February is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) History Month. The theme this year is “Religion, Philosophy and Belief”. It’s partly about affirming individuals who identify as religious and LGBT and partly about asking whether religious affirmations of LGBT identities are even possible. This thought would be anathema not only to some religious people who disapprove of anything non-heterosexual but also to many LGBT individuals who see religion as their arch enemy.
Islam seems to have a special place in such debates, especially in the West where the mass media is saturated with images of violence, misogyny, homophobia and other nastiness perpetrated by Muslims. So perhaps it is high time to compile a Top Ten list of prominent Muslims who do not identify as LGBT themselves but support (or have supported) LGBT rights in varying degrees. In no particular order, they are:
1. Omid Safi
A Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Safi is a frequently sought after speaker on Islam and has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, CNN and other outlets. He supports equal marriage based on what he calls the “Platinum rule: Don’t be a hypocrite”.
2. Siti Musdah Mulia
Siti Musdah was the first woman appointed as research professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and the first woman to obtain a PhD in Islamic thought from the Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University. According to her, the Qur’an celebrates sexual diversity as evidenced in Verse 13 of Surah Al-Hujurat (the Chapter of the Apartments):
“O humankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”
3. Marina Mahathir
Marina’s father, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, became infamous for sacking his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of corruption and sodomy. Marina, however, has been an open, staunch and ever quotable LGBT ally ever since her days as President of the Malaysian AIDS Council.
4. Zaid Ibrahim
A lawyer, former Malaysian cabinet minister and now popular blogger, Zaid has, on several occasions, supported the human rights of transgender individuals and other minorities in Malaysia.
5. Kecia Ali
Ali is a scholar of Islam and Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University. Although her work does not focus on sexual diversity directly, she does advocate a thorough rethinking of Islamic jurisprudence to achieve gender justice. It is within this wider framework that she supports critical scholarship that aims to uphold LGBT rights in Islam.
6. Alia Bano
Bano is a British playwright whose first play, Shades, won her the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright award in 2009. Shades is a story of a young British Muslim woman’s search for love and contains a tender, uplifting sub-plot involving a gay Muslim character.
7. Sadiq Khan
The Tooting MP is Labour’s candidate for the 2016 London mayoral election. In 2013, he was also one of several Muslim MPs who voted in favour of same-sex marriage because for him, it was “fundamentally an issue of equality”.
8. Inayat Bunglawala
The former media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain has gone on record saying: “Actively working to ensure that people are able to live free of discrimination based on one’s ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation is a worthy goal and should be viewed as an Islamic goal.”
9. Keith Ellison
The first Muslim to be elected to the US Congress, Ellison is also a staunch LGBT ally.
10. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
This entry might seem shocking or blasphemous to some as even the term “ayatollah” conjures images of draconian Islamic authority among many Western liberals. Yet the amazing truth is that the former Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran decreed that sex reassignment was permissible after he was petitioned by Maryam Khatoon Molkara, a transsexual woman. This then enabled the formation of various state institutions to support the welfare of Iranian transsexuals. Some Western LGBT activists criticise this as hypocrisy and accuse Iranian policies of “forcing” homosexuals into sex reassignment, but the Iranian-American gender historian Afsaneh Najmabadi argues that the realities on the ground are much more complex.
Notable mention: The Ottoman Empire
The Ottomans decriminalised sodomy in 1858, two years before the British Empire introduced anti-sodomy laws in the Indian Penal Code which then became the parent criminal code for many other parts of the Empire. State-sponsored homophobia in countries such as Uganda, Nigeria, India and Malaysia can all be traced back in varying degrees to British colonial legacies – something worth reflecting on as we celebrate LGBT history month.
Shanon Shah is a writer and researcher on religion, gender and sexuality and has a doctorate in the sociology of religion.