Australia's gay Muslims face a double bind



Nur Warsame is Australia's first openly gay imam, one of just a few worldwide. He has made news in recent weeks, telling his story and advocating for LGBTI Muslims. He hopes to open a gay-friendly mosque, quite a feat, in a country where mosque applications often face fierce resistance from non-Muslim locals.

Nur WarsameThat is the double bind for gay Muslims, who are mostly rejected by the Muslim community for being gay and stigmatised by the wider community for being Muslim. Many cannot reconcile the two identities and either hide their sexual orientation, or end up leaving the religion.

The difficulty facing Warsame and other observant Muslims like him is in reconciling the universal consensus that has existed among Muslims for over 1400 years that all sexual acts between two members of the same gender are haram (prohibited), and the spirituality they wish to nourish in 21st century Australia; a modern world where homosexuality is increasingly accepted as a natural part of the spectrum of human diversity.

The Muslim community, by and large, tends to have an allergic reaction to any whiff of a gay-rights agenda. Stories of young gay Muslims being beaten or threatened with murder by family and friends are heartbreaking and are, at the very least, unhelpful for a community struggling to combat its negative stereotype as backward and un-Australian. Yet, homosexuality remains for most Muslims as taboo as other Aussies might view incest, bestiality and paedophilia.

The question of whether homosexuality can ever be recognised by Muslims as legitimate boils down to a clash of worldviews. On the one hand there are millennia of religious teachings from Judaism, to Buddhism, to Christianity, to Islam that reject same-sex erotic activity, viewing the course of chaste restraint for those tempted by homosexual desires as the noble path.

On the other, there is the new western individualism that views consent as the only arbiter of moral goodness. In this latter view, the only requirements a person should follow are: 1) being authentic to their own individual identity, and 2) refraining from harming others in the pursuit of their desires.

Holding the latter rather than the former worldview, progressive Muslims believe it is possible to reject traditional interpretations of the religion that proscribe homosexuality. They read Islam through the spectacles of society's modern values, which they see as better than what has gone before. It is not dissimilar to the gay-rights reading of Christian values that has challenged conservative churches.


"For the vast majority of Muslims, being asked to affirm the full spectrum of human sexuality — from homosexuality, to bisexuality, to polyamory, to pansexuality — as naturally good, is a step they simply cannot take."


However, the task is more difficult for Muslims for a number of reasons. These include the nature of scripture. For most Christians the Bible is divinely inspired but not literally the eternally inerrant word of God, as Muslims view the Qur'an. While gay Christians point out that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, and dismiss Paul as a product of his homophobic times, Muslims do not have the same luxury. The Qur'an — which Muslims believe is God's actual speech — describes homosexual sex as sinful in telling the story of the people of Lot (yes, the same story as the Christian Bible's Sodom and Gomorrah).

'And Lot: He said to his people: "Do you commit immorality such as no-one in creation (ever) committed before you? Indeed, you approach men lustfully instead of women. Nay, you are a people who transgress.'" (Qur'an, 7:80–81).

Progressive Muslims, most notably Scott Kugle in his book Homosexuality in Islam, have attempted to reinterpret the Qur'anic condemnation as rejecting male-male rape (Lot's townsfolk wanted to molest the two angels that had come to visit), but such a reading requires ignoring the plain meaning of the text.

Another problem that Muslims have in trying to reconcile recognition of homosexuality with Islam, is the place that religious law has in Muslim lives. Similar to Jewish Halakha and Catholic canon law, Islamic shari'a is the code of living Muslims follow, based on the text of the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. There is not a great deal that Muslims over the centuries have absolutely agreed upon, but one of the few areas is that while human sexuality might be diverse, and human beings might feel sexual desire in all sorts of different ways, the only halal (permissible) sexual act is between a husband and his wife or concubine.

Every other desire needs to be restrained as a part of the spiritual development of the individual — to bring his or her will in conformity with the Divine — and for the stability of society. Indeed, it is the breakdown of the family pattern in society that Muslims consider to be one of the signs of the Day of Judgement.

So, for the vast majority of Muslims, being asked to affirm the full spectrum of human sexuality — from homosexuality, to bisexuality, to polyamory, to pansexuality — as naturally good, is a step they simply cannot take. Nevertheless, I hope the community can listen to Nur Warsame, even if they disagree with him, and stem the tide of depression, alienation, and abuse among gay Muslims. There has to be a better way.



Rachel WoodlockDr Rachel Woodlock is an expat Australian academic and writer living in Ireland.

Topic tags: Rachel Woodlock, LGBTI, gender, sexuality, Islam


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Existing comments

Often, the most difficult step in a long uphill struggle is personally acknowledging that double bind. After that, it's still a long uphill struggle but the first step has been taken. In describing the traditional Islamic view of homosexuality and sexuality in general, Rachel, you have described a worldview of considerable conservatism. What Nur Warsame can do is to continue to be 'who he is' and that authenticity is powerful. It will change the world.
Pam | 19 January 2018

Is the Lot story the only condemnation of homosexuality in the Quran? I had assumed there were more. The view that what is condemned here is the rape of a man by another is very plausible, and is also used by Christian progressives. The real horror of this story is that Lot offers his daughters to the angels instead. But Islam does seem very hardline on many issues - 'God has said this, and that's the end of it'. But what is to happen to men and women being born gay within a Muslim culture? Lifelong concealment and celibacy? Being assaulted or murdered? There are of course millions of gay Muslims living furtively in Muslim countries (notably Indonesia, close to us), and thousands who have escaped to live in the West. If you check gay websites you will find out quite a lot about these, including masseurs and escorts. Meanwhile we can only admire the courage of Nur Warsame, whom I have seen on TV and heard speak. He has said he could well end up being killed by a fellow Muslim who believes they are doing the will of God.
Rodney Wetherell | 19 January 2018

Great article, Eureka Street! If only we had published a similar one by a member of one of our equally highly articulate Catholic womens' religious institutes - and identifying herself as such - in the run-up to last year's Yes/No vote! Apart from one or two Jesuits, the public silence of many members of our religious institutes, able and willing to identify themselves as such, was, in comparison to Dr Woodlock, scandalously deafening.
Dr Michael Furtado | 19 January 2018

I wonder why anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, has to proclaim their preferred sexual options in the public domain. Is there a doubt that they are trying to assuage through engendering public acceptance?
john frawley | 19 January 2018

Yes, John Frawley - there is obviously a doubt people who "out" themselves publicly are trying to assuage! And these doubts were what the article was addressing. And surely the fact that Catholic teaching still holds that homosexual orientation is "intrinsically disordered" should raise some big doubts. And, by the way, someone's sexual orientation should be treated with a bit more dignity, reverence and respect - it's not simply a "preferred sexual option" . The experience of the majority of LGBTI people is that their orientation is not an option at all! We can argue all day about chemistry, genetics, upbringing and birth order, but even scientists themselves haven't got a definitive conclusion - and there's no reason they need to because society is now embracing the diversity of orientations in a positive way. It sees to be religions that are the main cause of stigma and discrimination now - which is why it's still necessary and apt for Nur Warsame to proclaim his orientation proudly and lift the burden, guilt, shame and lies so many of us LGBTI people have had to live with for most of our lives.
AURELIUS | 19 January 2018

Where human rights are imperiled, any reference to self-doubt is but a smokescreen for suppression or denial of those rights.
Dr Michael Furtado | 20 January 2018

A priest is such when he has clothed himself with the Lord Jesus Christ. It seems to me, even if he may have feelings of fondness for other males. And even may have considered himself 'gay', before entering the priesthood. He can hardly call himself 'gay' once a priest. Nor should he be called or considered 'gay,' by others. Saying a priest is 'gay' is the same as saying he is 'single' or 'heterosexual'. These identities, classifications are external to the priesthood. A man married to a women is still a man perhaps subject to 'the temptations' of desire towards another women. Though via the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony he is no longer that young 'single, heterosexual man', he was before he married. He knows this truth in his heart. Those temptations are external to him. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, is the continuation of Christ's priesthood, which He bestowed on His Apostles. And the priest likewise knows by the Grace of God, all temptations are external to him. He knows this truth in his heart...Who is classifying? Who is tempting? It is never Christ.
AO | 21 January 2018

“Progressive Muslims…have attempted to reinterpret the Qur'anic condemnation as rejecting male-male…but such a reading requires ignoring the plain meaning of the text.” The foundation of Islam is that the Qur’an is the received actual word of God. According to Muslim narrative, its words were physically squeezed out of Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel during encounters in a cave above Mecca which the Muslim prophet found painful and exhausting. If the plain meaning of the actual word of God rejects male-male sex, as Rachel Woodlock says, how can gay Muslims even claim to be Muslim? So, what is the point of this article when, according to Rachel’s own understanding of the plain meaning of the actual word of God, any sympathy for the practice of unorthodox sexuality by Muslims has to be misplaced? The 'better way' is obedience and the suppression of ego, not rebellion and the aggrandisement of ego.
Roy Chen Yee | 22 January 2018

No text, dear Roy, is without context and inculturated understanding, while therefore open to exegetical interpretation; other than, of course, to a fundamentalist. Every text, no matter how obscure or seemingly as clear as crystal, and as we might seek to understand it, is ineluctably discursive. And Dr Woodluck has generously and intelligently shown this.
Dr Michael Furtado | 24 January 2018

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