Moral Status of Homosexuality
Can one believe in
Islam and the validity of Quran as God's word, and at
the same time believe that homosexual conducts are
morally permissible? From pure rational/secular grounds,
one might be convinced of the fact (assuming it is a
fact) that homosexuality is morally permissible. But on
the other hand, this person, as a Muslim, encounters
with many Quranic verses that explicitly condemn
homosexuality as an abomination (al-faheshah).
Therefore, this seems to be a dilemma. This dilemma has
two dimensions: a rational dimension that has to do with
arguments for or against homosexuality, and a textual
dimension that has to do with different understandings
of Quran. This dilemma arises when one is rationally
convinced that there is no reason to condemn homosexual
conducts on one hand, and her commitment to God's words
as revealed in Quran on the other hand. More generally,
it is just another case of the old conflict between
reason and revelation.
In this article, I would discuss each horn of this
dilemma separately, and suggest some resolutions for the
dilemma. More precisely, my main goal is to show that it
is possible for a person to be a devoted Muslim, and at
the same time consistently believes that homosexuality
is morally permissible.
of immorality of homosexuality
Muslim scholars have not bothered to
argue against homosexuality in depth and details. They
assumed the wrongness of homosexuality as obvious. But there
are at least two places in the Islamic texts you may find
some critical remarks that can be formulated as a rational
argument against homosexuality: The first place is in Fiqh
(Islamic jurisprudence) in the context of verdicts about
lawat (sodomy), and the second place is in Tafssir
(commentary on Quran) in the context of lut's story. By far,
the most common argument against homosexuality among Muslim
scholars is a "naturalist argument" which is under influence
of Aristotle's ethics and metaphysics. We may formulate
their comments as the following argument:
(1) All homosexual
conducts are unnatural conducts.
(2) All unnatural conducts are morally wrong.
(3) All homosexual conducts are morally wrong.
And according to the dominant meta-ethical theory in
(4) All morally wrong conducts are conducts that are
condemned by God.
Therefore, one may say;
(5) All homosexual conducts are condemned by God.
In this argument,
premise (1) and (2) provide the rational foundation for
moral condemnation of homosexual behaviors. Premise (2) is a
general account for morally right and wrong actions, and it
is a version of Aristotelian naturalistic account of
morality. This theory was well known among Muslim
philosophers (especially Peripatetic philosophers) and
theologians. Premise (2) has nothing specific for or against
homosexuality. It functions against homosexuality only if we
combine it with (1). Therefore, as far as the issue of
homosexuality is concerned, it is premise (1) that plays the
central role for condemning homosexual conducts.
The role of premise (4) is to transfer a moral condemnation
into a divine condemnation. In other words, according to
this premise, homosexual conduct is not only a moral
wrongdoing but also a sin.
Here I will mainly focus on premises (1), and (4).
Many contend that same gender sex is "unnatural". But what
does it mean? Several possible meanings for “unnatural” in
this context are actually suggested by Muslim thinkers:
1. What is unusual or abnormal is
unnatural. In other words, what deviates from the
norm, that is, from what most people do is considered as
unnatural. However, the statistical frequency of an act does
not determine its moral status. For example, left hand
writing is not a norm. Does it mean writing by left hand is
2. What is not practiced by other animals
is unnatural. This definition goes back to Plato. According
to him, homosexuality is wrong because even animals do not
exhibit such behavior. However, this claim is not plausible,
First, it rests on
a false premise. Numerous studies have shown that some
animals do form homosexual pair-bond.
Second, Even if animals did not behave homosexually,
that fact would not prove that homosexuality is immoral.
After all, animals do not cook their food, brush their
teeth, participate in religious worship, or attend
college. Indeed, the idea that animals could provide us
with our moral standards is simply wrong.
3. What does not proceed from innate desire is unnatural.
However, some scientists propose that homosexual people are
born that way, and that it is therefore natural (and thus
morally good and right) for them to form homosexual
relationships. Some other scientists maintain that
homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, which is therefore
unnatural (and thus morally bad and wrong).
But both sides assume a connection between the origin of
homosexual orientation, on the one hand, and the moral
status of homosexual activity, on the other. Insofar as they
share that assumption, both sides are wrong. The first
pro-homosexual side claims: "They are born that way;
therefore it is natural and good." This inference assumes
that all innate desires are good ones (i.e., that they
should be acted upon.) But this assumption is clearly false.
Research suggests that some people are born with a
predisposition toward violence, but such people have no more
right to strangle their neighbors than anyone else. On the
other hand, from the fact that a kind of desire is not
innate, it does not follow that we ought not to act on it. I
probably do not have any innate tendency to write with my
left hand, but it does not follow that it would be immoral
for me to do so.
4. What violates an organ's principal
purpose is unnatural. Perhaps when people claim that
homosexual conduct is unnatural they mean that it cannot
result in procreation. The idea behind the argument is that
each of human organs has a principal purpose: eyes are for
seeing, ear for hearing, and genitals are for procreating.
According to this argument, it is immoral to use an organ in
a way that violates its principal purpose. This is the most
common suggestion among Muslim scholars concerning the
meaning of “natural” in this context.
However, there are some problems here:
First, many of our organs have multiple purposes. You can
use your mouth for talking, eating, breathing, licking
stamps, chewing gum, etc. Which one is the principal
purpose? Just because people can and do use their sexual
organs to procreate, it does not follow that they should not
use them for other purposes. Sexual organs seem very well
suited for expressing love, for giving and receiving
pleasure, and for celebrating, replenishing, and enhancing a
relationship- even when procreation is not a factor.
Second, are opponents of homosexuality prepared to condemn
heterosexual couples who use contraception? If the main
purpose of the sexual organs is nothing but procreation,
then it seems that all heterosexual conducts that are not
aimed at, or do not lead to, procreation must be condemned.
Does it mean sterile couples should not have sex? How about
sex during pregnancy? None of these sexual conducts can lead
to procreation. It seems that intimacy and pleasure are
morally legitimate purposes for sex, even in cases where
procreation is impossible. But since homosexual sex can
achieve these purposes as well, it cannot be condemned on
the grounds that it is not procreative.
5. What is disgusting or offensive is
unnatural. It often seems that when people call
homosexuality "unnatural" they really just mean that it is
disgusting. But plenty of morally neutral activities disgust
some people, activities such as handling snakes, eating
snail, performing autopsies, cleaning toilets, and so on.
Indeed, for centuries, most people found interracial
relationships disgusting, yet that feeling hardly proves
that such relationships are wrong.
How about the premise
First, we need to understand this premise. This premise
expresses a certain connection between morality and
religion. How should we interpret it? In fact, the relation
between morality and religion has been a matter of great
controversy in the history of Islamic thought. In general,
there are two major theological schools in the history of
Islamic thought: Mu'tazila, and Ash'aryya. These two schools
vastly disagreed on many issues including the relation
between goodness/badness of actions on one hand, and God'
will or commands on the other hand.
Mu'tazilites held that good and evil are objective and that
the moral values of actions are intrinsic to them and can be
discerned by human reason. Hence, God's justice obliged Him
to act in accordance with the moral law. For instance, he is
thus bound to stand by his promise to reward the righteous
with paradise, and his threat to punish the wicked with
hellfire. Many of Mu'tazilites held that the principle of
justice made it always requisite for God to do for people
what was to their greatest advantage. (Of course, some
others believe that this is not a requirement of justice but
"the principle of grace" (Qaede Lotf).)
But for Ash'ari, divine justice is a matter of faith. We
know the difference between good and evil solely because of
God's revelation, and not by the exercise of our own reason.
God makes the rules, and whatever he decrees is just, yet
God himself is under no obligation; if He wished, he could
punish the righteous and admit the wicked to paradise.
The disagreement between Mu'tazila and Ash'aryya can be
summarized in the following statement:
According to Mut'zilia, God commands/prohibits X because X
is right/wrong; and according to Ash'aryya X is right/wrong
because X is commanded/prohibited by God.
Now suppose one is convinced that the rational/secular
arguments fail to prove that homosexuality is wrong, and
also she is committed to Ash'aryya's view on the relation
between morality and God's will. In such a case, this person
can simply claim that this fact (assuming it is a fact)
shows nothing but the defect of secular ethics. This
failure, from her perspective, only proves that we need God
for morality. As soon as one adopts Ash'aryya's view, reason
loses its normative authority to a large extent. In other
words, the believers who adopt such position will not
consider the results of rational inquiries seriously.
To my knowledge, Ash'aryya, by far has been the dominant
view among Muslims, whether scholars or laymen.
However, Ash'aryya's view leads to trouble, for it presents
God's commands as arbitrary. It means God could have given
different commands just as easily. He could have commanded
us to be liars, and then lying, and not truthfulness, would
become right. According to this view, honesty, for example,
was not right before God commanded it. Therefore, he could
have had no more reason to command it than its opposite; and
so, from the rational point of view, his command is
perfectly arbitrary. Moreover, on this view, the doctrine of
the goodness of God and his justice are reduced to nonsense.
If we accept the idea that good and bad or justice and
injustice are defined by reference to God's will, then these
notions are deprived of any meaning. If "X is good" means "X
is commanded by God", then "God's commands are good" would
mean only "God's commands are commanded by God," an empty
In this discussion, I will adopt a rationalism of the
Mut'zilia's kind, according to which God's commands are
limited to the limitations of logic and ethics, and moral
rightness and wrongness, in principle, are discernable by
human reason. In other words, if we are convinced of the
fact that there is no good reason to condemn certain
conduct, then we must be prepared to understand God's words
in accordance with that moral fact (assuming it is a fact.)
So far as the "naturalistic argument" is concerned, Muslim
can condemn homosexual conducts as morally wrong if they
provide a rationally satisfactory account for the claim that
homosexual conducts are unnatural (in a morally relevant
However, if one is convinced that this requirement is not
(and probably cannot be) satisfied, then she is justified to
claim that there is no adequate moral ground to condemn
homosexuality. Moreover, if she believes that Mota'zilia's
view is rationally preferable to Ash'aryya's, then she has a
reason to take the results of the rational inquiries into
account when she attempts to understand the holy text.
Textual dimension of
immorality of homosexuality
Now suppose someone is
convinced that there is no moral reason to condemn
homosexuality. Could this person remain a Muslim? There are
verses in Quran that seem to be explicitly against
homosexual conducts. Almost all the Quranic verses against
homosexuality were revealed in the context of the story of
Lut. Here are some examples:
The story begins
when some angles visited Abraham. Abraham, for some
reason, felt fear.
"They said: fear not: we have been sent against the
people of Lut." (Hud,70)
This news worried Abraham, so he decided to argue with
God, and try to convince Him to forgive the people of
Lut. According to Quran:
"He began to plead with us for Lut's people." (Hud, 74)
Quran does not mention the details of this conversation
(the Old Testament has more details on this matter).
Finally, God could not convince Abraham, and declared:
“O Abraham! Seek not this. The decree of your Lord has
gone forth; for them there comes a penalty that cannot
be turned back” (Hud, 76)
And gently mentioned:
“For Abraham was, without doubt, forbearing (of faults),
compassionate, and given to look to Allah” (Hud, 75).
The angels came to Lut. But something horrible happened:
“Lut's people came rushing towards him, and they had
been long in the habit of practicing abominations. He
said: "O my people! Here are my daughters: they are
purer for you! Now fear Allah, and cover me not with
shame about my guests! Is there not among you a single
They said: "well you know we have no need of your
daughters: indeed you know quite well what we want."
He said: "would that I had power to suppress you or that
I could betake myself to some powerful support”” (Hud,
In these verses, there is no explicit mention to
homosexual behavior, but in some other verses, there are
some explicit hints:
“(We also sent) Lut (as an apostle): behold, he said to
his people, "Do you do what is shameful though you see
(its iniquity)? Would you really approach men in your
lust rather than women? Nay, you are a people (grossly)
ignorant!” (Naml, 54,55)
And similar to the above verses:
“We also (sent) Lut: he said to his people: "Do you
commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever)
committed before you? For you practice your lusts on men
in preference to women: you are indeed a people
transgressing beyond bounds” (A'raf, 80, 81).
These verses almost
all we have in Quran against homosexual conducts. Now the
dilemma is clear: For a rational believer, the following two
claims do not seem to be compatible:
(a) It seems that
the revelation (Quran) claims that homosexual conducts
are condemned by God, and to commit homosexuality is a
capital crime, it is an abomination. Moreover, (b) it
seems that reason claims that homosexuality is morally
As I said before, for
the person who adopts Ash'aryya's view, the answer to this
dilemma is clear and easy: accept (a) and reject (b). But a
Muslim rationalist (i.e., the one who adopts Motazila's
view) cannot take such an easy road. What can she do?
So far as I can see, a
Muslim rationalist has at least three options available:
reinterpretation, i.e., try to provide an understanding
of the text which is compatible with the requirements of
independent reason based on linguistic considerations
inside the text.
(2) External reinterpretation, i.e., try to understand
the text in the light of the historical context.
(3) Radical reinterpretation, i.e., try to understand
the text in the light of historicity of the text itself.
In other words, accepting the literal meaning of the
verses, but denying their essentiality to the heart of
the Quranic message.
I will explain each
Internal reinterpretation: In many cases, "words" or
"phrases" have more than one legitimate meaning. However,
for one or other reason, some of those meanings become
dominant. But sometimes when the commentator is convinced of
some religiously external facts that do not seem to be
compatible with the apparent meaning of the verses, she
might reconsider the domain of the legitimate meanings of
the words or phrases, and try to suggest a new meaning for
the "problematic" verses.
Here I am not to suggest any new linguistic interpretation
of the above-mentioned verses of Quran. However, I like to
highlight some clues, if taken seriously, might lead to a
new understanding of those verses:
(a) The so-called homosexuality of Lut's people, according
to Quran, was not the only reason they got punished by God.
Quran is explicit about this: "Do you [i.e., the people of
Lut] indeed approach men, and cut off the highway? - and
practice wickedness in your councils?" (Ankabut, 29). As you
can see, according to Quran, Lut's people were highway
robbers, and they were committed some other public crimes as
(b) There is nothing whatsoever about homosexual
relationship among women in Quran. (There is only one vague
hint about Lut's wife who got punished along with other
people of Lut, but it is not clear at all that her
punishment had anything to do with her being a lesbian). If
sexual contact between two persons of the same sex is
impermissible only because it is a sex between two people of
the same sex, then sexual contact between two women must be
as bad as sexual contact between two men. Nevertheless, in
Quran there is an explicit asymmetry here. What does it
mean? One might suggest that homosexuality among men is
condemned not because it is a sexual contact between two
people of the same sex, but because there is something
special about male homosexuality that makes it condemnable.
But what is that "thing" that makes male homosexuality
wrong, but female homosexuality, at least ignorable? I
believe whatever it is, it has something to do with the
inferior status of women in the ancient time.
(c) Lut and Abraham were relatives, and Abraham knew all
about the people of Lut. But when Abraham was informed of
God's decision to punish them, he stood up for those people,
and argued with God to save them from the punishment. It is
important to notice that God could not convince Abraham of
His decision, but He treated Abraham very gently and kindly.
God admired Abraham for his good heart, and never took his
defense of those people as something shameful or stigmatic.
External reinterpretation: We must never forget that
"meaning" is "context- sensetive". In other words, the same
word might have different meanings in different historical
contexts. One important way for believers to maintain the
inerrancy of Quran is that they learn to interpret Quranic
verses in their historical context. Commentators always have
been cautious about what they've called Shaan nozol al-ayat
(i.e., the historical conditions under which Quranic verses
were revealed). If one takes the historical context of
Quranic verses seriously, then she might conclude that the
sense of "homosexuality" which is condemned in Quran might
not be the same as what we are talking about nowadays, and
is sometimes assumed to be morally permissible. There are
some hints that suggest this possibility:
(1) According to Quran, Lut seemed to believe his people's
homosexuality was a matter of choice. When he offered his
own daughters to the people, he must have assumed that if
they wanted, they could prefer women to men. In other words,
he was condemning a behavior that, in his view, was freely
chosen. But do people really "choose" to be homosexual?
"Homosexuality", as understood today, is not the matter of
choice. People are born that way. If so, then can one claim
that the kind of behavior Lut was condemning was different
from the kind of homosexual conduct has been morally
defended in our time?
(2) In fact, Quran dose not specify precisely what kind of
homosexual conduct was condemned. As far as I know, no
moralist today claims that all kinds of sexual conduct that
involve homosexual behaviors are morally permissible. On the
contrary, there is a consensus among moralists today that
some cases of sexual conducts that involve homosexual
behaviors are morally wrong. By far, the most common
instance of homosexual conduct in eastern culture was sexual
contact between an older man and a younger boy (the same is
true of ancient Greek culture as well). In Sufism what was
called Sohbat al-ahdath , in most cases, was nothing but
making love with little boys. Sexual contact with minors is
morally condemnable by any moral standards. As I said, all
Quranic verses against homosexuality were revealed in the
context of Lut's story, and virtually all scholars of Old
Testament agree that homosexual relations during the
Biblical time were vastly different from homosexual
relationships in our time. Often such relationships were
integral to pagan practices. Therefore, it is possible to
think that the kind of homosexual conduct that is condemned
by Quran and Bible are different from the notion of
homosexuality we have in mind today. As I mentioned, Quran
is not explicit about the kind of homosexual behavior it
condemns. Presumably, it was assumed that people at the time
had clear notion of it. There is only one place that we have
more details about the kind of homosexual behavior was
condemned by Quran: It is when the people of Lut came
rushing towards him to force his young good looking guests
to have sex with them. This aggressive violent behavior more
than anything else is the clear case of attempt to rape! And
it is condemnable by any moral standards.
The rationale behind historical investigation is the
following moral principle:
"What was true of one time is not necessarily true of some
Muslim scholars very well know this principle. Consider the
case of usury, the lending of money for interest. The Quran
condemns this practice in no uncertain terms. Should
believers therefore close their saving accounts? Not
necessarily. According to some interpretations, the Quranic
prohibition against usury no longer applies. The reason is
that economic conditions have changed substantially since
the Prophet time, such that usury no longer has the same
negative consequences it had when the prohibitions were
Consider another example. In Quran there are verses that
allow Muslim to have slaves, and there are many rules how to
treat them (Muhammad, 4; Ahzab, 52; Nisa, 25, etc). To my
knowledge, there are very few Muslim scholars, if any, who
still believe that the institution of slavery is legitimate,
and some people should be slaved, or we are allowed to have
slave. Some Muslim scholars claim that slavery was imposed
upon Islam. In other words, it was a part of people’s form
of life at the time, and it was not possible to overturn it
immediately. Therefore, Islam had to accept it as a fact,
and try to modify it in favor of the slaves. As with usury,
slavery, and the like, substantial changes in cultural
context have altered the meaning and consequences- and thus
the moral status of the practices in question. Therefore,
using Quranic condemnations of homosexuality against
contemporary homosexuality might be like using its
condemnations of usury against contemporary banking.
Of course, proponents of external reinterpretation are not
claiming that Quran has been wrong before and therefore may
be wrong this time. They all assume the infallibility of
Quran. Rather, they claim that when we do apply Quran, we
must pay attention to morally relevant cultural differences
between the time of the Prophet and today. Such attention
will help us distinguishing between specific time bound
prohibitions (for example, laws against usury or homosexual
relations), and the enduring moral values they represent
(for example, generosity or respect for persons). If we deny
this crucial point, then we are committed ourselves to some
rather strange views on slavery, usury, women's roles,
astronomy, evolution, and the like.
Radical reinterpretation: According to this approach,
homosexuality is indeed condemned in Quran, but this
condemnation is not essential to the heart of the Quranic
message. This condemnation reflects the culture and common
belief of the people at the time of revelation. Quran
consists of two layers: one is shell, and the other is the
heart or the core of the message. The shell reflects the
socio-historical aspects of the revelation, and the core is
what God essentially intended to convey to human beings.
Then what is the function of the shell if it is not
essential to the heart of the message?
To answer this question, we should keep in mind that wahy
(the Arabic term for revelation of Quran to the Prophet)
literally means conveying a message in a hidden way, like
whispering. So Quran is considered as a message from God to
human beings. But in order to communicate a message at least
two conditions must be satisfied:
First, the sender must employ a system of symbols, which is
common between him and the receiver. For example, if I
expect you to understand me, I have to speak in English. In
other words, I have to employ English language as the media
to convey my thoughts to you.
Second, sharing the same language is not sufficient to
communicate with others. In addition to that, we must share
the same background knowledge, same cultural context, or as
some philosophers say "same horizon of meaning".
To explain this point, suppose I tell you the following
(1) "To carry caraway to Kerman."
What does it mean? You might not know the meaning of the
word "Kerman". "Kerman" is the name of a city in south of
Iran. Now you know the meaning of every single word in that
sentence. Nevertheless, most likely you still do not know
what it means. In order to understand the meaning of this
sentence, we need to know more than English. Now I may
culturally translate that sentence into American English as
(2) "To sell refrigerators to Eskimos."
Sentence (1) and (2) mean the same: "to supply something
which is unnecessary." Both sentences are in English, but
the reason you understood the second sentence but not the
first one, is simple: You and sentence (2) share the same
horizon of meaning. In other words, you know the cultural
background behind (2) but not (1).
I think this simple example can illustrate two important
rules of hermeneutics.
Firs rule: As I said before, communication is not possible
unless the speaker employs a horizon of meaning which the
other side of the communication knows as well.
Second rule: There is a meaningful distinction between the
shell and the heart of a message. Sentences (1) and (2)
convey the same thought, but in two different forms; same
soul, but different bodies. The forms are accidental to the
message, but the thought is essential.
The same is true of Quran as well. Quran explicitly says:
"We sent not an apostle except (to teach) in the language of
his (own) people, in order to make (things) clear to them" (Ibrahim,
4), and: "We have made it a Quran in Arabic, that you may be
able to understand (and learn wisdom)" (Zukhruf, 3).
However, as I said, here language means more than a certain
system of codes and symbols; it also includes the culture
and the background knowledge of the people at the time,
otherwise those people could not have understood the message
at all. Prophet Muhammad said, “Talk to people in proportion
to their reasons." It means if you want to communicate with
a group of people you have to respect their intellectual
ability, their background knowledge, cultural capacities and
Therefore, it is safe to say that to convey His message to
the people, God employed Arabic language, and in addition to
that, the culture of the people at the time. From the
perspective of a believer, the heart of the Quranic message
is timeless, it is for all people, and all times; but the
shell of the message, i.e., the reflection of Arab's culture
at the time of revelation is accidental, and limited to that
time. The shell was a necessary condition to communicate to
the people at that time, but it was not essential to the
heart of the message. It means Quran consists of two worlds:
first world is the holy world of the timeless truths, and
second world is the historical world of the people at the
time of revelation. Being Muslim requires submission to the
first world, but not the second world.
Now one might claim that many controversial passages in the
Quran belong to the second world of the text, for example,
controversial verses about women's status, slavery,
Ptolemaic cosmology, and the like. If reason can establish
the permissibility of homosexual conducts, then one can
claim that the relevant verses of Quran are parts of the
second world, i.e., they represent the common opinion of the
people at the time, and so they are not essential to the
heart of the message. Moreover, since being Muslim,
according to this view, is nothing but submitting to the
heart of the message, one can consistently believe in God's
words and the permissibility of homosexuality at the same
Finally, "Is it possible to be a Muslim and at the same time
consistently believe that homosexuality is morally
permissible?" I believe the answer is yes. To my
understanding, the Quranic verses concerning homosexuality
are open to new interpretations. Even if for any reason, one
does not find the new upcoming interpretations convincing,
another option is still available: she might claim that
those verses belong to the shell of the text, i.e., they are
not essential to the heart of the Quranic message, and being
Muslim requires one's commitment only to the heart of the
message, and not to the accidental elements of the holy
Arash Naraghi, Ph. D.
California State University, San Bernardino
1. This article was presented at University of
California, Los Angeles (the department of Near Eastern
Studies) on December 7th, 2oo5.