BY: USTADH UBAYDULLAH EVANS
“And never have We sent forth any apostle otherwise than [with a message] in his own people’s tongue” – Quran 14:4.
“England and America are two countries separated by the same language” – George Bernard Shaw.
In twenty-first-century America, speaking the moral language of normative Islam is tricky, to say the least. On the one hand, the current generation of Muslim Americans (in contrast to their immigrant forebearers) have now mastered the various idioms of colloquial American English along with its various cultural references, both high and low. On the other hand, the language of our ethics seems more foreign and garbled to mainstream America than ever. Like a well-meaning but embarrassingly naïve American tourist abroad, we often think that if we just raise our voice, speak slowly, and over-enunciate our words, people will eventually understand us:
“WE BELIEVE IN TRADITIONAL RELIGION. WE BELIEVE THAT OUR SCRIPTURE IS DIVINE SPEECH AND THAT WE MUST CONFORM ALL OF OUR ACTIONS TO THE WILL OF GOD, NOT LEAST OUR SEXUAL MORES.”
Those fluent in the language of Tradition appreciate the nuanced connotations of such words; those who have grown up speaking a more modern language, however, just stare, half-amused and half-perplexed. But, whereas a generation ago, this socio-linguistic divide between Muslim Americans and mainstream society was taken for granted, the Muslim community itself is now unable to effectively talk to each other. As Shaw noted about England and America, the very fact that we are all ostensibly from the same highly specific background – Muslim and American – means that, while the words streaming forth from our mouths are ostensibly the same language, that very superficial commonality hinders actual communication even more than if we were speaking Chinese and Russian to one another.
A perfect example of such “division by a common language” is the furor surrounding the document Navigating Differences: Clarifying Sexual and Gender Ethics in Islam, which was released last week. The statement is a concise, intentionally generic presentation of mainstream Islamic legal positions on homoeroticism and transgenderism. Many of the women and men included among the signatories are my teachers, mentors, colleagues, and friends. I am confident in the competency of their academic training, the sagacity of their judgment, and the depth of their compassion. For the Muslim whose mother tongue is the Tradition, the tone of the text is reconciliation and understanding, while maintaining a clear adherence to traditional norms. But something is being lost in translation: the very phrase touted by the document, “peaceful coexistence,” is being read by others as an Orwellian doublespeak indicative of the exact opposite: a commitment to the agenda to subordinate and persecute members of the queer community. It is manifest that the crux of our problem as a community is not a disagreement over fiqh per se, but a fundamental inability to even agree on a shared cultural language with which to begin a serious dialogue.
If we are to afford a basic level of husn az-zann (benefit of the doubt) to our fellow brothers and sisters in the Muhammad umma, then we must assume that (most) of the interlocutors here are speaking in good faith and are not merely dogmatic ideologues for a puritanical strain of Islam or – alternatively – a hollowed-out Westernized Islam. This discussion is one that requires a deep dive not just into the details of fiqh, but the lived history of queerness in premodern Muslim societies as well as an understanding of the ways in which LGBT history in America is much different – and more violent. For this current more modest contribution to this topic, I offer as a starting point for this dialogue a sociological analysis of how principled and intelligent Muslims on both sides can find themselves with different motivations and focuses.
In his book, The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers two contentions which might prove valuable as we navigate these issues. Using both quantitative and qualitative research methods, Haidt demonstrates that people’s moral beliefs are primarily driven by intuition. We are possessed of strong feelings about right and wrong. The reasoning and rationales we deploy are mostly post-hoc justifications for what we feel is morally correct or incorrect. Put succinctly, his research concludes that our moral outlooks are much more the product of calibration than deliberation. This dovetails perfectly with the prophetic tradition, “A person is upon the religion of their close companion. Therefore be very careful in selecting your companions.” It’s easy to see how this tradition might be applied to our conduct. If you hang out with smokers, you might wind up smoking. If you hang with people that are into health and fitness, you’ll probably get in shape. If you befriend people who pray, you’ll likely end up praying. That’s straightforward. What might elude us, however, is that this tradition equally applies to the mores, values, sensibilities, and sensitivities of our companions as well. Accordingly, our respective moral intuitions are largely a reflection of the “networks of companions”—both social and intellectual—in which we immerse ourselves. Someone whose most cherished moral value consists of appealing to the Divine through upholding tradition has very different motivations than someone who locates a similar moral priority in repudiating harm from subaltern categories within the human family. To be clear, the motivations of each might be equally religious. The disparity lies not in their faith but rather in their priorities.
In his second thesis, Haidt identifies five categories that encompass human moral activity: 1) obedience to authority; 2) in-group solidarity; 3) sanctity/Purity; 4) repudiating harm; and 5) fairness. Reservations about the comprehensiveness (or lack thereof) of this list notwithstanding, I have found it very useful in mediating moral conflict. The tension lies not simply in “Navigating Differences”: it’s actually more fundamental; we differ in the modalities in which we navigate morality.
Many Muslims seek to validate our faith by emulating our predecessors. For us, the substance of their moral intuition is of great significance. They are the companions upon whose religion we attempt to place ourselves. Returning to Haidt’s five-prong theory of human moral activity: How did our ancestors in faith organize and prioritize those categories? Islam is a rich, polyvalent tradition. Various Muslim individuals, communities, and institutions have exercised a wide range of moral judgment up and down Haidt’s five categories. No one familiar with our history can deny that. However, I can aver confidently, public conversation about morality in Islam has always prioritized obedience to authority – in this case, the Will of God as distilled through tradition. In fact, so great is the focus on appealing to God through obedience to the Divine Will that many anthropologists have identified Islamic civilization as nomocratic, that is, centered on the rule of law. This explains why, for all the different conceptual registers that might have been utilized to discuss the LGBTQ+ community, the statement gives priority to Shari’ah. And why shouldn’t it? This is our inheritance. Lest we forget, our mandate is attaining salvation:
The Islamic legal tradition, one of the most robust in human history, displays the historical Muslim concern with evaluating human behavior through the lens of the halāl and harām. Navigating Differences only captures Muslim scholars fulfilling their historical function in public discourse. My ardent hope is that those triggered by the statement, those who ask: “Why this issue…why now?” extend their inquiry to themselves. Why me? Why is this statement so disappointing to me? Might it be the result of underestimating the richness of Islam or personal depth and kindness of Muslims? As mentioned, the distillation of clear guidelines concerning the Divine Will in the form of shari’ah rightfully occupies center stage. But there is always activity in the wings. There are many Muslim individuals and institutions for which pastoral care is the operating principle through which they navigate these issues. I know personally many Muslims who approach these issues from a place of supportive friendship. There are Muslims of deep contemplation that ruminate upon these issues and find in them potent reminders about God’s all-encompassing grace and the immutable dignity of human beings. And yet none of that entails a denial of the importance of moral guidelines. Are we under the impression that those forms of religious engagement can’t coexist alongside a collective statement on the shar’i status of homoeroticism and transgenderism?
One of Haidt’s most interesting findings is that religious people across the spectrum typically give more importance to 1) obedience to authority, 2) in-group solidarity, and 3) Sanctity/Purity than their secular counterparts. The secular and nonreligious, by comparison, almost exclusively focus their moral energy on 4) repudiating harm and 5) fairness. It’s quite telling that in the wake of its release, attempts to rebut the statement on its own terms were rare. In the negative responses which I read, few people, even those strongly opposed to the statement, offered alternate viewpoints similarly rooted in tradition. Rather, with varying degrees of effectiveness, each rebuttal and critique highlighted the extent to which the statement was damaging to LGBTQ+ people. Some raised doubts as to the appropriateness of even focusing on sexual and gender ethics! I found this astonishing: irrespective of where you stand, I think all of us can agree that the changing attitudes toward sexual activity and gender expression represent one of the most drastic cultural shifts in our lifetimes. Muslim scholars – who are often chided for being irrelevant – should have a position. Critics of the statement charge that there are more urgent moral concerns, which they identify (unsurprisingly) as social justice, environmentalism, and protection of the vulnerable.
Repudiating harm and fairness are values that should be important to all Muslims. Affirming the dignity and inherent value of all human beings is one of the central tenets of our faith. In an article entitled When Equality is not Enough, Dr. Mohamed Fadel has made a compelling case for the priority of non-domination in Islam. He concludes that protection of the vulnerable lies at the heart of Islamic conceptions of justice. As such, in no way should we question the religious integrity of our brothers and sisters whose intuition is more deeply involved with these aspects of morality. On the contrary, we should esteem them for the inspiring ways in which they live those values. I only encourage them to not forget that they are not isolated moral beings but just as fundamentally members of a wider community whose moral intuitions (both historically and contemporarily) tack differently from mainstream America. “In-group solidarity,” for example, is of vital importance to us. This would explain why we consistently invoke precedent in the form of “the tradition,” “the salaf,” etc.
The question which I would like to pose to those of our brothers and sisters who place less emphasis on the Tradition is: How do you regard those of us who identify as traditional Muslims? Do you see us as bearers of integrity? Sanctity/purity is in fact a fundamental value to us; we possess the conviction that what do choose to do – or not do – with your body can bring virtue: does this make us morally equivalent to those who advocate for State control over women’s reproductive rights? Is our impulse to analyze homoeroticism and transgenderism through a framework of Divine Will necessarily tantamount to uninhibited bigotry and complicity in violence against our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters? In turning to our tradition to articulate a moral stance on these issues are we a priori allies of white nationalists? La ilaha illa Allah! Just as we should grant you husn az-zann (benefit of the doubt), do we not by the same turn deserve the same?
When Navigating Differences was presented to me, I elected not to become a signatory. I didn’t want speak without an interpreter. The risk of being misunderstood in a matter as grave as this demanded caution. I hope with this admittedly brief article – not to provide a definitive answer – but to contribute to an effort to shepherd a serious and nuanced dialogue on all sides. Wa-Allahu a‘lam (and God knows best).