WITH EVERY PASSING year – indeed, with every passing month – Muslims are faced with new intellectual and societal challenges to their faith. Whether it’s atheism, scientific claims about evolution, or social matters related to gender and sexuality, many Muslims (especially in the West) find themselves questioning traditionally held beliefs and practices. Most recently, one of the issues to affect both the wider society and media, and the Muslim community, is that of transgender people and how the concept of gender is defined – and practiced.
Since the story of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner hit the media, a few notable issues have arisen.
1) Outdated Fatâwa
Transgender issues have not been dealt with in the general Muslim community to any great scale; discussions surrounding these matters have been, until now, limited to certain circles – progressive, academic, and (Islamic) scholarly.
In the latter category, fatâwa have been issued discussing the permissibility of sex-change operations (http://islamqa.info/en/34553), but sometimes the wordings tend to conflate transgendered individuals with intersexed individuals. (http://www.amjaonline.org/en/component/content/article/20-declarations/67-9th-conference).
The general conclusion of the scholarly community appears to be limited to ruling that cross-dressing and seeking sex change operations on the basis of identifying as the opposite gender is ḥarâm.
Those of the former two categories who address transgender issues, even when Muslim, do not give much weight or authority to the views of traditional scholarship; they focus primarily on secular liberal theories and beliefs surrounding gender and sexuality. This implies, perhaps, that the progressive and academic thinkers do not see traditional sources as capable of dealing sufficiently with current issues.
While they may acknowledge that traditional scholarship considers those actions to be ḥarâm, most (if not all) of them may not consider the Quran or Sunnah to be perfect and the ultimate source of non-negotiable authority. This is in contradiction to the position of Ahl Al-Sunnah, which holds that the Quran is the perfected, preserved, and undoubted Word of Allah, and that the authentic Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ is a primary source for all Islamic rulings, second only to the Quran.
Going back to traditional scholarship: While their foundation is sound, what many unfortunately don’t realize is that their outdated language severely affects whether they are taken seriously or not.
Previously issued fatâwa need to be re-issued with a broader, more comprehensive understanding of the current thoughts and discourses surrounding LGBTQ (Lesbian – Gay – Bisexual – Trans-Gender – Queer/Questioning) matters.
While their renewed rulings may end up having the same conclusions (i.e., that homosexual activities are prohibited), the language that is used matters a great deal in terms of how people are able to understand and comprehend the matter.
As it stands, assumptions such as “such people are just seeking attention” do not accurately reflect the situations of many individuals going through these issues.
In other cases, the language used in the fatâwa indicates that the one(s) issuing it were not fully aware of what transgender really means, or the issues surrounding it. (http://islamqa.info/en/138451)
What is Missing
Many fatâwa conflate various aspects of LGBTQ issues without understanding what they mean to begin with, or failing to recognize the differences among them.
- One common issue is assuming that ‘transgendered’ and ‘hermaphrodite’ (or intersexed) are one and the same.
- Another is not knowing or being aware of the discussions surrounding gender and sexuality and how they are (and are not) related.For example, a common belief amongst secular liberals is that “gender is a social construct.” There is also the concept of the ‘gender binary,’ and terms such as ‘CIS,’ ‘male,’ ‘female,’ ‘gender-fluid,’ and ‘agender.’ To effectively respond to all these concepts, those issuing the fatâwa must be aware of them to begin with.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cisgender#Origins)
- Something else to be aware of is that there is still no biological (or, for that matter, social and psychological) conclusion as to the ‘causes’ of LGBTQ identities and behaviors.
Thus, making statements such as “no one is born gay,” or “these are psychological perversions” can very well drive away those who may be struggling with legitimate and serious desires and issues, but are still seeking to understand whether they can be considered Muslim due to their belief in tawḥîd.
- Wisdom is needed in discussing these matters, as well as doing research into both the scientific and social/political discussions surrounding them. (http://www.wsj.com/articles/paul-mchugh-transgender-surgery-isnt-the-solution-1402615120)
- It is necessary to avoid being sucked into any particular group’s agenda or to fall for their propaganda, but equally necessary to know the information being provided and disseminated by those groups.At the end of the day, there is not always a need to offer one’s personal opinion regarding a matter, as long as the Islamic ruling is laid out clearly and in an appropriate manner.
2) Lack of Scholarly Engagement and Clarification
Popular Shaykhs in North America have remained largely silent or vague when it comes to LGBTQ matters. When the term ‘transgender’ hit the general public this week, eliciting questions and confusion from many Muslims, very few well known individual speakers and dâʿis spoke up (or wrote) about it. This is unfortunate considering that we tend to have a few general categories of positions taken within the Muslim community:
- Those who know the ruling on it already and accept it;
- Those who know the traditional ruling but object on ideological grounds;
- Those who are confused about it but, due to the silence from Muslim leaders, remain unclear both in what the Islamic rulings are and how they are to behave towards LGBTQ individuals.
As to the first group, they are further divided into:
- Those who remain generally silent, and
- Those who go to an extreme and become not only angry, but obsessive on the topic.
Many of the latter throw around offensive slurs and verbally attack and threaten to harm those who identify as LGBTQ. Obviously, the latter behavior is unacceptable and unbecoming of a Muslim; having strong convictions and beliefs does not mean being an abusive jerk.
As for the third group, the silence from scholars – and the lack of research on their part – simply contributes to the rising trend of Muslims who have a very vague or weak foundation in their faith. More and more, as Muslims are bombarded with numerous different messages and agendas from countless angles, there is a weakening of strong scholarly output clearly addressing relevant issues as they come up.
A Current Critical Crisis in our Community
Muslims are being introduced to concepts and ideas that have previously been foreign to them, and without firm (as well as understanding and compassionate) guidance from those with religious knowledge, they are left floundering. To that end, the very idea of a concrete Islamic moral compass has become strange to many, leading them to question previously established and undisputed Islamic rulings that have little difference of opinion.
With regards to LGBTQ issues in general, it should not be so hard to say:
- that yes, the Islamic stance is clear (and to give fiqhi rulings accordingly—incorporating current terminology),
- but that the Islamic stance does not necessitate being harsh and abusive
Public Elucidation by Up-to-Date Islamic Scholars
More knowledgeable Muslim leaders need to be willing to speak about these matters to the public, and be available for answering such questions.
Otherwise, we will find increasing numbers of Muslims falling into the second category of positions taken, that is, those whose moral values are not based upon an Islamic worldview as communicated to us in the Quran and Sunnah, but one which comes from a secular perspective that does not recognize the supremacy of religious authority.
If anything, this perspective denigrates the importance of religion and how it is implemented at a personal and societal level.
Local Leadership in One-on-One Engagement
In addition, local scholars and leaders must be able to engage with those who are themselves struggling with gender and sexual identity. They should be able to understand the discourses surrounding these concepts, and be aware of how delicate and difficult it is for individuals to navigate these inner struggles. They should be able to provide both Islamic rulings as well as guidance defined by wisdom and compassion.
Activating a Cohesive Islamic Authority to Lead the Way
It may seem like a great deal to demand—due to lack of a cohesive Islamic authority in general—but the role of scholars and community leaders in the West is already expanding. Muslims in non-majority Muslim countries especially need to be able to have local leaders to whom they can turn with their questions, without fear of being ignored or turned away.
Now more than ever, we need to see leadership that can respond swiftly and wisely to the issues of the day with strength and nuance. But first of all, we need the engagement of our top scholars with the whole of the LGBTQ issues, culminating in their widely accessible clarification and renewed fatâwa to address specifically the current social context in current terminology.
Hence, again, we see the necessity of dâʿis who are not only knowledgeable at a theoretical level, but engaged and in touch both with wider the society and with the Muslim community specifically.