophethood secretly. After a few months, a larger group of 83 men and 18 women migrated as well. This migration added more fuel to the fire. It enraged the people of Quraysh.

Umm Salamah [rahna]narrated, “When we stopped to reside in the land of Abyssinia we lived alongside the best of neighbors An-Najashi. We practiced our religion safely, worshipped Allah without harm and didn’t hear anything we disliked. When news of our situation reached the Quraysh they started to plot against us…” They decided to send two delegates to persuade An-Najashi to send the Companions back by offering him and his ministers’ gifts. The plan was to go to each minister with gifts and turn them against the Muslims. So they went to each minister with gifts and said, “Verily, foolish youth from amongst us have come to the country of your king; they have abandoned the religion of their people and have not embraced your religion. Rather they have come with a new religion that neither of us knows. The noblemen of their people, from their fathers and uncles, have sent us to the king asking that he send them back. So when we speak to the king regarding their situation advise him to surrender them to us and to not speak to them…” The minister agreed.

Then they went to the king, offered him gifts and said the same thing… The ministers tried to convince him as well. An-Najashi became angry with them and said, “No, by Allah, I will not surrender them to these two and I don’t fear the plotting of a people who have become my neighbors, have settled down in my country, and have chosen me (to grant them refuge) over every other person. I will not do so until I summon them and speak to them. If they are as these two say I will give them up, but if they aren’t then I will protect them from these two and continue to be a good neighbor to them as long as they are good neighbors to me.”

al-Najāshī then summoned the Prophet’s ﷺ Companions. When his messenger informed the Prophet’s Companions that they were to appear before the king, they gathered together to discuss what they should do. One of them asked, “What will you say to the name (al-Najāshī) when you go to him?” They all agreed on what they would say to him, “By Allah, we will say what our Prophet ﷺ taught us and commanded us with, regardless of the consequences.” Meanwhile, al-Najāshī called for his priests, who gathered around him with their scrolls spread out before them. When the Muslims arrived al-Najāshī began by asking them, “What is this religion for which you have parted from your people? You have not entered into the fold of my religion, nor the religion of any person from these nations.”

Umm Salamah [rahna] narrated, “The Person among us who would speak to him was Jaʿfar ibn abī Ṭālib [rahnu] who then said, “O king, we were an ignorant people: we worshipped idols, we would eat from the flesh of dead animals, we would perform lewd acts, we would cut off family ties, and we would be bad neighbors; the strong among us would eat from the weak. We remained upon that state until Allah sent us a Messenger, whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and chastity we already knew. He invited us to Allah – to believe in His oneness and to worship Him; to abandon all that we and our fathers worshipped besides Allah, in terms of stones and idols. He ﷺ commanded us to speak truthfully, to fulfill the trust, to join ties of family relations, to be good to our neighbors, and to refrain from forbidden deeds and from shedding blood. And he ﷺ forbade us from lewd acts, from uttering falsehood, from wrongfully eating the wealth of an orphan, from falsely accusing chaste women of wrongdoing. And he ﷺ ordered us to worship Allah alone and to not associate any partners with him in worship; and he ﷺ commanded us to pray, to give zakāh, and to fast.” He enumerated for al-Najāshī the teachings of Islam. He said, “And we believe him and have faith in him. We follow him in what he came with. And so we worship Allah alone, without associating any partners with Him in worship. We deem forbidden that which he has made forbidden for us, and we deem lawful that which he made permissible for us. Our people then transgressed against us and tortured us. The tried to force us to abandon our religion and to return from the worship of Allah to the worship of idols; they tried to make us deem lawful those abominable acts that we used to deem lawful. Then, when they subjugated us, wronged us, and treated us in an oppressive manner, standing between us and our religion, we came to your country, and we chose you over all other people. We desired to live alongside you, and we hoped that, with you, we would not be wronged, O king.” al-Najāshī said to Jaʿfar [rahnu], “Do you have any of that which he came with from Allah?” Jaʿfar [rahnu] said, “Yes”. “Then recite to me,” said al-Najāshī. Jaʿfar [rahnu] recited for him the beginning of Surah Maryam. By Allah, al-Najāshī began to cry, until his beard became wet with tears. And when his priests heard what Jaʿfar [rahnu] was reciting to them, they cried until their scrolls became wet. al-Najāshī then said, “By Allah, this and what Mūsa (as) came with come out of the same lantern. Then by Allah, I will never surrender them to you, and henceforward they will not be plotted against and tortured.”

Describing what happened after the aforementioned discussion between al-Najāshī and Jaʿfar [rahnu], Umm Salamah raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) said, “When both ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ and ʿAbdullah ibn abī Rabīʿah left the presence of al-Najāshī, ʿAmr [rahnu] said, “By Allah tomorrow I will present to him information about them with which I will pull up by the roots their very lives.” Abdullah ibn Rabīʿah who was more sympathetic of the two towards us said, “Don’t do so, for they have certain rights of family relations, even if they have opposed us.” ʿAmr said, “By Allah, I will inform him that they claim that ʿĪsā ibn Maryam is a slave.”

He went to the king on the following day and said, “O king, verily, they have strong words to say about ʿĪsa (as). Call them here and ask them what they say about him.” al-Najāshī sent for them in order to ask them about ʿĪsa. Nothing similar to this befell us before. The group of Muslims gathered together and said to one another, “What will you say about ʿĪsa when he asks you about him?” They said, “By Allah, we will say about him that which Allah says and that which our Prophet ﷺ came with, regardless of the outcome.” When they entered into his presence, he said to them, “What do you say about ʿĪsa ibn Maryam?” Jaʿfar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) said, “We say about him that which our Prophet ﷺ came with – that he is the slave of Allah, His messenger, a spirit created by Him, and His word, which he bestowed on Maryam, the virgin, the baṭūl.”

al-Najāshī struck his hand on the ground and took from it a stick. He then said, “ʿĪsa ibn Maryam did not go beyond what you said even the distance of the stick.” When he said this, his ministers spoke out in anger, to which he responded, “What I said is true even if you speak out in anger, by Allah. (Turning to the Muslims, he said) Go, for you are safe in my land. Whoever curses you will be held responsible. And I would not love to have a reward of gold in return for me hurting a single man among you. (Speaking to his ministers he said) Return to these two (men) their gifts, since we have no need for them. For by Allah, Allah did not take from me bribe money when He returned to me my kingdom, so why should I take bribe money. The two left, defeated and humiliated; and returned to them were the things they came with. We then resided alongside al-Najāshī in a very good abode, with a very good neighbor.”

The response was simply amazing in its eloquence. A believer puts the needs of his soul before the needs of his body. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) starts the Surah by saying,

Verse 1: Kaf, Ha, Ya, ‘Ayn, Sad.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) starts Surah Maryam with a series of five letters. There are many different saying or explanations regarding these five letters. The most correct opinion is that these are from the broken letters. There are 29 different Surahs in the Quran that start with the broken letters. Only Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) alone knows the meanings of these letters. They are a secret from amongst the secrets of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), meaning that no one knows what they truly mean. Only Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) knows their meanings so they are from amongst the Mutashaabihat, those verses whose meanings are hidden.

However, we do find that some great Companions, as well as their students, sometimes gave meanings to these words. For example, it’s said that it is in acronym and each letter represents one of the names of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). Kaf is for Al-Kafi or Al-Kareem, “haa” is for Al-Hadi, “yaa” is from Hakeem or Raheem, “’ayn” is from Al-‘Aleem or Al-‘Adheem, and “saad” is from Al-Saadiq. Others said that it is one of the names of Allah and it’s actually Al-Ism Al-‘Atham or that it’s a name of the Quran. However, these narrations can’t be used as proof or to assign definitive meanings. They offer possibilities, but no one truly knows what they mean.

Now the question should come to our mind that why would Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) start of a Surah with words that no one understands?

1) To grab the attention of the listeners.

2) To remind us that no matter how much we know there’s always something that we don’t know.

3) These letters are the letters of the Arabic language and the Quran was revealed at a time that was the peak of eloquence of the language and it was their identity. The Quran was revealed challenging them spiritually and intellectually. The Arabs never heard these letters being used in such a majestic way.

4) To prove the inimitable nature of the Quran.

Allah then starts the story of Zakariyya 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). Zakariyya 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was one of the Prophets sent to Bani Israel. He was the husband of Maryam’s paternal aunt. He was also one of the caretakers or custodians of Baitul Maqdis.

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Heart Soothers: Idrees Al Hashemi

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