Every translation is an interpretation, and every interpretation is a choice.
When we make grand statements on the “essence” of our traditions, we’re always leaving something out, because historical reality is too messy and complicated for a clear essence to be possible. But sometimes, leaving things out is the only way that we can keep the good stuff.
The text of a recent sermon on sex in Islam, delivered by an associate Muslim chaplain at Brown University, has started to circulate online. Its primary concern seems to be telling young Muslims to abstain from sex outside of marriage. Sex is not only regulated by God with clear limits, the khatib tells us – specifically mentioning capital punishment in Sharia for adultery – but also profoundly spiritual, with its full power only accessible within the bounds of marriage. If you’re not ready to be married, says the sermon, you’re not ready for sex: you have “no choice but to be patient.”
If you’ve ever been to a Christian youth camp, you’ve pretty much heard this take on sex and abstinence, without the Arabic terms or references to Muhammad. However, just as discussions of biblical sex and marriage tend to leave a lot out, whenever I hear Muslims talk about the “sanctity and reverence” that “Islamic tradition” gives to sexuality, a few gigantic neon signs start lighting up in my head.
The first one says: SLAVERY.
The Qur'an mentions slave rape as an allowed sexual practice (33:50). Prior to modern objections to slavery, Muslim legal thinkers never questioned the assumed right of a slave owner to rape his female slaves: they only argued over the legality of possible situations, such as two men going halfsies on buying a woman and then both raping her, or a man raping a female slave who was owned by his male slave.
The second big flashing sign in my head: MARITAL RAPE.
The conception of marriage produced within Islamic law was that of an economic transaction, in which a man agreed to financially provide for a woman in exchange for exclusive access to her sexual and reproductive capacities. Operating within this logic, there’s no room for “marital rape” to be comprehended as a possibility, because the husband essentially purchased the vagina. Contemporary scholarship has even drawn comparisons between the ways in which marriage and slavery are discussed in Islam’s classical legal schools.
Additionally, the sermon makes no mention of polygamy, which is also supported by the Qur'an and the Prophet’s personal example. The sermon describes sex as “the sharing of that which is most intimate between two souls” but gives no consideration to marriages in which more than two souls are involved. In this sermon’s sanitised, highly edited presentation of Islamic sexuality, everything that does not immediately relate to its own historical moment – in short, whatever does not conform to modern ideas of how monogamous heterosexual marriage is supposed to look – disappears.
Slave rape, marital rape and plural marriage might be unpleasant to consider as part of Islamic sexuality, but they remain deeply embedded in our most established sources. Consideration of what “Islamic tradition” says about sexuality should also include a mention of female genital mutilation, which comes up in hadith collections. The practice was approved al-Ghazali, a giant of our tradition who believed that female circumcision not only improved sexual intercourse, but also helped to maintain a woman’s complexion. In addition to these issues, however, a more expansive definition of “Islamic tradition” includes sexual practices that are not supported by Islamic legal tradition. The undeniable presence of homoeroticism in our rich heritage of Muslim poetry and mystical literature reveals that Islamic tradition shares space with queer tradition. The khatib can push same-sex love out of Islam if he’s speaking within certain scriptural or legal interpretations, but to pretend that there are no queer Muslims, or that they have not made contributions to sexuality in “Islamic tradition”, takes his Islamic tradition out of reality. The Brown chaplain’s sermon tells unmarried heterosexual Muslims that they have to be patient and wait for marriage, but tells gay Muslims that they must be patient and wait to die, because there is no access to sacred sexuality for them on this planet. Actually, because the sermon says nothing about gay Muslims at all, its position on gay Muslims is that they do not exist. Reflecting on that fact, I remember that this sermon, which I read at home on my computer, was originally a statement to a room full of people. Perhaps they were not all self-identified as heterosexual. The khatib stood before an audience and pretended that some of the people weren’t there.
I do not believe that Islamic tradition is frozen in stone, or that we can adequately study Islam only by looking at premodern texts. As a lived tradition, Islam is constantly undergoing dramatic mutation. However antihistorical the sermon’s vision of Islam and sexuality might be, it still reflects what “Islamic tradition” says for most of the Muslims to whom it was addressed. The fact is that this sermon has been showing up in my Facebook feed precisely because it resonates with Islamic sexuality as many Muslims today have already defined it. Some of the comments that I’ve seen for this sermon even describe it as progressive and a step forward.
When I complained about the sermon’s essentialisms and exclusions to a friend, he answered that there is no reason for a khatib to deal with slavery when speaking on Islam and sex to an audience of university students, because this was not a relevant issue in their lives. We’ve moved past that, he said. Even if the Qur'an, sunna, and Islam’s formative legal scholars all treated concubinage as perfectly acceptable, we needed to consider the historical context and leave it in the past.
Personally, I’m fine with this. But later in our conversation, when the topic of homosexuality came up, he said, “Islam is clear about that.” He insisted that there is no room for recognition of same-sex love as Islamically acceptable. His claim to a clear Islamic position on homosexuality, and more importantly our need to submit to this position, betrayed his earlier assertion that we can ignore the Qu'ran’s acceptance of slave rape. If we can’t make space for queer Muslims because the Qur'an is so emphatic on that issue, what entitles us to erase concubinage? How can we say that we’ve progressed beyond slavery – or that even in its explicit acceptance of slavery, the true intent of the Qur'an and the Prophet was slavery’s gradual abolition – but allow for no similar intellectual freedom on same-sex love?
To make claims on what Islamic tradition says, we have to become editors. We choose to highlight the fact that al-Ghazali placed high priority on the right of married women to sexual satisfaction, while choosing to forget that he also supported FGM. We can also forget that al-Ghazali’s brother, an esteemed scholar, poet, and mystic, advocated the erotic contemplation of young boys as a spiritual practice. Both our inclusions and exclusions are defined by our own needs. When deciding what parts of our tradition remain useful to us, we can only assess these seminal texts and figures through the eyes of our present. It’s never simply a matter of what the tradition tells us, because tradition says nothing until we have translated it to speak for our own time and place. Every translation is an interpretation, and every interpretation is a choice.