Neither the Bible nor the Qur’an (Koran) has a lot to say about homosexuality, and what they do say relates only indirectly to contemporary discussions about gay rights and same-sex marriage. Like pre-modern scholars of law and ethics, these books assume heteronormativity.
As a concept, homosexuality is relatively recent, even if there is plenty of evidence for homoerotic pleasure in the past – albeit illicit in religious terms.
Scriptures and later writers usually referred only to particular sexual acts and did not raise the issue of personal sexual orientation. For religious conservatives, though, both Muslim and Christian, the occasional derogatory reference to same-sex acts is enough to prove their inherent sinfulness in all circumstances.
More liberal interpreters point to broader ethical considerations such as compassion and empathy. They argue that the condemnations of scripture do not apply to committed relationships founded on love.
Such a perspective, however, is inevitably more common among believers concerned with human rights, influenced by gender theory, and trained in contextual and holistic methods of interpretation.
Homosexuality in the Bible
Leviticus 20:13 (cf. 18:22) declares it abominable for a man to lie with another man as with a woman, and both partners are to be executed. The possibility that one party has been coerced is not discussed: both are defiled. However, the offence seems to be no worse than other capital crimes mentioned in the same context, such as adultery and incest.
Paul evidently regarded the prohibition of sexual acts between men or between women as violations of natural law known even to non-Jews – at least if their minds were not clouded by idolatry (Romans 1:18–32; 2:14–16).
He seems to have reflected contemporary views that men should be sexually assertive and women passive, and that sexual activity must be at least potentially procreative.
Sodom and sodomy
For Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, the story of Sodom is central to the traditional condemnation of male homosexuality. As recounted in Genesis 19, however, this is not a story about love or consensual sex between men: it is about rape and inhospitality.
The mob that gathers outside Lot’s house need not be exclusively male (the Hebrew plural anashim can include both genders), and the text says all ages were represented (Genesis 19:4, 11). When the crowd demands Lot’s visitors, he offers his two virgin daughters in their stead. Perhaps he considers the rape of his daughters a lesser evil than the rape of his guests.
The fact that the guests are male is not emphasised. After the visitors (angels in human form) rescue Lot and his family, God rains down fire and brimstone upon Sodom, Gomorrah, and other cities nearby.
Actually, he had already determined to punish all these towns and their inhabitants, male and female, young and old, before the angels’ visit and the attempted homosexual rape (Genesis 18:16–33). When the wickedness of Sodom is recalled in other parts of the Bible, homosexuality is not mentioned. Yet, despite this broader context, the story was often interpreted primarily as a condemnation of homosexual activity in any form.
In the Qur’an, the somewhat ineffectual Lot of Genesis becomes the Prophet Lut. The Arabic term for homosexual anal intercourse, liwat, comes from his name rather as English derived the term sodomy from the name of the town.
As in Genesis, Lut seems to argue with the men of Sodom over the relative propriety of abusing his daughters or his guests (11:78–79; 15:67–69). More often, though, the emphasis is on his condemnation of lusting after men instead of women (7:80–81; 26:165–66; 27:55; 29:29). In the Qur'an, Lut says:
Indeed, you approach men with desire, instead of women. Rather, you are a transgressing people.
Traditional Islamic perspectives
In the Hadith (thousands of stories reporting the words and deeds of Muhammad and his companions that are comparable in authority to the Qurʾan itself), there is some support for the notion that the principal offences of Sodom were idolatry and avarice. These led in turn to inhospitality and the rape of male visitors.
Nevertheless, the Hadith do unequivocally condemn male homosexual acts. The Qur’an (4:16) demands unspecified punishment for men guilty of lewdness together unless they repent.
Yet, the Prophet is supposed to have declared that both the active and the passive partner should be subject to the same penalty as for zina (illicit heterosexual sex, usually adultery), namely execution by stoning. Abu Dawud’s authoritative hadith collection records a report from Abdullah ibn Abbas:
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: If you find anyone doing as Lot’s people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done (38:4447).
It is doubtful whether any passage of the Qur’an refers to lesbian acts though the condemnation of women who commit indecency (4:15) is sometimes read this way. A few hadith warn women against seeing or touching each other when naked.
Traditional Islamic jurisprudence assumed strict gender roles. The 17th-century Muslim scholar Haskafi explicitly included “a male” in his list of those whom a man could not legally marry.
Marriage was understood in hierarchical terms, but although a man could have sexual relations with female slaves, he did not have the same rights over male slaves.
Pre-modern scholars who produced lists of “enormities” included liwat and sometimes tribadism (“rubbing”, that is, lesbian intercourse) after zina. Prescribed penalties for homosexual acts varied according to different schools and individual scholars. In any case, it was difficult to attain the required level of eye-witness testimony.
In practice, homosexual encounters, including with young male prostitutes, seem to have been quite common in Islamic societies. They were no more or less a cause for moralistic concern than other forms of illicit sex.
Reinterpreting the Islamic tradition
Without actually endorsing homosexuality, some Muslims in Western societies have recognised a parallel between the religious acceptance they demand and the acceptance demanded by gays and lesbians.
The New Zealand Muslim MP Ashraf Choudary (who did not realise that the Qur'an does not urge the stoning of homosexuals) observed that,
if the law allows one minority group in our society to be discriminated against then all minorities are vulnerable.
Some, such as Cambridge philosopher Abdal Hakim Murad (Timothy Winter), have accepted that a homosexual orientation may be innate but say that does not make homosexual sex permissible.
Deducing that it may therefore be legitimate remains a step too far for most.
Traditionally, if sins can be forgiven when repented, declaring forbidden acts not to be sinful has been regarded as heresy or even apostasy. Commentators such as Mehdi Hasan, after wrestling thoughtfully with the issues, have concluded that while they do not approve of homosexual acts, they cannot condone homophobia.
A similar message was offered by Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford, when he visited New Zealand: Muslims and others have to respect each other, which includes accepting that the law permits gay marriage.
For Muslims generally, as for conservative Christians, homosexual acts are sinful. It is difficult to be openly gay or lesbian in predominantly Islamic countries, but in the West, there are even (a few) gay imams.
There are also support groups for gay and lesbian Muslims. Writers such as Scott Kugle (Siraj al-Haqq) try to reconcile Islamic identity with alternative sexual orientations. Like their Jewish and Christian counterparts, they seek the “original” meaning of scriptural texts obscured by generations of patriarchal, heteronormative interpreters.
They also question the authenticity of certain hadith – in the traditional manner by scrutinising their chains of transmission – and reopen past debates such as that concerning “temporary” marriage. The latter need not be short-term and may offer an alternative framework for co-habitation without formal marriage.
Christian gays and lesbians have had to work hard for a measure of recognition among fellow-believers; their Muslim counterparts are just beginning that struggle.
Acknowledgement: The most useful source for this essay has been Kecia Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith and Jurisprudence (Oneworld Publications, new edition, 2016).