Discussions of Islam and homosexuality depend greatly on how one defines ‘homosexuality' and how one defines ‘Islam'.

First, let us define ‘homosexuality' as sexual activity between two people of the same gender and ‘Islam' as the high tradition of Islamic law (the Shariah). In Islamic law, sexual relations outside of marriage are prohibited, and marriage is defined (in its very dry and legal sense) as a contract between a man and a woman which allows them to engage in sexual intercourse. Marriage is, in its plainest legal sense (as opposed to its emotional and spiritual senses, which are discussed at length by Muslim scholars), a contract in which the man agrees to support the woman in return for the exclusive right to enjoy her sexual and reproductive capacity. Following the same legal idiom of ownership, concubinage (a Muslim man having sex with a female slave he owned) was also permitted. It is important to note that Islamic law does not concern itself with same-sex attraction, only action.

Fornication, or sex outside of marriage, is defined as the entry of the penis into the vagina. Certainly, Islamic law censures sexual activity other than intercourse (making-out, oral sex etc.,) as obscene, but it is not considered fornication and is not subject to its severe punishments: either 100 lashes (for the unmarried) or stoning to death (for adulterers). In light of the Shariah, then, homosexual activity like oral sex or kissing would be classified as obscene.

Muslim legal scholars concluded that the punishment for anal sex between men be the same as fornication/vaginal penetration - death -, although some jurists felt that if it is the first time a person commits this act the judge could determine a lesser punishment. Muslim scholars arrived at this ruling based on the Quranic story of the people of Lot (the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah), whom the Quran describes as engaging in homosexuality, but more specifically on rulings by Muhammad (called Hadith) and on the basis of analogy to heterosexual fornication. Lesbianism is not considered on the same level as anal sex between men because no biological penetration occurs, so sexual activity between women is considered obscene behavior and subject to discretionary punishment by an Islamic judge.

From the perspective of traditional Islamic law, same-sex marriage would make no sense; who is purchasing whose sexual/reproductive rights? Since same-sex marriage is a non-starter, the Shariah allows no legitimate space for homosexual relations.

If, on the other hand, we define ‘Islam' as the refined cultures of Islamic civilization, such as medieval Baghdad or Ottoman Istanbul, then homosexuality has thrived in Islam!

Even strict Muslim scholars wrote elaborate treatises on love between men, and this love often verges on the sexual. But homosexual relationships, in their explicit sexual sense, have also been common in many parts of the Muslim world. In part this probably stems from the strict gender segregation in many Muslim societies throughout history.

It is also simply a continuity of the Greek and Near Eastern tradition of homosexuality as a refined type of love, the likes of which we read about in Plato's works. This culture of homoeroticism spawned many remarkable works of Islamic literature, such as an essay written by the famous ninth-century Iraqi scholar al-Jahiz on the competing virtues of heterosexual sex versus sex with young boys.

Of course, there was tremendous tension between the strictures of Islamic law and his culture of refined homosexuality. Remarkably, the two have coexisted for most of Islamic history.

What do you think?

Join the discussion on gender and sexuality in Islam.

Today, a group of liberal Muslims in the West is arguing that homosexuality is in fact allowed in the Shariah. They argue that the Quran's story of Lot was a condemnation of non-consensual sex, not homosexuality. Furthermore, they argue that the reports condemning homosexuality attributed to Muhammad are not historically reliable. Rather, they were made up by a society that inherited a Judeo-Christian aversion to homosexuality.

Almost all traditional Muslim scholars, however, reject this argument as breaking with what has been known for centuries as the Shariah's clear stance on the issue. This majority enjoys the public support of Muslim societies, which tend to publicly condemn homosexuality even if it is privately wide-spread.