Monday, 10 August 2009

History Repeats Itself

Posted by Huma in Featured Articles, Pakistan on 08 7th, 2009

Earlier this week, I attended a talk about Islam and homosexuality at a medical school in Karachi. The very fact that medical practitioners, particularly psychiatrists, were gathering to discuss the subject piqued my interest. After all, a variety of psychological and physical ailments have been documented in patients who suppress or conceal their sexual identities in conservative societies.

But I was disappointed to learn that the lecturer was taking a historical perspective and simply tracing the history of homosexuality in Muslim societies. It would have been far more interesting to hear a debate about the prevalence of homosexuality in contemporary Muslim societies and consider ways in which psychiatrists and GPs respond to patients who are gay, and whether approaches differ if patients embrace their sexual identity or consider it an affliction.

Still, it was encouraging to see some acknowledgement within our local medical community that homosexuality is a phenomenon worth keeping in mind when dealing with patients (and what better place to start than at the very beginning). For readers who are now expecting a grand theological debate about whether homosexuality is permitted in Islam, feel free to click elsewhere on this website. That question is still up for debate, with some Muslim groups condemning homosexual acts as a sin and others arguing that it is natural, and therefore created and condoned by the Almighty. This post simply considers how Muslim societies deal with homosexuality in practice.

The fact that Muslim societies are struggling to figure out how to respond to homosexuals in their midst is perfectly illustrated by Iran. A few years ago, the country enraged human rights groups and made headlines when it publicly hung two young men – one 18, the other a minor – for being gay. Soon after, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad further irked the global community by flat-out denying that there were any homosexuals in Iran. How then, the world asked, can you hang young men for something doesn’t exist and thus couldn’t have happened? Ahmedinejad’s – and Iran’s – confusion about what to do with homosexuals is widespread in the ummah – should Muslim societies seek out and punish homosexuals? Ignore their very existence? Or acknowledge that they live and – gasp! – worship in Muslim societies and therefore protect their human and constitutional rights?

To help address some of these questions, the lecturer went back in time to the Ottoman and Abbasid empires, during which homosexuality was commonly practiced and socially tolerated, though not explicitly legally protected. Back then, the lecturer explained, there were various reasons for homosexual behaviour (including lesbianism) being widespread.

Firstly, the legal system was multifaceted and did not take a decisive stand on homosexuality. Cases were judged either by the sultan’s law, common law or shariah, of which only the last had an opinion about homosexuality. Homosexuals were rarely taken to court on account of their homosexuality – if they did end up before a judge or qazi, it was for another social transgression (such as disturbing the peace). According to the lecturer, and here I summarise, the thinking at the time was that people’s sexuality was no one’s business unless they made a nuisance of themselves. Qazis who did pass judgement on homosexuals usually did not punish them for their sexuality per se, but for their conduct with regards to social norms (so, if someone abducted a young boy or committed a sexual act near a school, they would be punished for kidnapping or indecency and not for homosexuality).

Legal crackdowns on homosexuals during various Islamic empires were also few and far between because the burden of proof on the accuser was immense. As Brian Whitaker sums it up for The Guardian:

Furthermore, the levels of proof required by Islamic law are so high that if the rules are properly applied no one need ever be convicted unless they do something extremely blatant, like having sex in the street in broad daylight.

The lecturer also explained that if a person accused someone else of homosexuality and was not able to muster up the required evidence or witnesses, they would be permanently discredited and prohibited from testifying before any shariah court again.

In addition to legal laxity, homosexuality was prevalent in the Islamic empires because the cultures prescribed to a ‘one sex model’ in which conceptions of beauty were the same for men and women. The lecturer showed several miniature paintings from the Abbasid era in which men and women were indistinguishable (check out this famous illustration of Shah Abbas with a wine boy). Men would wear make up and drape themselves in gowns and jewels while women with downy mustaches were considered the most attractive (apparently, women would paint on mustaches to seem more comely!) Youth – rather than femininity or masculinity – was idealised, thereby eliminating the taboo around homosexual relationships.

Given the permissive attitudes of previous Muslim societies, how then did we get to a point where minors can be hung for being gay? The lecturer argued (convincingly, I might add) that present-day homophobia in Muslim societies is a fallout of the colonial encounter. Her logic relied on several premises.

Firstly, Europe subscribed to the ‘two sex model’ in which women were feminine and desired by men. Secondly, at the end of the eighteenth century, Europe, which was at the tail end of the Enlightenment, had reconfigured homosexuality from being a ‘sin’ into an ‘abnormality.’ When Catholicism was dominant, homosexuals were sinning against God, and could thus be managed (all that was needed was for them to confess their sin and atone by saying a few Hail Marys). As rationalism and science replaced God, homosexuality became a medical disorder, which was more threatening and harder to ‘cure’. Therefore, when ascendant European powers began to infiltrate the Muslim empires, homosexuality in the West was considered abnormal and inappropriate.

Now, as Muslims began traveling to Europe – which by this point was more progressive and wealthy than the Ottoman and Persian empires, and in some cases beginning to colonise the eastern powers – they saw that homosexual practices that were common and acceptable in their societies were considered abnormal in the West. They also began to wonder whether this ‘abnormal’ behaviour was not the cause of their weakness in the face of European colonialists. It was these initial encounters that began to taint the practice of homosexuality in Muslim societies.

And the rest, as they say, is history. With references to present-day Muslim societies and their attitudes towards homosexuality, Whitaker writes:

Nevertheless, while attitudes towards homosexuality in the west over the last few decades have generally been liberalising, Muslim countries have been moving in the opposite direction. This is largely a result of international politics. Perceptions of a domineering west, coupled with fears of globalisation and modernity have brought a revival of imagined “customs and traditions”, along with the spread of rigid and puritanical versions of religion.

The phenomenon he describes, however, is not that recent. According to the lecturer, as Muslim empires were colonised, they laid claim to the one thing that their colonial masters had not tainted and could not influence – Islam. And this they began to cling to in its most extreme and literal version. Since the mid-nineteenth century, then, Muslim societies have been largely anti-gay. Shariah courts that would previously disregard homosexual acts came to punish them harshly.

Or that, at least is the perception. Hearing the lecturer speak about the attitude towards homosexuals in the Ottoman and Abbasid empires, I couldn’t help but see parallels with modern-day Pakistan. Admittedly, there are no openly gay men in our society (and if there are, they suffer the consequences of social isolation, professional discrimination, and in many cases, arranged marriages which result in psychological trauma both for the man and the unfortunate woman he marries).

At the same time, though, we have Begum Nawazish Ali on our airwaves, hijras on every street corner, young ‘maalish walas’ at every roundabout, Dostana in our cinemas, innumerable curse words for homosexual men in our vernacular, and foppish characters in every comic skit. As Irfan Husain puts it:

This aspect of human sexuality is rampant in our part of the world, much as we would like to sweep it under the carpet…. Despite our prudish pretence, the fact is that we are relatively tolerant of homosexual behaviour. Our literature contains many references to romantic attachment between men. And for years, homosexuality in Pashtun society has been an open secret, although it might well be exaggerated. According to local tradition, many men live by the credo “Women for duty; boys for pleasure.”

While social mores condemn homosexuality and Pakistan’s didactic middle-class says ‘tauba tauba’ at the very thought of same-sex relations, we are thankfully not at the stage where there are witch-hunts for homosexuals. It seems as if the historic Muslim attitude towards gay men applies here too – out of sight, out of mind. As long as homosexuals don’t fly rainbow flags from atop the Teen Talwar, we don’t mind if they’re in our midst.

Indeed, as long as homosexuals are willing to preserve the fa├žade of a heterosexual social order in which men and women get married and have babies, they probably have little to fear (at least in terms of prosecution and state punishment – society’s righteousness is another matter altogether). What this status quo denies them, though, is the option of ever celebrating their sexual identity. Gay pride is something I do not see on the horizon for homosexuals in Pakistan. But in an age where regard for human rights should trump all, they deserve better than that. One can only hope that the current era of don’t-ask-don’t-tell tolerance evolves into something more progressive and open. Sadly, looking at present-day Pakistan as it abandons social tolerance for blind extremism, it seems as if history truly is fated to repeat itself.

Huma Yusuf is the features editor of Pakistan's Foremost English Daily Newspaper.

A Scotsman now in New York: Atlanta, Ithaca and the Solas Foundation

As some of you know I have been appointed as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College, a liberal arts college that has a remarkable reputation in Northeast USA. Here is what the Princeton Review of academic institutions has to say:

“Coeducational and nonsectarian, Ithaca is a nationally recognized college of 6,650 students. As a comprehensive institution, Ithaca offers an excellent foundation in the liberal arts as well as strong professional programs at the undergraduate level. Moreover, all of our degree programs are supplemented by independent and interdisciplinary studies, dual majors, minors, and elective courses in other academic fields. Nearly every state and 67 countries are represented in the student population; 2,800 men and 3,400 women are currently enrolled. Some 400 of those students are enrolled in graduate programs. Founded in 1892 as the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, the school eventually grew into a private college offering academic programs in several professional fields. At mid-century the institution's curricula in liberal arts were unified, and the large and diversified School of Humanities and Sciences now forms the core of the Ithaca educational experience. In the 1960s the College moved from downtown Ithaca to its current home on South Hill. Here, the College's 750 acres command a majestic vista of the city of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake.”

I am especially proud to join this esteemed seat of learning and teaching which has already made great strides in philosophy and religious studies (see my departments profile at: and Islamic Studies as it is here at Ithaca College that Professor Asma Barlas holds a chair in politics.

Professor Barlas has been a guiding light for me in my academic study of Islamic masculinities with her groundbreaking book ‘Believing Women in Islam – Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an’ (see book cover and picture of Professor Barlas with Dr. Tariq Ramadhan).

Just before I landed in Ithaca I went to Atlanta where I was invited to attend the marriage of my dear friend Zahra Ayubi, a Ph.D student in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with Dr Alireza Soltani. (see photo of me with the happy couple and also Dr. Aysha Hidayatullah to the far left who is Assistant Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco). A wonderful and blessed occasion that saw the merging of two hearts but also of two cultures, South Asian and Persian. I am wishing them much happiness and prosperity for a bright future.

It was during my visit here that I had the chance to also meet two renowned scholars of Islam. Professor Vincent Cornell who is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies at Emory University and Professor Abdullahi an’Na’im who is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law, School of Law at Emory University too. I’m grateful for their encouragement and support throughout my academic studies and it was great to sit and chat with them over food about the new chapter in my academic life.

Arriving into Ithaca was both a nervous and exciting moment for me. Especially that I walked into an apartment that I had never seen before! I am grateful to my new colleague, Professor Rachel Wagner, who assisted me greatly. It was nice also to meet fellow faculty members over the next few days, especially the Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences at Ithaca College, Professor Leslie Lewis, Professor Rick Kaufman, Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion and Professor Brian Karafin who is also my new colleague in religious studies.

Speaking of academics, I read with keen interest a new project named the Solas Foundation that has been set up by Glasgow-born entrepreneur Azeem Ibrahim to help provide ‘true lessons on Islam’, as reported by the Sunday Herald. Leading the project are Shaykh Amir Jamil and Shaykh Ruzwan Mohammad. Shaykh Amir Jamil commented,

"We felt it was important to re-establish that religious authoritative teaching. If we can get young people listening to the right voices with authoritative knowledge, a lot of our problems of radicalism would be eradicated. And if they do want to raise their voices, let's take them on in a scholarly debate and we will win that debate."

I am pleased that such a project has been set up but remain weary and cautious at several levels. Firstly, there seems to be a gulf between those who are educated as scholars of Islam in western academic institutions and those who have had a more traditional Islamic seminary training in Islamic Studies. I do believe that the methods of each are very different, where universities teaching theology and religion in the west teach from a basis of critical analysis and thought the former are taught from a faith-based, devotional perspective, each worthy in their own right. It is then difficult to argue who has the ‘religious authority’ for I believe that the problem is of authority. Everyone is vying for that position of authority within Muslim communities and mutual respect and humility is lacking. Islamic theology is not a game of winning and losing, there is no one ‘true’ voice, Islam has promoted and celebrated a variety of diverse voices throughout. From the voices of radical mystics known as Sufis to puritans upholding the tenets of Islamic law, such debates you can find in the work of Abduh and Vince, who I mentioned earlier. Two of their books give us an understanding of this rich Islamic diversity that cannot be overlooked (see images). Professor Cornell has edited a wonderful five volume book titled 'Voices of Islam' and Professor an'Na`im who has published groundbreaking work on 'Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a', here is an intro to each,

'Despite frequent and extensive publications on Islam, very few Americans, indeed very few non-Muslims, truly understand the faith or the more than one billion adherents who live it. This set presents the diversity and richness of Islam, filling in the blanks and expanding our knowledge and understanding. Portraying Muslims in all their humanity and diversity balances the images that have bombarded society and presents the reader with a fuller and more accurate picture of the Islamic faith and what it means to live as a Muslim--in Muslim communities, and as part of a broader tapestry of pluralism in the nations of the world. What does it mean to share Muslim concerns? To experience Muslim spirituality? What is the difference between Sunni and Shiite sects? Why do Muslims pray so frequently? What is the reality of Muslim marriage and gender relations? What is the meaning of jihad and martyrdom to a practicing Muslim? What role do the arts and humanities play in modern Muslim life? How are Islamic children raised? These questions and others are answered in these volumes, which bring together Muslim voices from around the world, including men and women, scholars and laypersons, fundamentalists and progressives, and others from various cultural, political, and Islamic backgrounds. Personal experiences and poetry are included to illustrate the many different expressions of Islam.'

"What should be the place of Shari‘a—Islamic religious law—in predominantly Muslim societies of the world? In this ambitious and topical book, a Muslim scholar and human rights activist envisions a positive and sustainable role for Shari‘a, based on a profound rethinking of the relationship between religion and the secular state in all societies.

An-Na‘im argues that the coercive enforcement of Shari‘a by the state betrays the Qur’an’s insistence on voluntary acceptance of Islam. Just as the state should be secure from the misuse of religious authority, Shari‘a should be freed from the control of the state. State policies or legislation must be based on civic reasons accessible to citizens of all religions. Showing that throughout the history of Islam, Islam and the state have normally been separate, An-Na‘im maintains that ideas of human rights and citizenship are more consistent with Islamic principles than with claims of a supposedly Islamic state to enforce Shari‘a. In fact, he suggests, the very idea of an “Islamic state” is based on European ideas of state and law, and not Shari‘a or the Islamic tradition. Bold, pragmatic, and deeply rooted in Islamic history and theology, Islam and the Secular State offers a workable future for the place of Shari‘a in Muslim societies."

Every voice must be celebrated but that can only happen when one is secure and strong in their own voice, only when one feels threatened by the voices of the ‘other’ will we charge to ‘correct’ and uphold our fantasies of an Islamic utopia. I firmly believe that everyone should have a right to interpretation and understanding Islam, some may interpret to abuse others but in that situation 'tadafu' is a great way to counterbalance, so it is a concern for every Muslim to counterbalance the interpretation of abuse...

"The law of repulsion [qanun al-tadafu`] is the Islamic interpretation of history and events. Regardless of whether the Jahiliyya began or not, Islam must move along according to its own essential movement, a part of which must be the law of repulsion: "Had God not driven back the people, some by the means of others, the earth had surely corrupted" (Qur'an 2:251)."

Azeem Ibrahim wrote in an opinion piece in the Sunday Herald, ‘Writer and academic Reza Aslan argues that almost 90% of violent jihadists have had no religious education at all.’. So I’m hoping that Reza’s own methods and approaches to Islam and Muslims is upheld by the Solas Foundation, if not, then here is a reminder of Reza’s position but his core point is 'nobody represents Islam!':

I have utmost respect for all those involved in the Solas Foundation but I wonder why eminent academic scholars of Islamic Studies on our own front doorstep have been overlooked in this project such as Professor Mona Siddiqui, who is Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding at Glasgow University’s department of theology and religious studies. Such an oversight by the Solas Foundation is possibly further evidence of the gulf between those trained in Islamic seminaries and British (or any) universities. I guess the battle for the soul of Islam continues but let us not forget those wise words of the Prophet Muhammad, ‘Iktilaaf ummati rahma’ – ‘differences are a blessing (for Muslims)’ – let us all remain steadfast in this sacred struggle with mutual respect and humility.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Bigamy is against the 'letter and spirit' of Islam, Indian judge rules

The Telegraph
By Dean Nelson in New Delhi
Published: 5:53PM BST 07 Aug 2009

The ruling, by one of the country's senior judges, has provoked a wave of anxiety throughout India's secular establishment which has until now been content to let its 150 million Muslims live according to its own system of "personal law".

While bigamy has also been practiced by Hindus, it is more common among Muslims who believed they are justified in taking upto four wives.

The practice has been widely criticised in a number of court judgments as "cruel", while one judge said there was no difference between a "second wife and a concubine". Justice A.R Lakshmanan, the law commission chairman, and two other panelists, said: "Traditional understanding of Muslim law on bigamy is gravely faulty and conflicts with true Islamic law in letter and spirit."

"It is generally believed that under Muslim law, a husband has an unfettered right to marry again even where his earlier marriage is continuing. "On a closer examination of the relevant provisions of the Koran and other sources of Islamic law, this does not seem to be true," the report said.

They said they had submitted their report to the government but stopped short of recommending legal reform because they feared it would cause an "unhealthy controversy" among religious leaders who opposed change.

Their concerns were born out by Muslim scholars, who said Islam provided for polygamy on the condition that the man is able to care for each wife financially and honour her physically. "Polygamy is not mandatory in Islam but there is a provision for taking more than one wife. This provision is bound by pre-conditions that the man has to do justice to all his legal wives both physically as well as economically," said Professor Akhtarul Wasey, Head of Islamic Studies at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University.