As a middle class, white, British-born convert to Islam, nothing has perplexed
me more than the ideas and beliefs held by many ordinary Muslims about gay
people. I’ve tried to rationalize it, justify it and excuse it. In the end, I
felt impelled to put on my sociologist’s cap and investigate the problem. What I
discovered was that the history of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered,
Questioning (LGBTQ) Muslims, even their social reality, has been grossly
misrepresented and misunderstood.
In this article, I will attempt to reconstruct the core historical and
contemporary realities of LGBTQ Muslims in the spirit of ithar, a term which
roughly translates as ‘self-sacrificing generosity’. I will start by brushing
off the cobwebs of the past and roughly summarize what is known about LGBTQ
Muslims by gender historians. The social research on LGBTQ Muslims in Britain
will then be considered, exploring the human rights problems experienced by one
section of this population – lesbian, gay and bisexual women.
As I am not an expert on Shariah, I will not be considering the legality of
LGBTQ behaviours within Islam. Rather, my intention is to draw people’s
attention to the dire consequences of continuing to rely on prejudice, rather
than reason and research, to relate to LGBTQ Muslim people in the UK. My
conclusions, however, should be equally applicable to other developed nations
with Muslim minorities.
Speaking Historical Truth
In Arab and South Asian lands, pre-colonial LGBTQ activity was almost always
hidden from the public gaze, but was nonetheless well-known. It took diverse
forms, and even amongst the mainstream literature of classical Islam, there are
numerous examples of same-sex relationships written about in an affirmative way.
Medieval Persian poetry, including Rumi, esteemed the love of the older man for
the younger man; and the now lost Kitab al-Sahhakat (Treatise on Lesbianism),
dating from the ninth century, is equally assenting of women-women sexual
activities, as are later works of Arab eroticism. There is also substantial
evidence of the stigma surrounding pre-marital heterosexual relations finding
outlet through male-male sexual acts, as there is in contemporary gay Muslim
The arrival of the colonial Europeans introduced new ways of conceptualizing
dissident sexual and gender behaviours. By the nineteenth century, Europeans had
two well established social discourses on non-heterosexual activities. One was
the institutionalisation of lesbian and gay activities within a social identity,
separate from gender: the self-conscious, dissident homosexual. For some
lesbian, gay and bisexual Muslims, this may call into question their explanation
of sexuality as something biologically innate. But Europeans did not invent
homoerotic desire – what they did was link it to their sense of self.
The other discourse was evangelical Christian homophobia, a moralizing fear and
hatred far more extreme than the mocking indifference common throughout much of
the pre-colonial Muslim worlds. It was a discourse that has its parallels in the
reactionary masculinities of popular Salafism and Wahhabism. From the hijab to
homophobia, Salafis and Wahhabis sought cultural defence against colonialism
through promoting their patriarchal and hyper-masculine ideologies. The fanatics
who flew jet planes into skyscrapers on 9/11 proved to be no different in their
hyper-masculine mumblings than modern neo-fascists – misogynistic, and
The rationalization of homophobia is an example of Salafi dissimilation par
excellence. Indeed, if ever there was an exemplar of the intellectual bankruptcy
of Salafism, it is in the telling of non-heterosexual Muslim history. From
laughable accounts of how the American Psychiatric Association reluctantly
capitulated to gay pressure groups in deciding to scratch homosexuality from its
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, to the claims that homosexuality is a
‘Western disease’, the Salafabi mindset demonstrates what their anti-secularism
is all about – the end of critical thought.
Fortunately, the interaction between Muslim and colonial texts has also forged
more positive discourses. Non-heterosexual and transgendered Muslims around the
world are increasingly talking about their sexual experiences and gender
identities in a way that echoes European discourses. It makes sense to them,
like computers and cars. But these dissidents are not talking quite the same
talk, or walking quite the same walk, as European and American gays.
Witness the birth of the modern LGBTQ Muslim.
Speaking Personal Truth
Today, gay Muslims in Britain are speaking truth to prejudice on two fronts: the
personal and the political. Unusually, it is within the former realm that help
has come from professional academia. In April 2004, Dr. Andrew Yip, a reader in
sociology at Nottingham Trent University, published a groundbreaking study into
the personal and family lives of a small group of gay Muslims in London. As well
as the clandestine practices and marriages of convenience, Yip met a number of
Muslims who had quietly come out to their families. And in doing so, he
uncovered widespread and fundamental misconceptions within the Muslim community
– about gay Muslims, and about British society.
“My parents think I am having sex all the time!” Adaam laughs. This is the
perception of many Muslim parents – Britain, a debauched society, poisons the
minds of their young and sucks them into a life of homoerotic vice and
self-indulgence. The term to describe this view is becoming increasingly
well-known: Westoxification. In Britain, it’s a perception which finds easy
reinforcement in the media, not to mention our rowdy, boozy pub culture.
Ironically, Yip’s study suggests most gay Muslims are in tune with their
parents, and prefer not to visit clubs, partly because they perceived them as
being ‘cruisy’. In the real world, of course, people who drink and engage in
premarital sex may be stupid, but they don’t mutate into self-serving ogres.
Adaam was also a participant in Yip’s research, and spoke to me on the telephone
on behalf of Imaan, a LGBTQ Muslim collective based in London. Originally
founded in 1999 as a US chapter of Al-Fatiha, led by Adnan Ali, the organisation
has recently been re-launched as a collective catering to LGBTQ Muslims, their
families and friends, and is committed to ‘Islamic notions of social justice,
peace and tolerance’. Adaam is responsible for liasing with individuals, groups
and organisations interested in the gay Muslim issue.
Despite a recent upsurge in homophobic violence in London, Britain is more
comfortable with dissident sexualities than ever before. The rebirth of Imaan
has clearly revitalised Britain’s gay Muslim community, with media interest
showing interest in a range of organisations, including the Naz Project, which
focuses on gay sexual health issues. A TV documentary is in the offing, and
BBC’s flagship talk station, Radio 4, recently devoted an entire programme to
gay Muslims in Britain. Muslims are now visible on gay pride marches, and this
year gay Muslim placards could be seen above the crowds of London’s Mardi Gras.
Adaam is keen to emphasise that Imaan is, first and foremost, a religious and
social organisation which supports LGBTQ Muslims, forging links with the wider
Muslim community with its solid commitment to fighting Islamophobia.
“A more social take on things was demanded by the membership,” He explained.
This year, Imaan is holding an Eid party, with a representative from the Mayor
of London’s office invited to attend. There are also monthly meetings, with
members’ discussions revolving around a selected topic. Next meeting, the group
intend to discuss the difficulties of having a non-Muslim partner. Yet in both
its social activities, as well as in its wider remit, what makes Imaan stand out
is its commitment to a compassionate and wholly non-judgemental ethos.
“If someone at a meeting says he or she can’t be both gay and Muslim, that’s
okay with us,” Adaam explained, “But equally, if someone is gay, Muslim and
proud, that’s okay too.”
The same non-confrontational ethic also informs Imaan’s dealing with the media
on national and international issues, including the recent visit to Britain by
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who co-opts a term from Victorian biological determinism to
describe homosexuality – ‘unnatural’. Some British gay activists argued
al-Qaradawi should be banned from visiting Britain, but Imaan remained neutral
throughout the media foray condemning him. The collective are already in quiet
discussion with other religious leaders over the legality of gay relationships,
although such is the tendentious nature of the topic that Adaam mentioned no
With Britain’s ulema still dominated by Imams educated outside the UK, attitudes
to LGBTQ Muslims generally reflect the laws and customs of the countries of
origin. Like Imaan’s original membership, Islam in the UK is predominantly South
Asian, with 43% of Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims having ethnic origins in
Pakistan. Perhaps partly due to the Barelvi Sufi tradition of tolerance and
humanism, homosexuality is tacitly accepted in many parts of Pakistan, providing
it doesn't threaten traditional marriage. At the same time, Britain has seen the
encroachment of a more intolerant Islamism, and is not immune to other
international gay Muslim issues, including the politically expedient clampdowns
in Egypt, and the recent legislation against homosexuality in Zanzibar.
Perhaps the most powerful friend of gay Muslims in Britain is Zaki Badawi, the
curmudgeonly graduate of Al-Azhar with a PhD in psychology from a London
University, who has long condemned homophobia and controversially once suggested
many high-ranking leaders in the Muslim world were gay. Yet inevitably, there
are also leaders who continue to fan the flames of prejudice. Amongst the more
disturbing is Sheikh Sharkhawy, based at the prestigious Regent’s Park mosque in
London, who once denigrated gay people as “paedophiles and AIDS carriers.”
Speaking Political Truth
Testimony to the impact of such flagrant bigotry comes from the Safra Project,
an organisation founded in 2001 to pursue the interests of Muslim lesbian,
bisexual and transgendered (LBT) women. Originally part of the old
Al-Fatihah-UK, Safra has demonstrated an ability to consult widely and focus on
social policy issues. In 2003, Safra published a searing indictment of the
difficulties Muslim LBT women experience in accessing legal and social services
in the UK.
At this point in time, I want to get preachy and sound a word of warning. In
Britain, many Muslims feel embattled by Islamophobia on the street and in our
own government’s foreign policies. There is no doubt that negative portrayals of
Muslims in the media contribute to this predicament. At the same time, one of
the most perilous consequences of Islamophobia is the silencing of
self-criticism, whereby Muslims defend what is indefensible. By any measure, the
treatment of Muslim LBT women is indefensible. I hope you can dare to look these
unpleasant truths in the face-–imagine being there, suffering, living these
people’s lives. Then by Allah do something about it.
Imagine experiencing intense same-sex desire, in a world where such feelings are
not only condemned as wrong, but information about dissident sexualities is
inaccessible. Imagine seeking counsel from within your community over such
feelings, even from Asian women support services, only to face homophobic hatred
and rejection. But there are so few people you can tell, anyway – the fear of
the loss of honour (izzat) is such that you dare not risk your family’s public
vilification should your secret become public knowledge. What can you do?
Imagine then turning to people outside the community, and finding things no
better there. Homophobia also exists amongst state-funded social services, along
with Islamophobia and racism. Some service providers, holding misplaced ideas
about ‘cultural sensitivity’, don’t like to bring the issue of dissident
sexualities up. Muslim LBT women working for these services may be silenced from
professing their sexuality for exactly the same reason.
Imagine the sense of isolation and inner turmoil, but you don’t have to imagine
the outcome. Muslim LBT women suffer serious mental health problems, with some
attempting self-harm and even suicide. And at this juncture, the only ‘sin’ many
have committed is inside their heads.
Those Muslim LBT women who dare to come out to their families face rejection,
despite being brought up to believe that family is the only real protection a
Muslim woman can have. Those who are not rejected often face intense pressure to
marry, or physical and emotional domestic violence from parents or siblings. Not
surprisingly, some Muslim LBT women never come out, and consequently spend their
whole lives either in torment or in clandestine relationships.
Other Muslim LBT women, isolated from information and support, struggle to make
sense of their own sexuality well into adult life, by which time they have a
husband and children. These women then sometimes risk physical or emotional
violence from husbands, either due to conflicts over sexual interest or the
discovery of the truth that cannot be spoken. Some women, filled with
self-loathing, leave their husbands and give up their children, or even lose
them to abduction.
You have imagined the worst. Thankfully, the problems of Muslim LBT women are
not universally the same–-middle class women, particular those who are educated
and economically independent, fair slightly better than their poorer, worker
class sisters. Some families are simply more sympathetic than others. And these
problems are not without some remedy –the testimonies of women and men who have
been helped by Safra and other organisations show that Muslim LGBTQs can cope
with the right support. But two troubles remain to be told.
The Mustad'afun fi'l-Ard and HIV
The conflict between sexuality and faith which Muslim LBT women and gay men
usually experience is almost always overwhelming. In my view, that is a matter
for each individual; for the wider ummah, my view is that LGBTQ Muslims are
clearly among the mustad'afun fi'l-ard that is, they are among those individuals
and groups mentioned in the Qur’an who, for no reason of their own, are pushed
to the edges of society and live in oppression. Muslims have a duty to defend
them. This is what the academic histories and the sociologies of dissident
Muslim sexualities and genders are saying to me.
Some assert LGBTQ Muslims are not amongst this group, since they choose to be
who they are. This is not an argument I can accept, because the extraordinary
level of suffering experienced by gay Muslims makes no human sense if you assume
choice is involved. The psychologists agree with me on this one. To date, the
American Psychological Association maintains that, “human beings can not choose
to be either gay or straight.” But if this doesn’t convince you, let’s be clear
where continued condemnation of LGBTQ Muslims is leading.
More than anything, it is leading precisely nowhere. LGBTQ Muslims are not going
to go away, although a minority end up abandoning their Muslim faith as inimical
to their sexuality. For most, the continued vilification of LGBTQ Muslims pushes
them further underground, where they are forced to live a lie. Even in liberal
Britain, many continue to hide in marriages of convenience, only able to express
their sexuality through clandestine relationships or purchased sex.
Putting aside the intolerable pressure this must place on such artificial
families, such practices clearly put men, women and unborn children at risk from
sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Yet rather than viewing this
predicament in terms of health risks, some Imams with a direct line to
Ar-Rahman’s will exploit this issue in order to attack LGBTQ Muslims, by
claiming AIDS as divine justice. One must ask, then, why Allah would want to
kill 66 Irish haemophiliacs with HIV, or infect unborn children. There is no
answer to this question, of course, because such diatribes are expressions of
hate and fear, not reason.
And so the suffering cascades through our communities, its history and faulty
logic forgotten. Despite the clear injunction on Muslims to care for the sick,
the outcome for many Muslims suffering from HIV is rejection by the families,
communities and even their faith leaders – with some Imams even refusing to give
people who have died of AIDS a proper burial.
Non-heterosexual sexual activity has been a part of Muslim life for centuries.
In Britain, where there are 1.6 million Muslims, it has forged a community and
identities that are compassionate, insightful and bursting with a passion for
our faith. But some Muslims continue to view this community with malice, born of
a hatred unknowingly borrowed from their former colonial masters. It’s a hatred
that kills justice and, by creating a climate of fear, may even be killing
Time to put the hatred to bed, and wake up love!
For reasons of confidentiality and security, individual names have been changed.
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Zaki Badawi has sadly passed away since this article was
Originally Published on
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