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Genetics and Morality May 29, 2006

Posted by Rasheed Eldin in Concepts, Islam, Responses.

I was just passed this dissertation on "Sexuality in Islam" [PDF] for comment. It was compiled by Heba Kotb MD towards her PhD at the American Academy of Clinical Sexologists.

What can I say? It seems to be a compilation of various materials, and is written informally, with religious exhortations included. What amazes me is that the section on homosexuality is lifted almost entirely from articles by Shabir Ally, Alia Amer and Bilal Philips. [Note also that, oddly, in several places it says "Allah" where it ought to read "Islam", "Qur'an" or "Muslims".]

Here we shall look at one particular argument, in fact written by Dr. Bilal Philips:

Islam considers homosexuality to be the result of a choice. It is inconceivable that Allah made people homosexuals then declared it a crime and prescribed punishments for it in both this life and the next. To accept such a proposition is to accept that God is unjust.

This is a very confused collection of sentences, starting from the problem of defining "homosexuality" here. Is it to do with "behaviour", "practices" and "lifestyle", as elsewhere in Philips' article, or as a matter of feelings and "orientation", as he also discusses? If the latter, then in what sense can he mean it is a matter of choice?

Let's be clear that what Allah has "declared a crime" can only refer to actions. If we take homosexuality to be about actions, then it makes no sense even to ask whether "made people homosexuals". People are not born with any sort of actions: they eventually do them!

The confusion here is that the Sheikh has failed to clarify the distinction between actions and attractions, as detailed in Mujahid's article on Actions, Attractions and Personal Responsibility. Once we sort out this basic starting point, we can ask the more sensible questions, such as:

  • Which actions are forbidden by God?
  • Are some people born with homosexual attractions?

I don't intend to discuss these in detail now, but is there an explicit Islamic position on the latter point, as Philips claims? I believe not. While it seems more correct to argue that homosexual feelings develop some time later in childhood, I don't see any conclusive Islamic argument to say that there can be no predisposition towards them present from before birth.

If scientific studies ever did prove something akin to the much-sought-after "gay gene", that would not shake my conviction in the Qur'an and Sunnah, and would not affect the Islamic ruling at all. To understand why, read this fatwa from Muzammil Siddiqi. I quote:

Even if it is genetic, just for the sake of argument, does that mean that you should do it? Someone could say their desire to commit adultery is genetic. Does that mean that we should do it? Or even his desire to steal or tell lies? To abuse or accuse people, causing fitnah? The point is that the rules of morality are not taken from genetic research. The rules of morality are taken from Allah and His messenger (SAAWS). Whatever Allah has allowed, that is permissible. Whatever He has forbidden is haram and must be avoided.

So, contrary to what Bilal Philips said, believing that homosexuality has a genetic (or more generally: congenital/biological) basis is not to accept that Allah is unjust. People are indeed born with all sorts of tests, and every single one of us is tested in this life: that's what life is about.

Same-sex attractions are a serious and difficult test, but probably not the most serious or difficult. The problem is made worse by the over-emphasis on sex generally in modern society. I know it's flippant to say, but is being deprived of the sexual intimacy you crave really worse than being born without, say, sight? The prevalence of congenital blindness has not presented an insurmountable obstacle to Islamic theology, so why should SSA?

Note to Daayiee Abdullah: see, I just managed to disagree with this writer by expressing my arguments clearly, placing them here for public analysis and criticism. I didn't need to go off on one about oil money.



1. Taleb - May 30, 2006

I think it would be interesting to get Dr. Bilal Philips’ response to this. His comments remind me of why the mainstream is so close-minded to this issue…recall the MSA incident a while back.

2. Rasheed Eldin - May 30, 2006

Good idea, but I don't have a contact for him. Anyway, take a look at this recent article about different faith/scientific perspectives: http://www.stnews.org/News-2811.htm

Muslim theologians, meanwhile, tend to see homosexuality as environmental, although some Muslim and Arab medical professionals are open to the possibility of biological factors.

While homosexuality is not a “normal behavior,” its causes have yet to be determined with certainty, said Dr. Hossam E. Fadel, chairman of the Islamic Medical Association of North America’s ethics committee. Fadel said some Muslim clinicians in North America provide reorientation therapy. But in other parts of the world, Muslims and Arabs may be too frightened to either come out as gay or seek treatment to reduce their same-sex attractions.

It is quite rare for Arabs to seek treatment for homosexuality, said Dr. Issam Bannoura, director of the Bethlehem Mental Hospital in the West Bank. Bannoura classified homosexuality as untreatable abnormal behavior but not a disorder. “For such cases they don’t go to doctors in Arab society. It’s a great stigma for them,” he said.

Regardless of whether religious leaders and mental-health professionals view homosexuality as biological, genetic or both, those who support reparative therapy all agree on one thing: Some people can alter their sexual orientation.

3. Salman - May 30, 2006


Sound article Rasheed, and you're right Taleb, that kind of idea causes a lot of problems because people will think that Muslims with SSA have made a choice and we can just change our choice! But it's not so simple as we all know.

So yes! We want to follow Islam fully but there is a real struggle involved and people should recognise that. It's not easy.

4. Muslim - June 11, 2006

First of all, I want to make clear that this comment I am about to make is not an attack against you. Homosexuality is a major issue in our society that is being ignored too much by Muslim scholars, parents, and people of the older generations. It is critical that this issue is dealt with wisely, maturely, and acceptingly by Muslim scholars/psychologists/scientists immediately. I really appreciate your effort to help Muslims who experience same sex attraction (SSA) because I've seen this issue many times with fellow Muslims. Some Muslims think that homosexuality is a joking matter and they pretend to be homosexual, and others go as far as declaring they are gay! And I pray that Allah SWT guides our ummah in resolving this severe issue.

I do agree with Bilal Philips. SSA cannot be genetic. Or even a test from Allah SWT that is genetic. I do not believe that there is the slightest possibility that Allah SWT has created some people who have that predisposition (who have a "gay gene"), because SSA goes against the fitrah (human nature), and Allah SWT created all humans on the pure fitrah (many humans deviate from that fitrah, and SSA is a deviation from our pure, clean fitrah, encouraged by Satan). So, to say that a person who has the tendency to desire committing adultry (i.e. heterosexual adultry) is not any different than a person who feels SSA since both desires are forbidden, is not correct, because heterosexuality is part of our fitrah, and SSA is not. True, they (heterosexual adultry and desiring to commit homosexuality) are both haram (forbidden by Allah), but the sexual desire in heterosexuality itself is not deviant, and is encouraged to be legally fulfilled through marriage.

Also, with regards to the distinction between actions, and attractions (SSA), I do know that wrong/unislamic thoughts are supposed to be dealt with immediately and destroyed before they go any further. Please listen to this 30-minute lecture from The Reign of Islamic Daawah (TROID)—it’s really good, the speaker talks about what Allah SWT and Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) say about the issue of evil thoughts, (which, of course, includes SSA): http://www.troid.org/audio/ibaadah/purificationofthesoul/more/doors.htm (the speaker starts the topic after about 4 minutes into the lecture). [[You can read TROID’s overview of the lecture at the link. – Rasheed]]

Also with regards to your claim of SSA developing in early childhood, are the sources who claim so credible? Who are they? And what exactly do you mean by SSA in this context? Do you mean that it is sexual SSA? It is perfectly normal for young children to prefer the company of children of their same gender, and to admire them. Does that make all children who admire the same gender homosexual? Definitely not! I believe that the psychologists/scholars/researchers who make that claim (i.e. children can develop SSA in a sexual context) are blurring the truth simply to support their arguments that homosexuality is a biological/genetic predisposition, and not a personal choice. Another reason for this is because there is political and societal pressure on scientists/psychologists to normalize homosexuality lest they are accused of being discriminatory (just like the American Psychological Association had to normalize homosexuality which they considered to be abnormal a few decades ago).

5. Rasheed Eldin - June 11, 2006

Dear Muslim, thanks for your contribution. I want to answer your points in more depth later, but I just want to clarify regarding your last paragraph.

I do not mean that children experience SSA in early childhood, but rather that SSA can develop later on because of the experiences of childhood, i.e. when certain relationships are not as they should be.

This means that it is still not a choice, but that there are explainable (and alterable) factors at play. So the “blame” is on society, not on God or even on the individual, who is a victim of circumstances. If the individual chooses to sin, that is another matter.

6. Taleb - June 11, 2006

Simply put, as an example, many people that experience SSA have been abused sexually or emotionally as children (even if it was just once). I’m not saying that sexual abuse is the only factor but perhaps the most prominent one.

7. Rasheed Eldin - June 15, 2006

Dear Muslim, I hope I cleared up that point in my earlier reply to you. I still wanted to share my feedback on your other points, about the concept of fitrah, or what we might call “goodly instinct”.

Actually, I was about to write a refutation (which I’ve become very accustomed to), but found that you actually have a strong point, which I will have to think over more deeply. Perhaps it is true that SSA, according to Islam, cannot have a genetic basis.

However, I still think you are mistaken to back up Dr. Philips’ point, because he over-simplified the matter as being between genetics and choice.

His point, apparently, was that SSA are the result of the person’s choice, and not of circumstances beyond his control – and that saying the latter would be tantamount to blaming God and calling Him unjust.

My response to this is to say that people suffer in life in many ways, including from temptations that plague them day and night. None of this causes us to accuse Allah of injustice, because we know that He does not wrong anyone in the least. This life is short and all accounts will be settled by the Wisest Judge.

So the blame is not necessarily on the individual with SSA, and certainly not on God Almighty. It can be said to be a product of society, and blame could fall upon those who contributed to the SSA developing in that person, through their negative relationships with him. I say this in brief without explanation as others have written about extensively. I hope it goes some way.

8. afroz - June 26, 2006

Umm..a test? yeah i think it would be pretty unfair when other people are encouraged to consummate their desires within a stable and committed relationship. and why do we assume that it is okay for men and women to have sex? because that’s ‘natural’? after all we could take the Catholic Church’s line on sexual desires being sinful and all that sort of thing.

9. afroz - June 26, 2006

Also, i’m interested in the focus on desire rather than love. if you are in love with someone, and that makes you a better person, can we condemn it – should we condemn it. It’s pretty obvious that people who are fulfilled emotionally end up being much better people in the long run, rather than those who want to follow the ‘rules’ but end up being bitter in the long run. What do you think about that?

10. sonia - June 27, 2006

Well alright i take your point that ‘ SSA’ might not be ‘ genetic’ – then why do we think that male-female attraction is somehow ‘right’ ‘normal’ and as ‘nature intended’ – that’s what you hear all the time. If it is all ‘social’ where is the problem with gay relationships?

11. sonia - June 27, 2006

Perhaps someone can explain to me what the word for gay/homosexuality is in Arabic.

12. Rasheed Eldin - June 27, 2006

Dear Afroz,

My personal interest is not so much in the broader “morality” debate that is just philosophical wandering subject to changing times (as opposed to adaptable properly to changing times).

My conception of morality is one that is based upon the Qur’an and the teachings of the one on whom it was revealed, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him). If I change my opinions, it is because I am made to realise that I have not understood these essential sources correctly.

It is abundantly clear from the Islamic sources that sex is a healthy thing, indeed a blessing, which is to be enjoyed within marriage between a man and a woman. I’m not properly aware of the Catholic position, but I’d not be surprised or disturbed if we differ on that.

And yes, I do concentrate on the matter of desire, because it can be defined more sharply than “love”, which is a term much abused nowadays. People are now talking about “loving young boys”. I am not against love, but I’m also not going to allow soppy sentiment to obscure what is quite a simple matter within Islamic law.

Just because something is called love, doesn’t mean it’s OK. I also believe that the only way to be “better”, in every sense, is to obey God and be patient with the trials we face.

13. Rasheed Eldin - June 27, 2006

Dear Sonia,

As I just explained to Afroz, it’s not “all social” – I use the Qur’an as my definitive source of understanding human nature. That doesn’t mean that I don’t benefit from other sources of knowledge, including science.

Please see this post for some response to your question about attractions:
And this one was already linked to above:

As for your question about the Arabic words for “gay/homosexuality”: people use different things, but notice that these words are new even in English, where they were invented to reflect (and indeed shape!) a new conception of sexuality.

The fact that these are not found in the Islamic sources entails that they belong to one framework of understanding, and that framework contradicts the Qur’anic philosophy.

The Qur’an teaches us about the sinfulness of certain actions, and actions are of many types. We make a distinction between actions and attractions (or temptations/desires), and we also factor in intentions. We do not define or categorise people by the temptations they feel, or what they are attracted to.

This is my interpretation, and I am always willing to hear alternative proposals – and I will criticise them however necessary.

14. Nafisa - November 12, 2006

That’s weird about Heba Kotb’s dissertation… did it get her a Phd even though those bits –maybe more– were obvioulsy plagiarised??

15. Rasheed Eldin - March 25, 2007

Speaking of Shabir Ally–

Here’s a short response by him to a question about homosexuality, and the claim that it is genetically caused. He argues that even accepting this assumption does not lead to an anything-goes morality.


16. vinelectric - March 25, 2007

shabir s a good man, his debates with evangelicals have strengthened my faith

but the piece on homosexuality is odd. he tries to reason his way around it and this is what he comes up with (straightway.sinfree.net):

.. A common mistake among humans is that if they don’t see any negative consequences for their actions they consider their actions harmless.

I say: the common mistake good muslism scholars do is twith their logic to reason against reason.

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