The Muslim-American preacher Yasir Qadhi has spoken extensively about men’s sexuality. Specifically on the topic of homosexuality and marriage through his lectures, articles, and status updates: posted and shared through YouTube, his public Facebook page, and popular online Muslim journals such as MuslimMatters.[i] Qadhi is often preoccupied with homosexuality, a preoccupation that, I argue, does work in defining the boundaries of heterosexual piety for the Muslim American men to whom he preaches.
In Qadhi’s view, heterosexuality is part of the fiṭrah or divinely-intended nature of humans. Men’s heterosexual nature is particularly sexual, for example, he claims men’s arousal is like a microwave. It can be turned on instantly through sight, smell, touch and men seek instant gratification.[ii] For Qadhi, this means a man needs to be particularly disciplined lest his sexual urges get the best of him: leading him to sinful thoughts and sinful actions. A man’s heterosexual fiṭrah can become unwieldly, leading him off the straight path. Homosexuality is the most perverse example of what becomes of unbounded lusts. Resulting from a drunken loss of control. In contrast, he preaches that a Muslim man gain a mastery over his desires, redirecting himself in piously sober ways, that is, heterosexual marriage. A wife provides a protective garment against the onslaught of a hypersexualized society that always seems to threaten a man’s natural heterosexual orientation with perverse disorientations.
My intention in focusing on Qadhi’s homophobic speech is to better show how less explicit homophobia—for example, when he’s giving marital advice—is no less rooted in homophobia. Men’s heterosexual piety—guarding the fiṭrah, disciplining one’s sexual urges, getting married—relies on what I’m identifying here as a homophobic logic of binaries: natural/unnatural, fiṭrah/degeneracy, restraint/indulgence, marriage/sin.
Before I continue, some clarifications about the kind of preacher and preaching I’m talking about: Qadhi is very much a part of a Salafi revival in the US, a neo-traditional reformist movement based on the premise that Islamic tradition—as it stands in recent premodern past—is a moral departure and degeneration of Islam’s beginnings.[iii] Salafi Muslim American preachers speak about the pious exceptionalism of the salaf (pious predecessors of the first few generations of Muslims) and the exceptionalism of being both Muslim and American.[iv]
I also think of Qadhi’s views on sexuality as very Salafi. Qadhi believes today’s American society has degenerated into a hypersexualized society in which
“[W]e are constantly bombarded with images of the most beautiful women and the most handsome m“en…. that which is naturally lustful loses its erotic nature. This then leads to being attracted to unnatural attractions. The bar for ‘sexual titillation’ rises higher and higher.”[v]
Qadhi contrasts this condition of rampant, unrestrained sexuality with a romanticized, restrained past. A time before the sexual revolution of the 70s when wholesome monogamous heterosexual marriage was the norm and public displays of sexuality were lacking in the vulgarity of today.[vi]
Qadhi’s salafi conceptualization of sexuality brings me to the homophobic binaries of natural/unnatural, fiṭrah/degeneracy.
As Qadhi explains in an open letter to a man “Dealing with homosexual urges” published on MuslimMatters: “we believe that the fiṭrah that Allah created us upon is that, in terms of sexuality at least, opposites attract. But it is possible that some people have corrupted this fitrah themselves, or it has been corrupted by external methods.”[vii] He reiterates the same in his appearance on the Salafi YouTube channel The Deen Show, stating that “the way that Allah has created us—a man is attracted to the natural beauty of a woman.”[viii] In contrast, “our religion says that finding sexual pleasure within the same gender is something that is an unnatural manifestation of a natural urge.”[ix]
It is through this homophobic logic of natural and unnatural, God-intended fiṭrah and human-made degeneration of that fiṭrah that he preaches how a Muslim man should understand his sexuality, his body’s lusts, his desires for others and for particular acts.
When a man feels pulled towards women, he should understand this urge as natural, aligned with the fiṭrah. These fiṭrah feelings for his sexuality means that opposites attract to form a God-intended complementary pair of husband and wife. What is bad, unnatural, or sinful is the degeneracy of this sexuality. Its corruption by an oversexualized society. Images of “the most beautiful women and the most handsome men” experienced as a disorienting pull away from what is natural in terms of attraction and arousal. Writing to the man worried about his same-sex attractions, Qadhi remarks that today’s hypsexualized environment causes men to be unsatisfied with natural sexuality so that men are no longer pleased with what God originally created their bodies to be pleased with, “desensitized man to what generally he should not be desensitized to.” The most serious symptom of this slippery slope of insatiable degenerated fiṭrah is of course homosexuality. A pull towards other men that a man should understand as especially perverse. “An unnatural manifestation of a natural urge.” A misalignment that he must realign to stay on the straight path.
Adjacent to Qadhi’s binary of fiṭrah/degeneracy, is the binary of restraint/indulgence. He believes that the degeneracy of 21st century men’s sexual fiṭrah can be forestalled or solved through self-restraint. Gaining mastery over what he views online and avoiding sinful acts, a Muslim man cultivates his divinely intended heterosexuality. In contrast, an impious man indulgences in his sexuality, degenerating his own fiṭrah by following every whim and desire.
In his letter to the possibly-gay Muslim man Qadhi explains:
“some people have corrupted this fiṭrah themselves, or it has been corrupted by external methods…. But the point is even if somebody has such urges, it does not justify them acting upon it. Rather, what we can say to those who feel attracted to the same gender is that having such urges and conquering them is a part of the test Allah has given them. Each one of us is tried in different ways, and merely wanting to do an act is not justification enough to carry it out. Imagine if we were to open this door, and legitimize acting upon an urge merely because it existed!”[x]
Here, Qadhi preaches that merely having desires does not justify acting upon them. This is also true of his own heterosexual desires, saying “I’m attracted to women. Does that legitimize going after every woman I’m attracted to? Of course not. We all have our desires and urges and we must all battle them. So if you experience urges that are unnatural, you must battle them, and without doubt Allah will reward you for that.”[xi]
Indulging in any desires brings a Muslim man into the dangerous predicament of inviting all kinds of lusts lurking in his closet, leading him further and further off the straight path. And in reality, all men are the same in going to battle with their sexual desires—whether these include natural or unnatural ones. The test is whether or not one is able to conquer these desires through self-restraint or become overpowered by them and lose the battle.
This binary of indulgence/restraint is most striking in a lecture in 2015 at the Memphis Islamic Center during a series of nightly lectures during Ramadan. This lecture, published on his public YouTube channel as “Prophet Lut’s story and its relevance today” was in response to the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage a few days prior.[xii] Discussing the men of Prophet Lot’s town overtaken by their desire for Lot’s angelically handsome guests, Qadhi refers to a specific Qur’anic verse: “one of the most amazing verses in the Qur’an describes their state, one of the most profound verses in the Qur’an. Allah says (Q 15:72): laˁamruka innahum lafī sakratihim yaˁmahūn.” [Yusuf Ali: “Verily, by your life [O Prophet] in their wild intoxication, they wander in distraction, to and fro”]
Qadhi’s interpretation of this verse revolves around the Qur’an’s usage of the word “sakra.” He explains: “the word sakra means drunken. They are lost in their sensual desires and they are misguided. Allah describes their overpowering desires as having caused them… to literally go into a type of literally sakra and that is intoxication. It’s as if they can’t even think straight.”
Qadhi means to compare the proliferation of homosexuality to a kind of indulgence best expressed through the metaphor of drunkenness. Homosexuality being a result of unbounded lust to which a man is quickly lost. Indulging in unnatural lusts causes him to lose his religious and moral senses.
The passive voice, too, of being “lost in their sensual desires” or the passivity inherent in being “overpowered” by one’s desires is homophobically intended. That is, the inability to think straight means a man losses a masculine mastery over his desires. A Muslim man shouldn’t let himself be overpowered by his desires. He should battle, even conquer, lusts that invite him to sin. Otherwise, these lusts will overpower him. Qadhi genders the binary restraint/indulgence as masculine/emasculated. Restraint expresses a masculine, active, disciplined role of a man battling his lusts whereas indulgence expresses an emasculating, passive, undisciplined role of a man letting himself be lead by his lusts.
Marry my daughters
After advising a man struggling with his homosexual desires to consider these lusts a test from God, Qadhi closes with his advice to marry.
“marriage is a solution, so you should seriously consider it. The Prophet Lut ‘alayhis salam [peace be upon him] told his people, ‘These are my daughters, they are more pure for you.’ Some scholars say that when he said ‘daughters,’ he is also implying the women of the town and not just his own daughters. So he’s telling the men of his community who were guilty of this crime to go and marry women, for they are better and purer for them. Marriage is a solution, because sensuality and sexuality is something that can be satisfied – rather it should be satisfied – by the opposite gender within the confines of marriage.”[xiii]
Lot’s people’s unrestrained lusts have driven them toward his guests; in response, Lot asks them to restrain themselves and take his daughters instead.[xiv] In his open letter, Qadhi interprets Lot’s offer as an invitation to heterosexual marriage.
Throughout Qadhi’s discussions on sex—whether in his homophobic lectures or in his talks about marriage—a kind of sex positivity is a theme that he continually returns to. Sexuality is part of the fiṭrah. What matters in terms of morality is what one does with these desires. A Muslim man should only express his sexuality through heterosexual marriage. Desires continue to be a kind of battle, but marriage serves as the best armor against sexual immorality.
In his e-book on marriage, he opens with the Qur’anic metaphor of a wife and husband being garments for one another (Q 2:187). He explains that “[c]lothing protects one from the external elements, such as heat and cold. Similarly spouses protect one another from external desires that originate from many different sources. By satisfying these desires within the confines of marriage, external passions are removed.”[xv]
Each spouse serves as a protection from external desires. Each spouse helps the other remain on the straight path by satisfying one another’s sexual fiṭrah. Qadhi conceptualizes marriage as a necessity for men because the heterosexual fiṭrah should be expressed and this is the only licit way to do so. But marriage is also a necessity—a solution, even—for men’s sexuality in danger of being perverted by society or by otherwise unrestrained lusts. To Qadhi, the marital bond promises to protect—like clothing—perhaps even remove unnatural desires that would otherwise have threatened a man’s heterosexual fiṭrah.
Thinking through Sedgwick
What work does this publicized, digitized homophobic discourse do for a largely heterosexual Muslim American audience? Why ought a supposedly private exchange between Qadhi and a possibly-gay Muslim man be published online, to be commented on, shared, and re-shared? And why must Lot’s “relevancy today” always be a homophobic one?
Eve Sedgwick observed that heterosexuality might need homosexuality for its formation and continual performance,
“that at least male heterosexual identity and modern masculinist culture may require for their maintenance the scapegoating crystallization of a same-sex male desire that is widespread and in the first place internal.”[xvi]
I think about Sedgwick’s words when I think about Qadhi’s homophobic concern for men’s sexuality. How “widespread” perversion is, a “bombardment” of hypersexualized images of “the most handsome men.” How a man must practice self-restraint, even in marriage—though marriage apparently helps—because sexuality will degenerate in less disciplined men. The paranoia around homosexuality is also, “in the first place internal.” A man’s natural attraction to the opposite gender always appears to be in danger of becoming an unnatural attraction to the same gender. The constant threat of handsome men becoming desirable men. The relevancy of Lot today is that all men might be susceptible to becoming drunk with lust. Too intoxicated by unnatural desires to heed the advice to get heterosexually sober.
Qadhi’s heterosexual male piety is predicated upon a homophobic logic. Homosexuality is always in view when he discusses a perverse rupture of the fiṭrah. In Qadhi’s logic, men can become so sexually insatiable that they seek pleasure in other men. If Muslim men can’t change the hypersexualized society that entices them to seek increasingly more divergently unnatural sex acts, then they can at least go to fight their own desires. Of mastering themselves and the external influence of a lustful environment.
Thinking through Ahmed
I am also thinking about how homophobia orients Qadhi’s sexual piety for Muslim men. By orienting, I mean to take up Sara Ahmed’s reflections on the orientation in sexual orientation. Straightness as a matter of orienting oneself away from certain desires and towards others. Like a garment, pious masculine heterosexuality is something that a Muslim man needs to put on every day. Masculinity and heterosexuality are both unwieldy and delicate things, vulnerable to the wearing down of its proper performance. The maintenance of being a proper man[xvii] dependent on the everyday habit of disciplining one’s sexuality. A way of orienting himself away from the hypersexuality of the public. A way of orienting himself to the private spaces of his bedroom. To seek protection from the exterior and interior assaults on his fiṭrah by disciplining himself, by self-control, by seeking marriage.
For Qadhi, to desire heterosexual marriage is to orient oneself away from the sinful potential of other urges. It seems as though queer objects of desire are always on the horizon of heteronormative spaces like the marital bedroom. Not always in view, but always haunting the boundaries of heterosexuality. Not far from the “fantasy of a natural orientation”[xviii] is the fantasy of indulging in closeted urges. Not far from Qadhi’s advice to marry is Qadhi’s rhetorical imperative “imagine if we were to open this door…!”
This homophobic piety is also a way of orienting a Muslim man towards other men too. Heterosexual orienting requires the sameness of men’s desires. The continuing performance of men fantasizing that other men share the same sexual fiṭrah. And the same danger of its degeneracy.
Speaking Heterosexually, Speaking Homophobically
Where Qadhi does finally reach a discussion about heterosexuality—marriage—this does not mean Qadhi is no longer speaking homophobically. Rather, no matter how a Salafi Muslim American preacher speaks about sex, it is always fundamentally constructed upon a homophobic logic of binaries: natural/unnatural, fiṭrah/degeneracy, restraint/indulgence, and marital sex/sinful sex. Binaries that form the orienting boundaries of a Salafi Muslim preacher’s heterosexual piety.
Whenever Qadhi talks about sexual ethics to Muslim American men, there is always the degenerate, indulgent, sinful homosexual scapegoat who defines—by way of his disorienting defiance—the boundaries of his sexual ethics. The missing part of any analysis of neo-traditional, reformist Muslim American piety is an understanding of how homophobia works in orienting that piety.
This article is based on my presentation paper, “Yasir Qadhi, Homosexuality, and Preaching an Islamic Masculine Heterosexuality” that I gave at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting on 25 Nov. 2019. I presented alongside three fabulous colleagues, Samah Choudhury (presiding), Brittany Landorf, Faiza Rahman, and Abtsam Saleh on a panel we called “Popular Preachers, Gendered Authority, and the Digital Ummah.”
[i] Three primary sources that I do not cite in this paper but were still part of my research on Qadhi’s homophobic discourse:
Qadhi. “What Should be the Muslim Response to Gay Marriage | Yasir Qadhi | No Doubt.” AlMaghrib Institute, YouTube. 23 July 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0oxJ-wfJZo.
Qadhi. “How Should a Muslim Deal with Homosexuality.” OnePath Network. 6 May 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECTD0d0W5ug.
Yasir Qadhi’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/yasir.qadhi/. In particular, his status updates after the Pulse night club shooting (12 June 2016): 12-20 June, 11-13 July 2016. His status update on 14 June is one that specifically responds to the shooting in Orlando. There, he links his “Prophet Lut’s story and its relevancy today” lecture (2015) which I discuss late in this paper.
One post on July 11 is, as far as I know, his only public response to progressive, queer, and feminist thoughts on homosexuality and Islam. He views Scott Kugle’s work as an example of “Progressives” who “attempt to do away with even the most explicit of Islamic commandments” and “feel that it is permissible to re-interpret [the Qur’an’s] commandments away in light of modern sensibilities.” My own interest in his statements are how Qadhi views his Islamic sexual ethics—which are just as informed by “modern sensibilities” towards sexuality as anyone else’s—as the Islamic perspective on sexuality from the time of the Prophet and the Salaf. Here, also, he returns to the idea of fitting Islam to one’s every whim and desire (re: the bit on imagining “if we were to open this door, and legitimize acting upon an urge merely because it existed” from his article “Dealing with Homosexual Urges” which I discuss in this paper). Also notable, is his linking to his student, Mobeen Void, and his “scathing critique of Prof Kugle’s writings” entitled “Can Islam Accommodate Homosexual Acts? Quranic Revisionism and the Case of Scott Kugle.” See: https://muslimmatters.org/2016/07/11/can-islam-accommodate-homosexual-acts-quranic-revisionism-and-the-case-of-scott-kugle/.
[iii] Grewal, Zareena. Islam is a Foreign Country. New York University Press, 2013. 212-213.
[iv] I follow Zareena Grewal in placing Yasir Qadhi within the reformist project of Salafism. Salafi is a term Qadhi has publically distanced himself from due to its association with religious violence and intra-Muslim conflict. Nonetheless, his reformist commitments remain very Salafi.
[v] Qadhi. “Dealing with Homosexual Urges.” MuslimMatters. April 2009. https://muslimmatters.org/2009/04/13/dealing-with-homosexual-urges/. His scare quotes are his own.
[vi] In his conversation about homosexuality on the Salafi YouTube Deen Show, Qadhi contrasts contemporary morality to the 1950’s show I Love Lucy when it was considered too risqué to show Lucy and Ricardo in the same bed together. See: “Deen Show—The Islamic view of Homosexuality.” Digital Minbar, YouTube. 6 Dec. 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKR89DwRyqM&t=402s.
Tangentially related, thinking about the American-ness of the married couple (including the valence it must have for Qadhi’s positionality within diasporic Muslim communities, Ricardo as both ideal husband, family man, and Cuban-American) I also recall Kim Tallbear’s critique of settler sexuality, how monogamy and the creation of the nuclear family have been the means for colonizers to erase indigenous ways of forming kinship and community. See, for example, Tallbear talking about “decolonizing sex” on the podcast All My Relations. http://www.allmyrelationspodcast.com.
In a completely different context—but also in the vein of modern(izing) marital and sexual relations and their relations to the modern state—is Kenneth Cuno’s Modernizing Marriage (2015).
[vii] “Dealing with Homosexual Urges.” MuslimMatters. 2009.
[viii] I’m also recalling these words in Like a Garment: “For us Muslims, sexual desire in and of itself is never associated with evil; it is only the misuse of such desire that is evil” (4). This is a fairly common statement whenever he speaks about sexuality, appearing elsewhere in his lectures and writing on homosexuality.
[x] “Dealing with Homosexual Urges.”
[xi] Qadhi expresses the same thing in his discussion about homosexuality on the Deen Show.
[xii] Qadhi. “Ramadan 2015 Quranic Gems 15: Prophet Lut’s story and its relevance today.” Yasir Qadhi, YouTube. 8 July 2015. Recorded 2 July 2015, Memphis Islamic Center. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJt7zen4LtA. Minute: 4:25-5:18.
[xiii] “Dealing with Homosexual Urges.”
[xiv] Qadhi also references this verse in his Ramadan lecture on YouTube, just before he goes into his explanation of the sakra verse.
[xv] Like a Garment. 1.
[xvi] Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press, 1990.85.
[xvii] That is, men are men insofar as they are oriented towards women. Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, 2016. 85.
[xviii] Ahmed. Queer Phenomenology. 85.