Twice Blessed: Reflections on LGBT and Islam

Shamim Mazari is a PhD student at ANU. His research focuses on the anthropology of religion, and the intersection of religion, politics and law in the Muslim world. He holds a Masters in International Law and Politics from Canterbury University, and has worked in human rights and community development.

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They say human behaviour is 93 percent predictable, and I’m no exception. In my first year of university, when I sat in the library to write essays, I would always go to a certain floor, walk a specific route, pass a particular bookshelf, and notice the same book: “Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay, and Jewish”. I never picked up the book, but it was just that noticeable (colourful? vibrant? cheerful?) that it became the marking point by which I located other shelves and books around it. I never bothered to pick the book up and read it. Being Muslim and straight, I had little in common with it ideologically. I don’t know why it captured my attention, but the title – “Twice Blessed” – would often flash through my mind at the most random moments.

The recent nightclub shooting in Orlando was one of those moments. The topic “Islam and homosexuality” trended on social media for a couple of hours. Was there a “problem” with Islam? Was it a religion of peace? Was the shooter gay? One of my Facebook friends went to vigil and held a placard that read: “This Muslim stands in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.” Others were less diplomatic. Excruciatingly long blog posts were written, and Facebook comment wars went unresolved. It was precisely at this moment, as I was about to log off Facebook, that the book title – “Twice Blessed” – crossed my mind again, and I finally pinpointed why it was so intriguing. The ingenuity behind the title, I think, was that it took two mutually exclusive ways of life, (Abrahamic) religion and homosexuality, and merged them together with a smile. It told everyone else, who wasn’t merging two seemingly incompatible ways of life, that they were somehow missing out on all the fun.

Fair enough, I thought. But as I read the post-Orlando debates, I wondered if a book like that could be written by Muslims. It’s lovely that we go to vigils, and hold placards, and open mosque doors, but would a book like that be enthusiastically read in the Muslim community?

You might say “no.” Muslim scholars are unanimous: homosexuality is immoral. They only differ on how it should be criminalised. Some say it should be treated like adultery and punished by death. Others disagree: though immoral, they say, it shouldn’t be punished at all. These debates go back to “the people of Lot” in the Quran, and how to interpret it, and to the Prophet’s alleged sayings (hadith), and how authentic they are.

But when we look at Islam’s attitude towards sexuality, I think we’re making a mistake if we only look at scripture. Yes, it’s important, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Religion is a lived experience, and we should look at how it is actually practiced in daily life rather than how scripture says it ought to be. This is why I’m not so interested in the “correct” interpretation of scripture, a subject which is over-analysed and never resolved. I’m interested in how societies evolve and change despite scripture. I’m interested in how verses, at one time taken literally, quickly turn into metaphor as new ideas about the world are adopted. (Consider the curious fate of Adam and Eve, for example, after the Catholic church adopted evolution).

A more tolerant attitude towards LGBT communities is emerging in some Muslim communities, particularly in the West. Groups like Muslims for Progressive Values (www.mpvusa.org) have declared that homophobia is “unislamic,” and called on leaders in the Muslim community to combat it. It is quite telling, I think, that most Muslims who are attracted to these kind of movements were born or raised in the West, and – if they’re anything like me – have struggled to reconcile very secular ethics with the faith that underpins their identity. When a community of like-minded people forms, it can only result in new schools of thought. It was precisely these new ways of interpreting (and practicing) Islam which plagued the heresiographers of medieval Islam. Just as they plague groups like ISIS and the Taliban today, who condemn their heresies as bid`a (blameworthy innovation).

That said, I don’t think the book “Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay, and Muslim” is too far away. I can see it as an anthology of essays and memoirs. The introduction would tackle the definitions: do terms like “lesbian” and “gay,” or the baffling acronym “LGBTQI,” even translate into Arabic and Persian? Or is this a form of cultural colonialism, seeking to infuse Muslim languages and cultures with modern western ideas around sexuality? Another essay might explore indigenous concepts of homosexuality, and Islamic law’s ambiguous attitude towards them. The key idea uniting authors would be the notion that one can be lesbian and gay at the same time as being Muslim. The two are not antithetical. At first, the book may not find many readers. Perhaps a future first-year student might notice it as he passes through the library and, instead of using it as a location marker, might pause for a moment, pick it up and read it. Then, anything could happen. I can see it finding its way onto a mosque bookshelf, or perhaps even a reading list at Al-Azhar University.