Pakistan, Islam and Homosexuality

Homosexual desire generally manifests itself in the parks and underground clubs of Pakistani cities. It is indeed ironic that moral condemnation serves to exacerbate an issue than alleviate it. Hiding from family members and peers, differently oriented persons venture out to separate their religious identity from their inner disposition and hence find themselves in internet chat-rooms looking for something they hopelessly fail to find. Many come to divorce the value system shaped partly by their faith in order to accept the other more pressing part of their existence, whereas others find themselves wearing a cloak of hypocrisy; after all the doctors of faith have sentenced them to gruesome punishments, so there is no hope of finding a solution to their concerns. In a nutshell, many gays and lesbians want the same mundane but loving relationships as their fellow responsible striaght citizens of Pakistan. Religious sermons and rulings prevent them from doing so, but in condemning gays and lesbians, such rulings only serve to encourage a culture of secret rendezvous which in turn perpetuates the homosexual stereotype.

The problem indeed stems from a lack of understanding of the issue by both religious and professional experts. Homosexuality is treated as a willful act of choice, an outcome of keeping bad company, a product of a lewd environment and at best a remnant of some childhood abuse. Moreover the entire discourse on the issue is fixated on one penetrative sexual act. Anecdotal evidence from the NWFP and from the reports on truck drivers seems to perpetuate the manner of the discourse, which makes it all the more difficult to get past the sexual act to really focus on the issue at hand. Cultural notions of the issue peppered with the fire and brimstone of the religious texts make the task quite difficult if not impossible for the rational members of the clergy and other professionals. To lend voice to alternate understandings and interpretations really requires a great amount of patience and determination in the presence of a forbidding scriptural legacy and the risk of being labeled as a deviant oneself.

However, the year is 2009; many Muslim voices have stirred the air with alternate opinions and thoughts. A whole range of scholars, theologians and activists that includes luminaries form across the globe like Abdel Nour Brado, Pamela Taylor, Siti Musdah Mulia, Ghazala Anwar, Siraj Kugle, Imam Daayiee Abdullah and Sheikh Muhsin Hendricks, to name a few, have strongly called for igniting the debate in Islam to find a just solution to the plight of religiously observant Muslim gays and lesbians. Some amongst them like Imam Daayiee have gone so far as to sanction Muslim same sex unions. However, all these heroic efforts and voices exist in freer societies of the world and the situation here in Pakistan is miles away from realizing the objective of Muslim same sex unions. It is then clear that the Pakistani discourse needs to revolve around addressing religious and cultural misconceptions on the issue.

The alternative voice in Pakistan in a predominantly Muslim context would revolve around clearing any misconceptions on the issue apart from addressing the scriptural prohibitions that are assumed to exist within the majority traditional Muslim circles. The first point that needs to be strenuously made is that anal sex is not synonymous with same sex relationships. Internet googling would indicate that many gay couples do not indulge in that activity let alone lesbian couples. In fact a sexual act cannot be tied with inner disposition whether gay or straight. After all many straight couples indulge in anal sex apart from those males that casually indulge in same sex behaviour out of sheer frustration or thrill. Yet, the act of anal sex does not assume as much of a taboo in the straight context as does it in gay context. In fact as undesirable as it may be in Shia jurisprudence, anal sex is permitted contingent upon the wife’s consent. It also needs to be clarified that men who have a predilection for casual encounters with other males are not necessarily gay, for a gay relationship goes beyond a five minute thrilling encounter toward a more holistic life that includes companionship in sorrow and happiness, in sickness and health, in youth and old age and through all the trials and tribulations that life has to offer.

The other misconception, that a person’s inner constitution or orientation is willfully created, needs to be done away with. There is a constellation of biological, hormonal, prenatal etc., studies that are increasingly asserting sexual orientation to be biologically determined and which are exhaustively documented in Dr. Qazi Rahman’s book Born Gay. It may also help to remember that eminent physicians like Al Razi, Qusta Ibn Luqa, Hunain Ibn Ishaq, apart from several Muslim authorities had no qualms in accepting a biological basis for some forms of homosexuality. Indeed, a whole Muslim school argued that passive homosexuality was a result of the maternal ‘sperm’ prevailing over the paternal ‘sperm’ at conception.

It would also be instructive to note that the issue at hand is that of nurturing a same sex relationship as responsible and respectable members of a mosque, community or society and that the issue is definitely not about seeking some license or certificate for mere sexual gratification. As such gay and lesbian issues revolve as much around every day mundane life issues as those of the usual straight couples in society. Of course gay and lesbians also have to deal with prejudice and discrimination like any other minority be it Ahmadis, Christians or Ismailis living in Pakistan. Hence the issue at stake is the right (haqq) to have a same sex relationship within the confines of religion and as responsible citizens of Pakistan.

While Pakistani law and its implications for gays and lesbians must be the subject of another discourse, it should be appreciated that the two principal sources of faith – the Qur’an and Sunnah – are silent on the issue of same sex relationships as well as inner constitution. What the Qur’an does address is sexual activity in the context of the people of Lot. In fact according to most exegetes and jurists, all verses – (7:80-81; 26:160-166, 27:54-55, 29:28-29) – in this context specifically refer to anal intercourse between males. The verses are also clear that the sexual act was an outcome of violence and coercion, and this understanding is confirmed in the numerous texts of Tabari, the Jalalyn commentaries, and the Qisas Al Anbiya by both Al Kisai and Al Rawandi. The words of the verse ‘you come to males in lust besides females…’ alludes to the predominant heterosexual nature of the recipients of God’s message in Lot’s tribe. Hence, given the fact that at most 4% of the population is gay, apart from archaeological findings that same sex relationships existed prior to the people of Lot, supports the alternate thesis that the Qur’anic verses are not addressing same sex relationships but acts of violence and coercion perpetrated by predominantly heterosexual people. A glimpse of such horrific conduct has perhaps been documented about the Abu Ghraib prison where Iraqi detainees were subjected to shameful and forced acts.

So far as the Hadith on the issue are concerned, most of them are suspect or weak as none of them are found in the relatively more authentic books of Bukhari, Muslim and Malik’s Muwatta. This brings a traditionally devout Muslim to the entire corpus of Islamic jurisprudential literature wherein widely ranging opinions have usually been formulated and have been observed to evolve with time.  The Hanafi school, for instance, departed from the other three schools by strongly negating any capital punishment on same sex conduct relegating any punishment to no more than 39 lashes. Ibn Hazm, three centuries after Imam Abu Hanifa, distinguished non penetrative sexual acts from anal intercourse and prescribed no more than 10 lashes for those. Four centuries after Ibn Hazm, scholars at Al Azhar understood the word ‘venial faults’ in verse 53:32 as specifically referring to non-penetrative sexual acts, stating that such minor sins even if deliberately and repeatedly committed could be compensated for by supererogatory works.

Based on the evolution of Muslim thought and the richness in traditional Muslim scriptural debates would it be too much to ask the thoughtful and rational members of the Muslim clergy to review the case of gays and lesbians based on the principles of compassion and fairness? Muslim scholarship has never been static, it has always responded dynamically to different situations in various times. It is mindful of the plight of its adherents and finds ways to alleviate their suffering as it has in the past by allowing transsexuals to undergo gender reassignment surgeries and by allowing intersexuals to marry members of either gender, based on their inner constitution. If societal taboos are cast aside, perhaps a very strong case for same sex unions could also be developed based on the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. The fact that Islamic jurisprudence recognizes sex as a basic need coupled with the rule that ‘Necessity trumps prohibition’ points toward a possible institution of Muslim same sex unions.

Both the clergy members and other professionals perhaps need to realize that gays and lesbians do not drop out of thin air but come from good homes where they are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles apart from being teachers and students To use the words of a scholar, ‘They too stand in prayer by night and whole-heartedly spend in the way of God by day. They too love their neighbour the way they love their own selves. They might be nearer to God than many of the righteous we see around us.’ Clergy members, doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, activists and other experts may all need to realize that it is not for any conformity to nifty ideologies that this issue needs to be resolved but simply on the basis of compassion and fairness to people who, while being different, worship the same God as we do, who are our brothers and sisters in faith and as such deserve the same respect and rights (haqooq) as we do.