Thursday, June 19, 2008

'Evil' homosexuality: an Arab and Islamic perspective

I've pondered often about the strange relationship that others have imposed on the Arab world regarding homosexuality and immorality. Orientalists traditionally had always infused a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) eroticism into their subject matter to the point that many in the West often think of Arabs as oversexed and decadent yet pretending to be just and moral, "Boys are for pleasure, women are for breeding". At the same time, in the Arab and Islamic world, there is the hysteria surrounding perceived decadence in the West, with a special place reserved for that most "heinous of crimes", homosexuality. As Ahmedi Nejad said at an American University, "In Iran we have no homosexuals like you in the West". Ludicrous at one level yet perhaps true true to some extent, though not as he had in mind when saying this. I'm working my way through Foucault's history of sexuality and it is a remarkable and lucid polemic which attempts to break down the history of sexuality in Western civilization. Foucault is particularly clear that he is examining Western civilization, which impressed me. Whilst Ahmedi Nejad might consider himself to be outside of this discourse - colonialism, imperialism and the slow inculcation of many youth in the majority world with Western values through the media means that the West's nervous illnesses and dispositions are things which we must out of necessity address appropriately. Perhaps knowing their origin helps, but this in no way detracts from the urgency of understanding and dealing with them.

Foucalt tells us that there is an intricate interplay between power and pleasure. Power, through society, law and religion, seeks to bring the deepest and most private sexual desires out into the light. By transforming these feelings and acts into discourse in every way, it also categorises it, controls it, titillates it and encourages it. The inevitable "rebellion" of libertarianism is only a reaction to this exercise of power and in fact reinforces it and is reinforced by it. Rather than making the sexual diminish and controlled, it in fact ellicits it, encourages it and promotes it, on all levels. Censorship provokes discussion, and discussion centred on sexuality, on issues which would not have been given second thought, in spite of the disapproval of others, and elevated to an importance which would appear trivial to people from other ages and societies.

What I've been trying to understand for some time now is how Arab literary texts during the Islamic heydey dealt with the matter casually, in spite of the clear Islamic position against the practice, and contrasting this with the hysterical obsession we have in the Arab world today with sexual 'perversion'. I believe that in many ways, this hysteria is a product of how power has moulded Western societies and discourse about sexuality, something which has, in fact, been implanted onto our own Arab people through occupation. Victorian prudishness regarding sex is one of the unfortunate residues of European occupation that has distorted our perceptions of sex and how we deal with it, how we relate it to children and how we practice it ourselves. It is now seen as a dirty, hidden thing, ideally between man and wife, and to which children are not to be made aware of. A secret pleasure. Yet, a quick look at many Hadith by the Prophet Muhammad as well as in the Quran shows us that there is a frankness in discussion about sex. It is mainly focused on the structure of relations between the man and the woman and on what is to be avoided in terms of sexual practices. So a woman is told not to have sex with her husband during her period, anal sex is not allowed and adulterous or homosexual relations are forbidden. Sex, in itself, is not dirty, it is not shameful, it is a natural human need which the Prophet himself acknowledges, but within the framework provided by Allah. For a person concerned with finding Allah, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, the justification for adhering to the laws is in achieving proximity to the creator and in avoiding the haram where it creates distance from Him. There is no hysteria, it is not personal and it does not bring out the pathological insecurities which it elicits with some people today.

Yet I wish to avoid falling into this pitfall that all bad has come from the West, though much harm has come from that part of the world. The 'Power' which Foucault refers to often in his texts is, from what I understand it, a very real thing which we see everyday. It is not some abstract concept, like Plato's Forms. It is something which is present in all societies, albeit named differently. It was there when the prophets railed against the injustice and immorality of their peoples and exists today to great extent everywhere. The Great Arrogance, as Iran calls America, is only a manifestation, on a larger scale, of the complex interplay of relationships and customs in societies which, though acting as a social glue of sorts, can also be a mask behind which injustice is justified and allowed to exist. The merchant princes and ruling families of Mecca tried to kill the Prophet Muhammed because he challenged this power structure, this influence it wielded on society. So this is by no means a Western concept, it simply exists in a much more powerful and effective manner in the West through the engine of naked capitalism. It is these same "localised" expressions of power which find it useful to generate hysteria and continue this imported prudishness over peoples sexuality. Understanding this bizarre situation does not cause any conflict to a Muslim, it simply allows us to differentiate between condemning or rejecting a practice according to the laws of Allah with all the relevance or irrelevance it deserves, and between pandering to the rabid hysteria of the many, infected by the immorality of Power, wherever it may be and in whichever form it is found.


Amre El-Abyad said...

And why would a criminal baboon like Najad speak on behalf of Arabs. He is not Arab afterall. Maybe he should have put forward the point of view of the Indian civilsation ( to which Iran belongs) instead.

yaman said...

My still-needs-research take on this, is that "deviancy" from God's path has been translated into "deviancy" from human nature, such that sexual practices, desires, and temptations which are not between men and women are taken to be some reflection of mental illness or unnatural/inhuman action. Actually, the 7adith on this issue point in the opposite direction. There is also a chapter in al-Kaba'ir on homosexuality. There are a number of quoted statements along the lines of, "I was tempted by the handsome so-and-so, so I requested that he be taken from the room in order to avoid temptation," not of the Prophet but of his companions. I am inclined to agree that this puritanism is probably imported from Europe, and I think now I would like to read this book by Foucault!

yaman said...

Amre your sectarian attacks are wack.

Wassim said...

I agree, in fact I remember reading something mentioned by al Ghazali with regards to men visiting the hamams. When the Muslims conquered the mostly Byzantine Greek Levant they found the hamams were very popular as a means to relax and bathe. There is a story that when Omar (I think, or one of the other right minded Caliphs) would go to the bath they would ensure that there was nobody else there, they would also tie a cloth around their eyes and do a dua before entering.

It might seem amusing to us, but for someone who dedicates themself to spiritual purity from even the slightest glance that would trouble their heart, it tells us something very interested. The idea of finding another male attractive, whilst not approved of, was not in itself something seen as aberrant or deviant. Just a temptation to be avoided as much as is possible.

عزير سليمان said...

Besides deviating from the path of Allah, homosexuality, while not necessarily deviating from natural phenomena (i.e., birds and other animals are known to be homosexual) in humans there arises certain diseases, etc., which are associated with homosexuality (and not falsely, either). I think that this is interesting not only from a religious perspective but from a scientific one, as well.

yaman said...

Exactly, and I think there is a lot to be said, following those points, on the way that homosexuality is now framed and understood in the Arab world, but also in the way that Westerns frame the nature of intolerance to homosexuality in Islam. This might have something to do with the obsession about "identity." On the other hand, "same sex sex" is probably something with a history as extensive and as 'normal' insofar as its occurrence as sex between non-married men and women. If you think about it, the prohibition on such activities would make no sense unless there were actually people performing them. And they would have no meaning to Muslims, unless in some way a temptation might be imagined. And here is the very interesting thing to me: that these prohibitions on same sex sex in Islam have now been overwhelmingly understood, by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as hinting towards a "war" that must be waged by Muslims on "the homosexuals," who are defined in opposition to the Muslims, rather than a guidance to Muslims not to engage in such activities, just as they should not drink alcohol.

yaman said...

`Azeer, which ones though?

عزير سليمان said...

Which diseases? Hepatitis A, HIV, and other viral diseases are extremely common amongst homosexuals. That's not to say that they are exclusively related to homosexuality - just that they are prevalent.

Something else that I just thought of is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where from the English gets the word "sodomy".

Amre El-Abyad said...

Yaman thos are not sctarian attacks!!!!!!!!

I am talking about Iranians no shiites. There ishuge difference between the Arab and Iranian hiites, or ist that you may have been trying to make out point that all Shiites are Iranians!?!?

Arab Democracy said...

To Azeez Sleiman:

Hepatitis A is not a sexually transmitted disease. (B and C are)

The majority of those suffering from HIV worldwide are heterosexuals.

If you are going to invoke 'science' to justify your religious beliefs try to get your facts right.

And to Wassim

You started well and I thought reading Foucault who happens to be a raving homosexual might lead you to some revolutionary position on homosexuality. But I am not sure you answered your own question at the end.

You also mentionned the 'framework provided by Allah' Could you please reflect on why Allah/God/Yahwe decided to provide at least 3 overlapping but also contradictory frameworks to us mortals.


(unashamedly agnostic)

عزير said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
عزير said...

Actually, Joseph, Hepatitis A can be contracted via anal/oral sex (it has to do with coming into contact with fecal matter, any at all). Furthermore, whether the large majority of those infected with HIV are heterosexual or not isn't really the question -- it's the probability and statistics. Obviously one would expect heterosexuals to be larger carriers; there's a greater population. Maybe you should get your facts right before trying to bash someone for being religious (it's not a sin). Salaam.

poshlemon said...


I agree with you.

Aliza said...

some of this stuff is beyond my understanding, but one question i have is regarding golden age images of "what it was like" before western intrusion. obviously not just an issue here with this subject or this tradition but everywhere and in all constructions of traditions.. but here's the issue: you seem to be saying "beforehand that is not how sex was viewed", and your evidence of this is scripture: hadith of what muhammad said, indicating his viewpoint, his openness, and to the believer the ideals of 'normative' islam. as a sideways believer i like this interpretation, i agree that that is part of the essence of real religion and real revelation (sex is natural, human). But it seems like a different step use scripture and revelation to then go on and claim that such sexpositive values were present in SOCIETY and CULTURE at that time, or from that time up until western intrusion. through muhammad god gave us a lot of good messages that are ignored now and were ignored then-- its a human always thing, not a modern thing per se. the essence/the message is not necessarily the shape of society, not now (contra huntington) and not then (contra this golden age stuff).

it reminds me of saying to a kippa-ed student: you wear a kippa, you have to be honest! and he said, with young wisdom: if only it were that simple. ie what you say about muhammad's message is true (says the faithful), but knowledge of the message does not translate to knowledge of society. the quran and the torah say to be honest; but muslims and jews lied then and they lie now. if we weren't such flawed human we wouldn't need god to send us callers.

i do agree with what you write about power and its uses today, in general.

Jabz said...

To Joseph,
it is undeniable that some sexual transmitted diseases are more prevalent in the gay societies. Earlier this year a new form of the flesh eating MRSA bacteria was found to be wide spread in the gay community in San Francisco compared to the rest of the population.

Secondly the reason why there are three "framework provided by Allah" is simply explained my muslims as a continuation of a message to the imperfect humans. Thus all the three religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam are a continuation of one another. In the bible it says John 16:7 "Nevertheless I tell You the truth; it is expedient for you that I shall go away: for if I go not the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart I will send him unto you."
From a muslim point of view we believe that the comforter here is the prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. All the prophets have fulfilled the prophecies that came before them.

and btw good stuff wassim, i just started reading your blog and its great.