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NY Times: “Prisoners of Sex” December 8, 2006

Posted by Rasheed Eldin in Media, Responses, Shari'ah.

The New York Times Magazine ran an article last weekend by Negar Azimi about homosexuality in the Arab world, particularly Egypt, called “Prisoners of Sex“. It discusses various political aspects, but I quote here only what pertains to the religious question. Yet again, an attempt to make the matter more misty than it actually is…

On my second visit to Tanta, in August, I sat down for a lunch of kapsa, a sweet Saudi rice specialty, with Hassan and Mo, a slight student of English literature at Tanta University. The discussion turned to Islam and homosexuality. Both of them considered themselves practicing Muslims. Mo has combed the Internet for signs as to whether homosexuality is at odds with Islam. He said he had browsed the popular Egyptian lay preacher Ahmed Khaled’s Web site and found nothing. But he did see that Sheik Yussuf Al-Qaradawi had called homosexuals “perverts.” Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric generally considered a liberal, is best known for his television program “Shariah and Life” on the satellite channel Al Jazeera, and for his Web site, Islamonline.

She must mean Amr Khaled. I browsed his site just now and found this (albeit in English). And of course there is plenty on the Internet about Islam’s prohibition of homosexual activity, even if there is a lack of depth and quality in how it is discussed (I hope we can count this blog as an exception). Where did Mo see this thing about Qaradawi calling homosexuals “perverts“? If that is all he saw, then he must have got it from MEMRI or one of the sites that love all their output. Anyone who watched the Shariah and Life programme itself, or read his fatwas on his site or Islam Online, would better realise what he says – i.e. much the same as all Islamic scholars.

It goes on…

“There is nothing clear about homosexuality in the Koran,” Hassan said. “It reads that the man who does it should be hurt. What does it mean ‘to be hurt’? In the Arabian peninsula they used a stick the size of this pencil (he raises my pencil) to punish men. It’s not like thievery or adultery. And anyway the Prophet was promised boys in heaven. Not girls.”

This Hassan chap is a 37-year old “ringleader” of gays in Tanta. What authority does he have to speak about the Qur’an? It is really pathetic that Azimi has thought it sufficient to quote him without speaking also to someone well versed in the Qur’an and Islamic law (which is also based upon the Sunnah, then other established sources).

It seems Hassan is referring to 4:16 of the Qur’an, which can be interpreted as referring specifically to homosexual sodomy, but could also refer to any sexual act outside marriage. The renowned exegete Ibn Kathir states that the ruling contained in the verse (i.e. general command to “punish them both”) was abrogated by the verses detailing the punishments for fornication (viz. lashing) and adultery (viz. death by stoning).

Ibn Kathir cites the great early scholar Mujahid’s statement that “It was revealed about the case of two men who do it,” and says that it was “as if he was referring to the actions of the people of Lut”. Then he quotes the hadith of Ibn Abbas, that the Prophet (pbuh) said: “Whomever you see committing the act of the people of Lut [i.e. sodomy], kill the active and passive partners in it.” [Abu Dawud, An-Nasa’i, Ibn Majah]

As for this thing about the Prophet (pbuh) being “promised boys in heaven, not girls” – that is just an obscene statement, one with no basis, and one with no sense of shame. What kind of Muslim can just throw remarks around like that? The Qur’an describes the reward of Paradise with beautiful details that cannot be taken literally because they belong to the realm of the Unseen (al-ghayb). We are told of the sexual companionship there, as a way to understand the highest pleasures of Paradise that we cannot even imagine. Men are promised the hoor ‘een [see 55:56-58, 70-76 for example].

However, the mention of boys is not in that context at all. They are servants, not objects of sexual desire. “And there will go round them boy-servants for them, as though they were hidden [or protected] pearls.” [52:24] “And there will circle around them immortal youths; when you see them you would think them scattered pearls.” [76:19]

“I read that one should have their head cut off or be thrown from a mountain,” Mo continued.

Hassan disagreed: “There is no explicit punishment for gays in the Koran.”

That, of course, is not the point. As I discussed here, “Not every sinful act receives a punishment in this life, as most sins (and of course good deeds) will be recompensed in the next life. There, God may choose to forgive all, but hellfire has been created as a place of punishment.” So the question is whether the act is proven as sinful by the Qur’an and Sunnah, not whether a punishment is detailed for it in either.

Countless interpretations of the story of the prophet Lot — the source of much of the commentary on homosexuality in Islam, as well as in Judaism and Christianity — have been offered. Ambiguities abound, and while there is no consensus on where Islam stands, popular and legalistic reinterpretations take liberties in selecting the bits that suit particular worldviews — whether they are liberal or intolerant. In October of last year, the Iraqi Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa against homosexuals on the Arabic-language version of his Web site. It was inexplicably removed last May (some say international outrage swayed the image-conscious cleric). And while Al-Qaradawi did call homosexuals sexual perverts, he also noted “there is disagreement” over punishment.

No, there is no widespread disagreement over the prohibition of homosexuality. If you claim there is, show us the people who disagree. Then we can engage with them directly. If they are American graduates who arrogate to call themselves “scholars” or even “theologians”, at least we can appreciate them on their level – which is basically zero. If their sole “contribution” to Islamic scholarship has been to denigrate the “fundamentalists” and call for liberalisation, then we can at least appreciate where they’re coming from.

As I said before, yes, there is disagreement over punishment. But punishment is a separate question from prohibition. Qaradawi certainly did not say that there is disagreement over its prohibition!


1. Muslim Apple - December 11, 2006

Excellent points, all of them.

2. memokareem - June 4, 2007


that is nice post i like it so much

i tried to read the orignal article on N Y times but it isnot free
so , plz if u can send me a copy of the orignal artical by Negar Azimi
i will be a favour

thank u anyway


3. Qusai - June 6, 2007


Brother Rasheed, as usual I will digress as I couldn’t suffer to read through some of the comments above.

Qaradawi did say homosexuals are perverts. The Oxford American Dictionary defines a ‘pervert’ as ‘a person whose sexual behavior is regarded as abnormal and unacceptable’. Thus the word ‘pervert’ captures the sociological and religious views perfectly.

And I beg you not to play the difference between prohibition and punishment. This is but an excercise in obscurantism that we could do well without.

4. Taleb Haqq - June 7, 2007

Salam Br. Qusai,
There is absolutely a difference between prohibition and punishment. I don’t know why people tend to focus on the punishment part, it really only comes into play when the people themselves elect an Islamic system of government, and even then the punishment can vary and change based on many factors including circumstance. Prohibition, however, does not change, and this, in my opinion, is what we should be focusing on. Who cares what the punishment is so long as we can identify what it is that is prohibited.
Wallahu a’lam.

5. Qusai - June 7, 2007

Wa alaykum al Salam

I agree the difference exists but would you draw any comfort from knowing that an act is prohibited by God but not punishable in this world? I wouldn’t.

6. Taleb Haqq - June 8, 2007

Of course not 🙂 Hence my last sentence.

7. Qusai - June 9, 2007

Thanks for the clarification. I wish we never have to lose our direction by engaging in this unrewarding and, slightly off point, topic.

8. Mardat - June 26, 2007

“We are told of the sexual companionship there, as a way to understand the highest pleasures of Paradise that we cannot even imagine. Men are promised the hoor ‘een”

Well if these hoor things are for real and I got to heaven, I’d hope they come with a receipt so that I could trade them in for something I might actually like!!

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