Question: The Qur'ān alludes to condemnation of male homosexuality, but does not prohibit lesbianism. Is this argument sound? Also, there is no legal punishment prescribed for homosexuality (and definitely not for lesbianism) in the Qur'ān or Sunnah. Am I right? Moreover, is not any punishment for one's sexual preference a violation of basic human rights? Please explain in detail.
Answer: A number of Muslim scholars have pointed out that the Qur'ān does not always give injunctions in the language of man-made, legal statutes. As Divine message, it addresses human hearts and minds at the highest level of eloquence in the Arabic of its time and region. It is therefore imperative that its injunctions and directives be deciphered by a competent scholar from its text, its textual context, and its language in due consideration of its eloquent style. Directives and injunctions are thus found both in its explicit statements and sometimes also in its allusions, which too, with appropriate deliberation, become obvious in their intent. Without good cause, laypersons should not jump the gun to reach decisions on the interpretation of its text in disregard of scholarly opinions and argumentation.
A believer does not try to play with this book, but uses it to remove himself/herself from the possibility of Allah's wrath. All good that we have is from Him, and He can take it away any moment. In the Hereafter, He can punish us in ways we cannot even fathom. If we do fear that wrath, we cannot lie to ourselves. Even in weakness, when we are unable to rectify our ways immediately, we can at least make a sincere effort to know the truth and accept our mistake so that we might begin moving towards repentance and reform to save ourselves before any Divine decision against us seals our fate forever.
In this spirit that Muslims share, please see how the following verse of Sūrah Shu'arā depicts Prophet Lot (peace be upon him) admonishing his people for homosexuality. Their men chose men as sexual partners whereas women all over the world had been created by God to be men's spouses. No, it was not that God had not made women most suitable for men's needs; it was just that, in their grave deviance, they themselves had transgressed the nature in which God created humans:
أَتَأْتُونَ الذُّكْرَانَ مِنَ الْعَالَمِينَ وَتَذَرُونَ مَا خَلَقَ لَكُمْ رَبُّكُمْ مِنْ أَزْوَاجِكُم بَلْ أَنتُمْ قَوْمٌ عَادُونَ (26: 165-66)
In the whole world, to males you go, and leave what Allah has created for you of your spouses? Nay, you are a transgressing people. (26: 165-16)
In these verses, the transgressors have been clearly told:
1. Men have not been created to be spouses for men; rather it is women that have been created for them.
2. Going for sexual needs to those who have not been created for this purpose has been severely disapproved as transgression. (See also Q. 26: 168).
3. It also clearly follows from the first point that for women then men have been created to be spouses just as women have been created to be spouses for men. Therefore, it follows from the second point that, for women, leaving men to choose women is a transgression worthy of similar, severe condemnation as they too choose those who are not meant to be their sexual partners.
Needless to say that many other verses of the Qur'ān clearly show that there is no permissibility for any sexual relationship of a man with a woman outside the folds of marriage or concubinage (while the latter existed). Both of these arrangements are proclaimed commitments that ensure both partners their identity to have, hold and demand their legal and social rights.
There are numerous other passages in the Qur'ān and hadīth that give some indication or the other that there is no room for lesbianism in Islam. For example, in Q. 24:31, among other directives for their modesty and purity of heart, believing women have been told not to reveal of their adornments to women that are not from amongst their own [that is, not from family and friends that they can trust in safeguarding their modesty and privacy]. If, for safeguarding modesty and privacy, even adornments cannot be revealed, how can something more (as sexual relationship) ever be permissible in a culture of such decency? In Muslim (a hadīth collection highly venerated for its level of authenticity), the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah) has been reported to forbid that a man look at a man who is not properly and decently covered or a woman look at a woman in such state. Whatever interpretation of decency one adopts, it cannot, in consideration of the preceding verse (the whole part, which also specifically tells believing men and women to safeguard their private parts), exclude, at least, covering private parts. Again, it may be reasoned from this hadīth too that anything more than just gazing at private parts of a person of the same gender is even more strongly condemned. These are just a few of the many examples of corroborating allusions. The main argument has already been given above.
As for punishments, there are many that an Islamic society reserves the right to give through its courts of law. They are not always mentioned in the Qur'ān, but, the Divine book itself directs those with the legal and social authority in a Muslim society to forbid wrong and enjoin good (see for example, Q. 3:104; 22:41). In any society, this authority sometimes uses punishments to maintain good and eradicate wrong in society. In Islamic law, punishment for drinking is an example. In many Western, non-Muslim societies (including many parts of US), consensual incest amongst adults is still a punishable offence. Society does not permit individuals to use their freedom in this case of what is sometimes described as "a victimless crime" because it feels that permissibility will destroy the fabric of its ethos rooted in certain family values. Similarly, a Muslim society also has the right to curb behaviours that it feels will or might undermine its foundations. What actually might be suitable means of curbing sexual offences and deviances by Muslims and what should be punishment for homosexuality or lesbianism in a Muslim society and what could be possible extenuating circumstances are questions on which there can be differences of opinion amongst qualified jurists and scholars. In principle, these measures are not a negation of freedom in society. They are in fact adopted to safeguard freedom of the majority to protect its values and foundations for itself and its future generations. Those uncomfortable with this democratic way of resolving differences always have the choice to move to another society where they can live as they please or, sometimes, to forgo their legal status as citizens of that society. After all, a similar stance has been taken in some Western countries against hijāb. Sometimes, the pretext is security. At other times, it is prohibition of public expression of religious symbolism. The latter pretext has been critiqued by some for its alleged contradiction with foundational principles of a secular, democratic society. Submission to the dictates of the Qur'ān and Sunnah by Muslims remains the core foundation of any Muslim society. Punishing homosexuality or lesbianism at legal level is therefore neither against any foundational principle of a Muslim society nor is it against any basic human right as such. Western societies, through their majority opinion, choose to punish incest to preserve their values. A Muslim society too condemns incest at the highest possible level, but, in any socio-ethical matter, is not bound by Western norms to decide on what does or does not constitute a deviance and what punishment is suitable to curb it.
In an Islamic society, however, punishments cannot exceed those that the Qur'ān itself has prescribed for the obvious reason that, to Muslims, no one can go beyond what God Himself has prescribed as punishment for a transgression. Furthermore, sanctity of life has been guaranteed by God Himself. Therefore, as a well-known Pakistani, Muslim scholar, Jāvēd Ahmad Ghāmidī (1951- ), explains on the basis of Q. 5:32, death as a legal punishment is only for the crimes of murder or fasād fi al-ard (spreading disorder in the land), especially in the absence of any extenuating circumstances. In certain cases, sexual offences as rape, recidivism in fornication or adultery, child molestation, et cetera a jurist or a judge may deem that to be a form of fasād fi al-ard.
The people of Prophet Lot (peace be upon him) were punished by God Himself when they persisted in their defiance even after they received a clear reminder from His prophet (Q. 26: 167). Homosexuals and lesbians members of a Muslim society whom Allah has not brought within the reach of the law and others who are living in non-Muslim countries where homosexuality and lesbianism are not crimes should reflect upon the Qur'ān and hadīth to make sure they are not transgressing the limits of Allah. If the Qur'ān is clear to them in this regard, they should remember that they cannot hide their thoughts from God. Therefore, if they do realize that they are wrong, the first act should be of acknowledgement of the wrongdoing and then of repentance and a sincere effort to move away from sin to the best of their ability. They might then hope that God will embrace them in His mercy and open ways for them soon and might even reward them immensely for their efforts in His way. Persistence in intellectual justification, however, even after God makes a truth known to person, ends possibility of repentance and reform. May Allah save all of us from that kind of defiance in any matter whatsoever.