Stances of Faiths on LGBT Issues: Islam - Sunni and Shi’a
With over a billion followers, Islam is the second largest religion in the world, and noted for its diversity of culture and ethnicity. Founded by the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in 622 CE, Islam is an Abrahamic religion that shares its roots with Judaism and Christianity and recognizes Abraham, Moses and Jesus as prophets. Its sacred texts are the Qur’an, and secondary sources are found in cultural practices such as Sunnah and less so in Hadith, which continue to be studied and interpreted by both scholars and the faithful. At the core of Islam is the Shahadah, a declaration of faith that states, "There is no god but God, and later adaptations added “and Muhammad is the messenger of God." The Shahadah is one of the Five Pillars of Islam that also include charitable giving, fasting, praying several times each day, and going on pilgrimage to Mecca, if economically feasible, at least once in a lifetime.
Because Islam has no central governing body, it is not possible to state clear policies regarding issues of interest to LGBT people. Depending on nationality, generation, family upbringing, and cultural influences, Islamic individuals and institutions fall along a wide spectrum, from welcoming and inclusive to a level of rejection that can be marked by a range of actions ranging from social sequestration to physical violence. In the United States, there is a growing movement to create inclusive communities for LGBT Muslims and their allies. This encompasses scholarly work that interprets sacred texts through a lens shaped by Muhammad’s own celebration of the diversity of Creation.
It is rare that an openly LGBT Muslim feels fully welcome at a mainstream mosque in the United States. Cultural norms and traditional readings of sacred texts often uphold a heteronormative binary of gender identification and sexual orientation that don’t allow for the range of identities present in today’s society. However, there are growing opportunities for alternative and meaningful worship and community. Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) has founded Unity Mosques in Atlanta, GA; Columbus, OH; and Los Angeles, CA. The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity hosts an annual retreat for LGBT Muslims in Pennsylvania each May. MECCA Institute, an online school for the study of an inclusive theology of Islam will open in fall 2015. (For further resources, see below.)
Transgender men and women are recognized and accepted in many Islamic cultures around the world. In fact, the idea of a man or woman identifying as a member of the opposite gender is more likely to be accepted than that of a man or woman expressing sexual desire for someone of their own gender.
As early as 1988, gender reassignment surgery was declared acceptable under Islamic law by scholars at Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest Islamic university. In Iran, in 1987, Ayatollah Khomeini declared transgender surgical operations allowable. The basis for this attitude of acceptance is the belief that a person is born transgender but chooses to be homosexual, making homosexuality a sin. Nevertheless, many transgender Muslims after reassignment surgery suffer rejection, socially and culturally, in their own communities due to their remaining in their place of origin. If one is unable to relocate to another region where they are not known, they often suffer verbal and physical violence.
On Marriage Equality
As with Christianity and Judaism, Islam’s sacred texts have been used to oppress LGBT people across the centuries. A traditional reading of the Qur’an can lead to the condemnation of homosexual acts and thus of same-sex marriage. However, because there is no central governing authority, communities and individuals are free to make their own choices regarding this issue. Same-sex weddings are performed by Imams individually, and at some Unity Mosques, and similar inclusive mosque communities across the United States and Canada. One of the nation’s most prominent Muslim Americans, United States Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) states unequivocally,
"I believe in expanding marriage rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples and to have those marriages recognized by other states and the federal government."
There is no formal ordination process in Islam. Worship is most often led by imams who have completed extensive theological studies and have proven themselves strong leaders. Female and LGBT imams now hold leadership roles in many communities, including Unity Mosques. Imam Daayiee Abdullah, founder and ED of MECCA Institute, Ani Zonneveld, founder and ED of MPV, and Imam Amina Wadud an independent Islamic scholar, are three of the most prominent Muslim leaders working for LGBT inclusion today.
In 2013, the Islamic Society of North America—the largest Muslim organization in the United States—declared its approval of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), adding its name to an interfaith coalition and calling ENDA a “measured, common sense solution that will ensure workers are judged on their merits, not on their personal characteristics like sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Despite the positive steps noted above, LGBT Muslims in the United States face significant challenges, including a nationwide anti-Muslim bigotry that touches the lives of all Muslims. LGBT Muslims often remain closeted in order to live in their faith communities and to remain close to their families. However, in addition to strides made by organizations such as MSGD, MPV and MECCA Institute, a move toward greater inclusion is also happening on college campuses, at the work place, and in private homes across the country. In the coming months, HRC will publish a Coming Home guide for LGBT Muslims and allies who wish to explore these issues more fully. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a copy.
Resources for LGBT Muslim Americans
MECCA Institute, an online center of Islamic learning and contemporary Islamic research.
Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, a national organization working to support, empower and connect LGBTQ Muslims.
Muslims for Progressive Values, an inclusive community rooted in the traditional Qur'anic ideals of human dignity and social justice.
Islamic Society of North America
P.O. Box 38
Plainfield, IN 46168