Book Review: Jahangir and Abdullatif’s Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions

Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions is an important contribution to the academic discourse that attempts to formulate queer-affirming approaches to Islamic texts and traditions. Junaid Jahangir and Hussain Abdullatif write about the juristic and exegetical work of Muslim scholars, both contemporary and classical, as well as recent research on sex, sexuality, and gender done by academics in Islamic studies. It is fitting that Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, the author of the groundbreaking Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims (2010), wrote the forward to Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions. Kugle’s writing and Junaid and Abdullatif’s jointly authored work are both labors of love for their Islamic faith. Jahangir and Abdullatif take religious tradition seriously while advocating for interpretations of that tradition to center the humanity of queer Muslims.

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Credit: Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield

Jahangir and Abdullatif intend a mostly Muslim audience interested in the topic of homosexuality. They use Islamic terminology and reference classical and modern scholars without much explanation. For those who are less familiar, their invaluable bibliography provides a place for readers less familiar with Islam to fill in the gaps of their knowledge, e.g. Wael Hallaq’s A History of Islamic Legal Theories.

They divide up their book into seven chapters. The first chapter makes several important clarifications which set the stage for the rest of their book. They disentangle queer Muslim from those who use sex for exploitive purposes. In addition, they want to make it clear to readers that homosexuality is an immutable part of one’s nature rather than a deliberate choice for immoral acts. Similarly, gay men cannot be reduced to the premodern concept of ubna (desire to be penetrated) and neither can queer people in general be reduced to their sexual lusts. Throughout the rest of the book, the authors continually ask conservative Muslim leaders not to compare certain sex acts to same-sex relationships based on love and compassion.

The next two chapters address the Qur’an and Hadith. Similar to Kugle, in his Homosexuality in Islam, they revisit Qur’an interpretations and the reliability of condemnatory Hadith texts. One particularly interesting argument is their reframing of verses dealing directly with the people of Lut who choose to approach men in lust instead of women. Jahangir and Abdullatif shift the attention from the gender of the persons referred to and instead the grammatical meanings of dhukrān/rijāl (male/men) and unthā/nisā’ (female/women). The first pair of words have the sense of unreceptivity while the latter receptivity. In effect, this turns Lut’s admonishment into one against violent men who wish to exploit those unreceptive to their advances.

The following chapters focus on classical jurisprudence as it relates to rulings on specific sex acts. Chapter 4 addresses heterosexual anal intercourse (also called liwāṭ). The chapter serves as further evidence for their argument that liwāṭ needs to be disaffiliated from homosexuality. Chapter 5 draws out the complexities, nuance, and differences of opinion across schools of thought and scholars. This is meant to challenge contemporary conservative Muslim scholars who claim historic consensus is on their side when they condemn homosexuality. They argue that what stands in the way of same-sex unions is the lack of a marriage contract because scholars in the past did not come to a consensus about same-sex acts and, in addition, were working on different assumptions about sexuality, gender, and marriage” (p. 232).

They also write about how classical (male) jurists were more concerned about liwāṭ than siḥāq. Indeed, classical scholars, both Sunni and Shi’i, treated same-sex acts between two men and between two women completely differently. They make this point several times in order to show the stark difference in modern and premodern perceptions of same-sex sexuality. When contemporary Muslims write off homosexuality as categorically forbidden they are flattening premodern discussion of same-sex acts that were more nuanced according to the social understandings of sexuality in their own time periods. Moreover, conservative Muslims today flatten homosexuality as liwāṭ, reducing both same-sex sexuality and same-sex relationships to a singular act: anal sex.

Each the previous chapters is a build up to the final two chapters of the book: chapters 6 and 7. The penultimate chapter addresses contemporary conservative Muslim views. The authors point out inconsistencies these scholars have between their own views and those of their premodern intellectual descendants. They convincingly argue that conservative perspectives today lack the nuance of scholarship in the past. The shortcomings in this conservative discourses is countered by the final chapter: “toward a queer-positive Muslim jurisprudence.”

Approaching any contemporary subject (e.g. homosexuality) through considerations of premodern traditions runs into several challenges. Islamic tradition is not monolithic. Islamic jurisprudence—what Jahangir and Abdullatif are most concerned about—varies by school of thought and cultural and social contexts. At times, due to the nature of this kind of writing, this bewildering plurality of traditions is flattened. Jahangir and Abdullatif remind readers that the classical Muslim scholars worked with their own methodologies and cultural assumptions that determine how they understood sex/gender/sexuality. Through their attempt at showing a broad picture of classical thought on sex acts they reveal the variety of opinions and disagreements among scholars across time. This weakens the consensus (ijmaˁ) argument that contemporary conservative Muslim scholars often deploy in order to shut down more nuanced discussions on homosexuality.

Another challenge is the fraught nature of categories. The words “homosexuality” and “gay” are modern inventions. How does one investigate a modern subject in a premodern context? How does one research Muslim perspectives on homosexuality in time periods and social contexts where the subject essentially did not exist? Jahangir and Abdullatif use this problem of translation across time and place to their advantage. Premodern terminologies (e.g. liwāṭ, siḥāq, ubna, etc.) reveal the place- and time-specificity of early and medieval Muslim thought on sexuality/gender. The authors argue that Muslim scholars today cannot base their rulings on homosexuality on premodern rulings because it ignores the contemporary realities of queer people today. E.g. how can one say homosexuality is categorically prohibited because of premodern rulings on liwāṭ (anal sex) when neither homosexuality nor same-sex relationships are reducible to or defined by anal sex? Moreover, conservative Muslim scholars today are selective about which premodern jurists they reference, bypassing the nuance and disagreement in premodern discourses.

Occasionally, Jahangir and Abdullatif run into their own anachronisms even as they critique the anachronisms of others. They use “homosexuality” while talking about medieval scholars who never used the term. However, the problem of translation across time and place is something that both authors are quite aware of. That homosexuality is not equivalent to liwāṭ is a key argument. There is also the tension between institutionalized categories/discourses and the lack of clarity of many of the Qur’an verses applicable to these discourses on homosexuality. For example, what kind of men does the Qur’anic phrase “ghayr uli al-irba” (Q 24:31) refer to exactly? As Afsaneh Najmabadi writes in a different context, “[t]he discursive and institutional incoherence is often put to making livable lives possible” (Najmabadi, p. 16). This book is written by and for Muslims who take advantage of the incoherence and inconsistencies of the past and present. This makes lives more livable.

Jahangir and Abdullatif invite more academic conversations about homosexuality and Islam. Because their book takes women and Shi’ism more seriously, it reminds readers and fellow scholars of the need for deeper and more in-depth research in female homosexuality as well as sex/gender/sexuality in Shi’i discourses across time and place. Another site for future research is in the topic of trans* and intersexuality. Some of the premodern (and modern) scholars Jahangir and Abdullatif cite express views on homosexuality that entangle sexuality with gender. Many of the same texts and traditions that concern gay, bisexual, and lesbian Muslims also concern transgender and intersex Muslims. While both transgender and intersex identities are briefly mentioned, more work is needed. Medieval jurists discussing a khunthā mushkil (an intersex person whose sex/gender remained unclear) marrying men and women is a noteworthy observation. These jurists were more concerned with modesty, incest taboos, and segregation than with same-sex sex acts (Sanders, p. 86). What do modern discussions on intersex and trans* individuals look like today for Muslims who are operating with different assumptions and hierarchy of social concerns? I am thinking specifically of Afsaneh Najmabadi’s most recent book, Professing Selves in which she addresses this precise question in the Iranian context. Similar research from a similar faith-invested perspective offered here by Jahangir and Abdullatif would surely enrich this kind of writing that affirms queer Muslim lives.

Though their work is mostly focused on male homosexuality and Sunni Islam, they do advance research in other ways. Notably, they add to the Muslim rethinking of the marriage contract. Jahangir and Abdullatif confront the marriage contract as a contract based on the metaphor of ownership (milk). They cite Kecia Ali’s observation that the ˁaqd al-nikāḥ is an agreement by which the husband provides for the wife in return for her sexual availability. This assumes a power differential between the two parties and made marriage contracts between two men or two women unthinkable for premodern scholars. Any serious writing on the possibility of Muslim same-sex unions needs to challenge this perception of marriage. Jahangir and Abdullatif do this by arguing that Muslim marriage is not a ritual act of worship (ˁibāda) but rather a social transaction (muˁāmala), i.e. a practice that can be changed according to the particularities of time and place. What is more important is the spirit and principles behind such social transactions. They discuss marriage as partnerships based on mutual needs for affection and intimacy, compassion and love. They also point out premodern jurists’ attention on sexual fulfillment rather than procreation which opens up space for modern considerations for same-sex unions. By centering the conversation about marriage on its principles and purposes, Jahangir and Abdullatif’s work echoes and adds to Kugle’s work in Homosexuality in Islam. Specifically, it reminds me of Kugle’s argument to base marriage on an analogy of partnership (mushāraka) rather than one of sale (bayˁ) (Kugle, p. 211-14).

The most powerful argument in Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions is that the contemporary conservative Muslim perspectives on homosexuality should be reconsidered because the lives and relationships of queer Muslims are far more than liwāṭ or ubna (two terms that conservatives tend to take as premodern translations of the modern term “homosexuality”; siḥāq is rarely considered). Queer Muslims should not be reduced to sex acts or sexual lust. Also, queer Muslims should not be reduced to a Qur’anic story about sexually violent and exploitive men wanting to dishonor a prophet’s angelic guests. These failures of conservative discourses do not only cause spiritual and physical harm; they also prevent Islam as a living tradition to breathe. Just as many premodern jurists based rulings on the prophetic maxim “‘do not inflict harm or repay one harm with another’” (p. 231), modern conservative Muslim leaders should not be inflicting undue hardships onto those who follow them (or onto those who suffer the consequences of those who take their words as gospel truth).

Jahangir and Abdullatif end their book with a call to fundamental Islamic principles of compassion, justice, and preserving human dignity. Similarly, it is generalizing principles of marriage (see Q 30:21) which make same-sex unions thinkable. If same-sex couples desire the same peace, love, and compassion as heterosexual couples, this valid human need cannot be dismissed by the ignorant assessment of conservatives that the desires of queer persons are merely deviant and whimsical. These fundamental principles of law and companionship are important to keep tradition alive and make livable queer Muslim lives. Many religious authorities ossify tradition by treating past rulings and interpretations as mere tokens of Islamic authenticity rather than nourish tradition by considering current knowledge in sexuality and gender and recognizing the human needs of queer Muslims.

As Kugle states in his forward: “This project affirms that authentic Islam is based on vital principles rather than reliant on boundary policing. It suggests that Islamic authorities should be finding ways to keep their principles living and flexible, rather than fixing orthodoxies that exclude many to empower a few” (p. xii). Jahangir and Abdullatif leave their readers with a quote from Ibn Taymiyya, effectively turning this classical scholar against many of the conservatives who idolize him today:

“‘When the scholars find out that their decisions are causing lots of suffering, or that people are looking for worse loopholes than the actual prohibition, or that people end up living the arm, then it is time for the scholars to think again about their conclusions’” (Jahangir & Abdullatif, p. 240). Such an invitation to revisit conclusions that do more harm than good is precisely what this book is about. And it is what makes it essential reading for a larger Muslim audience.

Jahangir, Junaid and Hussein Abdullatif. Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions. New York: Lexington Books, 2016.

Bibliography

Ali, Kecia. Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Jahangir, Junaid and Hussein Abdullatif. Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions. New York: Lexington Books, 2016.

Kugle, Scott Siraj al-Haqq. Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2010.

Najmabadi, Afsaneh. Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014.

Sanders, Paula. “Gendering the Ungendered Body: Hermaphrodites in Medieval Islamic Law.” In Women in Middle Eastern History. Nikki Keddie and Beth Baron, eds. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008.

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