Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Islam and Same-sex behavior

[The following piece is the latest installment of my major project of assessing and comparing the three major Abrahamic religions. The essay addresses a seeming paradox. The Qur'an, the Hadith traditions, and Muslim juridical pronouncements all agree in condemning homosexual behavior. Nonetheless, there is poetry and art from former times stemming from such countries as Moorish Spain, Iran, Afghanistan, and what is now Pakistan that seems to exalt it. The answer to this puzzle is that what is condemned in the first instance is androphilia (love between two adult men). For pederasty, however, the love of boys, various exceptions were made here and there. However, the status of pederasty in Islam has always been precarious; the toleration has been de facto and not de jure. There has never been any question about adult-adult homosexuality in Muslim countries. It has always been condemned and will probably continue to be condemned.]


Comparative study shows that all three of the major monotheistic faiths in the Abrahamic tradition--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--have, at one time or the other, indicated disapproval of same-sex love and its expression. Religiously based, this sex negativity has undeniably bolstered antihomosexual attitudes in the societies that have felt the imprint of these influential systems of belief.

This being so, one must acknowledge that such negative results are scarcely inevitable, as is shown by the fact that today major branches of Judaism and Christianity have embraced more positive views, and actually welcome the participation of gay and lesbian parishioners and clergy.

Moreover, the different varieties of religiously-based views show less continuity than one might expect. That is to say, the disapproval of same-sex behavior found in the New Testament (as seen for example in Romans 1:26-27 and First Corinthians 6:9-10) does not closely track seemingly analogous passages in the Hebrew Bible (most notably in Leviticus 18 and 20). In reality, the two traditions seem almost independent of one another. For their part, the Qur’anic prohibitions do not directly correspond to any of these “proof texts” (though they do draw on the story of Lot and Sodom from the book of Genesis).

To be sure, objectivity is an urgent desideratum, especially in dealing with such controversial subjects. The task of achieving the requisite equanimity poses a particular challenge when writing about Islam. This challenge is not simply the product of current social conflicts in Western Europe, but responds to two basic antinomies--antinomies that look to prevail in the world of scholarship for some time. 
The first. lesser antinomy applies specifically to the problem of homosex in the Islamic world. Here there is a basic division between the internalists and externalists with regard to the nature and evolution of antihomosexual views. The internalists (whose view is reflected in the following analysis) hold that these attitudes and legal findings are basically the product of an organic evolution within Islam (allowing of course some initial input from the Pentateuch). By contrast, the externalist approach, currently championed most vigorously by Professor Joseph Massad of Columbia University, maintains that the intrusion of Western attitudes, both anti- and pro-homosexual, has played a major role. 
In addition to this problem, which goes specifically to the issue of sexuality, one must reckon with a broader issue, which goes to the origins of Islam.

It is a truism that Islam is not monolithic. Some Muslims are Sunni and some are Shi’a. Some, like the Wahhabis, are hard-liners, while others take a more liberal stance. Nonetheless, in the Islamic world there is general agreement on a number of established points marking the origins of the faith. The basic toolkit includes the following assertions: that the historical Muhammad was born near Mecca ca. 570 CE of the Arab tribe of Quraysh; that at about the age of forty he began to receive the revelations that make up the Qur’an; that he made his hijra, or flight to Medina in the year 622; that he reconquered Mecca in 630; and he had won all of Arabia to his beliefs by his death in 632. 
Almost universally honored in Islamic countries, this traditional view has also attracted the adhesion (generally speaking) of many scholars in the West, including such different figures as Karen Armstrong, Fred Donner, John Esposito, and Hans Küng. 
Nonetheless, all these details of the standard account have been challenged by the historical-critical approach to the Qur'an and the origins of Islam, which applies the method of textual analysis perfected for the Hebrew Bible by Julius Wellhausen more than a hundred years ago. Currently, this revisionist approach, which is gaining ground, is championed by such scholars as Christoph Luxenberg, Ibn Warraq, and Karl-Heinz Ohlig.

These two schools of interpretation--the traditionalist and the revisionist-- concerning the origins of Islam are radically opposed. They have very little in common. Regrettably, a resolution of this fundamental disagreement does not seem likely, certainly not in the near future.

Nonetheless, a project headquartered in Berlin offers hope. The Corpus Coranicum is a research project undertaken by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities that is intended to develop a better contextual understanding of the Holy Qur’an. Begun in 2007, the initial three-year database is led by Dr. Angelika Neuwirth, Professor of Semitic and Arabic Studies at the Free University of Berlin. The project is currently funded till 2025, but could well take longer to complete. That is quite a ways off, and even when complete the Corpus Coranicum will focus primarily on textual issues, without seeking to solve theological disagreements.


By law seven Islamic countries today stipulate the death penalty for homosexual behavior: Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Nigeria (capital punishment applies to the twelve northern provinces that observe sharia law).

Other evidence points in a different direction. In parts of Muslim Central Asia and Afghanistan the traditional practice of Basha Bazi (“boy play”) still survives. A bacha, typically an adolescent of twelve to sixteen, is a dancer trained in the performance of erotic songs and suggestive dancing. Wearing resplendent clothes and makeup, the dancing boys are appreciated for their androgynous beauty but was also available for sexual services. The boys are generally taken, sometimes by force from the lower classes. Each one is generally attached to one wealthy man, their owner. Once their beard begins to grow they are dismissed. Occasionally the boy will marry his lover's daughter when he comes of age, but most must endure a humbler fate.

Soviet rule had considerable success in eliminating the practice in Central Asia, but it thrives in northern Afghanistan, where many men keep the boys as status symbols. In that country the authorities are attempting to crack down on the practice as "un-Islamic and immoral," but such efforts are impeded by the fact that many of the men are powerful and well-armed military commanders. In early 2010 the PBS program Frontline aired a documentary about the Afghan boy-love practice by Najibullah Quraishi.

How can these two things be reconciled--the death penalty and the cult of dancing boys? The answer is that adult-adult homosexuality has always been forbidden in Islamic law, without exception. By contrast, Islam has seen, at some times and places, a de facto toleration of pederasty, a type of relationship in which one of the participants is a boy. Nonetheless, the status of pederasty is itself precarious and has been coming under increasing restriction through most of the Islamic world.

The most notorious country for executions of homosexual men is the Islamic Republic of Iran. From 1979, the year of the revolution, to 1990, there have been at least 107 executions on homosexual charges, according to the Boroumand Foundation. According to Amnesty International, at least five people convicted of "homosexual tendencies," three men and two women, were executed in January 1990.

There are several instances in which perceived religious unorthodoxy seems to have played a role in securing convictions. In April 1992 Dr. Ali Mozafarian, a Sunni Muslim leader in Fars province, was executed in Shiraz after being convicted on charges of espionage, adultery, and sodomy. In November 1995 Mehdi Barazandeh, otherwise known as Safa Ali Shah Hamadani, was condemned to death. Ostensibly, Barazandeh's crimes were repeated acts of adultery and "the obscene act of sodomy." The court's judgment was carried out by stoning Barazandeh. Barazandeh belonged to the Khaksarieh Sect of Dervishes (Sufis).

In July 2005 the Iranian Student News Agency covered the execution of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni in Mashahd, and event that drew international attention when disturbing photos of the hanging were widely distributed. Somewhat bizarrely the human rights community was divided as to whether the executions were a gay issue. However, there was general agreement in condemning the hangings on the grounds that they were for crimes allegedly committed when the boys were minors. The initial report from the ISNA, a government press agency, had stated that they were hanged for homosexuality; after the international outcry, the Iranian government alleged that the hangings were primarily for raping a boy.

The roster goes on and on. In November 22005 two men were hanged publicly in the northern town for homosexual acts. in November 2005. In July 2006 two youths were hanged for homosexuality in northeastern Iran. On November 16, 2006, the state-run news agency reported the public execution of man convicted of sodomy in the western city of Kermanshah. According to the Iranian gay and lesbian rights group Homan, the Iranian government has put to death an estimated 4,000 homosexuals since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

There is a strange exception to this savagery, an exception of a sort. Since the mid-1980s the Iranian government has legalized the practice of sex-change operations, with medical approval, and the subsequent changing of all legal documents. The basis for this policy stems from a fatwa by the leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ayatolla Ruhollah Khomeini, declaring sex changes permissible for "diagnosed" transsexuals. Some Iranian gay and bisexual men are being pressured to undergo a sex change operation and live as women in order to avoid legal and social sanctions. Is this an example of “Islam, the merciful?”


Islamic Sharia law stems from both the Qur'an and hadiths. Islamic legal scholars expand upon the principles they detect therein, which are regarded as the laws of Allah. In this tradition homosexual conduct is not only a sin, but a “crime against God.” There are some differences in interpretation among the four mainstream legal schools, but they all agree that homosexual behavior must be severely sanctioned. In the Hanafi school of thought, the homosexual is first punished through harsh beating; if he or she repeats the act, the death penalty is to be applied. In the Shafi`i school of thought, the homosexual receives the same punishment as adultery (if he or she is married) or fornication (if not married). This means that if the person accused of homosexual behavior is married, he or she is stoned to death; if single, he or she is whipped 100 times. In this way the Shafi`i approach compares the punishment applied in the case of homosexuality with that of adultery and fornication, while the Hanafi tradition differentiates between the two acts because in homosexuality, anal sex--prohibited, regardless of orientation-- typically occurs, while in adultery and fornication, penis-vagina contact (reproductive parts) are involved. Some scholars based on the Qur'an and various hadith hold the opinion that the homosexual should be thrown from a high building or stoned to death as punishment, while others believe that they should receive a life sentence. Another view that in the case of two males, the active partner is to be lashed a hundred times if he is unmarried, and killed if he is married; whereas the passive partner must be executed regardless of his marital status.

Some apologists have attempted to blame the importation of Western disapproval of homosexuality for these harsh measures. This claim is preposterous.

As with the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, whenever the Qur’an explicitly mentions homosexuality it is condemnatory.

Central to many of these imprecations is the story of Lot (Lut) and Sodom, as narrated in the book of Genesis. However, the Muslim interpretation of the story more clearly focuses on its same-sex aspect than does the original telling.

“We also (sent) Lut: He said to his people: ‘Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practise your lusts on men in preference to women : ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.’ And his people gave no answer but this: they said, ‘Drive them out of your city: these are indeed men who want to be clean and pure!’ But we saved him and his family, except his wife: she was of those who legged behind. And we rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): Then see what was the end of those who indulged in sin and crime!” (Qur’an 7:80).

"’Of all the creatures in the world, will ye approach males, And leave those whom Allah has created for you to be your mates? Nay, ye are a people transgressing (all limits)!’ They said: ‘If thou desist not, O Lut! thou wilt assuredly be cast out!" He said: "I do detest your doings. O my Lord! deliver me and my family from such things as they do!" So We delivered him and his family,- all Except an old woman who lingered behind. Then afterward We destroyed the others. We rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): and evil was the shower on those who were admonished (but heeded not)!” (Qur’an 26:165).

“(We also sent) Lut (as a messenger): behold, He said to his people, ‘Do ye do what is shameful though ye see (its iniquity)? Would ye really approach men in your lusts rather than women? Nay, ye are a people (grossly) ignorant!; But his people gave no other answer but this: they said, ‘Drive out the followers of Lut from your city: these are indeed men who want to be clean and pure!’ Then We saved him and his household save his wife; We destined her to be of those who stayed behind. And We rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): and evil was the shower on those who were admonished (but heeded not)!” (Qur’an 27:54).”

“And (remember) Lut: behold, he said to his people: ‘Ye do commit lewdness, such as no people in Creation (ever) committed before you. Do ye indeed approach men, and cut off the highway?- and practice wickedness (even) in your councils?’ But his people gave no answer but this: they said: "Bring us the Wrath of Allah if thou tellest the truth.’ He said: ‘O my Lord! help Thou me against people who do mischief!’ When Our Messengers came to Abraham with the good news, they said: ‘We are indeed going to destroy the people of this township: for truly they are (addicted to) crime.’” (Qur’an 29:28).

There is also this more general commandment. “If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, Leave them alone; for Allah is Oft-returning, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an 4:16).

Although the Qur’an is ambiguous about the exact punishment for same-sex conduct, the death penalty may be inferred (see also 26:165-173).

An uncertain theme in the Qur’an is that of the Ghilman, adolescent boys who serve the faithful in the afterlife. For example, “round about them will serve boys of perpetual freshness” (56:17; see also 52:24 and 76:19). While at first sight these young men would appear to be counterparts of the maidens (houris), mainstream Muslim opinion holds that they are merely servants; they do not bestow sexual favors.

The Hadith are much more explicit about what should be done. Here are a few examples:

Narrated by Ibn 'Abbas: “The Prophet cursed effeminate men; those men who are in the similitude (assume the manners of women) and those women who assume the manners of men, and he said, ‘Turn them out of your houses.’ The Prophet turned out such-and-such man, and 'Umar turned out such-and-such woman.’” (Sahih Bukhari 7:72:774; repeated at 8:82:820)).

Narated by Abdullah ibn Abbas: “The Prophet said: If you find anyone doing as Lot's people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done.” (Abu Dawud 38:4447).

Narated by Abdullah ibn Abbas: “If a man who is not married is seized committing sodomy, he will be stoned to death.”

Narrated by Abu Sa'id al-Khudri: “The Prophet said: A man should not look at the private parts of another man, and a woman should not look at the private parts of another woman. A man should not lie with another man without wearing lower garment under one cover; and a woman should not be lie with another woman without wearing lower garment under one cover.” (Abu Dawud 31:4007).

Narrated by Abu Hurayrah: “The Prophet said: A man should not lie with another man and a woman should not lie with another woman without covering their private parts except a child or a father.” (Abu Dawud 31:4008).

“Whoever is found conducting himself in the manner of the people of Lot, kill the doer and the receiver.” (Tirmidhi 1:152).

Narrated by Jaabir: "The Prophet said: 'There is nothing I fear for my ummah [commmunity] more than the deed of the people of Lot.'" (Tirmidhi 1:457).

Nor were these admonitions purely theoretical. The Qur’anic condemnation of homosexuality was naturally adopted by Muhammad’s later successors. Abu Bakr, the father of Aisha, had a wall thrown down upon suspected sodomites, a punishment that is being reprised in the Middle East today. Ali, the fourth caliph, had sodomites burned.

What then of the seemingly flourishing pederastic subculture of the Islamic Middle Ages. Is this simply a myth? No it is not, but the phenomenon is mainly a matter of particular sectors, often those that stand apart from the Sunni mainstream.

More generally, the de facto toleration of pederasty is linked to the Islamic tendency to the seclusion of women, leading to their removal from public life. Another factor, though one that is hard to assess, is survival of the traditions of Greek pederasty. This trend may account for the use of the wine boy (saqi) as a symbol of homoerotic passion.

Persia may also have made a contribution. Certainly in Islamic times Persian poetry has served as a major vehicle for declarations of pederastic attraction. Even in that realm, though, the practice was not without its critics, such as the poet Sanai of Ghazni who mocked the pederastic practices of his time, embodied in the doings of the Khvaja of Herat, who is depicted as taking his catamite into a mosque for a quick bit of nooky:

Not finding shelter he became perturbed,
The mosque, he reasoned, would be undisturbed.

But he is discovered by a devout man, who, in his revulsion, echoes a traditional attack on same-sex relations:

"These sinful ways of yours," —that was his shout—
Have ruined all the crops and caused the drought!

This exchange is interesting for its evocation of the motif, traceable back to Justinian in the sixth century CE, that homosexual acts bring on natural disasters.

Some of the poems discuss the contrasting merits of truly beardless boys and downy-cheeked youths. One the beard had begun to grow, however, the individual was off limits, however attractive he might have seemed previously.

The connection with Sufism is ambiguous. Such attractions are commonly regarded as chaste, finding their place in Islamic mysticism in a meditation known in Arabic as nazar ill’al-murd, "contemplation of the beardless," or Shahed-bazi, "witness play" in Persian. This fascination is rationalized as an act of worship intended to help one ascend to the absolute beauty that is God through the relative beauty that is a boy (quite possibly a reminiscence of Plato).

To be sure, not all Sufi adepts followed the teachings to the letter. Some observers suspected the motives of dervishes who professed to love only the appearance of the boys. For their part, conservative Muslim theologians condemned the custom of contemplating the beauty of young boys. Their suspicions may have been justified, as some dervishes boasted of enjoying far more than "glances", or even kisses. Thus Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) complained: "They kiss a slave boy and claim to have seen God!"

In contradiction to these currents, mainstream hatred of homosexuality has continued in Islam down to the present. Even among “moderate” Muslims residing in Western countries, homosexuality is generally condemned as something that is vile and unacceptable. For example, a Gallup survey carried out in early 2009 found that British Muslims have zero tolerance for homosexual behavior. Not a single British Muslim interviewed for the survey was willing to grant that homosexual acts were morally acceptable. According to a Zogby International poll of American Muslims taken in November and December of 2001, a massive 71 percent opposed "allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally." Another worrying statistic to be found among Muslims in the UK: although they comprise just 2% of the total British population, they commit 25% of all anti-homosexual crimes (gay bashing).

So, with the rise of Islam in the the United Kingdom, Western Europe and other non-Islamic countries, we witness an appalling return to the primitive moral concepts of seventh-century Arabia, with Muslim gangs roaming the streets of England and the Netherlands, carrying out violent attacks on gays. For their part, mosques labeled as “moderate” calling for the murder of homosexuals at the hands of their congregation.

Even in secular Indonesia, we see that owing to pressure from the growing conservative Muslim communities some local jurisdictions are now adopting Islamic legal principles, criminalizing homosexual behavior. In India, with its Hindu majority, attempts to abrogate the old British sodomy law so as to decriminalize homosexuality are being hindered by Muslim clerics, who assert that homosexuality is an offence under Sharia Law and “haram (prohibited) in Islam." Bizarrely, these self-righteous South Asian representatives of an intruder culture claim that decriminalization of homosexual behavior is somehow an attack on Indian religious and moral values. As we have seen with the career of Mohandas Ghandhi, Indian steadfastness has had a worldwide effect. What would these bigoted Muslims know about Indian religious and moral values?

In fact, intolerant pronouncements can be found emanating from all sorts of Muslim organizations, government and apologists. Here are three contemporary examples, one from a Muslim expert in the United State; the second active in Canada; and the third in Pakistan.

“Homosexuality is a moral disorder. It is a moral disease, a sin and corruption.” Homosexuality “is utterly contrary to every natural law of human and animal life.” “Homosexuality is unlawful in Islam. It is neither accepted by the state nor by the Islamic Society. Qu’ran clearly states that it is unjust, unnatural, transgression, ignorant, criminal and corrupt. [...] Muslim jurists agree that, if proven of guilt, both of them should be killed.”

With the widespread acceptance of such expressions of hatred it is little wonder that life can be grim--and short--for homosexuals in Muslim countries.


Afary, Janet. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

El-Rouayheb, Khaled, Before Homosexuality in the Arab–Islamic World, 1500–1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Habib, Samar. Arabo-Islamic Texts on Female Homosexuality, 850-1789 A. D. Youngstown, NY: Teneo Press, 2009.

----, Female Homosexuality in the Middle East: Histories and Representations. London: Routledge, 2009.

----. Islam and Homosexuality. 2 vols. New York: Praeger, 2009.

Massad, Joseph, Desiring Arabs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Murray, Stephen O., and Will Roscoe (eds.). Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York: NYU Press, 1997.

Patanè, Vincenzo. "Homosexuality in the Middle East and North Africa" in: Aldrich, Robert (ed.). Gay Life and Culture: A World History. New York: Universe, 2006, pp. 271-301.

Rowson, Everett K., and J. W. Wright (eds.). Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Schmitt, Arno. Bio-Bibliography of Male-male Sexuality and Eroticism in Muslim Societies. Berlin: Verlag rosa Winkel, 1985.

Schmitt, Arno, and Gianni de Martino. Kleine Schriften zu zwischenmännlicher Sexualität und Erotik in der muslimischen Gesellschaft. Berlin: Selbstverlag, 1985.

Schmitt, Arno, and Jehoeda Sofer (eds.). Sexuality and Eroticism Among Males in Moslem Societies. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 1992.

Whitaker, Brian. Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2006.á




Blogger Thomas Kraemer said...

I thank you for your perspective on "Bacha Bazi" (boy love) relative to the Islamic traditions. It looks like a good answer to my observations and questions that I summarize below.

By the way, note that The PBS documentary on boy love that is mentioned in the above post can be viewed in full at

In a recent blog post I noted and asked:

"It was disclosed in the beginning (of the PBS documentary) that the journalist shown in the documentary had an axe to grind with many in Afghanistan. It is not clear if he was exposing this provocative criminal activity to make Afghanistan look bad or if he was documenting a true widespread cultural phenomenon. If it is truly a widespread cultural practice, then I was disappointed that he did not do more explaining of the cultural context that makes Bacha Bazi acceptable. For example, they showed a large wedding party that included the very police leaders and officials who stated on camera that Bacha Bazi was illegal and they would prosecute anybody caught. Later the producers say some of the people shown in the film were arrested, but then released a short time later. This type of two-faced denial is typical of anti-gay Republicans in the U.S. They hypocritically denounce homosexuality while secretly engaging in gay sex.

"Furthermore, it would have been interesting for the producers to compare and contrast Bacha Bazi with historically similar practices such as Greek boy love and Roman pederasty, etc. Without this type of scholarship, the documentary seems suspiciously like either a political hit job or an excuse for providing titillation for boy lovers." (See Thomas Kraemer, "PBS 'Dancing Boys' censored by local station," posted Apr. 24, 2010 )

P.S. I recently lost more vision due to a stroke and I am typing nearly blind. Please forgive the typos that I was unable to see.

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