|Mukhannathun in Pakistan|
Despite the pronouncements of many Muslim scholars, Islam’s stance on homosexuality is extremely complicated. Allah clearly has a preference for believers to engage in heterosexual marriage based on his praise of it, yet neither Allah nor the Prophet ever overtly banned homosexual relationships for Muslims, nor did Allah condemn alternative sexual identities.
Some Muslim scholars universally ban homosexuality based on their interpretation of verses 4:15-16 of the Quran and their reading of the story of Lot. These scholars are using a minority interpretation of 4:15-16, and misinterpret the story of Lot. The Quran and Hadith’s stance on homosexuality is much more complex than most Muslims realize. The companions of the Prophet included the mukhannathun, a group of homosexual transvestites that are sometimes mis-translated as eunuchs, hermaphrodites or effeminate men. Although it is clear that many of the companions had a severe dislike of the mukhannathun, the Prophet protected at least one from a lynch mob. The Prophet not only tolerated them, but based on a verse from the Quran, he employed one in his household.
After the Prophet died, several mukhannathun played prominent roles in Medinan life and culture. Mukhannaths, which the Prophet refused to eliminate despite the companions’ urging, still survive in Muslim countries today.
Although there was a strong Arab cultural revulsion to homosexuality, it is hard to find a similar revulsion in Allah’s guidance. Although all major theological schools (madhabs) argue that homosexuality is prohibited, the only verse given to justify the prohibition is extremely vague at best, with several possible meanings:
If any of your women commit a lewd act, call four witnesses from among you, then, if they testify to their guilt, keep the women at home until death comes to them or until God shows them another way. And as for the two (Shakir)/ And the two who (Hilali)/ If two men (Haleem) / And the man and woman among you (Khan) commit a lewd act, punish them both; if they repent and mend their ways, leave them alone—God is always ready to accept repentance, He is full of mercy. Quran 4:15-16Specifically, one has to make the assumption that the two actors in 4:16 are male and the “lewd act” described is homosexual, a stance that neither translators nor Quranic commentators have achieved consensus on.
The earliest Quranic commentary, Asbab al-Nuzul (1075 CE) gives no context to the verse, leaving the meaning further in doubt. The Tafsir of Ibn Abbas (1400 CE) argues that the indecent act in both verses was adultery:
(And as for the two of you) of your free people, i.e. any unmarried man or woman (who are guilty thereof) who are guilty of adultery, (punish them both) by maligning and upbraiding them Tanwīr al-Miqbās min Tafsīr Ibn 'AbbāsIbn Abbas believed that 4:16 didn’t refer to “two men” but “any unmarried man or woman.” Ibn Kathir similarly believed that the verse itself was ambiguous, referring to “two persons” not “two men.” With that said, Ibn Kathir quotes Ibn Abbas’s friend Mujahid ibn Jabr as saying:
Mujahid said "It was revealed about the case of two men who do it.'' As if he was referring to the actions of the people of Lut, and Allah knows best. Tafsir Ibn Kathir (~1370 CE)Ibn Kathir qualified the quote from Mujahid with the phrase “and Allah knows best” because he didn’t agree with Mujahid’s interpretation. Ibn Kathir thought that Ibn Abbas was correct and the verse was about adultery. (Note: Although the Tafsir of Ibn Abbas was written in ~1400 CE, Ibn Abbas himself lived much earlier, which is how Ibn Kathir knew about the quote).
The Abrogation of 4:15-16
The case for using 4:15-16 to ban homosexuality relies on believing Ibn Kathir’s quote from Mujahid that 4:16 referred to the “actions of the people of Lut.” Oddly enough, the Tafsir of Ibn Abbas remarks that the entire verse was abrogated (replaced) by 24:2
... Maligning and upbraiding the unmarried person who commits adultery was later abrogated and replaced by one hundred lashes for both parties. Tanwīr al-Miqbās min Tafsīr Ibn 'AbbāsIbn Kathir, who didn’t believe the Mujahid quote about homosexuality, agreed with Ibn Abbas that the verse was replaced by 24:2 saying:
Ibn Abbas and Sa`id bin Jubayr said that this punishment…was the ruling until Allah abrogated it with flogging or stoning, as we stated. Tafsir Ibn KathirIbn Kathir and Ibn Abbas’s position is consistent since 24:2 clearly deals with adultery, not homosexuality. As previously discussed, 24:2 was specifically revealed to address the allegations of Aisha’s infidelity, and specifically mentions an adulterous man and woman, not two men:
Strike the adulteress and the adulterer one hundred times. Do not let compassion for them keep you from carrying out God’s law—if you believe in God and the Last Day—and ensure that a group of believers witnesses the punishment. Quran 24:2So although Ibn Kathir is the source of the anecdote from Mujahid that 4:16 dealt with homosexuality, he clearly did not believe it. He ends his analysis of the verse by specifying that the punishment did not apply to slave-girls:
When the slave-girl of one of you commits illegal sexual intercourse, let him flog her and not chastise her afterwards. Tafsir Ibn KathirWhich only applies to adultery, not homosexuality.
The Story of the People of Lot
Without 4:16, the case for banning homosexuality in the Quran relies on the story of Lut/Lot. Allah tells the story piecemeal, stretching across Chapters (Surahs) 6, 7, 11, 15, 26, 27, 29, 37, 51, 54, and 66. The argument made by scholars is that because the people of Lot were homosexual, and that Allah punished the people of Lot, that homosexuality must be forbidden to Muslims.
This line of analysis makes several problematic assumptions. The first problem is that several prohibitions announced by previous Prophets don’t apply to Muslims. Allah makes this extremely clear on multiple occasions such as when Allah explains that the Jewish dietary laws don’t apply to Muslims (2:173, “He has only forbidden you”). Allah explains that despite confirming the stories of previous religions, Muslims have their own rules which differ from the rules he gave other people:
We sent to you [Muhammad] the Scripture with the truth, confirming the Scriptures that came before it, and with final authority over them: so judge between them according to what God has sent down. Do not follow their whims, which deviate from the truth that has come to you. We have assigned a law and a path to each of you. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about. Quran 5:48Allah repeats this point throughout the Quran, indicating that Allah chooses to "erase or confirm" the teachings of earlier prophets:
We sent messengers before you and gave them wives and offspring; no messenger was given the power to produce a miracle except with God’s permission. There was a Scripture for every age: God erases or confirms whatever He will, and the source of Scripture is with Him. Quran 13:38-39So previous commandments only apply to Muslims when Allah specifically tells us, such as with fasting:
You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God. Quran 2:183The Sins of the people of Lot
The people of Lot are presented in Chapter 26 among other people who disobeyed and called their Prophets liars. The list includes Pharaoh threatening Moses (26:10), the people of Abraham (26:69), the people of Noah (26:105), the people of ‘Ad (26:123), the people of Thamud (26:141), and the people of Shu’ayb (26:176). The purpose of these stories is not to create regulations for Muslims, but to assure the Prophet that other messengers found resistance with their people, just as the Meccans were resisting him at the time of revelation. If the purpose of these stories was to create regulations, then Muslims would be eternally banned from building forts and monuments:
The people of ‘Ad, too, called the messengers liars. Their brother Hud said to them, ‘Will you not be mindful of God?...How can you be so vain that you set up monuments on every high place? Do you build fortresses because you hope to be immortal? Quran 26:123-129The clear purpose of these verses is to show that disobedience to the Prophets leads to Allah’s punishment, not to eternally enforce the specific commands given by each Prophet. So understanding that even if Lot condemned homosexuality, it wouldn’t apply to Muslims, we quickly discover that Lot’s concerns were much larger than his people’s homosexuality.
The Rape of Messengers and Travelers
Lot spoke out against several sins of his people. As Allah explains:
The people of Lot, too, called the messengers liars. Their brother Lot said to them, ‘Will you not be mindful of God? I am a faithful messenger to you: be mindful of God and obey me. I ask no reward from you, for my only reward is with the Lord of the Worlds. Must you, unlike [other] people, lust after males and abandon the wives that God has created for you? You are exceeding all bounds,' but they replied, ‘Lot! If you do not stop this, you will be driven away.' So he said, ‘I loathe what you do: Lord, save me and my family from what they are doing.' Quran 26:160-169The sin appears not just lusting after males, but also the abandonment of their wives. The men being lusted after are later clarified as distressed travelers:
‘How can you lust after men, waylay travelers, and commit evil in your gatherings?' Quran 29:29So the more complete picture is of a group of men who have abandoned their wives, and were seeking out distressed travelers, and then gang-raping them. We get a vivid description of this behavior when Allah sent Lot additional messengers (some commentators speculate that these messengers were angels). The people of Lot attempted to gang-rape the messengers/angels. Lot felt “powerless to protect” the messengers/angels as the people “came rushing towards” them to “commit foul deeds”:
And when Our messengers came to Lot, he was anxious for them, feeling powerless to protect them, and said, ‘This is a truly terrible day!' His people came rushing towards him; they used to commit foul deeds. He said, ‘My people, here are my daughters. They are more wholesome for you, so have some fear of God and do not disgrace me with my guests. Is there not a single right-minded man among you?' They said, ‘You know very well that we have no right to your daughters. You know very well what we want.' He said, ‘If only I had the strength to stop you or could rely on strong support!' 11:77-80Ibn Kathir provided a blunter explanation of the incident in his commentary:
They were saying this while Lut’s people were standing at his door. They tried to rush his door from all sides and Lut was standing at the door repelling them, deterring them and trying to prevent them from what they were doing. Yet, they would not listen to him. Instead, they threatened him and sought to intimidate him...And they indeed sought to shame his guest asking to commit sodomy with them. Tafsir Ibn KathirDuring the attempted gang-rape of the messengers/angels, Allah repeatedly tells us that Lot offered up his daughters instead. As Allah explains in another verse:
The people of the town came along, reveling, and he told them, ‘These are my guests, do not disgrace me. Fear God, and do not shame me.' They answered, ‘Have we not told you not to interfere [between us and] anyone else?' He said, ‘My daughters are here, if you must.' By your life [Prophet], they wandered on in their wild intoxication Quran 15:67-72The attempted gang-rape was only prevented when Allah miraculously blinded the mob:
They even demanded his guests from him—so We sealed their eyes... Quran 54:37So the mob demanded that Lot and Allah’s messengers/angels be driven out of town because they remained chaste (un-raped):
We sent Lot and he said to his people, ‘How can you practice this outrage? No one in the world has outdone you in this. You lust after men rather than women! You transgress all bounds!' The only response his people gave was to say [to one another], ‘Drive them out of your town! These men want to keep themselves chaste! Quran 7:80-83
We also sent Lot to his people. He said to them, ‘How can you commit this outrage with your eyes wide open? How can you lust after men instead of women? What fools you are!' The only answer his people gave was to say, ‘Expel Lot’s followers from your town! These men mean to stay chaste!' Quran 27:54-56Only after the expulsion of the Messengers and displays of open defiance did Allah punish the people of Lot:
…The only answer his people gave was, ‘Bring God’s punishment down on us, if what you say is true.' … and we shall send a punishment from heaven down on the people of this town because they violate [God’s order].'Quran 29:29-34
The people of Lot rejected the warnings. We released a stonebearing wind against them, all except the family of Lot…He warned them of Our onslaught, but they dismissed the warning— they even demanded his guests from him—so We sealed their eyes—'Taste My [terrible] punishment and [the fulfillment of] My warnings!' Quran 54:33-37The Sin of Lust
The story of Lot is used to condemn homosexuality based on the shout given by Lot during the attempted gang-rape where he tells the married men:
‘You lust after men rather than women! You transgress all bounds!’ Quran 7:81It’s worth noting that Allah uses the same term to describe men who imagine having sex with the Prophet’s wives:
‘Wives of the Prophet, you are not like any other woman. If you are truly mindful of God, do not speak too softly in case the sick at heart should lust after you, but speak in an appropriate manner’ Quran 33:32The commonality between the two verses is men imagining sexual intercourse with an unwilling partner. In the first case, Lot is condemning the men who have abandoned their wives to rape the messenger/angels, while in the second example Allah is warning the wives of the Prophet that the ‘sick’ of Medina are imagining having sex with them.
But if the point of the verse is to condemn rape and not homosexuality, why is Lot yelling that the men should divert themselves from the messenger/angels to the women? Lot reminds the men that his 'daughters,' ie the wives they had abandoned, were willing partners.‘My daughters are here, if you must.' 15:72
Remember, even if the sin of Lot’s people was their homosexuality, and not the rape of travelers, Lot’s commandments are not binding on Muslims. The inclusion of this story is only to show that previous nations ignored their Prophets and were punished because of it. The Prophet Muhammad had a very different attitude from Lot.
Mukhannathun in the Hadith
Homosexuals are directly mentioned in the Quran when discussing which men are allowed to see a woman naked:
And tell believing women that they should lower their glances, guard their private parts, and not display their charms... except to their husbands...(and) such men as attend them who have no sexual desire... Quran 24:31The Prophet’s wife, Umm Salama, employed a homosexual man named Hit to attend to her. Upon hearing that Hit was judging women sexually, and therefore might not be homosexual, the Prophet demanded he no longer attend Umm Salama, as described in this extremely strong (multiple narrator) hadith:
Narrated by Um Salama: That while the Prophet was with her, there was an effeminate man in the house. The effeminate man said to Um Salama's brother, 'Abdullah bin Abi Umaiyya, "If Allah should make you conquer Ta'if tomorrow, I recommend that you take the daughter of Ghailan (in marriage) for (she is so fat) that she shows four folds of flesh when facing you and eight when she turns her back." Thereupon the Prophet said (to us), "This (effeminate man) should not enter upon you (anymore)." Sahih Bukhari 7:62:162 and Muslim 26:5415 similar Bukhari 5:59:613 (names the man Hit) and Muslim 26:5416As many scholars have pointed out, the effeminate man was only banished from the Prophet’s home because his sexual description of the ‘daughter of Ghailan’ made the Prophet doubt his homosexuality. The arabic term used in these hadith is ‘mukhannathun.’ Translators variously use the terms ‘effeminate man’, ‘eunuch’, and ‘hermaphrodite’ when encountering the term. We know from several narrations that these men chose to dress as women, and gained no sexual arousal from women. A 10th century book, Kitab al-Aghani, indicates that they enjoyed sodomy. We have a weaker hadith confirm the banishment of Hit from his home, although the narrator can’t seem to remember Hit’s name, nor the cause of the banishment. He also mentions that Omar concurred on the banishment. I call the hadith weak because unlike the hadith shown above, this one has only one narration chain, and the narrator Ibn Abbas, readily admits he can’t remember the details:
Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: The Prophet cursed the effeminate men and those women who assume the similitude (manners) of men. He also said, "Turn them out of your houses." He turned such-and-such person out, and 'Umar also turned out such-and-such person. Bukhari 8:82:820This weak hadith is used in multiple justifications for banning homosexuality, despite the much stronger hadith that accurately explains the story and its accompanying Quranic verse which specifically justifies keeping the mukhannathun at home. We actually have an even further truncated version of this hadith that removes even more context and generalizes the curse:
Narrated Abu Hurayrah: The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) cursed the man who dressed like a woman and the woman who dressed like a man. Dawud 32:4087This last hadith is easy to dismiss, because it is incongruous with the Prophet's reasons for dismissing Hit and 24:31. Through the retelling of the banishment of Hit, the specific rebuke was changed into a curse of Hit and a non-existent female equivalent.
We find one last hadith linked to this story, with a mob of Medinans demanding that Hit be put to death because of his cross-dressing. The Prophet specifically denies the mob because Allah forbade killing Muslims, but rules that the Hit be banished to a neighborhood of Medina far from his own home. Whereas the stronger hadith gives a very rational reason to banish Hit to the other side of town (to keep him away from his wives), this hadith offers no such explanation, leaving the Medinans confused. The narrator is forced to explain that Hit is being sent to the other side of town (Naqi) and not a graveyard (Baqi):
Narrated AbuHurayrah: A mukhannath who had dyed his hands and feet with henna was brought to the Prophet. He asked: What is the matter with this man? He was told: Apostle of Allah! He affects women's get-up. So he ordered regarding him and he was banished to an-Naqi'. The people said: Apostle of Allah! should we not kill him? He said: I have been prohibited from killing people who pray. Abu Usamah said: Naqi' is a region near Medina and not a Baqi (in other words not referring to Jannat al-Baqi cemetery. Indicating they were not punished.)' Dawud 41:4910The only real take-away we can gather from the weaker hadiths is that they confirm the companions bias against the mukhannath, with the Prophet literally saving one from a lynch mob of believers in this case, while explaining it was forbidden to murder fellow Muslims, even if they were mukhannath.
These hadith also serve as a stark warning from exclusively using hadith to infer regulations on Muslims. Although they can provide color and commentary on concepts within the Quran, they are a terrible tool to create societal regulations because they are prone to removing valuable context from the stories they tell. If we didn't have the full version of Hit and his removal from the Prophet's home, the other ahad hadith would paint a convincing story to curse all mukhannath. As in the case of hijab, we are extremely lucky to have the smoking gun to correct our understanding.
Who were the Mukhannath?
The mukhannath would perform songs, poetry, and broker marriages in the Prophet's Medina. We know that the English term ‘eunuch’ is incorrect to describe them because after the Prophet died, the Caliph Sulayman (715-716 CE) ordered that all mukhannath be castrated after one had illicit sex with both a bride and groom on their wedding day, as summarized in the Kitab al-Aghani (~950 CE):
The Aghani also records a particularly lurid version, on the authority of Musab al-Zubayri, who claimed to know best why al-Dalal specifically was castrated. After arranging a marriage, according to Musab, al-Dalal would convince the bride that her sexual excitement at the prospect of the wedding night was excessive and would only disgust her husband, and then he would offer to calm her down by having sexual intercourse with her first. He would then go to the groom, make the same point, and offer himself, passively, to cool him down as well. The outraged Sulayman, here again called "jealous," gharur, but in a general sense, wrote to have all the mukhannathun castrated, saying, "They are admitted to the women of Quraysh and corrupt them." Here, even with explicit testimony to al-Dalal’s homosexual behavior, it is the morals of the women which are of concern The Effeminates of MedinaIt’s worth noting that the Caliph Sulayman later claimed that the castration was a complete accident:
One fairly common addition to the story, which serves as the basis for its inclusion in several of our adab sources, absolves Sulayman of responsibility for the castration by claiming that what he actually wrote to the governor was "make a register of the mukhannathun"; but the spluttering pen added a dot to the so that it read "ikhsi," "castrate." Some of these sources let the governor off the hook as well, reporting that he questioned the reading but was assured that the dot "looked like a date," or "was as big as the star Canopus." The Effeminates of MedinaCaliph Sulayman later apologized to the mukhannathun, and paid al-Dalal compensation. It is worth noting that a vibrant community of mukhannathun continue to exist today in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Called “Hijra” in Urdu because they leave their tribes to join the mukhannathun community, there numbers are estimated at 500,000 in Pakistan alone. They recently won several rights from the Pakistani Supreme Court.
Other Hadith on Sodomy
The final 2 justifications for banning homosexuality are also weak. Remembering that the companions of the Prophet had to be stopped by the Prophet from lynching a mukhannath, these 2 hadith are suspect because they quote the companions instead of the Prophet himself:
…Malik related to me that he asked Ibn Shihab about someone who committed sodomy. Ibn Shihab said, "He is to be stoned, whether or not he is muhsan (married or chaste)." Malik’s Muwaatta 41:11
Narated By Abdullah ibn Abbas : If a man who is not married is seized committing sodomy, he will be stoned to death. Dawud: 33:4448As mentioned before, we already knew that the companions disliked homosexuals and the mukhannathun, so these hadith don't really tell us anything new, they just paint the cultural attitude of the Medinans. If anything, the two hadith show that the companions culture couldn't agree on when sodomy was permissible, with the first indicating that it was always a crime, while the second indicated that it was only a crime if the couple wasn't married.
Closing Thoughts on Homosexuality
Contrary to conventional thought, the Prophet’s attitude towards homosexuality was very complicated. The Prophet protected at least one homosexual from a lynch mob, and knowingly employed one until he discovered he may not really be homosexual. It is also clear that the companions did not approve of homosexuality, and openly discussed stoning them.
The transvestite culture of the Hijra, still surviving in Muslim countries today, can be traced back to the Prophet’s time. He did not act to end it then, nor should we act to end it now. As the Prophet explained to his companions who wanted him to put them to death, “I have been prohibited from killing people who pray." We should be equally wary of judging them, and imposing our culture biases on them.