Indonesian discourse on homosexuality and Islam

There has probably been no debate on homosexuality among Indonesians both as lively and divisive as today’s, at least as that taking place on social media. For now, the debate mostly appeals to either science or religion (Islam, especially), though some arguments also concern human rights and democracy.

While the debate is filled with these confusing things, what is desperately needed is for Indonesian scientists to write or speak to a popular audience, of course with courage as they will face the risk of a negative, prejudiced backlash. For this to happen, the government and educational institutions must provide a space for healthy, open discussion.

What has happened recently is some events for discussing the issue have been dismissed, rather than facilitated. How come common Indonesian people can understand homosexuality the way it should be understood while the means for spreading that understanding cannot be held publicly? As an Arabic proverb goes, an-nas a’da’u ma jahilu (people tend to have animosity toward that of which they are ignorant).

As for Islam, the source of resistance I’m more concerned with, many Indonesian Muslims simply and quite often ignorantly say “homosexuality is haram”. I have been trying in vain to figure out what the classical Islamic law (more precisely, fiqh) actually says about homosexuality.

As far as the classical fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is concerned, there was no exact translation for the word “homosexuality”. In fact, the notion of sexual orientation (not gender identity) was not an issue in the pre-modern fiqh; the word “homosexuality” itself was only coined in the late 19th century. The modern Arabic term for homosexuality is al-jinsiyyah al-mithliyyah. The term used in classical fiqh is actually liwat (sodomy; derived from the word lut [Lot]). And, liwat refers to the act, not one’s sexual orientation. There is a word that may refer to lesbianism, sihaq, but again this term refers to the act, not orientation, and, no less importantly, the definition of sihaq is vague in the classical fiqh.

This difference between the act and sexual orientation is a big deal as far as fiqh is concerned. First, the object of fiqh (i.e. to say whether something is compulsory, permissible, prohibited, etc.) is based on acts. 

This is why, if Muslims say that homosexuality is haram, they should specify what they mean (the orientation, the desire, hugging, kissing, oral sex, anal sex, etc.), because what is clearly prohibited and deserving of punishment according to the classical fiqh (except the Hanafi and the Zahiri schools of thought) is anal sex — laws concerning other matters are a later development, not explicitly supported by scriptural evidence, and thus a matter of later scholars’ opinions. The language of the law must not be ambiguous.

Second, while sexual orientation is (maybe) natural, or beyond control, actions are optional; just like being heterosexual is natural while zina (adultery) is a choice. And liwat can be done by both homo and hetero; in other words, stipulations around liwat in the classical fiqh do not take sexual orientation into consideration. 

The problem is that, in the mind of many Indonesian Muslims, homosexuality and sodomy are considered one and the same.

This is what we can say from the traditionalist perspective. I think this can be the beginning of the opening of a space for more advanced discussion on homosexuality in Indonesian Islam. 

For further discussion, one may take into account the Muslim reformists who say that the story of Prophet Lot’s people was actually not about homosexuals (again, no exact word for homosexuality in the Koran) but rather about rape (toward Lot’s guests, who were God’s angels).

Furthermore, Muslims should begin look more at the history, rather than “orthodoxy”, for a sophisticated understanding. In the medieval caliphate, Muslims conquered many lands. Some of the captives who later became slaves were boys. Some of the boys became ghilman (literally boys) serving along with the palace’s harem. Some of the boys were called amrad (“pretty” boy, having no beard).

A few of the caliphate’s elites (including a few caliphs themselves) were also reported to have desired men, particularly amrad. A few male palace poets wrote about their love of men. It was also reported that there were boy-markets that existed in several Islamic caliphate regions, particularly in Northwest Africa and South Asia, to service Muslim soldiers who had left their wives for a long time (see Jelena Cvorovic, Islamic Homosexuality, Antropologija 1, 2006).

These historical accounts, of course, do not necessarily mean that the “normative Islam” approves homosexuality. But at least they existed in the “historical Islam” and as such they constitute a demanding question for further research, e.g. what did classical Muslim scholars said about these practices?

— This article was originally published in the Jakarta Post, 21/02/2016

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