Homosexuality has always been a hot topic for debate, a controversial issue in most societies. The same goes for religion. Combine the two and you get a powerful emotional brew. The Islamic view on homosexuality relies heavily on the story of Prophet Lot and his people as narrated in the Quran. In this story the prophet warned his people, who were inclined towards homosexuality, against ‘immoral’ behaviour. But the same people tried to excommunicate their prophet and attempted to rape the angels sent to the prophet’s aid, who were disguised as men. As a result, the people of Lot were hit with an enormous earthquake as punishment for their sins, while the prophet and his fellow believers remained unharmed.
Conservative Muslims use this story to justify their homophobia . Even if we choose to ignore all other Quranic injunctions to condemn the stigmatization and discrimination of others, the following question arises: Were the people of Lot destroyed for being homosexual, or for attacking the prophet and attempting to rape his guests?
"The Qur’an is silent about sexual orientation”, says Muhsin Hendericks in an interview with Vice. "The story of Sodom and Gomorrah does not refer to homosexuality as such but rather to various atrocities, including sexual atrocities unrelated to sexual orientation or gender identity”, he adds further. "Quran is not against homosexuality” says Hendricks in another interview. "Even scholars have begun to agree on that nowadays. All they can say is that it is a sin but not a crime. Yet nothing about homosexuality is mentioned in the Quran. You have the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which if you study properly is about prostitution, molestation, rape and other such instances. It’s not about gay people.”
Muhsin Hendricks, who lived in Pakistan for four years during his studies at a local madrassah to become an imam, recounts his own struggle with religion and sexuality in a documentary film called A Jihad for Love, “I was brought up in a very orthodox home. My grandfather was the imam of a mosque in Cape Town and my mother used to teach in the mosque. I was virtually born in the mosque. It was a very safe environment for me until I became aware of my sexuality. I would hear my grandfather preach from the pulpit that gay people would go to hell, so there was no place of expression for sexuality in my life.” Hendricks simply could not accept that a merciful and compassionate God would reject him for something that he did not even choose for himself. And through his religious scholarship he was able to convince himself that he would rather meet his creator knowing he did not live a false life.
An even more important distinction is that although the Quran mentions divine punishment for Prophet Lot’s people, it does not order an earthly punishment for being attracted to the same sex. Islamic scholars in history deduced punishment for homosexuality by treating it as a type of infidelity. But very important Islamic thinkers, like the 8th century scholar Abu Hanifa (who founded the Hanafi school of jurisprudence) reasoned that because a homosexual relationship could not produce offspring, it could not be considered infidelity.
So how do fundamentalists like ISIS justify their killing of homosexuals? The answer lies in the hadiths or sayings ascribed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that allegedly serve as a basis for punishing homosexuality.
The same holds true for punishments handed out for disrespect, apostasy or ‘insults’ of Islam; they do not come from the Quran but certain hadiths. But the said hadiths were gathered in written form almost two hundred years after the time of the prophet (PBUH) and their credibility has often been questioned. The first criticisms on authenticity of hadith appear as early as the 9th century, and who is to say that they cannot be questioned anew today. Also more importantly, there is no record of the prophet at any point punishing someone for homosexuality.
These jurisprudential facts can be used to develop a more humane and magnanimous attitude toward LGBT people, as some progressive Islamic scholars like Reza Aslan, are encouraging. The story of Lot condemns sexual aggression but not sexual orientation, according to Aslan. What people do in private is their own business, he contends. Granting all this the public Muslim attitude toward LGBT people when they are bullied or discriminated against should be to defend them because Islam stands with the oppressed. But unfortunately this is not what we see happening in society.
Chandni, who is a transgender from Lahore, narrates a horrifying tale of discrimination she experienced at the hands of the doctors at a local hospital:”I was shot in the leg once when I used to dance at carnivals. After I was shot I got admitted to a local hospital. Everyone there misbehaved with me. The doctors did not give me the medical care they would to a regular patient. The nurses made fun of me and the doctors mocked me. Whenever we go to a hospital we have to face discrimination and do not get proper medical care”. But when asked if life would have been easier for her, were she not a transgender, she replied, "I am very happy that God made me a transgender. I have no problem with anyone where my gender identity is concerned. If anyone else has an issue with me being a transgender and they criticize me over it, I tell them you are criticising God’s creation, because he made me the way I am.” In recent times, steps have been taken by the Supreme Court to make Pakistan a more inclusive country for the transgender community. The progress in this regard is slow, but can still be viewed as a positive sign.
In spite of these arguments, the mistreatment of the LGBT community in our society will continue if the reaction in Pakistan to the legalizing of gay marriage in the US earlier this year is any indication. So those believers who consider homosexuality a sin and insist upon condemnation of LGBT people should remember that in our religion, there are many sins, including arrogance that the Quran treats as among the most serious of moral vices. And for us, it could be our own deliverance from the sin of arrogance to no longer stigmatize others for their behavior and instead focus on improving ourselves.