Queering the Qur’an
Nov 14 2012
This is a still image from the film Circumstance, which won the Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Among other themes, the film explores homosexuality among young Muslims in Iran. Watch the trailer here.
Not a week of my life goes by without me receiving a message from either a gay Muslim seeking reconciliation between faith, heart, and body, or a gay non-Muslim who is considering converting to Islam, but wonders whether Islam can ever allow a place for him or her. There are a few approaches that one could take to answer these questions, and I’m not really qualified to employ any of them, but here we go.
First, a basic historical argument: Islam is what Muslims do. If we look at Islam as a human tradition with its history and contexts anchored to this planet, rather than something that floats above humanity as an untouched, unchanging essence, then the answer is yes: Islam can have a place for queer Muslims, because queer Muslims have always existed. We have significant traditions of poetry and mysticism in which homoerotic desire is fused with Islamic spirituality. These traditions might not satisfy anyone who cares about Islamic legal tradition, but a historical approach also undermines assumptions about the absoluteness of Islamic law, showing the law to be an ongoing process of human interpretation. Anyway, founding fathers of Islamic law as we have it today acknowledged that same-sex desire was natural, while maintaining that the associated actions were illegal. Abu Hanifa, eponym of the Hanafi school, would deliberately have a handsome male student sit in such a way that he could not look at the student directly, lest his eyes betray him.
We could name-drop Sufi saints and poets from various times and places who violated norms of gender and sexuality on one level or another, and this might do some good towards a useable queer-positive Islamic history, but proving a diversity of beliefs and practices isn’t going to answer the Muslims who need God’s words to settle all disputes with clear verdicts. If you want the Qur’an to really say something, I don’t know what to tell you; I can’t pick apart verses of the Qur’an to reveal the hidden intentions of a transcendent Author. People on both sides of the issue try to do that, but they often see what they want to see.
As with anti-queer readers of the Bible, anti-queer readers of the Qur’an mention the fate of Lot’s people as proof that God hates same-sex desire. However, there are also readers of the Qur’an who attempt to produce new meanings from the episode. Among progressive Muslims, an argument exists that the story of Lot does not discuss men who want consensual sex with other men, but rather men who intend to commit rape. I have to confess that this argument strikes me as a bit of a reach, but I do appreciate the effort, if only so that I can say that alternative readings do exist.
Unfortunately, when I read the Qur’an, I find it mocking men who want to have sex with men. This is not what I want to see, and I hope to someday find an interpretation that will change this for me. I appreciate the need for queer Muslims to find new meanings in the words, and I’m on their side, but the project remains a matter of making the Qur’an say something other than what it appears to be obviously saying.
Before deciding what the Qur’an means, I look to the people who love the Qur’an; between history and scripture, I find the figure of Ali ibn Hamzah al-Asadi, more widely known as al-Kisa’i al-Kufi (d.804). As the transmitter of one of the Qur’an’s seven harfs (“readings”) in Sunni tradition, he’s an immeasurably important figure in the history of the Qur’an as a text. As such, his knowledge and character were both under close examination. In one assessment, al-Marzubani, speaking on the authority Ibn al-Arabi (the jurist, not the mystic), described al-Kisa’i as “one of the most learned persons” while adding that al-Kisa’i openly confessed to engaging in illegal acts that included same-sex relations. “Yet,” he adds, al-Kisa’i remained “an accurate reader, knowledgeable in the Arabic language, and honest.”
This does not answer all questions, but it offers something. In Sunni Islam, there are seven canonical ways of reading the Qur’an. Al-Kisa’i al-Kufi is the man who gave us one of them. He devoted his life to knowing and teaching the Qur’an. It should go without saying that al-Kisa’i al-Kufi memorized the entire scripture by heart and recited it every day of his life. Along the way, he apparently fucked dudes. The lips that he used to recite divine scripture touched men.
I can’t read his mind or take him out of his own world to speak on the debates of ours, and I can’t say that he ever reinterpreted the story of Lot or searched the Qur’an for a queer-positive liberation theology. If he lived today, would he even self-identify as a gay Muslim? I cannot assume that he viewed sexuality in anything outside of its construction in his time, as what you do, rather than our modern concept of sexual orientation as what you are. I do not know of him having critically examined the authenticity of anti-queer sayings attributed to the Prophet, and his example does not create an opening in Islamic law. But if the question is whether Islamic tradition has room for gay Muslims, he makes more room.
Al-Kisa’i al-Kufi was a Muslim who died less than two full centuries after the Prophet. He seems to have done things that his society regarded as violations of God’s laws, and publicly admitted to doing these things, apparently without facing punishment or persecution. As a teacher of the Qur’an, his work was respected. Commentators who disapproved of his actions still acknowledged his mastery of what could be seen as Islam’s most crucial religious science, the preservation and transmission of the sacred text. Whenever Sunni Muslims mention the seven readings of the Qur’an, they are making reference to this man’s work, even if they do not know his name.
Again, there are meaningful problems that al-Kisa’i al-Kufi’s life cannot solve, and still more work to be done. But when I consider Muslims as comprising a human family, al-Kisa’i al-Kufi gives me two comforts: first, that he could be himself openly with the Muslim family; second, that members of the Muslim family could find good in his contribution and accept it.
Michael Muhammad Knight (@MM_Knight) is the author of nine books, including Journey to the End of Islam, an account of his pilgrimage to Mecca, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, and Why I Am a Five Percenter.
Previously - Blood and Islam: Between Eid and Ashura