The Quranic Narrative
The literal translation will be considered first. Allah (swt) says:
وَلُوطًا إِذْ قَالَ لِقَوْمِهِ أَتَأْتُونَ الْفَاحِشَةَ مَا سَبَقَكُمْ بِهَا مِنْ أَحَدٍ مِنَ الْعَالَمِينَ إِنَّكُمْ لَتَأْتُونَ الرِّجَالَ شَهْوَةً مِنْ دُونِ النِّسَاءِ بَلْ أَنْتُمْ قَوْمٌ مُسْرِفُونَ.
"And We sent Lut, when he said to his people, `Do you commit an abomination such as no one in the world ever did before you? You approach men with lust instead of women. Nay, you are a people who exceed all bounds.'" (Quran 7: 80-81)
He also said:
وَلُوطًا إِذْ قَالَ لِقَوْمِهِ أَتَأْتُونَ الْفَاحِشَةَ وَأَنْتُمْ تُبْصِرُونَ
"And We sent Lut as a Messenger, when he said to his people, `Do you commit abomination while you see?" (Q. 27: 54)
Allah adds in another place:
أَئِنَّكُمْ لَتَأْتُونَ الرِّجَالَ وَتَقْطَعُونَ السَّبِيلَ وَتَأْتُونَ فِي نَادِيكُمُ الْمُنْكَرَ.
"Do you approach men with lust and commit robbery on the highway, and you commit abomination in your meetings?" (Q. 29: 29)
Two perspectives emerged amongst the commentators of the Quran:
1. The first group of scholars, the majority, adhere to the notion of initiation of homosexuality by the people of Prophet Lut (saw). They argued the literal and the obvious meaning of verses say that no one (أحد) had done that previously.
Ibn Abbass said:
إِن تِلْكَ الفعلة لم يَفْعَلهَا أحد قبلهم
"This act had not done by any before them." (Tafsir as-Sam'ani, Vol. 2, p. 195)
Similar commentary appears in Suyuti's ad-Durr al-Manthur, Vol. 3, p. 496 and repeated in most of the tafasir (Qur'anic commentaries).
2. The second group of scholars argued these verses were suggesting no society had collectively approved or permitted such sin. This explanation does not rule out the possibility of the practice of homosexuality undertaken by individuals previously - however they negate the social practice having previously existed.
Ibn Attyah (542 A.H.) said:
وروي أنه لم تكن هذه المعصية في أمم قبلهم. قال القاضي أبو محمد: وإن كان لفظ الآية يقتضي هذا فقد كانت الآية تحتمل أن يراد بها ما سبقكم أحد إلى لزومها وتشهيرها
"It was narrated that such sin had not existed in any nation before them. Qadi Abu Muhammad said: even if the term used in the verse suggested it (the notion of initiation of homosexuality by people of Lut), the verse probably means 'no one had proceeded you in constant practice of it and bringing it in such public.'" (Ibn 'Attyah, al-Muharir al-Wajiz, Vol. 2, p. 546)
Razzi (606 A.H.) in his tafsir commented:
فَإِنْ قِيلَ: كَيْفَ يَجُوزُ أَنْ يُقَالَ: مَا سَبَقَكُمْ بِها مِنْ أَحَدٍ مِنَ الْعالَمِينَ مَعَ أَنَّ الشَّهْوَةَ دَاعِيَةٌ إِلَى ذَلِكَ الْعَمَلِ أَبَدًا؟ وَالْجَوَابُ: … لَعَلَّهُمْ بِكُلِّيَّتِهِمْ أَقْبَلُوا عَلَى ذَلِكَ الْعَمَلِ وَالْإِقْبَالُ بِالْكُلِّيَّةِ عَلَى ذَلِكَ الْعَمَلِ مِمَّا لَمْ يُوجَدْ فِي الْأَعْصَارِ السَّابِقَةِ.
"If someone said: How is it possible they were not be preceded by anyone from a past nation when lust invites such acts? … they (people of Lut) collectively accepted/committed such acts, whilst no previous nation had collectively approved/commited it." (Razzi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, Vol. 14. p. 309)
The same opinion was expressed by Sheikh Ibn 'Ashur in at-Tahrir wa at-Tanwir (Vol. 8, p. 230) and Sheikh Sha'rawi in his tafsir (Vol. 7, p. 4226).
The two explanations advanced are both possible. The second opinion is more likely for the following reasons:
1. The Verses Address Collective Practices of the Nation
In describing the action of the people of Prophet Lut (saw) Allah is addressing the collective nation, not individuals:
A nation is more than the sum of the individuals that comprise it. It includes systems, customs, norms and laws. These references suggest they collectively exceeded all limits, allowing and committing such practices publicly and collectively, something that had never happened previously.
The verses are clear the the Prophet Lut was addressing his nation and not some individuals. As such the context is of nation and the reference to this practice never previously appearing thus refers to no nation had previously socially and collectively condoned the practice.
2. The Arabic Wording Cannot Be Restricted
The Arabic word 'one' (أحد) mentioned in the verse, "no one in the world ever did such before you" does not necessarily refer to an individual, but rather one entity of many. As Allah says:
وأَقْسَمُوا بِاللَّهِ جَهْدَ أَيْمَانِهِمْ لَئِن جَاءهُمْ نَذِيرٌ لَّيَكُونُنَّ أَهْدَى مِنْ إِحْدَى الْأُمَمِ
"And they swore by Allah their strongest oaths, that if a Warner came to them, they would follow guidance better than any other nations" (Q. 35: 42)
Here the feminine form of (أحد) was used to refer to collective nouns i.e., nations. Sharawi noted that you could say 'I have no money,' but mean I do not have a given quantity of money, not that you literally have no money at all. The same point would apply to the verses. (Sha'rawi tafsir, Vol. 7, p. 4226)
3. Late Commencement of Homosexuality
Humans in all societies commit a spectrum of sins in their personal and private lives. Only a small number of these ever reach the level where they become socially accepted or practiced. Infanticide or abortion are obvious examples of the latter. It seems rationally inconceivable that individuals undertaking homosexual act only appeared after centuries or millenia of human existence. What seems more conceivable is the acts was known previously however no society ever condoned it or permitted its practice until the Lut's nation.
There are two possible answers regarding the origins of homosexuality according to the Quranic narrative. The people of Prophet Lut (saw) were the first in human history to initiate the act of homosexuality, going on to socially condone its practice and legalise it; or they were the first to socially and collectively condone homosexuality but it probably had been undertaken by individuals previously.
There is no clear or definite evidence to support either view so Allah knows best.
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