by Faris Malik
My purpose, as always, is to argue the perennial question for LGBT Muslims: What does Islam say about homosexuality and is it punishable under Islamic law? The short answer, which I have presented many times in the past, is that, like many other ancient texts containing moral and legal and/or quasi-legal prescriptions, the Qur'an forbids only the use of a "male" in the passive role in sexual intercourse; meanwhile, the male was defined in ancient times as the one who plays the male role in procreation, a definition that excludes all who do not play the male role in procreation, including women and exclusively homosexual men. For more explanation of this thesis, see my web page "Born Eunuchs: Homosexual Identity in the Ancient World."
This is a simple thesis that requires relatively few words to present. But this time I am going to go further and argue that the entire notion of an Islamic state authority is invalid. I will hint at how it is possible that, on the one hand, God does not condemn homosexuality and yet, on the other hand, all those who pretend to exercise power on God's behalf, do condemn it.
Whenever you get ready to make a giant leap, it is often useful to go back some distance so that you can get a running start. So I am going to go back about 30,000 years, to what archaeologists call the Old Stone Age - to a time when God was worshipped in the form of a Great Mother, who combined within Herself female and male principles and was known as the Creative Source of Life. My source for this information is a wonderful book by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford called The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, which is available from Penguin Books.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism - and basically anyone else interested in knowing about God. Marshalling evidence from archeology and ancient mythology, the authors present the idea that for most of the past 30,000 years, the Creator has been worshipped as a Great Mother, who appears as the Creative Source of Life, as a Goddess of Vegetation, and as a Goddess of Life, Death and Regeneration, acting in and through a variety of cyclical rhythms perhaps best symbolized by the phases of the moon, but also apparent in the cycle of the seasons, the water cycle, the cycle of life and death, the menstrual cycle, the cycles of the heavens, and all the other many cycles that are observable in nature.
About 7,000 years ago then (based on the evidence of stone-age artifacts), the image of God was divided into separate female and male elements, with the male as the child of the female who then returns to her as a lover in another never-ending cycle. The image of God as Mother carried over from the Old Stone Age to the New Stone Age and the development from nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures to settled agricultural communities. And still the cyclical nature of life reinforced a conception that God gave rise to life in various forms and then accepted that life back into Herself through death and then brought it back again through regeneration. Evidence of this Goddess worship covers a geographical spread from Europe through the Middle East to the Indus Valley, and similar notions of God are found in cultures around the world.
About 4,500 BCE things began to change around the Middle East and Mediterranean with the first waves of invasion by so-called Indo-European nomads. But even into the Bronze Age and the discovery of writing, the mythology of the Mother Goddess and her daughter or son-lover survives and takes on new forms. The names of the Goddess in different cultures are still familiar to us: Inanna, Isis, Cybele, Gaia, Hera, Demeter. One of the many things that the LGBT community may find interesting about ancient mother goddesses is that their priests and officiants included non-procreative men and women who were defined as gender-crossers, the lesbians, gays and transgenders of the ancient world.
However, the advent of writing facilitated developments that eventually diminished the authority of the goddess cults. These included the increased importance of commerce, increased accumulation of wealth in urban centers, and the concentration of populations into larger towns and cities. The differentiation of labor and skills that developed in an urban environment led to a differentiation of deities, and the original Mother Goddess gave birth, according to the new myths, to many more deities who governed the various types of professions. The increasing competition within and between communities helped male gods move increasingly to the center of consciousness. Eventually, the younger gods overthrew and destroyed the older gods. Rivalries between cities led to wars, continued nomadic invasions increased the level of violence, cities began to build walls to protect themselves, and old ideas of life, death, and regeneration as stages within a holistic, cyclical system gave way to terror, and fear of death as the final end to life.
It is at this point in human history that the God of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition begins to reveal Himself. But this time, the Creator absolutely prohibits any images to be made of Himself and refuses to be categorized in terms of gender. (Here I am departing from Baring and Cashford's book, since the authors argue that the use of the masculine pronoun "He" and His origin as a god of patriarchal Semitic nomadic tribes mean that Yahweh-Elohim is a male god. I am not bothered by either of these arguments, since "he" can be, has been, and is used for non-gendered beings and for both males and females when gender is not specified. As to God having revealed Himself to patriarchal nomadic tribes, well, obviously they weren't "getting it" any other way. You can hint and hint all you want, but with some people who are quite thick-headed and unable to intuit the subtle workings of the Creator by the observation of nature, you may eventually have to come out and say what you mean in clear language!)
God is explicitly identified as dual-gendered in the book of Genesis. In an often misinterpreted verse, man is said to be created in the image of God in that he is created male and female. Now it is true that unlike the old Mother Goddess, who gives birth to the world, Yahweh-Elohim speaks the world into existence. But although He does not give birth to the world, and although He is referred to using the masculine pronoun, in many other ways God resembles the old Mother Goddess of prehistoric times. For one thing, He is One, encompassing the entire universe. None of the male gods worshipped prior to and at the same time as Yahweh, such as Marduk, Enki, Zeus, or Osiris, were said to be so all-encompassing. The only equivalents one can find to Yahweh in this respect are old goddesses such as the Syrian goddess Cybele, or the Egyptian Maat, who gave order to the entire universe. Also, Yahweh is exclusive: there is no other God but Him. He controls the cyclical processes of nature. He brings life, death, and rebirth. And like the old Mother Goddess (and unlike many of the male gods) He is never embodied in any ruler or form of government. So Yahweh embodies many of the characteristics of female divinities, but with a male or neutral pronoun in place of the feminine.
Turning to Islam: the name of God in Arabic - Allah - presents an interesting case of gender ambiguity. It ends in a consonant "ha" (sounds like "h") that visually and tonally resembles the consonant in the standard Arabic feminine ending, which is "ta-marbuta". That consonant "ta-marbuta" is usually silent like "h" at the end of a word, although it will sound like "t" before words that start with vowels. The letter "ta-marbuta" is even shaped like a "ha", except it has the two dots of a "ta" over it. However, the convention of writing diacritical marks, like these two dots over "ta" and "ta-marbuta", was instituted several centuries after the Qur'an was revealed. Until diacritical marks were instituted, the last letter in the name of Allah would have been visually indistinguishable from the feminine ending.
The Goddess is mentioned in the Qur'an (Sura 53:19) and, perhaps to avoid the type of inference that I am making here, her name is spelled "ALLAT" using a final letter "ta" that must always be pronounced "t". Speakers of Arabic might understand the point better. There are two words in Arabic, Allah and Allat, that mean God and Goddess, respectively. The final letter of Allat - "ta" - is close in essence to "ta-marbuta", which is the consonant used in the ordinary feminine singular ending. (In fact, "ta" is itself the standard feminine plural ending.) In turn, "ta-marbuta", if written without diacritical marks, is visually identical to the final letter of Allah - "ha" - and, like "ha", is generally not pronounced at the end of a word. Therefore, the name Allah would sound exactly the same, and without diacritical marks, would look exactly the same if it ended in "ta-marbuta" and thus in a feminine ending. Moreover, diacritical marks were not written in Arabic for centuries after Muhammad's death. Could it be that Allat changed Her name to Allah, a name with echoes of femininity but that is not feminine, in order to disabuse people of the false notion that She/He was gendered female?
Allah hypothetical spelling Allat
of "God" with a
feminine singular ending
Support for this hypothesis is provided by another interesting circumstance. Ancient pre-Muhammadan sources written in Greek give the name of the Arabian goddess as "Alilat". The first two letters are obviously the Arabic definite article, and the word ilat designates the goddess. The word does not exist anymore in Arabic. But there is word ilah meaning god (with a small "g"). This word is used in the Muslim declaration of faith: La ilah illa Allah (there is no god but God). In this case we see that a word meaning deity had feminine and masculine forms at one time, but only the masculine form survives.
This offers an exact parallel to what I am suggesting happened to Allat/Allah's name. It is as if the new name would inform us: "That which you were identifying as a female Mother Goddess is actually a Transcendent Being without gender." (Another interesting curiosity about the Arabic language is that all non-human plurals take the form of the feminine singular. In other words, the entire universe, with all of its contents, consists of a single feminine entity.)
Next, the black meteorite stone that marks the start of each circumambulation around the Ka'aba is reminiscent of Mother Goddess worship. The Black Stone of Mecca "was worshipped as an image of the goddess until the rise of Islam" (Baring and Cashford, p. 396).
Coincidentally, the Great Mother Cybele, center of one of the greatest popular cults of the Roman Empire, was symbolized by a black meteorite stone that was famously transferred from Asia Minor to Rome at the behest of the oracle, when Rome was threatened by invasion from Hannibal. Not that Cybele was a Roman goddess - far from it. She was originally and she remained a foreign Eastern goddess. Most upstanding Roman citizens found the ecstatic rites of Cybele's far-out gender-crossing priests appalling. Roman citizens were prohibited from serving as her priests. Rome was a society concerned with state order and manly virtue, and dominated by the stern father god Jupiter. But Cybele found a following nonetheless among the lower classes and those Romans with less strict moral and philosophical pretensions. The temple of the Magna Mater was built on the Palatine Hill, where its remains still stand.
Besides her being symbolized by the Black Stone, another weird coincidence raises the possibility of a linkage between the Great Mother and the God of Islam. According to Baring and Cashford, Cybele may be a later name of a Babylonian goddess Kumbaba. Both names, like the word Ka'aba itself, are thought to mean "cube," which is the shape of the Ka'aba and a symbol of the pedestal or throne of the Goddess. (In the statue of the Great Mother on the Palatine Hill in Rome, she appears to be sitting on a cube-shaped block.)
"The priests who tended the [Ka'aba] even after the rise of Islam were known as 'the sons of the Old Woman'" (Baring and Cashford, p. 396). In fact, gender-variant guardians, like the gender-variant priests of many Mother Goddess figures including Cybele, tended the Ka'aba as well as the tomb of the Prophet until well into the twentieth century. Among their privileges/duties were to stay overnight in the shrines and to light the lamps around the Prophet's tomb. The latter of these duties was discontinued under the rule of the Saudis, who installed electric lights.
The parallels between the ways of Allah and the old reputed ways of the Mother Goddess are fascinating. And yet among mainstream Muslims, all that has to do with the Mother Goddess is dismissed under the heading of idolatry and polytheism, aspects of the Age of Ignorance (al-Jahiliya). The suggestion that I am making here, that there may be an identification worth investigating between what we worship as Allah and what Old Stone Age man worshipped as the Goddess, will be considered blasphemous by many. That is certainly not how it is in tended - quite the contrary! But why should it be considered blasphemous? Belief in God as Mother is not in itself polytheism. In Her day, the Mother Goddess was seen as the One and Only Creator. Might it not be that, having been driven from people's consciousness by the violence of the later Bronze and Iron Ages, She simply began to reveal Herself to in Her true nature - above and beyond gender - while forbidding images to be made of Her/Him because they lead to misconceptions about Her/His nature? After all, an axe- or sword-brandishing mounted warrior was less likely to be intimidated and chastened by a Mother, than by a stern Transcendent Being who passed as male.
The two adjectives most often used to describe God in Muslim discourse, Ar-Rahman and Ar-Raheem, are absolute and superlative forms of the root R-H-M, which means "womb." So God is the "wombiest" of all wombs. These words are often translated as "Beneficent and Merciful", calling up images of male monarchs or judges, but they can be just as well translated "Kind and Compassionate", a more nurturing, motherly image.
Finally, God is portrayed throughout the Qur'an acting in ways reminiscent of the old Mother Goddess and her power over the cycle of birth, life, death, and regeneration (e.g. Qur'an 2:22, 2:255, 2:267, 3:27, 6:6, 6:95-99, 6:133, 6:141, 6:147, 7:25, 7:57, 7:58, 10:4, 10:24, 10:31, 10:34, 13:3, 14:32, 15:19, 16:11, 16:65-70, 18:37, 18:45, 20:53, 20:55, 21:104, 22:5, 23:14, 23:19, 23:31, 23:42, 26:7, 27:25, 27:60-67, 28:57, 29:19, 29:20, 29:56, 30:11, 30:19-30, 31:10, 32:27, 34:2, 35:11, 35:27, 36:33-40, 36:77-81, 39:21, 40:7, 40:67, 41:47, 43:11, 45:15, 50:7-11, 50:43, 53:32, 53:47, 57:4, 67:23, 71:17, 71:18, 76:28, 78:6-16, 80:24-32, 85:13, 87:4-5). For example:
Do you not see how Allah has created the seven heavens one above
And made the moon therein a light, and made the sun a lamp?
And Allah has made you grow out of the earth as a growth:
Then He returns you to it, then he will bring you forth a (new) bringing forth:
And Allah has made for you the earth a wide expanse,
That you may go along therein in wide paths.
And the earth, We have made it plain and cast in it mountains and
We have made to grow therein of all beautiful kinds,
To give sight and as a reminder to every servant who turns frequently (to Allah).
And We send down from the cloud water abounding in good, then We cause to grow thereby gardens and the grain that is reaped,
And the tall palm trees having spadices closely set one above another,
A sustenance for the servants, and We give life thereby to a dead land; thus is the rising.
[Translation by M.H. Shakir]
As fascinating as Qur'anic theology is, it has not captured the imagination of the agents of Islam, the "'ulama'" (scholars), who from the days of the earliest caliphs seem to have been mainly focused on issues of religious law and authority to rule. The question of who had the authority to rule the Muslim community began to divide the Muslims almost from the moment of Muhammad's death and still nominally divides Muslims into Shi'a and Sunni.
Amazingly, given the history of Islam, the Qur'an does not provide a basis for anyone at all to claim authority to rule, that is, other than God alone. Although, in the Revelation, Muslims are commanded to obey Allah and His messenger, there is no instruction about how to proceed after the messenger is no longer around. There is no mention of the messenger having a "successor" (khalifa). Once he was dead, that was it. He is gone from our midst. The division of the Muslims into Shi'a and Sunni stems from the fact that, apparently, Muhammad himself did not appoint a successor in any public, indisputable manner, if at all, and the early Muslims were left to join camps behind one claimant or another.
There is no Qur'anic basis for the creation of an Islamic state, a set of judges, or a school of law. And yet establishing a code of laws and the authority for a state seems to have been the single overriding focus of the early Muslims. How can this be explained?
For the past year and a half, I have been reading a lot of the Greek philosopher Plato, and I am struck by how well his "State" lines up with the medieval religious states of Christianity and Islam. This, and the fact that Plato would have liked to prohibit, for example, the consumption of alcohol and the possession of gold and silver, made me suspect that his thought had some influence on the development of Islamic law.
So as I began to prepare this presentation, I was expecting to find that Islamic law exhibited all kinds of parallels to Platonic "laws". After all, by the time these Islamic laws began to be written down and codified, almost the entire Muslim empire consisted of territory once conquered by Alexander, the student of Aristotle, who in turn was the student of Plato. Half of the Muslim empire had been once part of the Roman empire. Since the work of Plato and his student Aristotle had been so influential for so many centuries in the territories that had fallen under the domination of Alexander the Great and his successors, and then under the rule of the Roman emperors, it was natural to suspect some legacy from Greek political philosophy in the developing Muslim state. However, I discovered that there were no clear parallels between Plato's recommended set of laws and the set of laws known as the shari'a. Except for the rules about wine-drinking and some restrictions on gold and silver ownership, the bulk of Islamic laws do not echo any specific legal statutes suggested by Plato.
It was not individual laws that matched up - but there was nonetheless a great parallel. The structure of Muslim society contained a major element of Plato's ideal republic. It was the theory that a small educated class, trained in an obscure body of knowledge that would make them morally superior to everyone else, ought to administer a set of laws that govern the state. The 'ulama', or scholar class, aspired to a role analogous to the guardians or rulers of Plato's polis. Admittedly, the correspondence between the Platonic republic and the Islamic state was nowhere close to perfect, for the 'ulama' never actually ruled the state. Rather, most of the Muslim states that existed throughout history were ruled by political autocrats who did not have the scholars' training in Islamic law. But the 'ulama' served as advisors and moral arbiters within the state, sometimes empowered like the priests of the ancient kingdoms of Judah or Israel, at other times on the outside like the Biblical prophets, calling an immoral leadership to account.
In fact, it is more accurate to say that for most of Islamic history, the various Muslim states represented a combination of Plato's Republic and a traditional Eastern empire such as the Persian empires of Cyrus and Darius. What was traditional was the supreme authority of the caliph or sultan (analogous to that of an ancient emperor), and the surrounding of the monarch with a large palace staff of eunuchs and the monarch's harem. What was republican was the preservation of an elaborate body of written laws, alleged to be of divine and/or prophetic origin, handed down from teacher to student, which was intended to form the basis for an ideal reform of political life. The four schools of Sunni Islamic law functioned like the schools of philosophy of the classical world. The formula repeated throughout the hadith collections - "it is reported that the Messenger of God said" - recalls the formula of the Pythagorean school of philosphy - "ipse dixit." Proficiency in a school of laws qualified a scholar to a position of authority in the community, and as a collective group, within the state.
But while the 'ulama' collectively formed a power group that could influence state policy, they could never determine it absolutely. Different caliphs took different attitudes toward the 'ulama'. The early Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs often asserted their authority in the face of opposition from prominent 'ulama' representatives. Ibn Hanbal, the name-sake of the Hanbali school of law, was imprisoned by the Abbasid caliph for refusing to adhere to the caliph's doctrine that the Qur'an was a created, as opposed to uncreated, thing. On the other hand, when Turks and Mongols ran the Islamic empires, they attempted to legitimize their authority by following the lead of the 'ulama' in matters of doctrine, the same way the Byzantine emperors deferred to the Christian church hierarchy in matters of religion.
But now in the modern world, the republican world view has completely prevailed over the traditional imperial world view. The caliphate has disappeared, and the competition in Muslim societies is now between secular republicans (such as the Egyptian government) and religious republicans (such as the Iranian government). All present-day Muslim governments have their heritage in Plato's republic, and it is no coincidence that many of the prominent Muslim states are now called "republics".
And yet, the idea of an Islamic republic, or any kind of Islamic state at all, finds no basis in the Qur'an. There is no religious hierarchy in Islam. Each person stands alone before God, and is solely obligated to God (although God may demand certain behavior toward others). Not to say that Islam forbids the establishment of a state - just that no state can claim Islam as a basis for its legitimacy. "There is no compulsion in religion." Yet states are coercive by nature.
We can see the danger of declaring an Islamic state in the modern treatment
of homosexuals in Muslim countries. The Qur'an carefully avoids any condemnation
of homosexuals, although it condemns the sexual penetration of non-homosexual
men and boys. Not even the hadith justify the condemnation of homosexuals,
since they condemn only the practice of the "people of Lot", who were non-homosexuals.
But the structure of what is erroneously called the Islamic state makes
it possible to condemn homosexuals, nonetheless, and the theory of republican
morality makes such condemnation likely. The spread of republicanism throughout
the world has gone hand in hand with the oppression of lesbians, gays,
bisexuals, and transgenders. Plato advocated a prohibition of non-marital
sexuality, and down to the last century all advocates of republican government
have followed him in that. They have claimed that "natural law" supports
such a prohibition. Yet it is a very limited concept of nature that republicans
use to define "natural law." Instead of passively observing the "signs"
of God, and recognizing that God alone is the Knower, they use logic to
derive an incomplete understanding of what is natural. They substitute
their own limited rationalism for the humble affirmation that God knows
best. They rely on their reason to justify aggression toward others.
* * *
We are all so used to republican government that it is worthwhile to think about what other forms of government are possible.
Prior to any government there is anarchy. Each family takes care of its own needs and the needs of its friends, and those members of the family who are most apt at decision-making naturally take on that role. Under such an arrangement, the gay members of the family usually play a special role as peace-keepers and spiritual advisers. When families accumulate into a larger community, the gay members of each family form friendships with members of other families, but because these gay folks do not have children, they devote their full energies to the community rather than to raising offspring of their own. So the gay members of the community begin to form a priesthood to which every family contributes its members who are designated for that role by their special sexual orientation and gender status. So long as there is peace in the community, this system works well. These are true theocracies. They are generally free but are guided by a small number of unwritten rules administered by a group of people whom the Deity has designated for this purpose by making them non-procreative and spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally sensitive. The great civilizations developed as these communities grew larger and larger and accumulated wealth. Eventually, though, the wealth of certain communities attracted raiders from outside the community. It became necessary to create a military defense, and at this point the males began to assume leadership roles, although still advised by the gay members of the community.
Among the outside raiders, gay people were not allowed to play a mediating role. Life consisted of continual warfare for these folks. The social structure was entirely military, and the men who were strong in battle assumed leadership. The rest of the community was basically under these men's control. For the sake of military efficiency, a single member of the military group might be chosen as a "first among equals", so that decisions could be made that would be binding on all. This is the basis of feudalism.
In some cases, these two forms of social organization were combined. Perhaps raiding groups invaded settled civilized groups and ended up staying. Then the infrastructure of civilization, including the gay priesthood, came under the control of a military organization. Perhaps the "first among equals" from the old raiding party begins to aspire to the absolute rule and divine status of the kings of the civilizations they have conquered. Then he will want to be protected from other possible aspirants to such status by having a bodyguard of persons who cannot compete with him for that position. The king surrounds himself with a buffer of gay men, none of whom can be king themselves. The other members of the military group are kept at a safe distance from the king. They form the class of nobles. The nobles continually aim to assert their own power as opposed to the king's power, and they see the gay palace bureaucrats as an obstacle in their path.
Thus we have the various forms of government that have existed up until the development of republicanism. Anarchy, gay theocracy, absolute monarchy with gay palace bureacrats, feudal monarchy where the king is simply "the first among equals", and a combination of absolute and feudal monarchy, in which nobles compete with gay palace bureacrats for control of the throne. The only other form of government that had existed prior to the republic was elective democracy, which existed for a short time in Athens and can only work in small communities where it is possible for everyone to vote on every issue that confronts the group.
With the Republic, Plato was basically designing a society that was supposed to be better than Athenian democracy because it would be controled by persons who were more qualified to rule than the common crowd. And it would be better than what he called tyranny (absolute monarchy) and oligarchy or timarchy (feudalism), because the members of the society would be free. The government he envisioned was similar in many ways to the old theocracy in which a gay priesthood ruled the state for the benefit of the people. The difference was, though, that the ruling group would not be made up of gays. As long as being gay was the qualification for membership in the priesthood, it was truly God who decided who the priests should be, since it is God who makes certain people gay. In Plato's Republic, the members of the ruling group would be chosen by the previous members of the group, and homosexual sex was a disqualification. Plato's intention was to create a group of rulers who would serve the community peacefully at home, while being fierce in fighting external enemies.
For most of the history of Christianity and Islam, we have seen the combination of absolute and feudal monarchy, with Islam tending more toward the absolute model and Christianity more toward the feudal model. But in both cases, there has also been a group of republicans trying to exert control over the state. In Islam, these were the 'ulama', in Christianity the Christian church. The Christian church succeeded in gaining control of government where the 'ulama' failed. But the eventual failure of the church to rule effectively and fairly led to the overthrow of the church, and eventually to the overthrow of monarchy, and to a secular republicanism. Then, with the help of the Christian West, the absolute monarchy of the Muslim world collapsed, and since then secular and religious republicans have competed for control. The religious republicans claim to be acting on God's behalf, trying to institute God's law, but they are not chosen by God to rule, and there is no foundation for their claim to establishing an Islamic government. They end up only being oppressive. The only Islamic form of government would be, if anything, a government without coercion, namely the anarchy that naturally leads to a gay theocracy.
Secular republicanism has now degenerated into capitalism without any
kind of moral constraint, because it is still being run by straight folks
trying to enrich their own families at the expense of the community and
the environment. But secular elective republicanism can also lead to a
version of gay theocracy. Until the last couple of decades, it has been
impossible for an openly gay person to get elected. But as the old Platonic
prejudice against gays fades away, more and more gays will be chosen to
serve. With their inherent sense of truth, justice, and beauty, gays may
be able to do a better job than straights in terms of balancing the interests
of society, and taking care of the planet. Gays can be almost exasperating
in their determination to do things the right way. As long as gays, the
priests of the Great Mother, are given the opportunity to serve, the world
will be a lot better off.
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