Gay Muslim Scholar Shunned by the Faithful

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jan 4, 2010

In the Old Testament, Lot was visited by angels looking to see whether there weere any just men in the city of Sodom. When a gang of men appeared at Lot's door demanding that he turn his visitors over to them so that the mob could rape them, Lot offered the mob his own daughters instead; but the mob insisted that the visitors be handed over.

This is one of the Biblical passages that fundamentalists and anti-gay Christians point to when they condemn gay people for their sexuality. But the story appears in the Qur'an also, which is the holy book for Muslims. The Muslim prohibition against gay relationships is drawn from that scriptural episode--but now a gay Muslim scholar living in Canada says that the passage does not condemn gays at all. Rather, he argues, the Qur'an is condemning sexual assault; committed same-sex relationships based on love, and the people united in those relationships, should not be shunned by the faithful, but embraced as part of the community.

Dubai-born Canadian scholar Junaid Bin Jahangir, 31, is finding his new interpretation a hard sell, despite his years of careful research and study, reports an article from Canadian news agency Canwest in a Jan. 3 article.

Jahangir, a Ph.D. student in economics at the University of Alberta, has made understanding the Muslim injunction against gays--and correcting what he says is a misinterpretation of scripture--his vocation. His efforts are bearing fruit with his contribution to a new book, Islam and Homosexuality, a project edited by prominent Australian scholar Samar Habib that collects essays from contributors around the world.

Jahangir's thesis may be an enlightening one, the article notes, but the man himself feels a need to shun the limelight: much as their Christian counterparts, anti-gay Islamic clerics dismiss gays as sinners, and some call for their deaths. Jahangir will not permit his photograph to be published in the media for fear that he might be targeted for violent reprisal.

Even his fellow academics have shunned the scholar--and his thesis that not only are gay relationships permitted under his interpretation of scripture, but they should be accorded equal status with heterosexual families.

"The apathy is unbelievable," said Jahangir. "How many more marriages do we want to fail as we pretend this doesn't exist?"

The problems of gay married adults may be lamentable, but gay teens are even more at risk, he notes. "Gay youth are committing suicide. The 13- or 14-year-old girls, they are the ones who need this... what do they do [if they are gay]? Get married and follow through the motions? What joy do they have in their lives?" Adds Jahangir, "Let's at least talk about the issue because it affects us all."

After he wrote an op-ed for the university's student newspaper, the Muslim student association e-mailed its membership to tell them not to interact with Jahangir. "I'm a pariah," the scholar says, his own co-religionists having been told not to hear or consider his views. Jahangir no longer feels at home at a mosque; the article says he keeps clear of other Muslims.

It was only four years ago, at age 27, that Jahangir realized that he is gay. The truth hit him like a tidal wave, but Jahangir would not be so easily capsized: determined to understand the issue for himself, he devoted two years to feverish study, throwing himself into the Qur'an to determine the actual scriptural message about homosexuality, if any, and reading whatever he could in the way of learned commentary. His conclusion: since the scripture is actually talking about sexual assault, not loving relationships between individuals, and since the Muslim view is that the only forbidden things are those that are specifically identified in scripture, the widespread religious disapproval of gays is misplaced, and mistaken.

Jahangir's contribution to Habib's book examines the story of Lot (known as Lut in the Qur'an), determining that rape--not same-sex sexuality--is being condemned in the episode. "This is rape as a violent tool," says Jahangir. "That's how you humiliate your enemies."

The interpretation that gay sexuality is what's being condemned is not as clear-cut as other prohibitions, such as incest, which are unmistakably specified, Jahangir notes. "A story can be interpreted in so many different ways," he says. "Why does it have to be this?"

While violent sexual assault may be condemned in the pages of the Qu'ran, loving intimacy between men or women who form a family bond is a human need and should be honored as such. Notes Jahangir, "It's not about sex. It's about being alone in old age. It's about living the full civil life of responsibility."

Gay Muslims are beginning to reclaim some of the most inflammatory and anti-gay aspects of their religion--at least, as it is practiced by some--for themselves, though their work does entail some social, and even physical, peril. Filmmaker Parvez Sharma angered some Muslims with his documentary A Jihad for Love, in which he investigated the lives of gay Muslims who had fled countries where their sexuality could get them imprisoned, or worse. Just as controversial was his use of the word "jihad," often translated as "holy war" and taken to mean a religious war against non-Muslims, but which, in the context of the film, refers to an internal struggle.

Sharma told EDGE in an interview, "In the Qu'ran, and in the teachings of Mohammed himself, there is [reference] to the greater jihad; and the greater jihad is always struggle with the self, which is what is pointed out in the film. And I certainly am not the only Muslim, and [the fellow who speaks about his inner struggle] is certainly not the only subject in the film, engaging with that concept of the bigger jihad right now. What is happening for all of us, whether we live Muslim countries, or whether we live in America, is this critical choice that we need to make at this time, which is, 'Are we going to choose the language of violence and oppression that a small minority speaks for, or are we going to claim the concepts that are inherent in our religion which talk about compassion, which talk about love, which talk about understanding?' And this is extremely challenging; the people who are daring to speak out about this greater jihad are the ones who are going to take the discussion about Islam in a profoundly different direction."

The new push for openness and inquiry is not all about gays, but it does have a lot to do with sexuality and relationships of all sorts. In Dubai, marital counselor Wedad Lootah decided to speak out about what she had learned in the course of her work and studies, publishing a book about sexuality and relationships called Top Secret: Sexual Guidance for Married Couples, which some clerics viewed as blasphemous. The book does not look upon gays with a particularly kindly eye, but it is frank and forthright in its positive outlook on female sexuality, a New York Times article from last June 5 reports.

"People have said I was crazy, that I was straying from Islam, that I should be killed," Lootah told the New York Times. "Even my family ask why I must talk about this. I say: 'These problems happen every day and should not be ignored. This is the reality we are living.'"

Lootah's book also publicly pronounces something that is widely known, if not always discussed openly: that young Muslim men often have sex with one another, due to religious prohibitions on sex outside of marriage. "Many men who had anal sex with men before marriage want the same thing with their wives, because they don't know anything else," Lootah told the Times. "This is one reason we need sex education in our schools."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • Robguy, 2010-01-04 19:20:04

    I’m amazed they still use this as a morality story. Lot, the only *just* man in Sodom, not only offers his daughters to the crowd but proceeds to get drunk and have sex with each of them after the destruction. This is their example?

  • , 2010-01-05 07:58:15

    I don’t know the Qu’ran version, but the Genesis story quite clearly does not have anything to say about homosexuality. It’s about threatened rape, violence and the failure of hospitality to strangers. I have written about this, and about the other ways in which it is clear that the Bible says nothing at all against loving same sex relationships, at http://queeringthechurch. and also on "The Gospels’ Queer Values"

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