Revisioning Islamic Same-sex Relations
Like the Bible, and most other religious texts, the Qur’an doesn’t have any verse that says, “God has made you black and white, male and female, straight and gay. Be you as brothers to one another, working, eating, praying, loving as one family.” On the other hand, it also does not say “Marriage is only between one man and one woman,” or even “between one man and up to four women.”
There is a clear assumption in many passages in the Qur’an that marriage is between men and women. Passages that talk about how a couple should decide when to wean a child, what times of day it is permissible to have sexual relations during Ramadan, or what to do when conflict arises and a divorce seems the best solution.
But other passages – passages that talk about the fundamental nature of human relationships as a duality – do not have a gender dichotomy. The word zauj, often translated as mate or spouse, signifies one half of a partnership, both husband and wife. This is a powerful concept which affirms the fundamental equality of both spouses and leaves room for a genderless conception of human partnering.
This fundamental pairing of human beings is described in several passages which talk about the creation of humanity as a people. The initial human entity – the word in Arabic is grammatically feminine and is often translated as soul, though it can mean self, person, or ego – is given a mate of like nature, created from her own substance.
4:1 O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from her created her mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.
30:21 And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts: verily in that are Signs for those who reflect.
I acknowledge that it is radical to interpret these verses as providing a vision of human pairing that does not discriminate on the basis of gender, and that traditionalist Muslims would frown on such an interpretation. However, it remains a fact that the Qur’an is a living document, Islam is a living religion, and while there are those who would like to continue interpreting the Qur’an as it was interpreted five hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago, I believe that the Qur’an must continually be understood in light of current information about human nature, race, gender, and class, and with reference to modern understandings of what is just, what is compassionate.
The Case for New Understanding
This process is going on in other areas of Qur’anic interpretation – take for instance the verses which talk about human development in the womb. There were some quite amusing interpretations of these verses over the years – at least from the point of modern gynecology. No Muslim in his or her right mind would say we should stick with the old interpretations and ignore modern science, especially when modern science gives us a picture that is very much in keeping with the Qur’anic verses.
Modern science has also shown that the brains of gay men and women are different, structurally, from the brains of straight men and women. Other studies point to factors in the womb that affect sexual orientation. And many studies point to a genetic basis for homosexuality. Our experiences of gay couples show us that gays find the same love, mercy and tranquility with others of the same sex that the majority of us find in heterosexual pairings.
How then can we fail to interpret the Qur’an in light of these understandings, this knowledge of human nature and physiology that simply did not exist in the 600s or the 900s?
Equally important, the Prophet teaches us to want for our brothers and sisters what we want for ourselves. The Qur’an teaches us to exemplify justice, mercy and compassion. If I want a warm, loving, fulfilling marriage with a person I choose, how can I deny that to my brother or sister? If social circumstances favor those who are married – and in our society married couples have special benefits and/or rights in terms of economics, inheritance, visitation during sickness, adoption, etcetera – how can we justify denying those rights and benefits to an entire segment of our society? If the Qur’an teaches that sexual activity outside of marriage is a sin (and it does), how can I condemn a significant portion of the population to sin or to a life of celibacy (which the Qur’an frowns upon as well)?
It may be a radical reading to use the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet to justify gay marriage, but to me it is the only one which upholds the fundamental Islamic ideals of fairness, equality of all human beings, compassion and mercy.
This article was originally published by The Washington Post, December 14, 2008.