Stances of Faiths on LGBT Issues: Islam

More than a billion Muslims inhabit this planet, and they inhabit geographic, linguistic and cultural spaces that are enormously diverse. As a result, their beliefs on issues relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people cannot be easily summarized. To a large extent, much depends on how individual Muslims and Islamic sects interpret the Holy Quran and other theological sources. Islam is divided into two distinct sects, Sunni and Shia. Sunni Islam is the denomination of the majority, which is further divided into four major schools of thought: the Hanafi, the Hanbali, the Maliki, and the Sha’afi. It is due to such variation that there is no single school of thought in Islam. Unfortunately, generally speaking, regardless of Sunni or Shia, a majority of Muslims do have very negative attitudes toward  people of LGBT.

Teachings on LGB Issues

To the traditionalists the Quran is clear about homosexuality, and there is no tolerance for debating the context or semantics. According to Al-Fatiha, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for the rights of LGBT Muslims, most traditional scholars of Islam consider same-sex acts to be sinful, and many believe that having a gay or lesbian sexual orientation is unnatural. 

However, only a few passages in the Quran and several hadiths (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) refer to sex between two males. The Quran, which mentions gay sex in the story of Lut (or Lot as he is known in Jewish and Christian Bibles), does not call for a specific punishment for this behavior. Yet one hadith reads: “When a man mounts another man, the throne of God shakes.”

Another hadith, discussing the punishment for two men caught having intercourse, says, “Kill the one that is doing it and also kill the one that it is being done to.” Still another appears to condemn lesbian sex: “Sihaq [lesbian sexual activity] of women is zina [illegitimate sexual intercourse] among them.”

The “Shari’ah,” or Islamic law, equates same-sex intercourse to “zina” or “fornication” between unmarried heterosexual couples, which is punishable by death. Some Islamic legal historians, however, do not believe that these hadith actually came from Muhammad. They argue that as a religious and governmental leader Muhammad never punished homosexuals and argue that the ruling about gay sex was derived long after Muhammad’s death.

Some scholars in the United States have argued that there is no definitive basis in the Quran or other theological texts for the condemnation of gay, lesbian and bisexual people. They also argue that at certain points in history, Muslim societies have recognized people in same-sex relationships as legitimate. A 2008 Jakarta Post article stated, “Homosexuals and homosexuality are natural and created by God, thus permissible within Islam...” Moderate Muslim scholars have said there is “no reasons to reject homosexuals under Islam, and that the condemnation of homosexuals and homosexuality by mainstream ulema (clergy) and many other Muslims was based on narrow-minded interpretations of Islamic teachings.”

Those scholars, however, are in the minority. Many others have spoken out against LGBT people. According to Mission Islam, an online network on varying Islamic teachings, every major Islamic school of thought considers sex between two men to be sinful and unlawful. Some schools of thought believe it merits severe physical punishment; including stoning to death. Others would sentence it with imprisonment or banishment from the state. Today, most governments that follow Islamic law defer on the punishment used for offenders. But, there have been cases where men convicted of having gay sex have been killed. According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, only eight predominately Muslim countries, as of 2011, retain capital punishment for homosexual behavior: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Qatar, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Mauritania.

LGBT Muslims living in the United States do not typically experience this sort of physical punishment though they often face verbal persecution and social exclusion from traditional Muslim communities. In response to a question on the IslamOnline community about how Muslims should interact with “homosexuals,” the former president of the Islamic Society of North America, Muzammil Siddiqi, said in 2003:

"Homosexuality is sinful and shameful. … But nowadays this act has become a phenomenon. There are agencies and lobby groups that are working hard to propagate it and to make it an acceptable and legitimate lifestyle. For this reason it is important that we should speak against it. We should warn our youth and children from this devilish lifestyle. We should make it very clear that it is Haram, absolutely forbidden and that it kindles the wrath and anger of Allah. … We should deal with [homosexuals] in the same way we deal with any people who are involved in alcoholics, gambling or adultery.

“We should have deep repugnance to their acts and we must remind and warn them. Those who insist on this lifestyle, consider it legitimate and feel ‘gay pride,’ we should not associate with them and should not take them as friends. We should certainly avoid those people.”

Al-Fatiha’s website argues, however, that as women have brought change to mainstream Islam’s views of women’s rights, the acceptance of LGBT people in the Muslim community will slowly spread, and it will minimize the misconceptions that are common in much of the Muslim community today. It states:

“Although mainstream Islam officially condemns homosexuality, there is a growing movement of progressive-minded Muslims, especially in the Western world, who see Islam as an evolving religion that must adapt to modern-day society. It is within this movement that Al-Fatiha Foundation works to enlighten the Muslim and outside world that Islam is a religion of tolerance and not hate, and that Allah (God) loves His creations, no matter what their sexual orientations might be.”

Transgender Issues

While transgender issues have not been explicitly addressed by most major Islamic institutions, there is information concerning cross-dressing, those transgressing traditional gender roles and sex-reassignment surgery.

One hadith appears to condemn cross-dressing, stating: “Cursed are those men who wear women’s clothing and those women who wear men’s clothing.” Another condemns “the hermaphrodites among the men and the over-masculine women.” On the other hand, hermaphrodites, and men who had no sexual desire toward women, were allowed in the company of Muhammad’s wives, although no other men were allowed to see them.

In 1988, sex-reassignment surgery was declared acceptable under Islamic law by scholars at the world’s oldest Islamic university, Al-Azhar, in Egypt. The highest-ranking religious leader of the Republic of Egypt issued an official decree, entitled “Fatwa on Sex-Change Operation,” which named a transgender identity as a natural disposition and sex-reassignment surgery permissible if it had proven that it was impossible for the patient to live according to his or her biological sex and the patient was not consciously choosing to be transgender. It stated:

“As for the condemnation of [men] who by word and deed resemble women, it must be confined to one who does it deliberately, while one who is like this out of a natural disposition must be ordered to abandon it. … The rulings derived from these and other noble hadiths on treatment grant permission to perform an operation changing a man into a woman, or vice versa. … It is, however, not permissible to do it at the mere wish to change sex from woman to man, or vice versa.”

A similar sentiment can be found when discussing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s stance on transgender people. Sex changes have been legal in Iran since Ayatolla Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution, passed a fatwa authorizing them for “diagnosed transsexuals” over 25 years ago. According to a BBC News article, “Iran carries out more sex change operations than any other nation in the world except for Thailand. The government even provides up to half the cost for those needing financial assistance and a sex change is recognized on your birth certificate.”

Malaysia, another Islamic nation, also has a long record of recognizing transgender people and will re-issue their official legal documents to accurately reflect their gender identities.

Many people from predominantly Muslim countries — including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt — have reported having sex-reassignment surgeries by renowned medical surgeons and experts in the field of reconstructive surgery.

Muslim Allies

Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) and Al-Fatiha are two Muslim voices on contemporary issues who seek to promote a theologically-sound framework for Islamic liberalism. Al-Fatiha, which was founded in 1998, has made great strides toward equality for LGBT Muslims. It organizes retreats and conferences, provides educational materials on issues related to Islam and LGBT people, and advocates on issues of immigration, asylum and human rights.

Similarly, MPV creates opportunities for religious discourse, volunteer and community activities and cultural events that have helped to establish and nurture vibrant progressive Muslim communities across the country. MPV also provides academic works written by scholars of Islam in simple and youth-friendly language through the Literary Zikr project. The first Literary Zikr entry features an adaptation of Dr. Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle’s chapter “Sexuality, Diversity, and Ethics in the Agenda of Progressive Muslims” which explicitly discusses homosexuality from an Islamic perspective. Dr. Kugle’s work demonstrates that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims do indeed deserve a place in Islam. In fact, there is a solid basis within Islam for respect and acceptance for diversity including sexual diversity.

MPV and Al-Fatiha are just two examples of Muslim allies, there are numerous other groups seeking to create an open and welcoming community for LGBT Muslims and the LGBT community as a whole. In recent years nearly a dozen Muslim community groups signed onto civil rights and faith community coalition letters in support of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act and/or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law in 2009, expanded previous hate crimes statutes to include prosecution of bias crimes based on disability, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation. ENDA, when enacted, will prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.