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Theology and Religion Research Seminar - Mehrdad Alipour (University of Exeter)

Gauging the Sunna on Homosexuality

A Department of Theology and Religion seminar
Date3 November 2020
Time13:30 to 15:30
PlaceOnline event

via Microsoft Teams

This research seminar will take place via Microsoft Teams. https://teams.microsoft.com/l/meetup-join/19%3ameeting_NTFlM2M0Y2EtODYzYS00OWJkLTg0MTgtNzJjYzhiMmY2NTk1%40thread.v2/0?context=%7b%22Tid%22%3a%22912a5d77-fb98-4eee-af32-1334d8f04a53%22%2c%22Oid%22%3a%2209a6f2f6-0932-4550-a1e3-f9b7542dd6b4%22%7d

The Sunna on Modern Homosexuality

It appears that, similar to the Qur’ān, the sunna also does not address the modern phenomenon of homosexuality either positively or negatively. Therefore, it is not possible to extract an Islamic verdict either for or against homosexuality from the sunna. The likely reason why the sunna is silent on this issue is that the concept of homosexuality, as referring to those who identify as homosexuals and practice egalitarian relationships with other same-sex mates, seemingly did not exist in the era of the Islamic revelation. In other words, there is no reference to this phenomenon in the sources attributed to the tribes and people of early Islamic society. Therefore, homosexuality seems not to have been an issue for Muḥammad, the Twelve Imāms, and their companions and apparently it was not felt necessary to address this issue in the sunna, either explicitly or implicitly.

Nevertheless, there are various groups of khabar attributed to Muḥammad or the Twelve Imāms which Shīʿa jurists usually use to justify prohibiting two other phenomena, namely liwāṭ and musāḥiqa. Shīʿa jurists commonly describe liwāṭ and musāḥiqa as male and female same-sex sexual practices, respectively. Therefore, by applying these aḥādīth, they have argued for the prohibitions of male and female same-sex practices only under the two categories above.

A close reading of such reports, however, shows that these aḥādīth have been mentioned in different contexts and refer to various phenomena which can hardly be reduced to the two juristic categories of liwāṭ and musāḥiqa. Although ḥadīth compilations have also collected such aḥādīth in one or two chapters (bāb), as the earliest ḥadīth treaties or the surviving uṣūl testify, aḥādīth had not been generally ordered or structured as such. These books normally contained various ḥadīth on different issues which had been set all together. Therefore, it is plausible to imagine that in the case of same-sex sexual behaviours the aḥādīth were not also all in one place or collected under specific titles. Whether there were two categories, as Shīʿa jurists generally categorise, or multiple categories, as suggested in this study, the question now is whether these aḥādīth can be applied to argue against homosexuality. Before this question can be answered, the chains and contents (matn) of such aḥādīth must be reviewed and examined. However, if one knows about the Shīʿa ijtihādic process and ḥadīth literature, one would realise that this is indeed not an easy task to accomplish in a small project such as this. It is even more challenging when it comes to such a sensitive issue, namely same-sex sexual behaviours, as the volume of the akhbār on this subject is quite large.

Having said that, in the following, I will try to investigate the typology, the context, and the content of the aḥādīth related to same-sex sexual behaviours in as much detail as possible within the scope of this study. The chains of such aḥādīth shall also be examined where needed. However, the aim of this research is neither to decisively or dogmatically present a conclusive approach on modern homosexuality in Islam, nor to claim an inclusive ijtihād to derive a legal ruling on homosexuality as a mujtahid or a mufti would be expected to do. With knowledge about traditional ḥadīth scholarship, one may acknowledge that there are various complications and layers of debates needed in order to understand aḥādīth around a highly sensitive issue such as same-sex sexual behaviours. Therefore, it is not difficult to learn that a complicated topic like same-sex sexual behaviours with a high quantity of collected aḥādīth cannot be fully debated in a short presentation. Rather, the goal of the discussion here is to provide scholars who study Islamic law (in particular traditional Muslim jurists) with potential discursive spaces on the issue of Shīʿa ḥadīth and homosexuality. I believe, and hopefully I am not delusional, that my reflections on Shīʿa ḥadīth literature and the issue of homosexuality, in this study, modestly suggest or outline various existing discursive spaces on aḥādīth and same-sex sexual behaviours which are surprisingly elastic and dynamic, despite powerful attempts of traditional jurists to ignore them or claim otherwise.



The sunna, after the Qur’ān, is the second major source of Islamic law which is generally articulated as sayings, deeds, and endorsements of Fourteen Infallible individuals in Shīʿa Islam. The Fourteen Infallible persons, according to Shīʿa doctrine, are the following: Muḥammad, his daughter Fāṭima, and the Twelve Imāms. Thus, the sunna can generally be known through oral or written reports of these individuals’ sayings, deeds and endorsements. Such reports are called ḥadīth or khabar in Islamic scholarship. According to a widely accepted approach amongst Shīʿa ḥadīth scholars and jurists, in the early Shīʿa community there existed various written recorded khabar from the Fourteen Infallible persons, often from the Twelve Imāms, which were famously named al-uṣūl (sing. aṣl). It was mostly believed that these uṣūl treaties (which were written at the times of the various Imāms) numbered up to 400 aṣl, though some even mentioned the number 700 as well. Although most such uṣūl treaties have not survived, a few of them (around sixteen) have been saved. It is commonly believed that the early Shīʿa ḥadīth compilations were accomplished based on such early uṣūl treaties as they still existed at the time of the early ḥadīth compilers. The early major Shīʿa ḥadīth compilations are known as al-Kutub al-Arbaʿa, that is, al-Kāfī fi ʿIlm al-Dīn (known as al-Kāfī) collected by Muḥammad b. Yaʿqūb al-Kulaynī (d. ca. 329H/940), Man lā Yaḥḍuruhu al-Faqīh (known as al-Faqīh) collected by Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. Bābawayh, known as al-Ṣadūq and Ibn Bābawayh, (d. 381H/991), Tahḏīb al-Aḥkām (known as al-Tahḏīb) and al-Istibṣār fī ma Akhtulifa min al-Akhbār (known as al-Istibṣār) both collected by Muḥammad b. al-Ḥassan al-Ṭūsī, mostly entitled as Shaykh al-Ṭā’ifa, (d. 460H/1067). There are several other early collections of akhbār, such as al-Maḥāsin collected by Aḥmad b. Muḥammad Khālid al-Barqī (d. ca. 274H/887) and Fiqh al-Riḍā which is attributed to ʿAlī b. Mūsā al-Riḍā (the Eighth Imām). These are not as famous, reliable, or as much cited amongst Shīʿa jurists as the above four books. Furthermore, there are other ḥadīth books, such as Daʿā’m al-Islām of Abū Ḥanīfa al-Nuʿmān b. Muḥammad, known as al- Qāḍī Nuʿmān, (d. 283H/896), the most prominent jurist and ḥadīth scholar of Ismāʿīlī branch of Shīʿa Islam, which are not considered reliable as these sources dropped the chains of transmission from akhbār. Where relevant, some such sources and their value and credibility amongst Shīʿa ḥadīth scholars and jurists shall also be discussed in this study.


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