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A Contentious Pairing: Muslim and queer in Southeast Asia

Muslim leaders and worshippers across the region selectively cite ancient texts to justify LGBT+ suppression.

“Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!” chanted hundreds of young protesters across London, New York, and Paris in April 2019, after Brunei legalised capital punishment of LGBT+ acts. Assembled outside Brunei-owned hotels, crowds wielding rainbow flags and banners emblazoned with “LGBT+ Lives Matter” called for a boycott of the sultanate’s international hospitality holdings.

Under Penal Code 1951, Section 377 Unnatural Offences, the Brunei Sultanate officially outlawed homosexual acts between men under penalty of death by stoning. This legislation, part of the country’s Syariah Penal Code Order (governance based on the Qur’an, also known as Sharia) sent shockwaves across the globe, leading to boycotts, protests, and threats of international sanctions.

Buckling under international pressure, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah retracted the draconian punishment of stoning a month later and extended a moratorium on the death penalty. Still, the move did not placate activists. Protests and boycotts raged across Asia for several weeks, renewing the debate on LGBT+ rights within the context of the Islamic faith.

One Text, Countless Interpretations 

Myriad factors – academic, penal, and schisms within the faith – have complicated the conversation around LGBT+ and Islam. Around the world, regional interpretations of the Qur’an vary by location and sect. Likewise, Sharia also differs depending on the school of fiqh (or legal philosophy derived from religious texts), which influences how societies interpret teachings and punish perceived violations. 

“The Qur’an is interpreted by men. As such, it’s not divine interpretation because it has been challenged time and again since [Islam] was founded over 1,400 years ago. [One school of fiqh] can differ from another, so long as the core tenets of the Qur’an are upheld,” explains Afiq Mohamad Noor, an international Islamic scholar who previously worked with Malaysian nonprofit, Sisters in Islam.

Feature A Contentious Pairing 03 Credit Lucy Engelman

Noor, who identifies as gay, has dedicated his life to researching the Qur’an, refuting misinterpretations, and addressing homophobic and transphobic attitudes amongst Muslim scholars.

The Qur’anic chapter that conservative scholars tend to reference when bolstering anti-LGBT+ views is the parable of the Prophet Lut (known to Christians as Lot), which is similar in essence to the Bible’s Book of Genesis story of the evils of two cities Sodom and Gomorrah.

In brief, the male inhabitants of Sodom endeavour to rape Lot’s guests (two angels disguised as men). God later destroys the cities of Sodom for their wickedness. The term “sodomy” is derived from the city of Sodom.

Anti-LGBT+ scholars allude to a few particular verses from the parable of Prophet Lut: “What! Do you indeed approach men lustfully rather than women? Nay, you are a people who act ignorantly” (Lut 27:55).

Later, the text reads: “Surely we will cause to come down upon the people of this town a punishment from heaven because they transgressed” (Lut 29:34). Allah, as the parable continues, sent down a “stonestorm” which subsequently destroyed the city and its inhabitants (Lut 54:34). 

The story of Lut is the main Quranic passage that mentions sex between men. Interestingly, the Qur’an does not explicitly address lesbian sex, though sex outside of marriage is forbidden. Thus, by default, lesbian sex would be considered sinful. 

In addition, according to hadith – collections of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds that are comparable in authority to the Qur’an itself – homosexual acts are unequivocally condemned, as are “effeminate” men and  “women who imitate men.” Even though the Prophet ostensibly expressed disapproval, according to these texts, he did not actually punish LGBT+ individuals.  

Feature A Contentious Pairing 02 Credit Lucy Engelman

Various sects of Islam consider this the basis for outlawing homosexuality in its entirety and punishing acts of homosexuality, pointing to the divine consequences that followed such “sin.”

Since Islamic scholars wrote the hadiths several centuries after the Prophet supposedly lived, however, progressive Islamic scholars have long questioned the validity of these manuscripts.  

Context matters

Noor, the Islamic scholar, notes that scholars selectively quote Lut’s story and cherry-pick narratives out of context to fit their narratives. Anti-LGBT+ discussions base their argument on the sinfulness of homosexual acts, yet historically,  “you can find a rich narrative of same-sex desires in historical records of Islam among women and men, as well as the co-existence of intersex and transgender people,” says Noor.

For example, the Ottoman Empire – an Islamic kingdom that controlled much of what is now southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and western Asia for roughly 600 years  – was thought to be particularly liberal. Anecdotal evidence shows that Ottoman society accepted homosexuality, according to literature, poetry and erotica from that time period.

What’s more, mukhannath (an effeminate man or transgender individual), khunsa (intersex person) and mutarajjula (masculine woman) appear to be tolerated in some ancient Islamic texts.

In the Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of hadith, people who identify as mukhannath are allowed to live with women since they are not heterosexual men (who would have been forbidden to meet women alone). And the Prophet Muhammad used such terms to describe encounters with LGBT+ people in houses and neighbourhoods at the dawn of Islam.  

As for the “sin” of sodomy, contemporary scholars like Muhammad al-Tahir ibn Ashur, a renowned 20th-century Tunisian scholar, have explored the issue in great detail. In his Qur’anic exegesis, Ibn Ashur writes that the city of Sodom in the Qur’an is described as a trading hub, where local villagers sometimes assaulted or raped migrants to coerce male traders into paying taxes. The villagers weaponised sodomy as a means of power and control, not an expression of homosexual attraction. 

Feature A Contentious Pairing 01 Credit Lucy Engelman

Noor, agrees: “The transgressors of Lut are abusing sex to oppress and show their disagreement with Prophet Lut when he arrives.” This interpretation is supported by often-cited assessments by Ibn Ḥazm, a classical scholar from Spain, who disagreed with readings of “desire” and “lust” among his contemporaries during the 10th and 11th centuries. 

Muslim-majority governments across Southeast Asia have formed completely different interpretations. Ali Muda, special duties officer to Malaysia’s Minister of Religious Affairs, asserts that a progressive alternative is implausible without offering further explanation: “All I will say is that sodomy is wrong and sinful because that’s the religious decree by God.” 

Muda tows the official government line: “LGBT+ [individuals] are citizens and have human rights like everyone else.” But when pressed on the government’s refusal to ratify the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a binding international treaty for states to include central features of equality and non-discrimination, he declined to comment.

Article 26 of the ICCPR is normally cited to extend civil marriage rights to homosexual couples and was recently referenced by Australian Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow when campaigning for legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia, which passed in 2017. 

Muda asserts that despite the LGBT+ community “clamouring for freedoms” like those in the US, Australia and Europe, “Malaysians will never accept that, and [activists] can try challenging the laws in Parliament.” 

[Read more: The Great Divide: What’s stopping Macao’s LGBT+ movement?]

The Perils of Being Queer

While scholars and governments ceaselessly interpret and debate ancient texts, LGBT+ communities in Muslim-majority nations continue to face religious persecution, harassment and violence every single day. 

In Pakistan in 2019, police discovered the bodies of two transgender women who had been tortured and beaten to death. In Bangladesh, reports emerged in July 2020 about online education entrepreneur Ayman Sadiq, who received a series of death threats from conservative Muslims after a former employee shared a pro-LGBT+ post on Facebook.

In the African Islamic state of Somaliland, gay men have been forced to flee their homes and enter self-exile for fear of honour killings by their own family and community. 

And in Egypt, Sarah Hegazi’s story caused outrage. In 2017, the lesbian activist was jailed and tortured for waving the LGBT+ rainbow flag at a concert. Three years later, in June 2020, Hegazi took her life while living in exile in Canada, having suffered from PTSD and depression for years. 

Feature A Contentious Pairing 04 Credit Lucy Engelman

Hegazi’s tragic story, in particular, has impacted many LGBT+ people in Malaysia, says Dian*, a closeted lesbian Muslim and native of Kota Kinabalu. “It’s always so disturbing to hear about our community being subjected to ruthless discrimination built into every person’s consciousness – and to think they’re from my religion,” she reflects, as she pulls out a photo of her LGBT+ friends. Any one of them could face the same fate as Hegazi, she laments. 

For Dian, attacks both physical and emotional on the LGBT+ community serve as a constant and inescapable reminder of just how conservative Islam has become in some Muslim-majority countries. Specifically, regarding Malaysia’s laws, the 37-year-old activist who is currently studying to be a lawyer, says the past three decades have seen media censorship and outright bans on conversations around LGBT+ rights.

She views this as detrimental and misleading: “Sharia court systems [started] targeting LGBT+ people at the end of 2013, and the public follows these recent inventions like they have been here for thousands of years. That is really upsetting.”

If you think God denies my existence, then our Prophet Muhammad’s efforts to spread peace and love in the name of Islam were all in vain

Dian

Being both Muslim and LGBT+, Dian often wrestles with her identity, feeling like an outcast for not being straight or Muslim enough. Dian’s family never forced her to perform daily prayers, recite the Qur’an or attend Islamic school. However, they firmly believe in arranged marriages, which will be an impossible reality for Dian if and when the time comes. They will expect her to marry a man, even though she is a lesbian, a fact that she has hidden from her family due to their conservative worldview. 

“I was always the perfect daughter. As the eldest, my mother was dependent on me to guide my sisters, and I don’t want to ruin that image or the relationship we have,” says Dian, adding that the pressure of being a “good Muslim daughter” caused many inner conflicts about Islam, love, and human rights. “It’s like living a double life.”  

“Beyond the political debates, at the heart of it, I am here, a lesbian,” she says. Dian often thinks of the basic humanity linking her to all other Southeast Asian LGBT+ individuals who may be suffering similarly discriminatory laws and cultural taboos. 

“In my mind and in my heart, I know that what I’m doing is not sinful because all I’m doing is loving someone … And if you think God denies my existence, then our Prophet Muhammad’s efforts to spread peace and love in the name of Islam were all in vain.” 

*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.