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Samar Habib

2 vols, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2010. pp. 503 + lxii, cloth, $104.95

This two-volume set is introduced in a foreword by Parvez Sharma in which he lucidly describes this work by pointing out that the issue of homosexuality is approximately the same in Islam as in Judaism and Christianity. He emphasizes that this same-sex preference is approximately as large a percentage of the Muslim population in any of its communities as it is in the other two religions of the book. Moreover, an official approval of homosexuality in Islam is about as likely as getting the Vatican to modify its rigid stance on sexuality in all of its nuances. Sharma is the producer of the remarkable documentary film, A jihad for Love that examines in detail, on the basis of personal interviews worldwide, the state of homosexuality in Islam and how gay persons are dealing with it. With Sharma's interesting and articulate essay kicking off this massive work, the reader is deeply engaged from the outset and it is difficult to put the volumes down.

Same-sex intercourse is condemned outright under Islamic law, and today, convictions of homosexual behavior are punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania, Sudan, and Yemen. Yet a study of Islamic religion and history shows a more nuanced view of homosexuality than often perceived. Evidence indicates that a genuine LGBTIIQ movement is gaining momentum in the Muslim world. Islam and Homosexuality gathers together 20 experts exploring these issues to provide an expansive look at the treatment of same-sex interactions in Muslim cultures today.

The first volume offers specific experiences of gay Muslims today, and its companion offers us a global perspective. The specific life experiences of LGBTIQ Muslim persons within Islamic nations and in the diaspora communities are explored in depth. The author of each chapter explores the quality of the homosexual experience, the roots of homophobia in Islamic theology, and the variety of judgments about homosexuality reflected in each of the large number of schools of Islamic law and philosophy. Throughout these two volumes the basis in the Qur'an and Hadith is explored for including or excluding LGBTIQ persons in Muslim society. This is the only current comprehensive source on this matter, despite the fact that Islam is one of the world's largest religions. This is the first time that the subject of homosexuality in Islam has been given such a deep and wide analysis.

The editor of these volumes, Dr. Samar Habib, is a professor at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She is the Editor in Chief of Nebula. Her previously published works include two definitive tomes: Female Homosexuality in the Middle East: Histories and Representations and Arabo-Islamic Texts on Female Homosexuality: 850-1780 AD.

Habib has provided us with a set of volumes containing 20 chapters, a 62-page introduction, extensive scholarly chapter notes, an adequate index, but unfortunately no integrated alphabetical bibliography in the end papers. The two volumes are beautifully organized and Praeger has presented them most attractively, as usual. The 20 chapters treat the following issues. Volume one has the politics of homophobia and persecution of homosexuals in Islam, fear and loneliness or isolation of gay persons in Islam, male homoerotic desire and public displays of affection in Arabic society, the problem of acceptance of homosexuality in relationship to economic issues, sexual orientation and chat room discourse, Allah's word and femaleness in Singapore, and neo-orthodox Islam in relationship to the unlawfulness of same-sex relations under the Hadith.

Volume two offers social constructions of religious realities by Queer Muslims, the possibility of Islam being gay-friendly, sexual purity in the context of Islam's objections, cases of same-sex unions, Queer visions of Islam, identity problems for a Queer American Muslim, narratives from diasporic Muslim women and gay-liberation, hiding in the many different closets, marketing the diversity in Queer Turkish organizations in Berlin today, the experience of diasporic Islam communities, and sexualities and the social order in Arab and Muslim communities.

In her remarkably helpful and revealing Introduction to these volumes Habib points out that it is easy for non-Muslims, apparently, to judge that alternative forms of sexuality in Arab cultures are markedly different from those in the West. There is a rumor afloat that Arab cultures are generally bisexual but the condition is unnamed in their communiites. Habib insists that the patterns are approximately the same among Muslims and others, since apparently the genetic pattern of inborn homosexuality and heterosexuality is essentially the same as in the West and in the far East. As is the entire set of 20 chapters, the introduction is very tightly argued and illustrated with illumining data. Each sentence and paragraph is weighty with engaging and substantive prose. These volumes are a delight to read and provide substantive new insights.

In her consideration of the principles of human rights and the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Habib notes that a counter proposal was written entitled, The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. It argued that the UN document was an imposition of a Western set of social values upon cultures in which such perspectives were foreign and even illegal, particularly cultures in which sharia law prevails. The UN proposal does not consider the Patriarchy of Islam, its regulations permitting enslavement of non-Muslims, and banning homosexuality. The Islamic document further argues that in cultures in which religious requirements differ from Western social values, the UN document cannot be held to be universally applicable.

Habib argues against that interpretation by pointing out the universal character of the suffering humans endure in all forms of slavery or oppression by others, repression of women, constrictions on the natural function of homosexual persons, and all other forms of social abuse, ostracism, harassment, and bullying. These all result from the sharia laws that are being defended by the Islamic document and it must be agreed that all humans so tortured suffer in a universally similar degree and fashion.

Hence the values in the UN document are not particularistic to Western values, but are universals, and should be universally applicable. Habib sites numerous illustrations from Muslim Indonesia in which a moderate, open-society approach is formally agreed upon by most citizens and promoted by the government and society in general. Thus in Indonesia homosexuality, for example, is not officially negatively viewed or oppressed. Even the Indonesian Muslim Fundamentalists who disagree with this official posture, "preach a peaceful form of dissent against homosexual persons" (xxiv). On this point Habib concludes that it is important for the world to get to the point at which the Western engagement with Islam is no longer adversarial and militant but dialogic and shaped into a discourse that will invite shared values. In Shi'ite dominated Islam there tends to be a very conservative sharia-shaped posture toward these matters.

Walter Williams' chapter on the politics of homophobia presents a passionate personal account of sharia repression of sexual freedom. Habib argues that a reformation in Islam is necessary. It requires a critical revision of the classical explanations of the Qur'an. This is especially true regarding issues of sexuality, feminism, and woman-ism, but must reach beyond that to political freedom, social openness, religious flexibility, and ethical claims on individual's lives. "Generally speaking, because of the cultural taboos as well as the legal sanctions against homosexual conduct and relations, life for individuals with non-normative sexuality in the Arab Muslim world may be lived inside a culturally unique closet, but a closet is still a closet" (xxix).

Max Kramer, in his chapter on the ideological drivers of the sexuality issues raises the question whether a diaspora Muslim homosexual who is able to exercise relative freedom while living in a non-Muslim nation can ever come back to the homeland, even on pilgrimage, and expect congenial treatment. He concludes that this is unlikely in such nations as Iran with its Shi'ite sharia, or in Saudi Arabia with its Wahabi form of conservative Sunni social order.

Kramer remarks probatively, that the Eastern closet and Western closet operate differently, for in the former homosexuality may be absolutely accommodated if it does not obstruct the standard obligations of marriage and reproduction and stays out of sight. "Nevertheless one cannot help but see this accommodation as disingenuous, for we all can tolerate that which we do not see and which remains hidden from our view" (xxxvi). Kramer says, however, that the idea of homosexual relationships is so well established in most small Islamic communities that people would simply laugh if an issue were raised about it.

In the discussion of Islamic theology related to sexual variety Muslims generally agree that while the Qur'an condemns it roundly, a great deal of theological writing over the last century has raised the questions that try to open the community to reconsidering the rigidity of orthodox Islam. This increasing flow of new thought, and its publication, suggests the possibility of more fruitful dialogue on the matter between East and West. Mahuq Khan examines how homosexual Muslims who live in the United States reconcile their membership in a traditional religious community and in the civil society. He concludes that such folk are oppressed by a number of layers of pressure and that they are targets of hate and discrimination, however, a vigorous conversation is flourishing regarding this among second and third generation Muslims themselves, and converts to the community.

Rabab Abdulhadi, in the concluding chapter of Islam and Homosexuality, entitled Sexualities and the Social Order in Arab and Muslim Communities, argues that throughout the history of Islam, with its numerous Caliphates and its variety of cultures, there has been a wide range in differences regarding sexual ideas, expectations, requirements, and practices. The early Caliphates, the age of conquest, the secularism of the Ottoman Empire, the Spanish Caliphate, and modem forms of Islam were all wildly differing communities, each with its own sexual practices, religious emphases, and public or legal expectations.

Habib closes her comments on the matter by urging strongly that the time has come in which it is imperative that "The pernicious stereotype of a morally fraught, lascivious homosexual who brings and spreads disease and who contravenes upon the laws of nature, so readily propagated in the Muslim and Arab imagination, needs to be challenged by pious Muslims themselves, if not by secular and queer citizens of the Muslim world." She further declares that it is imperative that "a recognition of inevitable diversity prevails in the normative Islam of the future" (lviii). This will require that a homosexual-friendly Islamic hermeneutics is developed that rejects the unauthenticated Hadith's negative discussion of homosexuality. Obversely, she sees it as equally urgent that Western caricatures of Islam and of Muslim persons are eroded by means of honest and wholesome dialogue between the cultures, between persons, and between the value systems each holds.

It is my judgment that she is correct and that such dialogue may help a great deal, and is our only chance for a future for this world. This two-volume publication is very well done and extremely informative, and it will have a deep and long impact upon both Western and Islamic cultures. It is likely to do more to eliminate militant conservative Islam than can be accomplished by military action. This is the kind of work that needs to be done. Samar Habib is to be highly commended for her wisdom and courage.
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Author:Ellens, J. Harold
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2012

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