Muslim and gay: Islam begins to confront the issue – The Times

A piece I had published on the Times website on 29 November 2012.

For the first time in Islam’s history, a debate about homosexuality is beginning. While homophobia and the persecution of gays may still be rampant in Islamic countries, there are signs of change. LGBT Muslim groups are popping up all over the world, from Lebanon to the UK.

Much has been said about the Christian position on homosexuality, since the gay marriage and Church of England debacle heated up earlier this year, but it pales beside the resistance to change within Islam.

Scott Kugle is a leading figure among the Muslim LGBT community and is deeply respected by them. He’s a scholar, an academic, author of six books, including Homosexuality in Islam (2010), a white American, a Sufi convert to Islam and gay. He’s also on a mission for things to change. “People think of their religion as an ideology that can’t change – that’s a dead religion,” he says, as he takes a sip of his coffee at a café, near Regents Park.

It’s a warm August evening and Kugle – or Siraj al-Haqq to his Muslim contemporaries – has just come from a Muslim LGBT conference in Soho in which “four mainstream Islamic organisations” were present. Kugle, however, refuses to name who they were to protect their identity. Nonetheless, the appearance of these “mainstream” organisations is a significant harbinger of change.

Kugle is getting fed up of the bigoted attitudes expressed by many Muslims. “When it comes to women’s rights, homosexuality and transgender people, Islam is simple, clear, always has been and always will be,” he says sarcastically.

“But when it involves: nuclear weapons, parliamentary governments, political parties and medical technology, Islam suddenly becomes nuanced and needs constant interpretation? Come on.”

Kugle is tall, slim and bookish. His hair is light-brown, turning flaxen in the light, his blue eyes complement his matching blue shirt and he dons a chin curtain. Most interestingly, though, he intermittently manifests signs of campness in his behaviour.

He is just one of many Muslim dissenting voices who is challenging the status-quo in Islam. Irshad Manji, a Canadian Muslim lesbian, author and advocate for reform and a progressive interpretation of Islam, and feminists Amina Wudud and Kecia Ali, join the list of alternative interpreters.

Kugle isn’t a scholar in the “traditional” sense, however, having not been validated by qualification at a recognised Islamic institution. But his religious erudition comes from his studies in Egypt and Morocco, his time spent in Pakistan and India, and also his 10-year PHD in Islamic studies at Duke University, USA. He is currently Associate Professor at Emory University in Atlanta, USA, in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies.

He’s unhappy with the approach of “neo-traditionalist” scholars in Islam and how they tackle homosexuality, including Egypt’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi. “The powerful scholars aren’t willing to confront the reality that the Sharia we’ve inherited is the creation of Jurists, which is limited by culture,” he says. “And because they are empowered by Sharia as it has been handed down, they are not at the losing end.”

Kugle is now in full flow: “They [the scholars] don’t appreciate the injustice others go through in the name of that Sharia. If they had to live one month in the body of a woman, they’d have a different view. If they spent time with us, praying and eating with us, they’d have a different view,” he adds. Kugle displays a sense of stillness, and despite the sensitivity of the topic and emotive questions, remains calm. His voice is soft and shows no signs of alacrity. Even when he uses the odd expletive, he does so gracefully.

So why has there been so little progress for gay Muslims? “The big scholars of Islam are very scared.” He pauses. “They’re scared to lose their status. When people are open-minded they get thrown off the boards of Mosques. If you start to speak out in solidarity with gay Muslims, people cut you off,” he says. “That’s not Islamic, that’s clannish.”

Many Muslims, however, would cite the likes of Tariq Ramadan, Hamza Yusuf and Abdul Hakim Murad (Timothy Winter) as three of the leading western, Muslim progressives and intellectuals of the 21st century.

“They’re not progressives. Okay, they’re intellectuals, I’ll give them that. They are doing a lot of good. But not as much as they could, because they’re concerned with their social status and their followings,” he says.

“The people with the most power have the most to lose. That’s why I don’t place a lot of hope in the big Ulama [scholars]. They will be the last ones to change. And that’s fine.” He brushes his hair to one side. “But if they change, everything changes.”

Kugle believes Muslims in the East are more receptive to change, partly because there is plenty of public debate. In the West, however, Kugle is less optimistic. “The attitude of Muslim communities in the West is harsher, partly because of the feeling that Muslims are under siege. He sighs. “So Muslim minority communities are more stubborn and closed-minded because they feel under threat, so they feel the need for solidarity and to not question things.”

Kugle, of course, is a Westerner, but his life before Islam must seem a distant memory. Kugle was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii in a Protestant household. He recalls growing up in a loving environment and realising his sexual orientation in his early teenage years. Did he face any hostile attitudes to his sexuality when growing up? “Oh, not really, no. I’ve been extremely fortunate and protected,” he says.

After completing high school he attended Swathmore College in Pennsylvania and studied Comparative Religions, History and Literature. However, during his studies, he felt there was no lecturer who could teach him about Islam. So Kugle trekked to Egypt to study Arabic. Seven years later, at age 26, Kugle embraced Islam. “I was committed to learning Arabic so I could read the Quran in the original language, not an English translation by somebody – I don’t trust people to tell me the truth,” he says. “It was a long process. It wasn’t like St Paul who saw a flash of light. I’m a very cautious person, I don’t jump into things.”

But what was it about Islam – a religion synonymous with supposed homophobic teachings – that attracted a young, gay American? “There were many things. But I really liked the universality of the message: a religion which talks about other religions, a prophet who talks about other prophets, not a religion which denies the validity and history of other religions…to me that’s beautiful and truthful,” he says.

At the time of converting to Islam, or “reverting” as many Muslims prefer, Kugle had a partner. He’s had both a Muslim partner and a non-muslim partner and is currently single. He refuses to go into any details, hinting at some sort of heartbreak.

Kugle, as illustrated in his book Homosexuality in Islam, believes the issue of sexual orientation in Islam is profoundly nuanced and open to interpretation. He also feels the discourse has been dominated by patriarchal interpretations, which have failed to allow space for alternative voices.

Despite witnessing the negative attitudes by some Muslims about his sexuality, Kugle doesn’t let it get to him. “Whether a community accepts or rejects me is irrelevant. It’s a bit uncomfortable on the social level but it isn’t going to make or break me,” he says.

What does he make of those who persecute LGBT Muslims? “They are compensating for their inner fragility by doing all sorts of aggressive and seemingly powerful things in the name of religion,” he says slowly, enunciating every word. “This is not the way of the Prophet Muhammad,” he adds.

Kugle is laid-back, but he’s serious about his academia, perhaps a bit too serious. He hasn’t got a TV and isn’t familiar with some of the most popular artists in the world. P Diddy? “Erm, I’ve heard the name,” he says. Lady Gaga? “I’ve heard of her but don’t know any of her songs.” Maher Zain and Sami Yusuf, the world’s two most popular Islamic musicians? Kugle shakes his heard in bewilderment but adds: “I’ve heard of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan!”

Kugle is set to release his seventh book in early 2013, Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims, which documents his intimate conversations with a series of “oppressed” Muslim “activists”. “Some people contact me saying they were feeling suicidal, but after reading a book or article I’ve written, they no longer do.” How does that make him feel? “Oh, that makes me feel everything is worthwhile,” he says. “From a young age, I always knew I would write books. “Reading, writing and exploring ideas through words was my way of coping with, and exploring, the world,” he adds.

Homosexuality, along with other issues such as Darwin’s evolution theory, are just some of the issues Islam is now being forced to confront. Kugle concedes that many scholars perhaps don’t want the liberalisation of Islam to occur in a similar way to Christianity. “You can’t determine how to practise your religion out of fear,” he says. “I’m not a radical anarchist but with time, change, better scientific and spiritual understandings of human beings, our sense of religion has to change.”



Add yours →

  1. Salam and dear my brothers and sisters in Islam, I would like to get to know you more and to encourage us to marry women and have our own families. May Allah continue to guide us all on His path and on the way of Prophet Muhammad SAW.

    • Mnm Mnm, salaam. All of those things that you promote, except for the marrying of opposite sex, are available to samesex couples. Are you sure the only interpretation for a person’s comfort and cloak, as well as, marrying from the single among you means it has to be opposite sex marriages for all Muslim persons? If you do believe that interpretation, please enlighten me where Quran promotes that heterosexual couples are better than samesex couples? I await your response.

  2. Asalaamu Alaykum.

    I just wanted to know since I’m trying to understand this. Why was Surah Lut written? Wasn’t it beacuse the people at the time were committing sodomy and Prophet Lut (Alayhi Salam) was sent to reform them from their sinning and to mend their ways? I ain’t come to argue, like I said I’m trying to understand your view point. Plus how do you justify this when theres countless Ahadith mentioning the punishment for sodomy, adultery etc. I know we move with the times but obviously not crossing the rules and set boundaries of Islam, like not committing sodomy, adultry, drinking alcohol, drugs etc…

    Jazak’Allah Khair for your time

    Walaykum Asalaam

  3. Muhammmad Thany Elias Abdallah December 11, 2014 — 10:17 am

    Kulge’s view has no legal substance under shariah-the islamic law. The holy quran and the sunnah of the holy prophet (pbuh) as the majour sources of the shariah have categorically prohibitted the act of sodomy or homosexuality. Therefore, no anological deduction or juristic view no matter how reasonable it may appear can legalize it. It is the general rule under shariah that there is no anology in the presence textual authority. So Kulge and those who subscribe to his view should fear Allah the most high, the creator of all creatures who naturally designs for his creatutes dos and donts.

    • Mohammad, do you hear the buzzer sound, Wrong Answer!!!. When an individual knows Quran, shari’ah, its derivatives, and can parse cultural myth from historical fact, they know you do not know what you are talking about and whatever you consider “knowledge” is probably some cyber-based mullah spewing nonsense. Your “no analogical deduction or juristic view…can legalize it” how in the world do you believe such a “ruling” even came into being? Sure, I know you know not. Actually, many Muslims know Allah via their iqraa–not unlike Prophet Mohammad did–the fear to which you speak is the fear of Muslim culture and mythology, not the acknowledgement of Allah’s awesomeness that goes far beyond the fumings of narrowly proscribed views that you and many others like you hold. When you get better educated in your faith, get back with me and maybe we can have a serious conversation. Until then, stop telling lies, it is not a virtue in Islam.

  4. Your style is so unique compared to other people I have read stuff from. Thank you for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I will just book mark this web site.|

  5. Wonderful article! I look forward to meeting you at some point…

  6. irshad manji recieves funding from islamophobe groups if you check the reports of these organisations on their websites
    That in itself shows the crusade the so called progressives are on.

    Like the jadids of central asia and those who sided with the mongols and crusadors they will be ditched in the end and disgrace. Many have come to try and change islam and they have passed and nobody remembers them yet those who revived the deen as the prophet(may peace be upon him) foretold they are remembered much.

    Just like adultery is wrong so is homosexuality however natural it may be or seem, after homosexuality will they then start to also accept bestality as many enlightened nations have. What disgrace and shame that the prophets and their companions and the revivors of islam would be shocked at, it is one thing to do wrong and another altogether to justify it under the banner of fulfilling base desires.

    • Imam Daayiee Abdullah December 20, 2012 — 1:04 am

      A, I would hope that you do not attempt to smear all progressive Muslims with the “guilt by association” fallacy when it comes to Irshad Manji or any other person who stands for the rights of the LGBT Muslim community. And to further clarify that you’re not in the proper frame of mind, Progressives are a much bigger lot of Muslims than you imagine…but for those who keep their heads lowered/bowed to the taqlid of the times, you will more than likely miss the new dawn. Where you fail to understand is that not for the internet and technology, such a change in perspectives would not have come about so rapidly…and once the truth was released from the cage of blinded faith in tradition, it won’t be heading back anytime soon…but as far as Islamic history goes, it’s another cycle of revival and reform…Prophet Mohammad started the first one, so it’s been here before and has happened from time to time since then, so the cycle of Islamic thought will allow it to happen over and over again throughout human time…the Quran promotes it.

      Now as to your homophobia, you again promote a fallacy of the slippery slope and again underpinned with the guilty by association fallacy, you’re completely unclothed as to your real intention…and you may actually have a personal issue with your own sexual proclivities, but that’s for you and your therapist to discuss. LGBT Muslims, women and numerous Muslim minorities are not beholden to you or your ilk. We are critical thinkers and delve into Quran thoroughly and the knowledge that arises from its alternative views are solidly based in Quran. So if you have major problems with this, may I suggest you take it up with Allah…oh, your arms are too short to box with Allah, I thought so. Next???

    • Manuel Lappalainen March 11, 2015 — 11:30 pm

      I got too upset at what you wrote so I needed to reply.
      It’s funny how you say that by accepting homosexuality we would accept bestiality and pedophilia… However pedophilia and bestiality were accepted when homosexuality was REJECTED, and now in the countries where homosexuality is accepted pedophilia is rejected while funny enough, in many islamic homophobic countries pedophilia is accepted (many cases of 8 and 12 year old girls in Yemen and Suadi Arabia marryign 40 to 60 year old men).

      So next time you want to spread hatred and lies, be smart enough to check your facts!

      • Well said.

        I wish poeple would learn to recognise and distinguish their own hate and ignorance which fills them when discussing the spectrum of sectrum of sexuality, from the love and truth of the faith they espouse to have in their hearts.

        When you start all this talk of being gay as being the same as a peodophile etc you simply lose sight of your own spirituality. And worse, you then try and use it to back up what is nothing more than base fear, ignorance and plain hatred..

        You should be seekig the TRUTH and recognise that when the thought of 2 men loving eachother and expressing that love physicaly in the privacy of their own home makes you so angry and disgusted you are not feeling any of the love of your religion.

        Be vigilant for, and aware of, hatred and ignorance, fear and prejiduce and dont let thesepollute the religion you stand on and rightly hold so dear. That is a great gift to you however as now you can take a good look at all that hate in you and bring it out into the light of day. Then you can deal with it which will benifit us all, but most especially you.

        Look in the mirror and be kindly and gently honest with yourself and dont demean your faith by opening your mouth and speaking hatefull things. Be aware of your rage and fight that , not others who are just trying to get along in life the same as you.

        Hate and ignorance and (them and us) can not be TRUTH, surely…

  7. Imam Daayiee Abdullah December 4, 2012 — 1:04 pm

    Excellent article and Siraj continues to put into words the challenges and responses to them across the LGBT Muslim spectrum. Glad to have him as a long-time friend, activist and confidant.

  8. godspeed love peace prayers. today’s “sharia” is a tradition of answers to question by people with agendas, the reason they asked the questions. the answers given were time and culture specific. some were politically inspired. the people with the most money and most authority controlled the agendas. even the holiest jurists don’t decide history. it is time to change the agenda. modernize the agenda. let the dead skin get cleaned away by the loofa of agenda.

  9. Great piece and love Scott’s work. Keep it up, inshallah the rest of the Ummah will open their eyes and hearts to the truth of acceptance in Alaah’s (swt) diverse creation.

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