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Neo-Traditionalist Scholars Do Not Speak for All Muslims Let them call you an infidel ~ Bulleh Shah (d. 1757)

Neo-Traditionalist Scholars Do Not Speak for All Muslims -

Written by Junaid Jahangir 

Like many mystics, Bulleh Shah did not resort to detailed theological expositions when he confronted the exclusivist positions taken by the clerical establishment of his time. This may be due to the futility of discussions where the outwardly religious are so shaped by their deeply entrenched prejudice that they fail to even recognize its presence. In the context of Islam and LGBTQ Muslims, that bias is shaped by exaggerated masculinity and the associated homophobia. Indeed, even as the neo-traditionalist scholars, for whom Islam is about railing against the ills of liberalism and secularism instead of sharing festivals and keeping neighborly relations, deny by their tongues that any homophobia shapes their religious discourse, their body language, facial contortions, tone, and choice of words gives it away.

For instance, in October, even as many Egyptian LGBTQ persons were being persecuted by the Egyptian state for waving a rainbow flag, the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar candidly expressed that, “The calls to allow homosexuality as a human right are blatant and are completely strange to Eastern men … who are naturally disgusted with such deviance.” Indeed, Imam Ghazali argued to the effect that sociological environments shape human beings and, hence, it is difficult to escape bias. This means that whereas LGBTQ Muslims are motivated by the human need for intimacy, affection, and companionship, it is equally true that neo-traditionalists are shaped by exaggerated masculinity, homophobia, and the desire to maintain status quo, which informs their interpretation of the scriptures.

Given such a deeply entrenched bias, no reasonable discourse can be entertained with the neo-traditionalists, who would simply shift from one argument to another in support of their already established conclusion of the categorical suppression of same-sex desire and its expression. This point is identified by Behnam Sadeghi, author of The Logic of Law Making in Islam, as legal inertia in that one justification replaces another in support of the preferred conclusion, a process which is only broken when societal change allows for the recognition that the erstwhile interpretation of the law is unduly burdensome.

This explains that the opposition to LGBTQ Muslims is not based on one consistent argument but a myriad of explanations, depending on the interlocutor and his preferred mode of projecting the scriptures. So, where some neo-traditionalists emphasize a de-contextualized phrase, “you approach men with desire instead of women,” others harp on Lut’s offer of his daughters to the unruly mob in support of their preferred position of prohibiting homosexual expression. Additionally, where some focus on a legal maxim on restricting marriage to men and women, others belabor the texts that prohibit members of the same gender from seeing each other’s private parts.

Absent in all such arguments is the same nuance and context that is observed on issues where legal inertia has been broken, as in the case of marriage of minors, physical discipline of wives, not befriending Jews and Christians and, of course, warfare. However, some neo-traditionalists, converts, and born again Muslims alike, seeking to address their existential angst by railing out against anything western as foreign and therefore worthy of contempt, decide to justify the narrative of salvific exclusivism and create social barriers by making heretics out of their co-religionists. Where many Muslims reject marriage of minors and physical discipline of wives, this small group of very bright and vocal neo-traditionalists, who were born in a world of immense privilege, seeks to resuscitate ancient texts as a tactic to push back against what they fear is the encroaching influence of secularism, liberalism, feminism, and LGBTQ rights. An example of such a revival is the case where a highly popular Muslim scholar resuscitated the texts on death for homosexual expression, through some maneuvering of “scholarship,” even as many past and present Muslim scholars had already rejected such texts.

“…Even if the arguments of neo-traditionalists are deconstructed, they will simply conjure up new ones.”

Such a revival of ancient texts is necessary for neo-traditionalists to reaffirm the taboo on homosexual expression, as they fear that the taboo has been severely undermined by social equality and human rights movements and that it would be a matter of time before Muslims accepted the inevitable – the affirmation of Muslim same-sex unions. Muslim academic, Michael Muhammad Knight writes:

They’re treating the preservation of homophobia as essential to Muslim survival. The oppression that the wallah-bros endure simply for their hatred of queerness is worse, in their eyes, than the oppressions endured for actually being queer. This is their straight-lives-matter delusion, and the sham ultimatum that they offer: namely, that you can either be pro-queer *or* resist Western/colonial/white/liberal/etc. hegemony, but you can never have both. … That ultimatum is a lie.”

Fear, of course, leads to aggressive responses by those who are unwilling to accept change. Indeed, after giving cold silence for 13 years to Scott Kugle’s seminal scholarship that affirms LGBTQ Muslims to live with dignity and with full humanity, including legitimate sexual expression, the neo-traditionalists finally decided to critique his work. This only proves that it was never about Kugle’s arguments, but about social changes that are prompting their vehement response.

However, Kugle has not responded, nor does he feel the need to respond. Imam Daayiee Abdullah, a symbol of great hope for LGBTQ Muslims, is also more concerned about nurturing the Muslim think tank MECCA Institute than he is about addressing the challenge posed by the neo-traditionalists. He simply argues that we are not interested in playing their games and certainly not on their terrain. In a similar vein, Dr. Knight has asserted to the effect that we cannot meet the neo-traditionalists where they are, because where they are, there is violence and death.

To reiterate, even if the arguments of neo-traditionalists are deconstructed, they will simply conjure up new ones. This is where the observation from Rumi’s words is quite apt that “Love alone cuts argument short, for it alone comes to the rescue when you cry for help against disputes.” Perhaps, this is why many LGBTQ Muslims do not engage with the neo-traditionalists. They simply tell their powerful stories and, in doing so, share their truth. They find the discourse on separating acts and desires, the narrative of a divine test for Heaven as uninteresting and irrelevant. They simply do not care about the discourse of neo-traditionalist fan boys who are interested in defending antiquated sharia laws, the narrative of dhimmis (protected minorities), Caliphates, kufr (apostasy), bida (innovation) or when they exploit the old ruse of ijma (consensus).

The point is there is no single voice in Islam, and while the neo-traditionalists seek to project their voices as those of normative Islam, they do not represent the entirety of Islam. They do not speak for independent Salafi thinkers, and those who follow the opinions of scholars like Javed Ghamidi and Khaled Abou Fadel, both of whom reject the narrative of salvific exclusivism. Likewise, they do not speak for Muslims from minority denominations like the Ahmadis, Bohras and Shia Ismailis, each of whom have their own religious leaders. In the same vein, they do not speak for a multitude of Muslims who refuse the old jargon of dhimmis and Caliphates in favour of democracy and human rights, Muslims who adopt vegan practices and those who establish inter-faith relationships and ties. Moreover, they do not speak for a rising cadre of Muslim women scholars, who interpret the tradition on their own and do not wish to be dictated by heterosexual male Muslim scholars on how to read the texts. They cannot all be simplistically lumped as “Progressive Muslims,” for each of them has more progressive or conservative opinions based on the issue at hand.

This means that when neo-traditionalists seek to create social exclusion and ostracism of LGBTQ Muslims through a discourse they deem as “compassionate,” based on the fear of eternal Hell fire, they are not harming any of the other groups, who would simply rebuff such a narrative as spiritually stingy, mean spirited, and antithetical to their understanding of an all embracing and inclusive Islam. For instance, Dr. Knight asserts:

“If people suggest hellfire as a real consequence in the “Islam and homosexuality” conversation, … You might think that you come off as benevolent and thoughtful, and perhaps you see your comment as an act of care. My act of care is that I’m not having threats of supernatural violence.”

As such, when neo-traditionalists put forth the legal maxim that marriage is restricted to men and women, many LGBTQ Muslims will not bother with the fact that the legal maxim came around 150 years after the Prophet, one that is a product of ijtihad (independent reasoning) and subject to challenge, as it was about legal control of a female’s private parts in the context where a vagina could be owned but not a penis. They will not be interested in the detail that such a maxim rested on verses 23:5-7 that were and remain subject to various interpretations, which allowed scholars to unreservedly allow masturbation and also marriage of the khuntha mushkil (indeterminate gender), and one that did not hinder minority scholars to think of legal contracts between men and male slaves. Indeed, many LGBTQ Muslims would not bother with such fine details. For that matter, mystic poets like Hafez would not have either, which is perhaps why he simply composed that “Not even 7000 years of joy can justify 7 days of repression.”

In the end, given societal changes, neo-traditionalists would not be able to affect any of the positions of the other Muslim groups and denominations, which is why they resort to social exclusion through takfir (excommunication) to maintain the hegemony of their discourse. They would, however, be able to influence the lives of Muslims struggling with their inner constitution and their families, who have willingly forsaken their liberty of thought and conscience and surrendered it to them instead of Allah SWT. In doing so, neo-traditionalists would maintain the status quo of sham marriages, severe cognitive dissonance, and secret multiple sexual encounters of those who blindly follow them and who become the worst judges of LGBTQ Muslims.

In essence, neo-traditionalists will only end up harming their own constituent base through their unwillingness to refresh their thoughts – their regurgitating of ancient legal manuals verbatim and promoting it as “scholarship.” But they are not fooling anybody else, simply because they do not speak for all Muslims.

Junaid Jahangir is Assistant Professor of Economics at MacEwan University

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