Is Islamic Homophobia a Western Import?

Andre Gide et ses amis au cafe maure de l'Exposition universelle de 1900, Jacques-Emile Blanche

A common argument one hears on the left is that widespread homophobic attitudes in the Muslim world are not the outcome of religious doctrine or practice, but almost entirely a vestige of British colonialism and conservative Victorian mores. We can call this argument EHT (European Homophobia Thesis). (My focus is on British colonialism, but the argument can be extended to other European colonial powers).

Popular though this line of thinking has become, it’s not altogether convincing.

It goes something like this:

Premodern Islamic civilization was relatively accepting of various forms of same-sex attraction and love. Same-sex acts might have been illegal, but they were too ubiquitous to be taken seriously and very rarely punished. In thirteenth-century Cairo, for example, Muslim jurists observed that the masses seemed more leery of indulging in socially unacceptable sins (such as public eating during Ramadan) than of engaging in sins particularly abhorrent to God (such as fornication and, on certain classical Sunni views, sodomy). Throughout the Golden Age of Islam, same-sex love was openly discussed and alluded to in literature and poetry, especially under the Abbasid caliphate. Abu Nuwas, a poet in an Abbasid caliph’s court who regularly wrote odes to beautiful male youths, is cited as proof of Islam’s social and cultural acceptance of same-sex intimate life.

In Mughal India, despite the emperors’ general disapproval, litterateurs, courtiers, and noblemen enjoyed romantic relationships with each other. This tradition began in premodern times, when the Muslim conqueror Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni fell in love with a Georgian slave named Ayaz, Sultan Mubarak Shah Khilji fell in love with Sufi musician Amir Khusro, and Sultan Alauddin Khilji fell in love with his lieutenant, Malik Kafur. Later, in the eighteenth century, the Deccan noble Dargah Quli Khan traveled to Mughal Delhi, remarking on the abundance of same-sex-loving men and male brothels throughout the city.

So same-sex love was a familiar part of Muslim life—that is, until European colonialists imposed their conservative, homophobic attitudes and laws on their subjects. Homophobia, not homosexuality, was imported to colonized Asia and Africa, as the British drafted a penal code in the mid-1800s which outlawed same-sex acts. Internalizing the homophobia which underpinned this legislation, colonized Muslims eventually came to regard same-sex love and relations as immoral.

“Although EHT might explain the infiltration of law and official politics in colonized Muslim societies, it doesn’t explain precisely how colonial homophobia transformed the everyday cultures of ordinary Muslims.”

But how strong is the evidence for EHT? It goes without saying that the brute fact of colonial oppression shaped the social and material context in which this homophobia developed. There is also no denying that homophobic Victorian mores penetrated the legal and political domains of Asian and African societies colonized by Britain, including the world of local Anglicized elites. It’s clear that much of the homophobic legislation we see in postcolonial societies today is an expression of the Victorian ethos. That’s why Pakistan (where Islam is most widely practiced), India (where Hinduism is most widely practiced), Singapore (where Buddhism is most widely practiced), and Zambia (where Christianity is most widely practiced) all still have variations on the same British anti-gay penal code.

Yet, although EHT might explain the infiltration of law and official politics in colonized Muslim societies, it doesn’t explain precisely how colonial homophobia transformed the everyday cultures of ordinary Muslims. Consider the late nineteenth-century reformist Indian Muslim scholar, Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi. This religious luminary was hardly a member of the Anglicized elite, led a Sufi order which appealed to the spiritual leanings of rural, lower-class Indian Muslims, had no exposure to a Westernized education system, and expressly justified his moral condemnation of same-sex relations according to his well-known Urdu-language interpretation of the Qur’an.

On what basis can one claim that, despite all this, Riza Khan had still internalized a specifically Victorian homophobic outlook? Exactly how did it manage to poison the moral worldview of nearly all South Asian Muslims?

This is what makes EHT rather precarious. In trying to identify the root causes of pervasive Muslim homophobic attitudes, it relies too heavily on speculative psychology, suggesting that socially conservative Muslims today have subconsciously mimicked a Victorian sexual ethic. Modern-day jihadis, too, have reacted to Orientalist portrayals of Muslim men as debauched and sexually perverted by internalizing this caricature, reconceiving the Muslim world as morally degenerate, and aiming to cleanse their societies of sexual impurities, including same-sex love.

But this merely raises the question: how do we know that conservative Muslims and jihadis internalized these things? Of course, internalizing the colonizer’s ideology is an understandable, if not inevitable, response by those traumatized by colonial tyranny. It also makes sense to probe beneath a colonial subject’s “surface-level” religious reasoning to uncover the deep causes of their internalization of colonial homophobia. But we still need specific evidence to show that the subject succumbed to this internalization—in the form of a statement or some particular aspect of their behavior.

Consider, for example, a modern jihadi militant who kills innocents in the name of God. Such a militant’s psychological profile is a deep cause of their militancy, but we must specify that psychological profile by noting, say, their history of violent acts or their criminal record. Similarly, in respect of EHT, we would need to locate in a colonial subject’s writings or behavioral history a specifically Victorian and/or Orientalist logic on the question of sexual deviancy. Where writings and behavioral histories are not available—as in the case of most ordinary colonized Muslims—the onus is on those defending EHT to illustrate how internalized Victorian homophobia coursed through the veins of Muslim society and corrupted the masses. After all, EHT also seeks to explain how we’ve arrived at the present moment, where large numbers of ordinary Muslims display homophobic attitudes.

Some academics recognize the need to strengthen EHT by offering a more sophisticated analysis of the psychology underlying the internalization of colonial homophobia.

“The trouble with this account is that it renders colonized Muslims intellectually fragile, even masochistic, in the face of imperial might.”

They argue, for example, that nineteenth-century Indian Muslim poets like Altaf Hussain Hali and Muhammad Husain Azad expunged homoerotic themes from their work because they had already introjected Victorian values. Indeed, they had so thoroughly internalized the horror of colonialism that they came to think their culture deserving of British ridicule for becoming too decadent and swerving from the formal Islamic juridical position on same-sex relations. Hali and Azad may have thought they were upholding Islamic values, but were really just embracing Victorian ethics.

The trouble with this account is that it renders colonized Muslims intellectually fragile, even masochistic, in the face of imperial might. And since it’s based on speculation, it’s no more plausible than the claim that these poets—far from feeling ashamed of their literary culture—were actively resisting British demonization of that culture, and did so by confidently reviving in their writings an Islamic past that disapproved of same-sex relations. At the very least, this explanation doesn’t turn Muslims into self-deluded, docile objects of European colonialism.

EHT may have some merit as a speculative hypothesis, but in challenging arguments insisting on the essentially homophobic nature of Islam, it goes too far in the opposite direction by blaming the contemporary homophobic posture among Muslims almost completely on imperial violence. In either scheme, Muslims lack real agency.

We mustn’t confuse religious rationalizations of homophobia with its deeper causes, which for the most part still elude us. We commentators on all sides of this debate might be better off admitting when we’re doing guesswork, and being careful not to oversimplify as we seek to humanize the other.