Queer Jihad on the Quran and homosexuality
The Islamic condemnation of homosexuality is based squarely on the Qur'anic story of the Prophet Lut (known as Lot in the Judeo/Christian context). This story is repeated several times in the Qur' an. They all follow a similar pattern, but the details change from one telling to the next, as we shall see.
This story of Lot and his family and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is mentioned in verses 7:80, 11:77, 15:59, 21:71, 26:161, 27:55, 29:26, 37:133, and 54:33.
second hand accounts
The first thing to note is that these Qur'anic passages are second hand accounts: Muhammad, in telling the story of the Prophet Lut, is repeating what he has heard from other sources. It is said in many of Muhammad's biographies that he was heavily influenced by the Jewish and Christian
merchants that he dealt with, and Muhammad no doubt came across the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from his conversations with them.
the lecherous act
As for the history of this story, the Gay Almanac says, 'According to the Book of Genesis, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed with fire and brimstone. This is interpreted by Philo of Alexandria centuries later, and then by religious writers, to have been a wrathful God' s punishment for the homosexuality of the inhabitants. That interpretation, although common, hinges on an unlikely translation of the ambiguous Hebrew word meaning 'to know'. The term is used 943 times in the Old Testament; in only 15 of those times is it used as a euphemism for sexual activity. According to many modem-day scholars, it is likely that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah did not involve homosexuality at all.'
In the first line of the Qur'anic passage cited above, the Prophet Lut says to his people, 'Why do you commit this lecherous act which none in the world has committed before?' We are not told, however, what this 'lecherous act' was, and we assume, though we don't really know with any certainty, that it concerns homosexuality .We assume this because of the next passage which states, 'In preference to women, you satisfy your lust with men.' If you were to read these two verses, and these two only, and if you were to forget about the cultural and historical context in which they take place, as well as the rest of the story which surrounds them, you could indeed arrive at the conclusion that they constitute a condemnation of homosexuality.
Even so, there are a variety of questions we could ask. What exactly was this 'lecherous act'? Was it sodomy between males, or sodomy between males and females? And for that matter, what exactly do we mean by the term sodomy? Was it rape, or abuse, or the pursuing of multiple sex partners, or sex with children? And when the Qur'an says, 'In preference to women, you satisfy your lust with men', what, again, does it mean? That the inhabitants were leaving their natural disposition toward heterosexual relationships and experimenting with homosexuality , even though they were not homosexual? Or something else entirely? Are we to assume it is okay to approach women with 'lust' but not men? And again, what exactly is the 'lust' we're talking about? Is it sodomy? Oral sex? Adultery? Pre-marital sex? Or does this passage simply mean that sexual activity was being approached in an abusive manner?
The next line says, 'His people made no answer, and only said: 'Drive them out of the city. They profess to be pure.' The story makes a large shift here: the heart of the matter, it turns out, is not the sexual proclivities of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the fact that 'two angels' had shown up at Lut's house and that the inhabitants wanted Lut to drive his guests out. The reasons for this are not clear: perhaps they wanted to sexually abuse the angels, an idea that gains credence when one reads other accounts of this story in which Lut offers his two daughters to the crowds for their sexual enjoyment. Whatever the reason, what the crowd was demanding was that Lut be inhospitable to his guests. And this could have been - indeed, very probably was - the 'sin' of the people of Sodom.
In 'What the Bible really says about homosexuality', Daniel A Helminiak, Ph.D., explains, 'In desert country, where Sodom lay, to stay outside exposed to the cold of the night could be fatal. So a cardinal rule of Lot's society was to offer hospitality to travelers. The same rule is a traditional part of Semitic and Arabic cultures. This rule was so strict that no one might harm even an enemy who had been offered shelter for the night.' Helminiak goes on to say that 'sodomy' used to mean inhospitality, and that while the men of Sodom may have wanted to force Lut's guests into anal intercourse, this had more to do with humiliating the strange men. 'During war, for example, besides raping the women and slaughtering the children, the victors would often also 'sodomize' the defeated soldiers. The idea was to insult the men by treating them like women.' When viewed in this light, the story takes on a different meaning entirely. It begins to seem as though the discussion of homosexuality was more or less an after thought, and certainly not the main issue at hand. The whole point of the story involves the arrival of the two angels who have been sent by Allah to save Lut and his family before the cities were destroyed.
Another point to note is that the details of this story change from one telling to the next in the Qur'an. For example, we are sometimes told that it was Lut's wife who was destined to be left behind, and sometimes we are told it was an 'old woman'. It would seem most odd to refer to Lut's wife, the wife of a prophet, as just an 'old woman'. Sura 26:170 reads: 'So we saved him and his whole family except one old woman who remained behind.' And yet, in the verses quoted above, we are told it was Lut's wife who was left behind. Was it his 'whole family' or his wife?
The conversations Lut is recorded to have had also vary - sometimes greatly - from one telling to the next. In some tellings of the story the inhabitants are reported to have said nothing; in others, they did indeed respond to Lut.
Even the form of the story itself varies. In Sura 54:37 we read: 'They lusted after his guests, so We put out their eyes and said: 'Taste My punishment and My commination!'' - in no other account do these details occur. It would seem a rather significant part of the story if Allah did indeed 'put out' the eyes of the inhabitants and speak directly to them. And yet in no other account are these rather significant facts mentioned.
In some tellings, the people are said to have accused the 'messengers of lies' - in other words, they scoffed at the prophets sent to them, abused them, mistreated them. Sura 54:33 reads, 'The people of Lut rejected the warnings.' This seems to be the reason for their destruction. But in other tellings, it is the sexual aspects of the story which are emphasized, or their inhospitality to Lut's guests.
why do these details change from one telling to the next in the Qur'an?
Another version of the story, as told in Sura 26:161, reads this way: 'The people of Lut accused the messengers of lies. When their brother Lot said to them: 'Will you not take heed? I have been sent as a trusted messenger to you. So fear God and listen to me. I ask no recompense of you for this. My reward is due from none but the Lord of all the worlds. Why do you go for males unlike all other creatures leaving the consorts your Lord has made for you? But you are a people who exceed the bounds.' They said: 'If you do not desist, 0 Lot, you will be expelled (from the city). (Lot) said: '1 am disgusted with your actions.' (And prayed): '0 Lord, save me and my family from what they do.' So We saved him and his whole family except one old woman who remained behind. Then We destroyed the rest of them.'
This is much different from the story we originally quoted: 'And we sent Lot, who said to his people: 'Why do you commit this lecherous act which none in the world has committed before? In preference to women you satisfy your lust with men. Indeed you are a people who are guilty of excess.' His people made no answer, and only said: 'Drive them out of the city. They profess to be pure.' But We saved him and his family, except for his wife who was one of those who stayed behind. And We rained down on them a shower (of stones). So witness the end of sinners!' (Sura 7:80-84)
What really happened in Sodom and Gomorrah - and how will we ever know, with any certainty? We could say, for the sake of argument, that the inhabitants were destroyed because they were 'exceeding the bounds.' But what does that have to do with the homosexual in today's world? The Qur'an details the stories of numerous communities that were destroyed for their evil ways - what has that to do with us, today, here and now?
Perhaps homosexuals in Sodom and Gomorrah were given over to all sorts of perversions - multiple sexual partners, prostitution, wickedness of every kind. Perhaps they so aroused the wrath of Allah that the cities they lived in were completely destroyed. Were the people destroyed simply because they were homosexual? If that is indeed the case, why did Allah make them homosexual to start with? Or were they destroyed because they were exceeding the bounds of decency, and not simply because they were homosexual?
The strongest Islamic argument against homosexuality is based on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and on the belief that since Allah destroyed these two cities, homosexua1ity must, consequently, be wrong. But the argument is rather weak. The story itself is not clear on whether the inhabitants were destroyed simply because of their sexuality , or because of other factors - inhospitality, for example, or inappropriate sexual conduct. This is a crucial distinction. Are homosexuals, simply by the very fact of their homosexuality , displeasing to Allah and thus worthy of destruction? And, if this is so, then why does Allah create homosexuals to begin with?
why would sexuality be sinful?
The argument makes an issue of the sexuality of the inhabitants - but only in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah is such a distinction drawn. The Qur'an is replete with stories of various communities that were destroyed for one reason or another - why is it that in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, the sexuality of the inhabitants is suddenly an issue, whereas in all the other stories it is not? One can be homosexual and yet live completely according to Islamic law and practice, refraining from sexual relationships, devoted to worship and good works and in all ways an outstanding member of the community: is such a person, because of his or her homosexuality, worthy of condemnation?
homosexuality did not exist
Yet another problem we are faced with concerning the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and its supposed condemnation of homosexuality is that 'homosexuality' was not understood to be a personal identity until only very recently. It is not accurate to say that 'homosexuals' were condemned in Sodom and Gomorrah because the concept of a 'homosexual' as being a distinct person with a same-sex sexuality did not come about until only very recently. The Qur'an could not condemn a class of people that were not even known to exist.
Historians tell us that in some cultures, such as ancient Rome, there was a wide variety of homosexual activity - but it was not understood that this behavior was prompted by genes and hormones, was biologically based, and not simply a 'fad' or something 'fashionable' or an easy way to have sex outside of marriage, much less that it was personal, lifelong and unchanging identity. In many cases, male-male sex, or male-male relationships, were based on abuse, often involving an older man with a younger boy. They might have been condemned in the scriptures of the Jews, Christians and Muslims but the distinction needs to be made that it was the abusive aspect of the male-male relationship that was being condemned, not the sexual act itself. When the various scriptures about homosexuality were written, this was understood. When we come across them today, however, divorced as they are from their historical and cultural context, they seem to give a much different meaning.
Another issue to be raised and considered is the fact that population levels were, at that time, a much greater concern than they are now. There were far fewer people. In Jewish circles, it was considered sinful to 'waste' your seed by spilling it on the ground when it could be used to strengthen the Jewish race. It was not a matter of condemning masturbation, but rather condemning the idea that sex could be used for any reason not related directly to procreation. No doubt prohibition of homosexual activity was motivated by a similar concern - and again, it was not the sexual act itself that was being condemned, it was the fact that it would lead to a lower population level. With about 7 billion people on the planet now, such issues are no longer important.
It should be obvious, at this point, that there is a lot of room for doubt about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are many unanswered questions.
why not a clear and detailed condemnation?
If sex between two men is sinful, why doesn't the Qur'an simply say so? It was very clear and very specific about a great many things. Why couldn't the Qur'an - and the Bible, for that matter - be just as clear and specific about homosexuality? Reason would suggest that if 5% of the given population (the estimated number of homosexuals) is going to be condemned then clear and convincing reasons for doing so must be given.
The Qur'an speaks at great length about the evil of associating partners with Allah: there is no doubt, no room left for even the smallest of doubts, on this matter. It speaks at great length on a great many issues, ranging from divorce to the rights of widows and orphans. One of the most compelling features of these Qur'anic messages is the pragmatism displayed, not to mention the compassion and justness of the positions taken. No one can reasonably argue against taking care of widows and orphans. No one can reasonably argue that adultery is not harmful to families. No one can reasonably argue that being fair and honest is not a good thing. Time and time again the Qur'an provides compassionate, pragmatic answers to the nuts and boIts of human life. It speaks of justness, fairness in one's dealings, honesty and integrity, awareness of one's actions, and gives continual reminders that we are bound for the next world where we will render an accounting for our lives, actions and intentions. Why is it so unclear about homosexuality if homosexuality is, indeed, a 'sin'? .
The majority of Muslims refuse to consider the possibility that this story could be anything other than a condemnation of homosexuality .They do so from the belief that the Qur'an - and each and every word contained within it - is absolutely and literally true, spoken by Allah and conveyed through the Prophet Muhammad, and as such, is unalterable, completely clear and precise and not subject to any interpretation or debate. These are claims made by fundamentalist Christians concerning the Bible, and like such claims, they lead to a host of problems.
The Qur'an is not always clear or consistent. It contains many factual and logical errors. In Sura 7:157, for example, we encounter Allah talking to Moses about the Torah and the Gospel - despite the fact that Jesus would not even be born for another 1,000 years, and that there could not have been a 'Gospel' for Allah to be talking about with Moses. In accounts of the birth of Jesus, we are told first in Sura 3:42 that 'angels' went to Mary to announce that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus, and that the angels, as it were, fought amongst themselves for the privilege of telling her this. Yet in another account further on the Qur'an, we are told it was simply a spirit in the form of a man, as in Sura 19:17. Which was it: a group of angels, or just one? In 2:29 we are told that the earth was created first, and then the heavens; but in Sura 79:27, we are assured that the heavens were created first, and then the earth. These two verses are very distinct and very clear. Sura 2:29 reads, 'He made for you all that lies within the earth, then turning to the firmament He proportioned several skies…' Sura 79:27 makes it very clear that just the opposite took place. 'Are you more difficult to create or the heavens? He built it, raised it on high, proportioned it, gave darkness to its night and brightness to its day; and afterwards spread out the earth.'
We have already noted the inconsistencies in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. These are just a handful of the many to be found all throughout the Qur'an, which number in the hundreds, and which include such things as inheritance shares not adding up correctly, whether or not there will be 'inquiry' in Paradise (in some places 'yes', in others 'no'), what man was created from (several different things are mentioned), and even the claim in the Qur'an which states there are no discrepancies in the Qur'an (there are) and that it is written in pure Arabic (it contains many foreign words).
The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are also tilled with contradictions and factual errors, but this is only an indication that when God reveals himself/herself/itself to us, it is through the agency of human beings - and humans are not always completely accurate. They make mistakes. That does not, however, in any way diminish the importance of the scriptures they left behind.
There are two ways to interpret scripture: we can choose the literal, unbending fundamentalist approach; or we can view them. for what they are - the work of men inspired by God and trying to set down, in words, their experience of God and what they have learned from that experience. If we choose the fundamentalist approach, we are confronted by the fact that our scriptures are not always consistent nor even factually correct. We are expected to believe, for example, that Allah speaking through Muharnmad, first said he/she/it created the heavens and then the earth; and then at a later date, contradicted this claim and says the complete opposite. How could Allah make such a mistake? How could Allah not remember the order in which our world was created? But if we look at the Qur'an as a source of basic principles and spiritual guidance, inspired by God but communicated through the agency of a human being, we will find that the basic principles are sound, that the details here and there that prove to be inconsistent are not cause for concern. Those who follow a literal, unbending interpretation of the Qur'an will see the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as an absolute condemnation of homosexuality, and the issue of homosexuality will be closed. But that is only one way of looking at the matter. Others, while respecting and reverencing the Qur'an just as much as any Muslim, will see it as the work of human hands and tilled with human mistakes but nevertheless tilled also with wisdom and guidance from Allah - and they will see the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as being part and parcel of its cultural context. And they will, consequently, see that it is not a condemnation of homosexuality, per se but rather something else entirely.
This distinction is crucial in the debate on homosexuality for such a debate can go nowhere unless one is willing to look anew on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and to consider the possibility that traditional Islamic interpretations of it have been incorrect. When one is willing to do that, the pieces fall quite naturally into place.
Respected Muslim scholars must take another look at the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and re-examine the traditional interpretation of it because the lives of millions of Muslims all over the world depend on it. As we shall see, in later chapters, the whole business of life revolves around relationships - with ourselves, with our families and friends and relatives, with sexual partners, and not to mention with Allah and our brothers and sisters in Islam. For homosexuals, these relationships, because of our need to hide our sexuality, are tinged with dishonesty and deceit. The condemnation of homosexuality, based on this story, leads to untold suffering and spiritual anguish, broken families, bitterness, loneliness, even suicide among the very young. This story must be looked at anew and the Islamic community must decide whether justice is being done - or not.
Anonymous essay from the Queer Jihad website (November 1998, link now obsolete).