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Actions, Attractions and Personal Responsibility April 10, 2006

Posted by Mujahid Mustaqim in Advice, Concepts, Islam, StraightWay.
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BY MUJAHID MUSTAQIM

Here is another of my early articles, following on from The Spirit of Al-Fatiha and Muslim Before Anything Else. Here, I emphasise the importance of distinguishing between actions and attractions, rather than remaining confused over "sexual identity" based on the notion of "orientation".

I refer to some Qur'anic verses and prophetic hadiths to establish whether people are responsible for what they feel (attractions) and what they do (actions). Basically, the answer is that one is not responsible for attractions, but entirely responsible for actions. However, the article shows that things are not necessarily as simple as that.

Actions, Attractions and Personal Responsibility
by Mujahid Mustaqim

A common statement I come across is: “I can’t help being homosexual – it’s not my fault.” Then there are various ways in which that writer concludes his/her line of thought. Is that statement true? If so, to what extent? And what are its implications?

In tackling these questions, the first point we must evaluate is the meaning of “being homosexual”. As I have explained in great detail elsewhere, this is a concept not compatible with Islamic thought. It is laden with multiple meanings, which we must take and evaluate individually.If somebody says, “I am homosexual”, we could understand two main things:

  1. That person feels attracted to members of the same sex.
  2. The person does actions on the basis of those feelings.

Therefore, we have differentiated the concept of being from the two concepts of feeling and doing. So now we should ask whether a person is responsible for each of those two aspects.

ACTIONS

This is the more obvious matter: we are responsible for what we do. This point is abundantly clear in the Qur’an. Here are just a few relevant quotations:

{Truly mankind is in loss, except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds…} [103:2-3]

{And the record [of deeds] will be placed, and you will see the criminals fearful of that within it, and they will say, “Oh woe to us! What is this book that leaves nothing small or great except that it has counted it?” And they will find what they did present (before them). And your Lord does injustice to no one.} [18:49]

{Say: “Indeed I fear, if I should disobey my Lord, the punishment of a tremendous day!”} [39:13]

{…And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another…} [17:15]

ATTRACTIONS

On the most basic level, a person is not responsible for what he/she feels inclined to do. However, we must differentiate desires and intentions. The latter are indeed important, as the Prophet (SAW) said, “Actions are but by intentions” [Bukhari/Muslim]. To understand this in more detail, we refer to another important hadeeth:

Whoever intends to do a good action but does not do it, Allah writes it down with Himself as a complete good action. If he intends to do it and does it, Allah writes it down with Himself as 10 good actions, up to 700 multiples [of it], up to many multiples. If he intends to do a wrong action then does not do it, Allah writes it down with Himself as a complete good action. If he intends to do it and then does it, Allah writes it down as a single wrong action. [Bukhari/Muslim]

The underlined portion indicates that turning back from an evil intention is a rewarded act: how merciful is Allah (SWT)! The first stage is temptation, which can then lead to forming an evil intention. There is, of course, virtue in restraining the soul at the earlier stage:

{And as for one who feared the standing before His Lord and restrained his soul from desires [al-hawaa], indeed the Garden will be (his) abode.} [79:40-41]

ACTING ON ATTRACTIONS 

There is a vast difference between admitting that we are not responsible for our desires  [actually we’ll come back to that point] and making the claim that we are therefore somehow blameless for what we do as a result! Oddly, there are people who attempt to make this point. They link the two aspects of “being homosexual”, namely feeling and doing, in an attempt to legitimise following their lusts. At best, this is self-delusion.

A more sophisticated (but still wrong) argument is that because a person has these same-sex attractions, he is naturally a ‘homosexual’. That means he should accept himself for who he is, and act according to his nature. Therefore, any action he carries out is fine so long as it is in line with these “natural” lusts.It should be obvious that Islam rejects that idea. Our actions are not restrained by any conveniently defined “nature”, but rather by the laws revealed by Allah (SWT). He is our Creator and knows us better than we know ourselves. {We did indeed create man and We know what his soul whispers to him; and We are closer to him than (his) jugular vein.} [50:16]

What the proponents of the above argument are saying, in essence, is that we should follow our natural desires. To see the error in this more clearly, think about someone who does that in every aspect of life. That person is worse than an animal. He has no self-control. Humans are unique among animals because we have been given free will. However, we are only elevated above the animals if we make choices in obedience to our Lord. Our criterion for every action must be how pleasing (or otherwise) the action is in the sight of Allah (SWT).

ORIGINS OF ATTRACTIONS

Is a person responsible for “creating” these attractions, or is he completely innocent? What you will not find in this article is a detailed answer on how same-sex attractions (SSA) come about. There could be said to be two main sides to this debate, namely the homosexualists (e.g. Al-Fatiha) and the mainstream Muslims (e.g. StraightWay). Even within these two camps, however, there are diverse opinions and even debates over how and when SSA originate. What we shall do here is look at the main theories and discuss the implications of each for the question: “Who is responsible for my SSA?”

  1. First, there is the genetics theory. This holds that some people are biologically predisposed to being attracted to members of the same sex. If that is true, it seems that nobody can be blamed for SSA. As Muslims, we would view this phenomenon purely as a test from Allah. To give a parallel, there are many people born with disabilities, e.g. blindness. They are still accountable for what they do, and they are rewarded for their patience in the face of difficulties. Along the same lines, people with SSA still have to live their lives in accordance with Islam. [See this fatwa]

  2. Secondly, there is the theory that SSA develop in the first few years of life in response to social factors. In that case, the ones responsible could be one or both of the parents or other family members. This is why a suitable environment is so crucial for youngsters. Again, however, we can draw a parallel: most of our attributes are acquired at an early age. A lady could have developed a strong sense of competition because she grew up with many brothers and sisters, but that would not excuse her cheating in order to be promoted at work!

  3. There is also the possibility of abuse by an older member of the same sex, e.g. a family member. This can cause SSA in the victim. In that case, of course the child him/herself is not to blame. Still, that child will have to live according to Islamic guidelines and will be fully responsible for his/her own actions upon reaching puberty. Even abuse is not an excuse to follow unnatural desires. Indeed, the fact that these feelings came about as a result of such a terrible act should be enough to convince the victim that the feelings are unnatural and should be overcome.

  4. The SSA could also develop as a result of over-exposure to harmful materials, e.g. pornography. This could be in a very subtle form; indeed, we are exposed to explicit images on television, billboards, newspapers and magazines. A man who looks at images of other men could become interested in them simply because he admires how handsome they are. This admiration could develop into a type of envy or a debasement of his self-image. Through confusion, these feelings can develop into attraction and lust. This process is more likely in impressionable young people, i.e. early teenagers. In this case, the young man (or woman) must accept at least partial responsibility. If he had been more careful of what he had looked at, his feelings would not have developed so far in a negative direction.

That leads us on to a very important point relevant to all of the scenarios above.

STRUGGLE OF THE SOUL

Whatever the origin of a person’s SSA, the present responsibility is the same. This is nicely explained by the following story (circulated by e-mail):

An old man told his grandson one evening after prayers about a battle that was going on inside him. “My child, the battle is between two wolves, one of whom is very evil, full of anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, hypocrisy, self-pity, guilt, resentment and lies.

The other is very good, full of remembrance of Allah, faith, joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity and truthfulness.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The grandfather simply replied, “The one I feed”.

The point here is that we have some responsibility for what is going on inside us, and we cannot simply blame it on genetics, social conditions, abuse or past mistakes. Whatever your past or present condition may be, you can shape your future by ‘feeding the right wolf’!

Put into Islamic terms, what we are now talking about is purification of the soul. This is a central concept to our deen (way of life): an ongoing struggle to clean our hearts and rid ourselves of evil desires. We have each been given a soul, and we are personally responsible for it, as is clear from the following passage:{By the soul and He Who proportioned it, and inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness. He has succeeded who purifies it; and he has failed who corrupts it!} [91:7-10]

To explain the Islamic concept of the soul (an-nafs) and the methods for its purification requires great length, but quite simply, the soul – in its lowest state – invites towards evil: {“Indeed, the soul is a persistent enjoiner of evil, except those upon which my Lord has mercy.”} [12:53] The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) further explained that every evil deed committed causes the (spiritual) heart to gain a black spot. Persistent evil deeds will therefore cause the heart to become covered over, i.e. oblivious to the truth and ever more difficult to cleanse. 

CONCLUSIONS

 “I can’t help being homosexual – it’s not my fault.”

Well (dear speaker), perhaps it is true that you had no role in creating your SSA, but you may well have had a role in developing them. You need to avoid labelling yourself in this way – and move on. Your words indicate self-pity, which is no use if you don’t take responsibility for your future.

You have a duty to yourself: seek to purify your soul and avoid inflaming your lusts. Realise that you are responsible for your actions! That includes actions that will affect your attractions. May Allah (SWT) bless you and accept your efforts to please Him!

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Comments»

1. Khalid - April 11, 2006

Beautiful post. The quotations from the Qur’an are so powerful and have such a strong effect on one’s soul. May Allah guide us all to that which pleases Him, Ameen.

People often forget that this life is not for fun and enjoyment. It is about trials, tests and difficulties.

SSA is a test from Allah (SWT). Will we obey Him and avoid giving in to our lusts and desires? Or will we follow the path that leads to His pleasure?

2. Rasheed Eldin - April 2, 2007

I refer to this article from time to time, because it lays down some important distinctions and clarifies common confusions.

One point I’d like to add is regarding the excellent refutation above of the following people:

There is a vast difference between admitting that we are not responsible for our desires…and making the claim that we are therefore somehow blameless for what we do as a result! Oddly, there are people who attempt to make this point. They link the two aspects of “being homosexual”, namely feeling and doing, in an attempt to legitimise following their lusts. At best, this is self-delusion.

A more sophisticated (but still wrong) argument is that because a person has these same-sex attractions, he is naturally a ‘homosexual’. That means he should accept himself for who he is, and act according to his nature. Therefore, any action he carries out is fine so long as it is in line with these “natural” lusts.

This is the big problem I have with the idea of “orientations”! It is a fatalist (or determinist) argument, which the creed of Islam rejects outright. If we are merely to act according to what we suppose has been written for us (i.e. predestination), then why did Allah reveal to us His commands and prohibitions? It is upon us to live according to these revelations.

We cannot blame Allah for what we do, even though He is the Creator of all. No man can really deny that he makes choices about what he does, even if he likes to use pseudo-theological arguments to justify choosing evil desires over patient obedience.

3. Qusai - April 4, 2007

Salams dear Rasheed,

Can’t you have a sexual orientation that you choose not to act upon? The notion of orientation does not always imply that the person acts out whatever they feel. So why do you feel so strongly about the concept of an ‘orientation’ in principle?

Salam

4. Rasheed Eldin - April 4, 2007

I need to spell out my answer more explicitly. I have been considering an article entitled “The Trouble With Orientation”, to underline why I resist it. Pray for me that I may get round to that.

In short, and in reply to your specific question, I would say that in such a case, a person may say “I’m choosing to act against my nature.” I’m uncomfortable with taking such a description and considering it virtuous from an Islamic perspective. Islam is the “natural way”, even if some aspects don’t seem natural automatically to us all.

5. Qusai - April 4, 2007

One other point on the post:

I found that pitying myself for being homosexual is inversely related to my state of ‘faith’. When I am remote from religion I seem to perceive a different side to the homosexuality debate. A side that says that, unless one is persuaded that homosexuality is wrong, there is no reason to pity oneself for feeling this way at all. The reasoning doesn’t change in your head but the way you feel about it does.

The point is that homosexuality does not automatically invite self-pity. It depends on the depth of your committment to accepting a world view suggested by religious doctrine.

Salam

6. Rasheed Eldin - April 4, 2007

By the way, if I understood your situation correctly, I don’t see that you would be sinful for considering yourself as having a homosexual orientation. I just think it’s mistaken and misleading. I hope that it will not matter, as long as you are sincere to Allah and refrain from those things that He has prohibited. And may Allah guide and help us all.

7. Rasheed Eldin - April 4, 2007

Yes, about pity – I think I understand what Mujahid means, but self-pity isn’t the main thing that I encounter… maybe because I have focused my attention more on the self-declared “Queer Muslims”. There is more arrogance and obstinance on their part, a refusal to consider things from the right (or, at least, the more mainstream) angles. But maybe self-pity is there beneath the surface, and maybe it has an important role early on in the struggle to self-define. If it’s not caught then, it could evolve into things that are far more dangerous to faith and religious life.

8. Qusai - April 4, 2007

Thanks for your prompt reply to my persisting questions,

This is in reply to entry number 4.

I feel that your avoidance of accepting ‘orientation’ stems from a belief that if we treat it as ‘nature’ then we have to automatically proclaim it as acceptable. I will try to argue that not all natural is good and not all good is natural.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once said: I was sent to perfect good condut. Islam, as you know, is a message of strict discipline and one of its core principles is to encourage us to bring our lowly tendencies into rein to achieve an ‘ideal way’.

So it is recognised that humans do have a tendency to go astray unless they follow a divine message. Sometimes it is Iblees sometimes it is just ‘shahawat’. These shahawat are not necessarily evil unless we over-indulge in them (e.g sex, wealth, food)

So in a very strict sense Islam is not a ‘natural’ way but it is system to align our natural tendencies with the ideal pathway intended by God (swt). Man was made “weak” and if his natural tendencies always led to good we would not have needed divine intervention.

On the other hand giving your soul in sacrifice to God (swt) is not natural at all yet it is encouraged and praised in Islam. It may indeed not be good to the family of the martyr (in the dunya, especially if he/she has dependents) but reward is reserved for the hereafter. Thus it may not always appear to be ‘good’.

I hope I am making myself clear but there is no major problem with proclaiming that homosexuality is another perfectly natural tendency that simply needs taming.


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