Culture, Theology, and Exegesis

Rev. Miller Hoffman

Across faith systems, authors describe the impact of homophobia and transphobia on faith and theology, in particular its severe limit of God’s love (agape in Greek, mahabba in Arabic) and graciousness. Hendricks (2016) emphasizes that the will and guidance of Allah “unconditionally encourages Muslims to base their way of life on love, oneness, peace, mercy, compassion, and humanity” (p. 107). O’Brien (2014) argues that queer Christians in her study believe their very presence to benefit the church, because the institution is forced to examine its Christian values and extend God’s infinite love to all. She reframes the modern proverb, “hate the sin, love the sinner” to posit the church as the sinner and its failure to love what God has created as the sin. Gender/queer participation in religious communities has led to creation of Christian denominations, Jewish streams, and Muslim groups dedicated to ministering to LGBTQ communities, as well as a rash of formal statements of inclusion, affirmation, or openness by mainline denominations and communities.

LGBQ-Affirming Fatwa and Itjihad

A World Values Survey (Becker, 2010) conducted repeatedly and in more than 60 global societies showed that Muslim societies are largely opposed to queer sexuality and its acceptance. To fully understand this, it is important to remember the influences of society and culture on attitudes toward queer sexuality. The single non-conflicted Muslim participant in Siraj’s study, discussed above, was only able to be out after moving from South Africa to Britain; she attributed the intolerance that had closeted her not to religion, but to “repressive cultural and social mores” (Siraj, 2012, 459). Beckers’s cross-national large-scale surveys show empirically what that participant knew from lived experience: religious tradition and religious culture alone do not account for the intolerance of queer sexuality. Although countries with a high Islamic religious tradition held anti-gay attitudes, highly modernized societies tended to favor more acceptance, and anti-gay animus peaked when compounded by lower responsive democracy, infringements on nature, and more criminalization of queer sex (Beckers, 2010).

Becker’s analysis further shows that strong negative attitudes toward queer sexual attraction and sex acts may be relatively new within Islam and may be tied to questionable hadith (sayings of and about the prophet). Indeed, verse by the classical Arabian poet Abu Nawas, believed to be sexually liaised with a 22-year-old caliph, describes his love of and admiration for the younger man’s body and demonstrates an early cultural tolerance for queer romantic desire. Becker (2010) suggests that anti-gay animus may have been a Western import through colonialism. It is also possible that Islamic condemnation of queer sexuality was aggravated by European medieval Protestantism, which viewed acceptance of queer sexual attraction as a confirmation of Muslim immorality: “Homosexuality between man and boy was never considered in any way abnormal or shameful in Morocco until the infiltration of European opinion with the French [occupation]’” (Beckers, 2010, 65), and in fact since the fifth century BCE, Christian dogma and Jewish tradition were more rigid and less liberal regarding sexuality than Islam. (Conversely, or correspondingly, Western influence and liberalism is also held responsible for pro-queer influences on Islam, or “homosexualism” (see, e.g., Zollner, 2010)).

A recreation of the Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map of the World, based on the World Values Survey data of 2004.

Generally, cultural condemnation of queer sexuality is believed to hinge largely on issues of “familialism,” a norm found across global religions that promotes family, marriage, and reproduction. Within Islam – principally understood as a religion that prizes nature, marriage, and family roles – queer sexuality is compared unfavorably to heterosexuality and determined to be reproductively unnatural and aberrant (Beckers, 2010). Only through modernization and post-industrial conditions that include economic stability, urbanization, and family nuclearization are individuals able to assert greater individuality and develop more egalitarian gender roles, lower birth and child mortality rates, higher divorce rates and blended families, and more single-parent and queer families (in Beckers, 2010).

In contrast to these assessments, Zollner discusses the importance of nature for the legal support of queer sexual expression within Islam: “Since God created the universe, divine will and natural law are synonymous; for this reason, legal verdicts cannot be in contradiction with the laws of nature” (Zollner, 2010, 201). Zollner (and Kugle’s interpretation of Sufism) asserts that, in this vein, any legal opinion that requires gay people to forego “biological, primordial urges” is working against nature and, so, against God (Zollner, 2010, 201).

Admonitions against queer sexuality do not necessarily originate, then, with religious sacred texts and are not uniform within the same religious tradition. Although all extra-marital sexuality is haram (prohibited) in the Qur’an, only masculine queer sex is expressly condemned. In fact, there is no agreement whether the Qur’an even mentions sex between women (Siraj, 2012). Though some exegetes believe lesbian sexuality is included among the “sexually shameful deeds” prohibited by Prophet Muhammad in Al-Nisa 4:15, others argue that condemnation in that text is for public sexual activity regardless of gender, not private queer sex. Some go further to argue that it is never queer sex that is forbidden, but always public sex regardless of orientation: Beckers asserts that, “Like fornication, homosexuality has to assume the character of a public nuisance in order to become punishable’” (Beckers, 2010, 61), and Siraj says that the Qur’an “is silent about homosexual relationships in people’s private sphere” (Siraj, 2012, 451). Sexual position and type also may impact the gravity of sexual sin more than gender: El-Rouayheb explains that penile-vaginal intercourse outside of a marital bond is a more serious sin with more serious punishment and that sexual activity that does not involve the penis or penetration was not considered to be as concerning by Sunni jurists (Siraj, 2012).

Ali asserts that there are no fatwa directly addressing queer sexuality in Islamic classical law and that what is at stake as much as sexual morality is legal control and religious authority, particularly over marital rules (Zollner, 2010). Lines of progressive Muslim scholarship have been opening queer-affirming interpretations of Qur’anic law, including the work of Scott Kugle, Fazlur Rahman, Amina Wadud, Farid Esack, and Khaled Abou El-Fadl whose reformist writing attempts to reestablish understandings in keeping with Islamic justice and equality (Zollner, 2010).

Kugle is a gay U.S. Muslim scholar and convert who works as a progressive Sunni within the Hanafi legal approach to reframe Islam and queer sexuality. Kugle asserts that Islam maintains a very positive attitude toward all sexual behavior that occurs within contractually legitimate relationships, how playful Muslim sexuality can be within these contractually valid contexts, and that Islam esteems sexual pleasure as spiritually and socially valuable in its own right (Beckers, 2010). Other Muslim scholars and clerics also generally allow that sexuality has an important spiritual value that cultivates intimacy between spouses, even outside of procreation; and, emphasizing the value of diversity within Islam, Kugle wonders if queer sexual acts could be legalized through marriage. Finally, Kugle argues importantly that the Qur’an has no category of sexuality or sexual orientation, and so addresses only specific acts and moral values (Beckers, 2010).

An illustration of Lut (Lot in Christianity/Judaism) fleeing the city with his daughters.

The story of Lut (the Jewish and Christian story of Lot in) is central to Qur’anic condemnation of queer sexuality. Kugle and others engage with the story using classical commentary, semantic analysis, and thematic interpretation to argue, in contrast, that the significance of the actions of Lut’s people was not their sexuality but, through them, a rejection of Lut’s prophethood, ethical treatment of others, and belief in God (Beckers, 2010). A hadith found in Abu Da’ud’s ninth-century collection is used frequently to condemn adultery and queer sex acts. It calls for execution of both men found committing “the act of Lut’s people,” but many writers and scholars have questioned the authenticity of the saying. The hadith used does not appear in two major ahadith collections (Zollner, 2010; Music, 2010; Beckers, 2010), and queer-affirming interpreters suspect it was created and attributed to Muhamad by people in power invested in suppressing queer desire.

As with other LGBTQ-affirming scriptural exegesis, critical word study is important to pro-queer Islamic theology. The terms zina (heterosexual sex outside of marriage or the boundary of slavery) and liwat (anal penetration) are unclear and disputed terms in Islamic law much as to-evah or arsenokoitai are in Christian and Jewish law and interpretation. Liwat is not Qur’anic; perhaps like the English term “sodomy,” it developed from the Lut story into a term generally describing sexual acts that do not conform to perceived moral norms (Zollner, 2010) and that are strongly associated with but not exclusively tied to anal penetration of a man by another man. At the crux of liwat is the penetrative act, but where some interpretations focus on the gay or “homosexual” aspect of penetration, others highlight inhospitality (Music, 334) or the attempt to subordinate others (Kelly, 2010). Because it also encompasses anal penetration of women by men, as well as non-sexual offenses that include aggression, inhospitality, and pride, liwat “cannot therefore be equated exclusively with homosexuality, for which there is no precise term in the Classical Arabic language” (Zollner, 2010, 208). The ambiguity of the term is furthered in that queer sex acts are largely only inferred, leaving uncertainty about what is condemned and why. Because sex between women is not mentioned in the story, it is arguable that liwat does not implicate lesbian sexuality in any way (Zollner, 2010). Dispute of liwat is widened further by inconsistent legal application: the Hanafi school requires explicit reference in the Qur’an to the crime and punishment and therefore does not consider liwat within the category of hadd (crime) but rather a ta’zir offense, where punishment is discretionary (Zollner, 2010): “The matter seems to have been left to the discretion of the Prophet Muhamad and later on to the jurists, who were free to exercise their own judgment (ijtihad) according to the circumstances of the time” (Beckers, 2010, 61). Music concludes that because of the Lut story’s themes of divine and human love, and because each disputed word is otherwise only used in nonsexual contexts, tawhid (divine unity, divine oneness) demands that the story, properly interpreted, condemns not queer sex acts but condemns rejection of God’s call to islam (surrender) (Music, 2010).

Kugle argues that Islamic law requires that the Qur’an be interpreted and applied in ways that make sense for each social context, and he describes the role of sharia less as a rule book than a framework “’mediated by human interpretations’ and thus open to reinterpretation” (Kelly, 2010): “Every reading of sacred texts, and especially the often ambiguous Qur’an, is always an interpretation, thus allowing and even calling for new meanings appropriate to each generation” (Music, 331). Kugle refers to the classical work of al-Maturidi and Ibn Rushd who harmonized reason, nature, and revelation to produce new conclusions from the sacred texts (Kelly, 2010). One must first comprehend the Quran as a unity and its specific pronouncements as responses to particular problems or questions and, then, extrapolate more basic principles and broader moral objectives from the specific ones, understanding their significance within the totality of the Quran. Next, one applies the basic principles in a manner that will actualize the broader moral objectives in the present. Because the Quran, when approached in this manner, is continually interpreted and reinterpreted according to the immediate historical and social context, it remains a source of fresh ideas and inspiration (Kelly, 2010, 256).

Apologetics Exegesis

Ruth and Naomi woodcut in “Die Bibel in Bildern.”

Texts used as clubs against LGBQ people in the Hebrew and Greek bibles have primarily been Genesis 19:1-11 (Sodom), Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (sexual morality in the Holiness Code), Romans 1:26-27 (nature), and sometimes I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:10 (the poorly understood and highly contested Greek term arsenokoitai). As Muslim writers suggest above, to some extent the religious culture (even the secular versions) condemned queer sexuality and then created scripturaland legal and psychologicalsupports for its bias. Substantive, thorough work has been done to provide socio-historical context and textual study to interrupt the certainty of queer condemnation based on these texts. This work, for example, puts the story of Lot and Sodom within a desert culture that relies on codes of hospitality for survival and backs up this interpretation with other Hebrew bible references to the sin of Sodom that list such things as pride, indifference, and inhospitality. Work undermining homophobic interpretation of the Levitical verses tends to center on contested interpretations of the Hebrew terms to’evah and miskebe ‘issa and on an emphasis on the Holiness Code as a way to religiously distinguish the ancient Jewish community from their non-Jewish neighbors in all aspects of communal and family life.

Queer apologetics has also found positive examples of queer (and transgender) ancestors in Hebrew and Greek scripture. Although modern sexual identities cannot be applied even to recent past historical contexts, let alone to the ancients, queer-affirming interpreters have found in the stories of David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, the Roman Centurion in Matthew, and other stories an indication of queer sexual eroticism or relationship to support affirmation of – or indifference to – queer lovers.

For examples of queer apologetic exegesis, see,

  • Daniel A. Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality
  • Tom Horner, Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times
  • Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims
  • Jay Michaelson, Good vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality

Queer Theology

If queer theory examines the “organization of sexual and gendered meanings and identities around binary distinctions,” such as male/female and hetero/homosexual, so-called “queer criticism” brings this to biblical texts (Stewart, 2017). Queer hermeneutics moves beyond simply responding to queer-bashing scriptural prooftexts to include an engagement with and interrogation of scripture and faith tradition. It imagines and creates theological frameworks that decenter cisgender/hetero assumptions and that embrace the gender/queer body and experience, the “other,” and the unimagined: “the queer interpretive approach has begun to mature as it seeks intersections with minoritized criticisms, disability studies and the rising consciousness of intersex people, while criticizing itself as well” (Stewart, 2017, 289). West suggests that the HIV/AIDS crisis may have been the catalyst that moved queer- and trans-centric interpretation away from being objects to be discussed and judged (or defended) to becoming active subjects who read and interpret (Stewart, 2017). The AIDS epidemic indeed was a catalyst for queer community as a generation of queer people fought for healthcare treatment and resources and responded to death and memorialization on a massive scale. Stewart describes the move from a gay/lesbian to a queer reading as the move from merely de-centering whiteness, masculinity, and able-bodied and straight norms to discarding trust in any center (Stewart, 2017).

In sum, queer interpretation of the Bible (1) collects interpretations and questions rather than reducing interpretations to a singular “correct” answer – it interrogates; (2) looks for the nonheteronormative and the gender fluid; (3) resists (hetero)normativity and questions boundaries and categoriesit is “norm-critical”; (4) strains toward privileging uniquenessit is “anti-essentialist”; (5) resists academic norms by making room for playfulness and humor, both “camp” and “drag,” and eschews a single definition of “queer,” and so (6) is a collection of “family resemblances,” (7) saving spaces for the queer-not-yet-thought-of and the queer-to-come (Stewart, 2017, 296).

A painting of Delilah and a submissive/sleeping Samson by Peter Paul Rubens.

For examples of queered Hebrew bible readings, see (Stewart, 2017, 292),

  • Delilah’s sadomasochistic play with Samson (Judg. 16; Derks, Rowlett)
  • the ‘prostitute’ Rahab dominates the Israelite spies and troubles sexual- and ethnic-identity divides (Runions)
  • the recognition of biologically intersex persons (Cornwall; DeFranza; Hare)
  • Qoheleth’s gender fluidity (Koosed)
  •  eunuch leaders such as Nehemiah (Stanley), Daniel, and his companions, and those that ‘hang out’ with eunuchs like Mordecai (Beal)

For examples of queer theology, see,

  • Gary David Comstock, Gay Theology Without Apology
  • Gary David Comstock and Susan E. Henking, eds., Que(e)rying Religion
  • Robert Goss, Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto
  • Robert Goss and Mona West, eds., Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible
  • Nina Hoel and Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, eds., Approaching Islam Queerly, a special issue of The Journal of Theology and Sexuality

Queer Midrash

Midrash aggadah is an ancient Jewish practice of reverent and creative interpretation of Hebrew narrative scripture. Queer midrash applies queer theory to the creative interpretation of bible texts that bring gender/queer lives and experiences to the stories.

For examples of queer midrash, with varying degrees of sobriety and playfulness, see (Stewart, 293),

  • Guest imagines a meeting between Yael and Deborah in Judges that is not explicitly stated.
  • Koch “cruises” the Scriptures to find queer people (without affirming textual authority).
  • Boer creates an imaginary roundtable discussion with YHWH in ‘Yahweh as Top: A Lost Targum”
  • Boer undertakes “sexegesis” of the Song of Songs in the post-allegorical world of its present-day interpreters

Norm-Critical Theology

Some scholars and thinkers take on queer interrogation of scripture and make a case that queer commentary is too white and centered on North America. Importantly, African interpreters Haddad (2013), Ackerman (2007), Akoto (2004), Dube (2004, 2008, 2012), Muneja (2012), and Nadar (2006) have applied queer theological criticism with an HIV/AIDS interpretive focus to the lives and experiences of queer communities of color (Stewart, 2017). Haddad writes that AIDS is “the new kairos for our theological work in South Africa” (Stewart, 2017). Others bring together postcolonial and queer theory and describes them as sharing “a ‘golden thread,’ the ‘dynamic between identity and social power’ in their mutual concern for liberation and emancipation” (Stewart, 2017, 294). Scandinavian scholarship goes further; rather than the term “queer,” it uses “norm-critical” for its reframing of criticism and interpretation to explore biblical characters across body, dis/ability, and personality and to open connections and dialog with disability studies and other embodied cultural intersections (Stewart, 2017, 295).

For examples of norm-critical theology, see,

  • Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology