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Special Focus: Islam
Same-Sex Sexual Activity and
Lesbian and Bisexual Women
Same-sex sexual activity is a taboo subject for many Muslims. Some go so far as to deny that gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals exist in Muslim societies today or even that sexual activity between men or between women has existed in Islamic history. Rather, they claim that such issues are “western” or “modern.” Those who do acknowledge the topic generally agree that the Qur’an explicitly forbids all same-sex sexual activity and that Islamic law prescribes dire punishments for it. Thus, in dealing with same-sex sexual behavior among Muslims, there are two key issues: First, what is practiced? Answering this question involves determining what the historical role of lesbian women and female same-sex sexual behavior, for example, has been. Second, and more importantly for contemporary Muslims grappling with the issues raised by same-sex attractions, what is permissible? Just because some Muslims in the past have behaved in a certain way does not mean it is religiously legitimate to do so. This essay will briefly address the first question of past practice, then turn to a discussion of permissibility.
Despite current conventional wisdom to the contrary, same-sex sexual expression has been a more or less recognized aspect of Muslim societies for many centuries, as can be seen through literature, history, and law. Medieval Arabic literature, including both belles-lettres works (in the genre of adab) and copious amounts of erotica, discusses same-sex sexual activity frequently and explicitly. Most often, it is sexual activity between men that is discussed, but these literary works also include discussion of sexual acts between women. Generally, lesbian sexual behavior is referred to as sihaq, “rubbing” or “pounding”. (The term is also sometimes used for female masturbation.) Sihaq, or musahaqa, translates approximately as “tribadism.” Recently, some have begun to study these literary sources to understand female same-sex sexual activity in the medieval Muslim world. A few articles provide a starting point for understanding tribadism in Muslim contexts historically. There is also an extensive literature on male homoeroticism in Islamic literature and Muslim societies. (Link under construction.)
Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) also recognizes the existence of same-sex sexual contact. While jurists devote more attention to preventing, regulating, and punishing illicit intercourse between a man and a woman than to same-sex sexual activity, the jurists do address male/male sex. While sexual acts between two men are “forbidden,” according to the jurists, the legal texts do not simply state punishments to be applied. They regularly explore the question of what other legal consequences attach to these forbidden acts. As with cases of zina (basically, intercourse between a man and woman who are not married to each other), the jurists attempt to regulate the social consequences of the illicit actions. For example, does an act of (anal) intercourse between two men create a barrier to one of the men marrying the other’s daughter, as it would if one of the partners was a woman? (Some hold that it does.) Texts even address the issue of whether an ablution (ghusl) is required after male-male intercourse, just as after male-female intercourse, before the men can pray! (It is.) Clearly, in addition to a dogmatic condemnation of same-sex activity, the jurists also had a pragmatic approach to dealing with its occurrence.
Works of Islamic jurisprudence, however, devote almost no attention to female-female sexual activity. Several factors contribute to this silence. Perhaps the most important is simply that the legal effects of sexual activity attach to (vaginal or anal) penetration by a penis. When this penetration does not occur, there is no question of ablution, or the creation of barriers to marrying kin, or other consequences of sexual acts. In the few cases where lesbian sexual activity is mentioned, the legal discussion revolves around what punishment, if any, is to be imposed by the authorities; the jurists themselves disagree on this issue.
Jurisprudence has addressed same-sex sexual activity as illicit sex outside of a legally sanctioned relationship. Traditional jurists vehemently condemned all such illicit intercourse, including that between a man and a woman. Ibn Hajar Haytami’s famous “List of Enormities” (i.e., major sins), which treats several offenses together, can illustrate this point, as it groups together:
[I]llicit intercourse (zina); sodomy (liwat: anal intercourse between men); bestiality (ityan al-baha’im); anal intercourse with a woman other than one’s wife; female tribadism (musaahaqat al-nisa’), which is a woman doing with a woman something resembling what a man would do with her; and a husband having sex with his wife’s corpse.1
In this list, Ibn Hajar does not make a distinction between acts that are forbidden because they are intrinsically sinful (bestiality and necrophilia can be assumed to fall into this category) and those where the issue is the lack of a proper legal relationship between the parties. This is the case with illicit intercourse between a man and a woman (zina). If the parties were married, there would be no sin; thus, the problem is not the sexual act but rather the partner with whom it is performed.
Islamic jurisprudence has never addressed the question of same-sex sexual behavior (male-male or female-female) except as illicit contact outside of a legally sanctioned bond. This raises an important question: Is homoerotic sexual activity always forbidden? Or might the impermissibility be the result of the lack of a legal relationship between the same-sex pair? In other words, is the problem the same as with an unmarried male-female couple that commits zina? If there were such a thing as a lawful relationship between two women or two men, then would the verdict about sexual activity between them differ? Whether such a licit same-sex relationship can exist is a different legal issue – one that I would not presume to be qualified to decide – but it is one that Muslim jurisprudence has not addressed.
There is also the larger question of whether Islamic jurisprudence is the necessary framework for resolving these issues. While some insist that the legal framework developed by Muslim jurists from approximately 900-1400 CE must govern all Muslim behavior, the reality in the contemporary world is that the vast majority of social and economic transactions engaged in by Muslims do not strictly follow these legal precepts. Only on some matters of personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance) do some majority-Muslim nations retain religiously-based laws, and these differ widely from one country to another. In many cases, these modern family laws also diverge from the classical Islamic jurisprudence on which they are purportedly based. In nations where Muslims are a minority of the population, Islamic law has no coercive power, though it does have moral weight. However, when it is followed, it is again only selectively.
In any case, for most Muslims seeking guidance, the primary authority is not jurisprudence but rather the Qur’an and prophetic traditions (hadith) which are themselves the main sources of Islamic law. However, those who turn to scripture or hadith collections looking for material on lesbian sexual activity and relationships will find little to help them grapple with these issues. While the Qur’an explicitly addresses male-male sexual activity (albeit interpreted in various ways), there is no consensus as to whether the Qur’an even mentions female same-sex activity. [LINK to a discussion of verse 4:15] There are numerous hadith addressing men’s sexual behavior with other men, but, again, little mention of lesbian behavior in hadith collections. [LINK to a discussion of hadith.]
There are groups of self-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Muslims working to address these issues, and to reconcile their spirituality and religious identity with their sexual orientation. [Link under construction to groups, organizations, and resources for those concerned with lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Muslim women.] Again, the vast majority of groups and resources address themselves primarily to men, but there is at least one listserve, Iman, for Muslim women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. www.queernet.org/lists/iman.html
1Reproduced as an appendix in Nuh Ha Mim Keller, trans. and ed., Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, Beltsville (MD): Amana Publications, 1994 : 986. Keller gives both the English and Arabic versions of the text. My English rendering differs in several aspects from Keller’s. Most notably, he translates ityan … al-mara’a al-ajnabiyya fi duburiha as simply “sodomizing a woman”. He brackets off the qualifying term ajnabiyya (“unrelated” – meaning a woman over whom a man has no sexual rights since she is neither his wife nor his slave-concubine), thus changing the meaning of the text. However, Ibn Hajar does condemn a man having anal intercourse with his wife earlier in the list.