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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Many have sought to reinterpret both the scripture of Islam and its legal tradition from a perspective that may be more comfortable from the sensibility of the modern reader. Amina Wadud has produced a landmark work called Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective in which she reinterpreted many verses pertaining to women. The same scholar was the first woman to lead congregational prayer in the United States. This event was attended with much controversy, and is still considered unacceptable by the majority of Sunni Muslims in the United States.

Geographic and cultural diversity, however, make it important to put these kinds of controversies into context. In a country like Indonesia, for example, women have been delivering the traditional Friday sermon for many years. It is often noted that on the pilgrimage to Mecca, men and women are not separate in the prayer space surrounding the holy shrine, a circular enclosure in which gender segregation is impossible.

When it comes to sexuality in the modern period, these questions become even more fraught with controversy. As with other Abrahamic creeds, homosexuality as a practice is technically prohibited in Islam. From the perspective of Islamic law there is no such thing as a gendered lifestyle per se. What is prohibited or permitted is a particular type of action. Therefore, according to the vast majority of Muslim scholars, the practice of homosexuality in the form of particular acts is the issue at stake. This is perhaps a less complicated view of gender than that to which many modern thinkers may be accustomed. We tend to think of gender as an essential aspect of identity, as something that is greater than the sum of its parts. From the perspective of Islamic law, however, this kind of definition does not correspond exactly to an understanding of what a person is permitted to do or not to do. As a result, this kind of disconnect between the Islamic perspective in contemporary issues of gender and sexuality has in fact led to a broad range of views.

The Progressive Muslim Network, a group founded several years ago, espoused an all-inclusive view and did not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Its members cited precedent from within Islamic tradition regarding tolerance, as well as Islamic law's rather difficult evidentiary rules for the prosecution of homosexuality. According to standards of Islamic law, it is practically impossible to fulfill evidentiary requirements for prosecuting sexual crimes of any nature, homosexual or heterosexual. In the modern period, this has been taken to signal a lack of interest in the regulation of personal behaviors, although this is an extremely specific and modern reading of the sources and the issue.

For many reasons it is probably impossible to separate contemporary Islamic thought from rather controversial issues surrounding gender and sexuality. One should hesitate to be either too apologetic on behalf of Islam, or too polemical. On the other hand, it is worth noting that the enormous diversity within the Sunni community - geographically, culturally, and ethically - also makes it impossible to generalize too much about gender norms within Sunni Islam.

Unfortunately, the dominant image in the West regarding Islam, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality, is that of the most restrictive aspects of life in the Arab world. This is unfortunate because not only is the Arab world a minority of the Islamic world, but Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most restrictive of the Arab states when it comes to women, dominates even within that small subsection of Sunni Islam. By taking a broader view, we may appreciate the more varied approaches to issues of gender, marriage, sexuality, and the relationship between the sexes that is manifest within Islam as a whole and Sunni Islam in particular.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why are gender issues still controversial within Islamic society?
     2.    Why does Leila Ahmed argue women had more rights in the time of Muhammad than in contemporary society?
     3.    How does location affect gender status? Provide specific examples.
     4.    How is homosexuality viewed within Islam?
     5.    Where does the West typically create its views of Islamic gender roles? Why is this restrictive?


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