The Roots of Homophobia and Anti-Gay Sentiment in the Muslim World (by Ali Olomi)

In March 2016 Payam Feili, a young Iranian poet, took refuge in Israel because he faced persecution in his home country for being openly gay. Feili’s situation is not unique for many LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East. Homosexuality is a crime in nearly two dozen Muslim countries carrying severe punishments in ten of those counties.

While it is tempting to ascribe this to Islam, the historical context is more nuanced and complex.

The status of LGBTQ rights in the Muslim world today is perplexing given that Islamic history is characterized by its relative tolerance of sexual diversity and same-sex desire.

Though homosexuality as an identity and category is a predominantly modern construction, gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex individuals have always been present in history.

From the time of Prophet Muhammad on, intersex individuals known as mukhannathum lived in Islamic society and occupied publicly visible, though sometimes marginalized spaces. Many of these individuals, like Gharid and Al Dalal, were openly gay and had lovers. They enjoyed positions as musicians and intermediaries between men and women in the role of matchmakers. In both Umayyad and Abbasid history, gay individuals were not only present, but quite public. The first time they faced state violence was at the hands of Caliph Sulayman ibn Abd-al Malik. The 10th century historian, Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani writes in his Kitab al-Aghani that Sulayman had all the mukhannathum castrated, not because of their sexual desires, but because their music had distracted one of his lovers while she was attending him.

The writings of al-Isfahani along with Ali ibn Nasr al Katib’s Jawami’ al-ladhdha provide abundant evidence of the tolerance of same-sex relationships both male and female. For much of Islam’s history the sin of liwat, which refers to anal penetration, is defined as not sexual deviation vis-à-vis same-sex desire, but rather as sexual violation — a similarity shared with the early history of sodomy in Christian thought. Liwat was perpetuated by individuals we would today identify as heterosexual. Interpretations of liwat as the equivalent of homosexuality is a characteristically modern phenomenon that projects backwards an anachronistic definition given that the premodern world did not commonly identify people based on sexuality.

Yet, despite this history, it is undeniable that the current Muslim world has a tense relationship with homosexuality. The question then is how did the current climate come about and how to understand its nuances rather than assuming that Islamic teachings are unequivocally hostile toward homosexuality.

The 13th century Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah is one of the earliest thinkers to take a harsh stance against gays in the Muslim world. Ibn Taymiyyah associated all male same-sex desire with liwat, an idea that broke with the teachings of previous scholars. Ibn Taymiyyah feared the decline and eventual collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate. He saw the Islamic world being threatened both by invading Mongols and by strife from within. Shortly before his birth, Baghdad and Bukhara, the two cultural and intellectual centers of the Islamic world, were razed to the ground by the Mongols with its citizens put to the sword and its books to the torch. The loss of both cities sent ripples of fear through the Muslim world. As a young boy Ibn Taymiyyah himself had to flee his home city of Harran in Anatolia when the Mongols invaded.

The loss of Baghdad and Bukhara left a lasting impression, shaping a world view of militant defense — he famously declared jihad against the invading Mongols when they pressed towards Damascus.

Ibn Taymiyyah lived in a time of great anxiety regarding the potency of Islamic rule, where Sufism, philosophy, art, and tolerance for same-sex relationships were perceived as foreign adaptations of Greek and Persian culture that needed to be purified if Islam was to survive. He viewed the presence of these so-called foreign adaptations as the source of internal strife and weakness that left the Islamic world vulnerable to the Mongols. This idea of foreignness and anxiety about power is an enduring theme in the history of anti-gay sentiment in the Middle East.

Ibn Taymiyyah’s more militant and puritanical interpretation of Islamic law not only targeted gays, Sufis, and Shi’a, but also advocated for the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy (Though he certainly was not the first to apply the death penalty to blasphemy and apostasy, he popularized its use among mobs and crowds.) Many of his Mamluk patron governors however would disregard his rulings in favor of clemency. In Egypt and Damascus, he faced backlash from the majority of scholars and theologians for breaking with legal precedent and scholarly consensus — leading to his eventual arrest.

Though Ibn Taymiyyah was a popular scholar, his view equating all homoeroticism with liwat did not take immediately. Even as late as the 18th century, liwat was still considered sexual violence. The Iraqi scholar Mahmud al-Alusi references bandits who used sexual violence (liwat or sodomy) as an act of revenge known as akhdan li al-atha’r. This was done min ghayr shahwah bihim ila dhalik, or without any sexual desire. The intent was to “make courageous men into women” or yu’annithu al-buhm al-dhukur.

In other words, liwat, being considered as sexual violence, originally had nothing to do with sexual desire or gay people.

The three dominant Islamic empires, Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal all had relatively tolerant and accepting views of same-sex desire. In 1858, the Ottoman Empire officially decriminalized homosexuality as part of their Tanizmat (more than a century before the US or UK would), which legally acknowledged the de facto reality. Ironically, at that time, European visitors saw tolerance of same-sex desire as evidence of Islam’s backwardness.

The French traveler, CS Sonnini, who visited Ottoman Egypt remarked, “The inconceivable appetite which dishonored the Greeks and Persians of antiquity, constitute the delight, or, to use a juster term, the infamy of the Egyptians. It is not for women that their ditties are composed: it is not on them that tender caresses are lavished; far different objects inflame them.”

European readers treated to travel journals and stories from the orient (the Middle East) envisioned it as a place of sexual delights and people of exotic tastes who did not have the modern sexual values and gender norms that epitomized European progress.

The decline of the Ottoman Empire revived old anxieties about the potency of Islamic civilization. As European technological advancement empowered its imperial prowess, some in the Muslim world turned to Europe for inspiration. Muslim reformers saw European heteronormative cultural values as part of the process of modernization.

Two types of reformers emerged from the declining Ottoman world: reformers who sought to emulate Europe and reformers who saw Islam in Ibn Taymiyyah’s militant view as the key to restoring Islam.

The ideological inheritor of Ibn Taymiyyah was the 18th century Arabian reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Like Ibn Taymiyyah, he lived in a time when Islamic power was waning and when the Muslim world was slowly being invaded, this time by Europeans. He led a militant reform movement against what he saw as foreign influences and Ottoman decadence. He purified Medina of the mukhanathum who had for centuries guarded the tomb of Prophet Muhammad. He drove out the Sufis, and equated same-sex desire with liwat and adultery; making both punishable with lashes or death. Additionally, he adopted Ibn Taymiyyah’s stringent restrictions on divorce making it harder for couples to divorce.
Rifa’a al-Tahtawi was a famed Muslim reformer in Egypt who sought to bring European ideals and values to the Muslim world.

Rifa’a al-Tahtawi was a famed Muslim reformer in Egypt who sought to bring European ideals and values to the Muslim world.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab spent as much time disrupting the pilgrimage caravans from the Ottoman heartland as he did on his anti-Ottoman reforms. His version of Islam as militant Arab tribalism resonated with the national aspiration of his political patrons, the House of Saud, setting the stage for the birth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — a kingdom that would legitimize Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s view of Islam, transforming it from a marginal movement into a hegemonic force. Fueled by Saudi money, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s interpretations of Islam, including his stance on homosexuality, put down roots across the Muslim world. For the nascent kingdom, Wahhabi Islam was a tool to keep the populace in check and project its power abroad. An alliance between Wahhabi clerics and Saudi royalty fanned suspicion of society’s others — including homosexuals, Sufis, and Shia — while the two dominant classes enjoyed the prestige of power.

The anti-gay sentiment of both Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab essentially erased Islam’s history of tolerance. And their militant stance on homosexuality runs parallel to their militant interpretation of jihad.

European sexual values also influenced both the thinking of Muslim reformers on homosexuality and the laws put in place in Europe’s colonies. The 19th century Egyptian reformer and modernist Rifa’a al-Tahtawi writes, “Amongst the laudable traits of their [European] character is their not being inclined toward loving male youth and eulogizing them in poetry, for this is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals.” Al-Tahtawi mirrors the views of CS Sonnini, the French traveler, on homosexuality.

After the First World War, European powers divided up Ottoman territories into mandates and wrote penal codes that remain relevant today. The adoption of European sexual attitudes was an act of modernization codified in colonial law.

Some Case Studies

Tunisia is a pluralistic and progressive democracy, yet homosexuality is illegal in the country. The criminalization of homosexuality is not rooted in Sharia, but in the 1913 French colonial penal code — a fact that challenges the prevailing generalization that anti-gay sentiment in the Middle East and anti-gay laws are based on religion or a product of Islamic law. In fact while the secular government upholds the anti-gay penal code, Rached Ghannouchi, the founder of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda, actually opposes the anti-gay law on the grounds that the law does not “follow people in their private life.” He goes on to say, “We do not approve of it [homosexuality]. But Islam does not spy on people. It protects private life. Everyone should live their lives as they wish. And everyone is responsible for it in front of their creator.”
King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan, a proponent of modernism, adopted European garb and promoted European gender norms.

King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan, a proponent of modernism, adopted European garb and promoted European gender norms.

The same can be said about British Mandate Palestine. As a former Ottoman province, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1858, but the 1936 British Mandate Criminal Code bans homosexuality in Section 152. In Afghanistan, it was the modernizing King Amanullah who not only adopted European dress, but sexual mores, and banned homosexuality.

Similar anti-gay laws are found in many non-Muslim African countries like Ghana whose penal code is rooted in British colonial law; and Liberia, which emerged out of the American Colonization Society, and has anti-sodomy laws modeled after the US’s own anti-sodomy laws which were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003. Cameroon’s section 347 of its penal code, which states that “sexual relations with a person of same sex is punishable with a six month prison term,” is a relic of its French colonial past.

In contrast, homosexuality is legal in Muslim Mali where French colonial law was overturned in favor of a new constitution in 1991.

Jordan, which was also under British Mandate, is another Muslim country in which homosexuality is legal. This is because Jordan overturned its colonial penal code in 1952. Chapter two of Jordan’s Constitution protects consensual non-commercial sex between consenting adults which includes adults of the same sex.

In Iran, the country of Payam Feili, people are acutely aware of the European perception of Iran’s tolerance for homoeroticism recounted in travel journals and novels like The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. Throughout its modernizing period in the 20th century, homosexuality was increasingly considered taboo in Iran but only officially banned after the 1979 revolution installed the Islamic Republic of Iran. Articles 108 to 134 prescribe various punishments for homosexuality from lashes to the death penalty. These laws are used to criminalize homosexuality, but are also applied to dissidents whether they are “guilty” of it or not. The crime of homosexuality is often added to the list of other crimes, regardless. Yet, the very same Islamic Republic of Iran also recognizes transgender people and will pay for sexual reassignment surgery. In 1985, Ayatollah Khomeini as Iran’s supreme authority, issued a fatwa that sanctioned into law sex reassignment surgery.

In Conclusion

Growing European hegemony equated modernity with a rejection of homoeroticism in favor of a society based on the heteronormative Victorian family. Modernizers and reformers in the Muslim world gradually adopt the mores of European modernity which saw homosexuality as a social and psychological disorder. In a twist of historical irony, the tolerance that was once deemed backwards is now a sign of progress.

In response to declining Islamic power and anxieties about gender norms, both religious and modernist reformers reinterpreted liwat from its traditional understanding as transgressive violation to a sexual identity, i.e. homosexuality. Islam’s more nuanced past has been reimagined — with homosexuality either deemed a foreign Western interpolation or as evidence of backwardness.

While it is tempting to see the current treatment of LGBTQ individuals in the Muslim world as the natural and logical result of medieval Islamic theology, the history reveals a far more complicated reality in which anti-gay sentiment is born out of a matrix of colonial, modern, and puritan anxieties about gender, progress, and power grafted onto religious interpretations of liwat.

Perhaps a revival of traditional Islamic sexual ethics is the answer to overcoming these anxieties.

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Ali A. Olomi is a historian, writer, and Ph.D student at the University of California Irvine where he studies the history of the Middle East and Islam, specializing in topics of religion, gender and sexuality, cultural and intellectual history, and colonialism. In addition to his academic work, he writes articles putting contemporary politics into historical context. He Tweets at @aaolomi.

The above piece is a follow-up to a piece Olomi wrote for ISLAMiCommentary — Same-Sex Relationships & the Fluidity of Marriage in Islamic History in July 2015.

ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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