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Queer Muslims Deserve More Than Scriptural Zealotry

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In a recent blog piece, American Islamic scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf defended the right to uphold the belief that "homosexuality" constitutes an aberration. He equated queer individuals with ma'buns, a category used in Islamic legal texts to refer to those who are effeminate in speech or desirous of receptive anal intercourse.

Does Shaykh Hamza really want his followers to aspire to teachings that emphasize deviation instead of diversity? By reducing their existence to a sexual act or the manner of speech, does he really wish to dehumanize queer individuals?

In the context of the head cover, he has gone as far as to state that when the law does not serve human beings, they are permitted to abandon it. Likewise, other conservative Muslim leaders usually claim that as a religion of love, mercy and kindness, Islam has given everyone their rights.

In contrast, they have issued opinions on queer Muslims that seem unreasonable and unjust. Of course, the zeal to uphold classical understandings of the scriptural texts at times violates the Islamic spirit of love, mercy and kindness.

Instead of paraphrasing legal texts, will conservative Muslim leaders review how the assumptions of the past jurists influenced their rulings?

Conservative Muslim scholar Shaykh Al Munajjid has clearly defined that in Islamic law, "homosexuality" refers to the act of anal intercourse with males. Indeed, the Islamic tradition is based on rulings on the apparent instead of hidden attributes like sexual orientation.

Harvard based Dr. Khaled El Rouayheb confirms that the past Arab-Islamic world lacked the concept of "homosexuality" as understood today. His seminal work and that of Dr. Scott Kugle clearly indicates that by excluding women and those who do not indulge the act of anal intercourse, the category of ma'bun does not define queer individuals.

When will conservative Muslim leaders recognize that paraphrasing legal texts is not helpful today?

Muslim academic Dr. Kecia Ali has indicated that past exegetes and jurists addressed superfluous desire that could be channeled towards women instead of the exclusive innate orientation towards member of the same sex.

Past exegetes and jurists operated in the context of age and status asymmetrical relationships between unequal partners. The 14th century exegete Ibn Kathir noted that Muslim leaders, jurists and memorizers of the Qur'an were complicit in liwat -- anal intercourse inflicted on males that included youth, slaves, or those classified as ma'buns.

Such same-sex conduct perpetuates through the phenomenon of the Dancing boys of Afghanistan or in the context of gender segregated societies where the active partners, whose wives are pregnant or menstruating, pursue youth or foreign feminized males as surrogates.

However, applying the rulings on liwat to queer Muslims, whose lives are not defined by a specific sexual act in an asymmetrical relationship, would be unreasonable. Likewise, prescribing them to remain permanently celibate merely to uphold classical understandings of the scriptural texts would be unjust.

Dr. Hashim Kamali of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Sciences in Malaysia has opined that even a clear scriptural text may be given a fresh interpretation in a different context, especially when Islamic rulings contingent on a set of circumstances are deemed unjust in a different context.

He referred to the opinion of the 14th century jurist Ibn Qayyim that unjust rulings should not be part of Islamic law even if they were derived through its application. Likewise, Islamic law scholar Dr. Anver Emon has referred to the opinion of the 14th century jurist Al Tufi that scriptural texts had to be reinterpreted if the rules derived from them did not uphold the good.

Islamic law is not frozen in time. It accounts for social change. Based on the principles of justice and public welfare, past jurists like Al Tufi and the 20th century jurists Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida went as far as to advocate deriving Islamic rules even if they were not directly confirmed by scriptural texts.

Conservative Muslim leaders can acknowledge the innate orientation of queer Muslims by referring to the 14th century jurist Al Shatibi who stated that denying innate dispositions may irreparably harm human beings.

They can reference the late Grand Shaykh Tantawi of Al Azhar, who, possibly based on the theological model that the inner soul takes precedence over the outer body, opined that it would be self-deception to outwardly behave in a manner inconsistent with one's inner essence.

By reflecting on the Islamic teaching taklif ma la yutaq -- that Islamic law does not impose unbearable obligations -- they can also reject the harmful prescription of permanent celibacy that deprives human beings from living a worthwhile life based on love, companionship and intimacy.

As such, conservative Muslim leaders like Shaykh Hamza have the choice to continue paraphrasing classical legal texts that define queer Muslims as ma'buns, which caricatures them as effeminates or passive recipients of anal intercourse, or to draw inspiration from the spirit of Islam to replace unjust rules with those that facilitate queer Muslims.

The choice is yet before them.

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