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in category Family, Gender and Sexuality

What conceptually rigorous and consistent account of sexuality does Islam provide?

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The Islamic account of human sexuality begins with Adam (as) the first human being God created. As the Qur'an recounts, Adam (as) resided in Paradise with his wife until Satan deceived them into eating from the forbidden tree. Upon consuming the fruit, they became aware of their nakedness for the first time and felt the shame of this. So they used leaves from trees to clothe themselves. Realizing their mistake, they turned to Allah for forgiveness and He turned unto them in forgiveness while also sending them out of Paradise and placing them on Earth, a place of pain and hardship.

What Islamic scholars have taken from this event at the precipice of human history is that human beings naturally incline towards breaking the rules. God has set limits for us, but Satan, the evil inclinations of our own selves and our tendency to immerse ourselves in the satisfaction of our desires push us to transgress these bounds. Violating the limits set by Allah is the epitome of ingratitude because He has given humanity many licit ways of satisfying our desires and enjoying life. Unlike Christianity and other religions, Islam does not consider bodily enjoyment and partaking in worldly pleasure to be inherently sinful. Rather, to imbibe of the permissible in life and, in doing so, to remember and be thankful toward one's Lord and Master is a major part of what Islam considers as part and parcel of righteousness. Diametrically opposed to this are israf (i.e., wasteful overindulgence) and ghafla (i.e., heedlessness), in other words, to transgress beyond what Allah has made permissible and to do so in a heedless, ignorant manner without regard for the One who has provided all these bounties and blessings in the first place. Accordingly, sexual misdeeds are the essence of such transgression. Here, a person's nakedness and those parts of the body associated with nakedness are used in indecent ways. And that indecency is the cause of shame and human suffering, as a person debases and humiliates himself before God and all creation. By putting aside the permissible pleasures in order to taste the forbidden fruit, human beings show the utmost disregard for the Almighty and the very purpose of their creation and place on this earth. It is in this sense that, in the Qur'an, the people of Lot (as) are labelled "musrifun" (from israf): "For you practice your lusts on men in preference to women - you are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds [i.e., musrifun]." In these ways and more, sexual morality very literally has a cosmic significance. In Islamic spirituality and ethics, desire is always something that needs to be controlled so as not to exceed these boundaries set by God. Even natural, God-given desires, like the desire to eat, sleep, or have relations with the opposite sex, must be tempered so as not to lead a person into transgression. If a person perseveres in keeping his desires in check and in accordance with what God wants, then eventually that person's desires will transform such that even the thought of violating the Shari'a becomes abhorrent to him. But, if a person succumbs to his desire, transgressing sacred norms repeatedly without repenting to Allah, then this too leads to a transformation. Islamic metaphysics, interestingly, does acknowledge the mutability of desire in the sense that a person may experience a desire for something, but that desire is not natural in the sense of it arising from human nature, i.e., the primordial normative form - the fitra - upon which human beings were created by God. A person's fitra, after all, can be corrupted, whether by social circumstance, parental influence, or even the whisperings of shayatin (i.e., satanic demons). As classical scholars like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali describe, according to Islamic metaphysics, no amount of indulgence of a desire can lead to complete satiety. Only temporary gratification is possible, so if a person becomes accustomed to yielding to his desires, eventually he will lose the ability to abstain until the desires themselves grow ever more demanding and take over the person. Whereas modern Western thought distinguishes desire for intimacy with men versus desire for intimacy with women, Islamic thought (along with many other civilizations, both historical and contemporary) identifies the primary natural urge for males as the urge to penetrate, whereas females urge to be penetrated. As scholars like Ibn Taymiyyah describe, the same desire to penetrate women can be corrupted such that it is directed towards men, but that desire is not sui generis. Any man who gives free reign to his lust for women may eventually be driven toward craving to penetrate other men, animals and beyond. A male who desires to be penetrated, however, is understood to be suffering from a kind of abnormality known as "ubna." In this way, the "active" and "passive" partners are distinguished respectively, as has been the case in many cultures throughout history including ancient Greek civilization. To this day, many Middle Eastern men who participate in same-sex intercourse in this active role do not typically consider themselves to be "gay." They perceive themselves simply as men since they continue to play the typically "male" role even in an encounter with another man. Again, the operative distinction here is primarily one of role rather than of gender. The Western homosexual, in contrast, understands his very desires to be completely distinct from those of the heterosexual. Furthermore, it is his desire for sexual contact with a male, regardless of the respective role played, that marks him off distinctly as a "homosexual," highlighting the modern West's (culturally and historically bound) prioritizing of gender over role or any other potentially relevant consideration. This is the "orientation" a person is supposedly born with. As such, a homosexual man could never truly desire the opposite sex or have his desires satisfied by a woman. Finally, when it comes to the prohibition of same-sex acts, Islamic scholars typically express four main ideas in their reasoning against male-male anal intercourse (i.e., liwat) as well as same-sex sexual acts generally (though female-female *********, i.e.,sihaq was less discussed): 1. An expression of disgust and abhorrence as well as condemnation in the strongest terms while citing not only the Qur'anic account of the people of Lot (i.e., qawm Lut), but also human nature (or conscience) as immediately recognizing the evil of this act. 2. Appeals to nature and teleology, specifically regarding the natural, God-given roles of males as penetrators and females as recipients of penetration and how liwat subverts this normative order. This language is especially prominent in legal treatises. Beyond jurisprudence, some theologians go further in discussing the inherent complementarity of the male and female bodies as well as other characteristic traits essential to each sex as well as how that complementarity bears life, propagates the "descendants of Adam," and provides the basis for familial and societal flourishing, in contrast to same-sex acts which undermine all these. 3. Characterization of liwat as being driven by extreme, blameworthy desire where men who, in their lust and desire for sexual variety, turn to other men instead of females. 4. Mention of physical and mental diseases caused by liwat as well as characterizing a male's desire to be penetrated as a mental affliction, i.e., "ubna." Obviously, the classical Islamic view of desire and how it leads to same-sex intercourse, as well as the reasoning for prohibiting that intercourse, are all outrageously offensive to the modern liberal mind. But this offense is due to specific cultural attitudes and assumptions that we have questioned and deconstructed throughout this "debate."

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