Respecting the Station of One’s Lord – Between Proclivity and Acts – Engaging the Gay Community as Believing Muslims

There are few topics in the American context that are as controversial in modern times as homosexuality.  This is certain just as true for Muslims today as it is for Christians, though sadly to date, Muslims in America have not taken the time to develop their own arguments and positions on homosexuality settling instead for being subsumed under the vocal, if not dominant, discourse of the Christian Right.  It is my recommendation that Muslims make their positions understood, not in an attempt to thwart Divine Law concerning this subject as we shall see, but to promote a dialog that allows for political and social discourse without abandoning moral principles and obligations to Islam.

My reason for writing this is two fold. One, I was asked by a Muslim student to articulate Islam’s stance on homosexuality such that she could readily present it to her audience in clear yet unflinching terms. The second was a meeting I recently attended in Philadelphia in which a group of Imams sat to discuss issues facing the community. Sadly, nearly the whole discussion was wasted on a diatribe about homosexuals. When I asked the group of men if they had any doubts concerning the illegitimacy of homosexual acts they replied they had none. I pressed them, asking if there was a major issue with homosexuals coming to their mosques and demanding acceptance on the grounds of unrepentant homosexuals, again they replied in the negative. Instead, in my opinion, it amounted to nothing other than a chest thumping session where they could feel good about themselves, reveling in anti-homosexual stances, instead of actually engaging in useful discourse about trying to solve critical issues facing the Philadelphia Muslim community (issues such as AIDS, domestic abuse, criminal activity, lack of support for new Muslims, etc.).

Let me begin by dispensing with intellectual formalities and niceties such that my position on what is commonly referred to as homosexuality is clearly understood: Those who commit homosexual acts are committing heinous and abominable crimes before God.  This is the mashûr (standard) opinion in Islam regarding sexual acts between those of the same sex.  For brevity sake I will not delve into the hierarchy some scholars have placed on man-to-man sexual relations versus woman-to-woman. I am speaking on the entirety of that which is referred to as homosexuality.  One such example of this is clearly and explicitly outlined in the Qur’an in chapter 7, verses 80-84:

Wa Lûtan idh qâla liqawmihi a ta’tûna’l fâhishta mâ sabaqakum bihâ min ahadin min’l ‘âlamîn. – And Lot, when he said to his people, ‘Do you commit an obscenity not perpetrated before you by anyone in all the worlds?’ … Innakum lata’tûna’l rijâla shahwatan min dûni’l nisâ’, bal antum qawmun musrifûn. – ‘You come with lust to men instead of women. You are indeed a depraved people.’ … Wa amtarnâ ‘alayhim matra(n) – fa’ndhur kayfa kâna ‘âqibatu’l mujrimîn. – And so We rained down a mighty rain upon them. See the final fate of the evildoers!’”

The verse above is just one such example in which Islamic sources not only explicitly label homosexual acts forbidden (this worthy of Divine Punishment) but they are elevated above other crimes or sins “not perpetrated before … by anyone in all the worlds”.  Clearly, such acts are not only harâm (impermissible and punishable in the Here-After) but are of a degree above other sins such as consuming alcohol or gambling.

My point here is again not to waste time reasserting a standardly-held opinion in all orthodox schools but rather to find ways for the Muslim community to one, establish its stance on homosexual acts (and not on homosexu-ality as I will explain here) as Muslims and not simply letting the Christian (or any other group for that matter) Right speak for us and two, find a way, despite the grave nature of the sin, to at least establish a dialog with the gay community in a way in which traditional and conservative (of which I consider myself to be among) religious groups, in America or elsewhere, have been unable to do.

As it relates to the general body of sins, regardless of hierarchy, Islam maintains a division between what one inclines to do and what one actually acts on.  In other words the sin is not the inclining towards committing the sin but in the act of committing it.  In fact, Islam places a great deal of devotional importance on resisting one’s desires (at least those that contradict Divine Law), promising a great reward for doing so:

Wa ‘ammâ man khâfa maqâma rabbihi wa nahâ’n nafsa ‘ani’l hawâ fa ‘inna’l jannata hiya’l ma’wâ. – But as for him who fears the Station of his Lord and forbade the lower self its appetites, the Garden will be his refuge.” Qur’an, 79: 40-41.

Additionally, God urges those of conscious in the Qur’an to turn to their Lord after committing heinous or devious acts:

Wa’lladhîna idhâ fa’alû fâhishatan aw dhalamû anfusahum dhakarû’Allaha fa’staghfirû lidhunûbihim wa man yaghfiru’l dhunûba illa’Allah wa lam yusirru ‘alâ mâ fa’alû wa hum ya’lamûn. – Those who, when they act indecently or wrong themselves, remember God and ask forgiveness for their sins—and who can forgive sins except God? And they do not knowingly persist in what they were doing.” Qur’an, 3: 135.

An important distinction needs to be made here in order to fully understand the arguments presented.  Islam does not condone identity by proxy of proclivity.  In other words, Islam does not recognize one’s lifestyle simply because of one’s likes or dislikes, regardless of whether those proclivities are by nature or nurture.  One of the arguments the gay community often uses to substantiate their right to commit homosexual acts is that they were “born that way.”  Islam does not single out homosexuals in this case: I would have no more right to have a beer, gamble or fornicate with any number of women, simply because I like beer, am an alcoholic, like to gamble or having a gambling addiction, like women or because I was born a so-called heterosexual.  What takes primacy in these scenarios is not individual proclivity but respecting the station of one’s Lord (maqâm).  And while this would appear to many go against popularly held conceptions of freedom and individualism, this in fact is the dominant opinion Islam takes on human (read individual) rights.

Beyond all this lays an opportunity for (American) Muslims to engage a community that might otherwise be branded as off limits and irredeemable.  The question for me now is not if but how and to what extent the Muslim community is willing to engage and make space for, as Dr. Sherman Jackson has said, gays and lesbians.  True, this endeavor will require a tremendous amount of courage and intellectual capital on the part of Muslims.  Some have argued against any such engagement whatsoever on the basis of Sadd al-Dharâ’i’ or Limiting Harm.  Certainly this is a valid point, as Islam sees homosexual acts committed with impunity an individual and social harm.  However, others have argued that given the political and social climate in America, the one group that might be inclined to uphold the rights of Muslims to practice their religion would be none other than the gay and lesbian community.  The decision will no doubt be long and hard.

In the end, I find the choice to engage the gay community on those grounds which Islam permits (i.e., committing homosexual acts is a major sin) while still offering the possibility of salvation by encouraging the rejection of such heinous inclinations, is one in which preserves the dignity of all parties involved: it seeks to not reduce gays to people who only commit homosexual acts (and do not have other aspects to their humanity) and it allows Muslims a productive avenue of “Enjoining the Good and Forbidding the Evil” (al-Amru bi’l Ma’rufi wa’n Nihayatu ‘ani’l Munkar), an obligation all Muslims are called upon to do.

Philadelphia Muslims – Where Are You?

Being a Michigan native, I still look at Philadelphia with an outsider’s eye, even after five years of living here. The impact upon me of how many Muslims there are here in this city still rings with a newness for me. Last weekend, I happened to meet a young man from Baltimore who was up visiting the University of Pennsylvania in hopes of attending a graduate program there. We spent part of the afternoon together and he continually remarked about how many Muslims there are in Philadelphia. From your bus driver to a world-class surgeon and everything in between, Muslims are quasi-ubiquitous in Philadelphia; they are just everywhere. Everywhere that is, unless you’re looking for civic engagement.

I have been on the Mayor’s inter-faith counsel for the past five years and I have seen Muslims present from time to time but what continues to disappoint me is the lack of structure and organizations that Muslims in Philadelphia have. Most masājid are run down and broke, to be frank. Their operating budgets [if they even seem to have something so official] are minuscule; ramshackle buildings in blighted areas are not out of norm. I write these observations not out of a sense of malice: I often deliver khutbahs in these places and I love my brothers and sisters dearly. But I cannot ignore a glaring problem when I see it. I ask myself: “Why are Philadelphia Muslims so content with their predicament?” Poverty; violence [we lost another young Muslim to violence just this week: an 18-year-old girl]; educational and economic disparity. Why are these dear brothers and sisters not using their Islam as a means of uplift instead as a blunt instrument of complacency? I can’t tell you how many places I have visited and communities I’ve spoken with, brothers I’ve talked to, all whom bellyache, bemoan, and impute the “kafir system”, yet do little to nothing to affect positive changes in their own neighborhoods. Has Islam in Philadelphia simply become a cultural practice [and here I am specifically addressing the Blackamerican community]? Is this not the same crticism we level at so-called immigrant Muslims, who no longer “practice” but still have some feeble notion of Muslim-ness?

This past weekend played host to the Islamic Heritage Festival. My wife and I had a nice time hanging out in the sun, talking to friends we hadn’t seen in a while. Even the music was entertaining, if not somewhat questionable [Miss Undastood singing, “Muhammad Akbar Ali, here’s the number to my wali“]. But what was most noticeably missing to me was the lack of heritage. Philadelphia is ripe with Muslims history, from brother Malcolm to the Ahmad and Muhaimin families, just to name a few. There seemed to be very little to no heritage and more just a gathering. I recognize the importance of social gatherings but how could one of the most important cities in American in terms of Muslim history, have a heritage festival without any heritage? For me, this is indicative of the issue in Philadelphia: there are so many Muslims that Islam is taken for granted.

In a recent e-mail from Mayor Nutter’s office, I received this e-mail:

On behalf of Mayor Michael A. Nutter and the Executive Committee and Steering Committee of NewCORE, we are pleased to invite you to NewCORE’s upcoming dialogue: Moving Toward A More Perfect Union … Two years ago, at the National Constitution Center, Barack Obama gave a famous speech in which he challenged Americans to help form “A More Perfect Union” … Locally, an interfaith group called the New Conversation on Race and Ethnicity (NewCORE), has accepted the President’s challenge, to spur the Philadelphia community to be a leader in this effort … In February 2009 NewCORE convened its first large-scale public dialogue, attended by 100+ faith and civic inspired people, at Philadelphia’s City Hal l… NewCORE is comprised of many individuals and faith organizations, but key support comes from: Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University; the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives; the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia; WHYY, Inc., and; the University of Pennsylvania, Project for Civic Engagement.

The part that grabbed my attention above was not so much the NewCORE organization but the lack of any definitive Muslim presence in the line:  Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University; the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives; the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia; WHYY, Inc., and; the University of Pennsylvania, Project for Civic Engagement. In a city this size, with a Muslim population this big, how is it there is not one Muslim organization involved?  There are so many opportunities for Muslims to engage the broader public here in Philadelphia in contrast to almost any other city I’ve lived in or visited in the states. Non-Muslims here are either familiar with or accustomed to—if not sympathetic towards—Muslims. These advantages should be capitalized upon. If Islam in Philadelphia is going to have any hopes of succeeding in giving birth to a new generation of Muslims that are going to live for and die for Islam, then a much more aggressive approach is going to be needed. The consequences of not doing so are already present amongst us here. I pray that Allah gives us the fortitude, intestinal and spiritual, to do what is incumbent upon us.