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Muslim attitudes about LBGT are complex

A woman carrying a sign that reads, "Queer, Muslim and Proud" marches during the Gay Pride parade in Toronto on July 1, 2012. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mark Blinch

(RNS) As one of a tiny number of openly gay imams in the world, Daayiee Abdullah has felt the sting of rebuke from fellow Muslims. No good Muslim can be gay, they say. And traditional schools of Islamic law consider homosexuality a grave sin.

But Abdullaha Washington, D.C. lawyer who studied Islam in the Middle East, says that mainstream Islamic teaching on gays must change.

“It has to or it will die from its harshness or rigidity,” Abdullah said. “The way it is presently understood, it rots the heart and decays the brain.”

In the days since last’s week massacre at an Orlando gay nightclub, in which a Muslim man killed 49 people, attention has focused on homophobia among Muslims. And gay Muslims have talked about living between that rock of anti-gay anger and the hard place of Islamophobia that only increased after the Orlando attacks.

Imam Daayiee Abdullah and Reverend Dwayne

Imam Daayiee Abdullah and Reverend Dwayne Johnson discuss LGBT rights in the U.S. and how those rights are reconciled with religious beliefs, at the 2014 Senior Journalists Seminar on August 23, 2014. Photo courtesy of Flickr user East-West Center via Creative Commons license.

Investigators are considering whether Omar Mateen was at least partially motivated by his inability to accept that he was gay. Mateen’s father said his son was disgusted by two men he saw kissing days before the rampage, and that it was up to God to deal with gays — not his son.

Yet attitudes towards LBGT people in Muslim communities are complex, and far from universally anti-gay.

Some Muslims, like Abdullah, are welcoming what they see as an opening within their communities to address anti-gay attitudes. Several groups supportive of gay Muslims have sprung up within the U.S. in past years, including Muslims for Progressive Values and the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity.

And young Muslims who often feel differently about homosexuality than their elders are increasingly speaking out in support of gay rights, as religion scholar Reza Aslan and comedian Hasan Minaj did in an open letter to American Muslims after last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.

Others are pointing toward the Quran and a history of relative tolerance.

“In 1858 the Ottoman Empire decriminalized homosexuality, 100 years before they did so in the West,” said Abdullah, referring to the empire that ruled over Turkey and much of the present-day Middle East in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its official religion was Islam.

But Abdullah is under no illusions about the strength of homophobia within modern Muslim cultures.

In the U.S., a 2014 Pew Research Center study shows, Muslim Americans are less accepting of homosexuality than Americans as a whole: 47 percent of U.S. Muslims said it should be discouraged and 45 percent said it should be accepted.

But they were not the religious group that was most disapproving: Evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons oppose homosexuality by larger margins.

Abroad the picture is starker. And a 2013 Pew global study of Muslims showed overwhelming disapproval of homosexuality. In only three of the nearly 40 countries surveyed do as many as one-in-ten Muslims say that homosexuality is morally acceptable: Uganda (12 percent), Mozambique (11 percent) and Bangladesh (10 percent).

And almost all of the 10 countries that allow the death penalty for same-sex sexual relations are Muslim-majority nations. The president of one of those nations, Iran, has denied that gay people exist in his country.

“In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at Columbia University in 2007. “ I do not know who has told you we have it.”

The gay capital of the Middle East is in the Jewish state of Israel: Tel Aviv advertises itself as a safe, vibrant destination for LGBT tourists, and attracts gays from the Palestinian territories and other societies where it is unthinkable to be openly gay. But even in Israel, a Jewish teenage girl died after an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man went on a stabbing spree last year at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade.

While Muslim nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have legislated violent punishment for gays, there are no laws against gay sex in either Jordan and Lebanon. You can find gay-friendly bars in Beirut, Amman and Istanbul.

And because socialization between unmarried men and women is unacceptable in conservative Muslim society, same-sex social gatherings are the norm, and may present opportunities for gay people to follow their hearts, Abdullah said.

That doesn’t mean that gays don’t suffer beatings and worse in these somewhat more tolerant countries, or that their families accept them. But even in places like Egypt, where the government has jailed and tortured its gay citizens, some LGBT people are still organizing, carefully, to improve their situations.

Those Muslims who reject gay relationships often point to sacred writings, as is the case with like-minded Christians.

READ: Religious roots of hatred resurface in Orlando

For example, Adbdullah has often heard Muslims invoke the story of Lut in the Quran (comparable to the story of Lot in the Bible) to argue that Islam condemns men who love men. Like many other gay Muslims, he reads the same verses and comes to a different conclusion: that the story condemns cruelty, not any particular sexual act.

In the Quran, he finds nothing to condemn his sexual orientation. The word “homosexuality” is not used in the text, he notes. “The Prophet was not prejudiced.”

Pointing to the Quran or any religion’s sacred writings to explain current day moral stances also makes little sense, said Aisha Geissinger, who teaches about Islam at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

“Nobody takes all of their sexual morality nowadays from an old text. Christians don’t do it. Muslims don’t do it,” Geissinger said. “Otherwise, we’d have slavery.”

And like Abdullah, she offers an example from history that counters the idea that Muslim societies are monolithic and have always been hostile to same-sex desires.

In “Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800,” author Khaled El-Rouayheb points out that much of the poetry in the Arab world prior to the 19th century was written by men about a male beloved, or a person whose gender is ambiguous.

“It is difficult to imagine that this type of poetry was so popular if it didn’t reflect something about what people were seeing as normative,” Geissinger said.

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)


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  • “In the Quran, he finds nothing to condemn his sexual orientation. The word ‘homosexuality’ is not used in the text, he notes.”

    Yeah, that’s pretty much true. Confusion mostly stems from the fact that sodomy is not allowed by the Quran, and that is often equated with homosexuality. The most notorious anti-homosexuality verses come from Hadith, which make absolutely no sense to use. It’s strange that anyone uses Hadith, considering that Hadith suffers from the exact same problems that the Quran was meant to solve.

    Adbdullah seems like a sensible, rational person. Not so sure about Geissinger.

    “Nobody takes all of their sexual morality nowadays from an old text. Christians don’t do it. Muslims don’t do it,”

    There are Christians and Muslims who do, though. Saying otherwise is just false.

    “Otherwise, we’d have slavery.”

    Sex slavery is still a thing, making this point ridiculous.

    “much of the poetry in the Arab world prior to the 19th century was written by men about a male beloved, or a person whose gender is ambiguous. ‘It is difficult to imagine that this type of poetry was so popular if it didn’t reflect something about what people were seeing as normative,'”

    This point makes it incredibly hard to believe she is a professor of anything. The concept that LOVE is equivalent of SEXUAL ATTRACTION is kind of a thing that is mostly a more recent, Western phenomena. Older cultures, and non-Western cultures, are a lot more willing to express flat-out love for other men without feeling the need to add “no homo” as a suffix. If this woman TEACHES PEOPLE about Middle Eastern culture, I’d think she should already KNOW this and know that this particular thing has nothing to do with homosexuality in specific.

  • The article correctly notes that Jordan has no laws against homosexual sex. It’s important to point out that Palestine doesn’t either. Israel claims that it is deadly to be openly gay in the Occupied Territories – it’s part of their pinkwashing campaign – but one should be wary of accepting that as true. The author would have done better to check in with some LGBT Palestinians regarding LGBT life in Palestine.

  • Great article! Thanks especially for including the direct data both on Muslims in the US and Muslims worldwide, and noting them separately (because they are so different from each other). Both of those points are the most important pieces of information in the article, and without them the article would be fluff.

  • “it was up to God to deal with gays — not his son.”

    Good point. And god, if you believe in one, apparently is dealing with them. Witness the changes in American culture and law in the past 5 years. In addition there are the improvements in Europe that preceded America’s slower growth. Now there is a more loving and accepting, though slow, evolution in eastern nations and Africa. Radical, conservative countries are the slowest to grow in all areas. The conservative domination is slowing them down.

  • ” Sharia law is the law of Islam, and it ain’t pretty. ”

    Actually, it’s scary. Our job is to overcome evil with good, but I’m not sure how that’s supposed to happen.

  • Are liberals are using LGBTq laws to make sharia law look better than Constitutional law, to ease the takeover of radical Islam?

  • “100 years before the West” NO, 100 years before the US, but not “the West”. In fact, France decriminalized gay sex in 1791, and Belgium in 1793, 60 years before the Ottoman empire. Also interesting that while she concedes that Israel is the only country in the region that not only allows gay sex and open gay relationships, but also has gay cohabitation (which she failed to mention btw), it’s interesting that she felt the need to insist on anti lgbt incidents by religious extremists who are in the vast minority there, which is the exception in Israel, while insisting on positivity for lgbt folk in Muslim countries, which is the exception there. it shouldn’t be complex, expectations should be higher. If we place high expectations on Christians and Christian countries (as well as Israel btw), the same should go for any other country. Simple.

  • WOW!! So it is okay to change a fundamental religious philosophy just because a person does not conform to that philosophy?!?!? Are you kidding me?!?!? Just how downhill can humankind fall?!?!? You CANNOT alter a basic philosophy just because your lifestyle does not match that philosophy. What is next–men wanting PAP smears? Women wanting Prostate exams? Christians worshiping the Devil?!?

  • The point is, it is ‘completely perfect’ – you can not improve something that is ‘perfect’.
    Mohammed is the ‘perfect man’ – and the Quran tells you to follow him in every way possible.
    This is unusual in a religion, and makes it very hard to argue with or alter the ideology in any way – and is also why their technology and countries fell and remain badly behind and why ultimately they couldn’t continue waging war – and why in the modern times , political islamists are changing tactics to mass population migration and terror attacks into successful countries.

  • ‘Sure’ but Jordan only recently took away a family’s ‘right’ to murder a member of their own family for bringing dishonour – and realistically, breaking this law is rarely enforced by police. Tribal and family law take precedence and the country stays out of it. So de facto, yes, you’ll still be killed – just not by the state as in many nearby countries.

    LGBT ‘life’ in Palestine Gaza Strip is death. Hamas “surprise, surprise” do not have a sense of humour about it.
    In the Israel controlled Palestinian West Bank, gay people are somewhat protected, but blackmailed and threatened.

    You’re either disingenuous or misinformed

  • Quran 7:80-84 ( ) – The Quran directly tells muslims to stone gays to death

    “Do you commit such immorality as no one has preceded you?”
    “You approach men with desire, instead of women.”
    “We rained upon them a rain of stones. That was the end of those criminals.”

    Allah then goes on to kill more people with an earthquake.

    Then the children of Allah kill yet more people in their sleep, and kill even more of them in the morning.

    This is the death and carnage in only 20 lines of the religion of peace.

    It is NOT peaceful, it is NOT ambiguous what the quran says about homosexuality. Stop pretending.

  • “political islamists are changing tactics to mass population migration and terror attacks into successful countries.” This has never happened! No religion is “completely perfect.” Muslims claim a peaceful religion and then behead and otherwise kill the “infidels.” That is NOT completely perfect or peaceful!!

  • This is why perfect is in quote marks. It obviously isn’t perfect. But it SAYS it is perfect. And because it is perfect, you can not change it, or they will kill you. Not figuratively, literally kill you. They kill reformers every year for trying this.

    They state it is perfect, so if muhammed chops off heads of 600 jews, that is perfect, if muhammed has sex with 9-year old girls, that is perfect, if muhammed slaughters a town’s men with his army, then from their wives picks 9 to be his new ‘wives’ and then has sex with (rapes) them one by one all in the same night, that is perfect.

    This is why it is so dangerous. Islam can NOT be reformed or altered, it is by its own definition perfect, and any attempt to alter it is therefore blasphemy and deserves death.

    There is no concept of the golden rule or “treat people how you want to be treated” in islam, as there is in christianity, judaism, buddhism, hindu, sikhi. They all have this concept. Islam does not.

    > “political islamists are changing tactics to mass population migration and terror attacks into successful countries.” “This has never happened!”
    This is exactly what they are doing. They can’t match other nations technologically and wage war like they use to because they are so far behind because they can’t develop with science – so instead they mass-migrate into other countries, then out-breed the people there, then attack and out-vote them and take control, then remove democracy. This is what they did in Lebanon (which was a Christian country in 1950). Egypt, Syria the same but earlier.

    It took 2 years of your mom begging for me to finally give it her. Similar to that, I’m not sure I’ll bother replying again. Thank her from me.

  • Aren’t you the foul mouth little POSMSH! You seem to indicate that what you say is a mockery of Islam, but then you go to great lengths to give the impression you support it. FYI My mother would have nothing to do with a POSMSH like you! Check with your mom. It was probably her you soiled. I would be more insulting, but I guess as a Christian I have higher standards than a POSMSH like you. Please keep your promise a do not respond!

  • No, tool. I am explaining the rationale from an islamic perspective of why in 1400 there has been no improvement to it and it can’t be improved. This isn’t theoretical and islam isn’t christianity for brown people. There are structural reasons it can not be improved, you don’t understand the subject which is why you’re having difficulty understanding it.

    Islam is like christianity, if jesus said to kill everyone from other religions, to kill gays, if he loved seeing terror in the hearts of disbelievers, if there was no “do unto others” line – if he had sex with children (Ayisha is 9 years old when he fucks her and he is 50 years old) and raped the wives of his enemies after killing them one after the other. If he said you must go out and kill disbelievers if you really believe. If he said everything I said is perfect and anyone attempting to alter my message must be killed. This isn’t theoretical – just read the Quran – it’s online free.

    Maybe if you weren’t a smartass you wouldn’t get smartass retorts about your mom, which you obviously can’t cope with. Your mom was begging for it. It was pathetic. I helped her out.

  • Nothing I said was “smartass.” And it certainly does not call for insults about my mother from some stranger! I am glad my mother raised me better than your mother apparently raised you!!!

  • I bet your mom is so proud of you. My mom thinks you are a mouthy little punk jerk. She thinks you are trying to hide your “shortcomings” with your mouthy little third grade comments. We both had a good laugh at you and what you must be like at home!! LOL!!!!

  • Whatever, while you’re laughing with your mom, you’re smelling her come-breath from me.
    Believe me, that wasn’t easy. I had to really concentrate to finish off.

    Again, if you have to be a little girl and cry when you’re challenged, then dont make twerpy smart retorts.

  • Challenged?!? When did you ever challenge me?!? All you do is make little pork boy insults like a porky little piggy. Mom said you smelled like a pig!!