These FAQs emerged from the wide consultation in which the curators engaged with Islamic theologians. We recognise that it is but one view, among many, of the inherent sexual diversity within Islam.
WHY HAVE WE CURATED AN EXHIBITION EXPLORING DIVERSE SEXUALITY IN ISLAM?
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught that 'God is Beautiful, and loves Beauty' (source: Bukhari, Hadith literature). Therefore, al-Jameel (The Beautiful) is one of the 99 Names of God. This is the traditional Islamic basis for all expressions of art: the manifestation of the divine and sacred quality of beauty.
In a climate of fear, uncertainty and intolerance, The unbreakable rope is an artistic response to prejudice. In crude terms, ISIS is killing homosexuals on the basis of their sexual persuasion; we want to empower LGBTQI Muslims, to counteract this. We refer to this group as a minority within a minority. ISIS is also destroying cities like Palmyra, so in our own small but poignant way we are creating and encouraging art. We want to remove barriers to conversations about Islam and sexuality and to highlight the enlightened elements of Islam that extremists choose to ignore.
WHAT IS THE HADITH?
‘Hadith’ is the Arabic term for ‘narrative’ or ‘report’ and is a record of the words and deeds of the Prophet. It is considered as an importance doctrinal source and is used in understanding the Qur’an and its application. In Christian theology, the equivalent would be Latin doctrines that support the application of statutes.
‘Lowering one’s gaze’ is a well-known documented Hadith. A beautiful woman from the Khatham tribe came to ask the Prophet for some advice. The Prophet’s cousin, Al Fadl bin Abbas, who was also in assembly at the time, could not help but openly stare at her. The prophet took his cousin’s chin and turned his face away. The prophet himself lowered his gaze. The important thing to note here is that the prophet did not ask the beautiful woman to cover her face. The onus was on the onlooker and not on the woman. There is no compulsion for a female to cover her face or her head. In relation to Sarah Maple's painting ‘Self-portrait with My Mother’s Headscarf and Breast of Kate Moss,’ one can simply respond, ‘lower your gaze.’
IS THIS A MUSLIM EXHIBITION?
NO. But there are subtle references to tolerance of sexuality and sexual diversity in both the Qur’an and the Hadith that routinely get overlooked.
A Qur’anic verse, 'God is not ashamed of Truth', is echoed in the Hadith literature in accounts of the Prophet’s Companions (disciples) asking him about intimate sexual matters, for examples, sex during menses, anal sex, male and female orgasm. The Prophet Muhammad also taught that sexual intercourse in making love is an act of worship in itself and should be preceded by prayer, since love is also a Divine quality. In Islam therefore, all love and sex is governed by ethics, and we have the notions of 'Sacred Love' and 'Sacred Sex.' Canonical Islamic tradition relates that the Prophet had up to nine wives at a time. Since he was not celibate, unlike Jesus Christ, Islam has celebrated sex within appropriate boundaries as sacred and natural.
During the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, pilgrims are forbidden from sexual intercourse for several days until they have offered a sacrifice on the day of Eid, cut their hair and completed other rituals. One couple were so desperate that the husband cut some of his wife’s hair with his teeth before they made love beneath the sacred hillock known as Mount Safa, a stone’s throw from the Holy Kaaba or House of God in Mecca. The Prophet laughed when they then felt ashamed and asked him for absolution, reassuring them that they had done nothing wrong.
Some commentators on the Qur’an agree with earlier Jewish and Christian sources who understand that the 'forbidden tree' of the Garden of Eden was precisely sexual intercourse between Adam and Eve. No wonder they immediately 'became aware of their nakedness' and 'rushed to cover their private parts with the leaves of the Garden.' According to this view, no wonder also that Satan tempted them by revealing that the 'forbidden tree' stood between them and 'angelic status' (a reference to the state of sexual climax) and 'everlasting life' (through their offspring).
The Meccan Muslims were shocked that the Medinan Muslims seemed to be more sexually adventurous and liberated. One Medinan woman came to the Prophet and asked for divorce from her husband on the grounds that he was not well-endowed. She actually used more explicit language than that, such that the Meccan leader Abu Bakr, who was present, remarked, 'Look at this woman: she uses such coarse language in the presence of the Messenger of God!' Imam Shafi'i of the 8th-9th century stated that when a man is sexually aroused, 'he loses nine-tenths of his intellect.' Imam Ghazzali of the 11th century, one of Islam's greatest theologians, recounted that some of the early Muslims would shout, 'Allahu akbar!' at the moment of orgasm.
All of the above matters, as well as other themes of love and sexuality, have been debated and discussed by Muslim theologians, jurists and artists for centuries. For example, the 11th-century Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm wrote 'The Ring of the Dove,' a treatise on the different stages of love, including some rather explicit real-life stories.
ARE THERE ANY IMAGES OF THE PROPHET OR DEITY?
NO. There are no depictions of the Prophet or deity because the exhibition is about sexuality within Islam, not about the issues of blasphemy and free speech.
In any case, it is important to note that offence taken to portraying the Prophet is subjective, and depicting the Prophet is not unilaterally objectionable. To frame this complex issue so simplistically, in terms of one or another's perception, panders only to religious dogmatists and betrays free speech principles. Some people depict the Prophet to make artistic points (such as the ancient Shia painters of the Prophet) others for political reasons such as satire (the Hebdo magazine), others to force open a conversation about Freedom of Speech in solidarity with those killed for 'blaspheming' (anti-blasphemy law campaigners).
DOES THE QUR’AN SPECIFICALLY MENTION SEXUAL DIVERSITY?
YES. Surat al-Nur (Qur’an 24:31-24:33) specifically mentions 'men who are not in need of women.' These men are not attracted to women. They might have been gay or asexual, but, by definition, they were not heterosexual men. They are not judged or condemned anywhere in the Qur’an.
COULD SEXUAL DIVERSITY BE PART OF GOD’S PLAN?
YES. The Qur’an celebrates diversity. In the Qur’an, Surat al-Rum (Qur’an 30:22) says God has created human beings with different alwan, a word that can mean both ‘colours’ and ‘tastes.’ It is chronicled that the Prophet Yayha (John the Baptiste) was celibate, with no desire for women. This exception from the norm was accepted.
DOES ISLAM SAY ANYTHING SPECIFICALLY ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY?
The Qur’an does not even mention the term ‘homosexuality.’ It does not refer to gays, lesbians, or bisexuals. In fact, scholars had to come up with a term for homosexuality in Arabic.
DID THE PROPHET KNOW OF ANY KINDS OF SEXUAL OR GENDER DIVERSITY?
YES. There were men in Arab society at the time of the prophet who fit the Qur’an’s description of ‘men who are not in need of women.’ A detailed study of early Islamic literature also showed that the Prophet accepted men called Mukhannath, who were seen as ‘acting like women’ (Hadith).
DOESN’T THE QUR’AN SAY THAT HOMOSEXUALITY IS UNNATURAL?
NO. Using words like ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ as ways to describe sexuality is something that was started by European Christians. When today’s Muslims use this argument to say homosexuality is against Islam, they are actually borrowing ideas from European Christians. The conclusion that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ is not based on anything in the Qur’an. Again, the word “homosexuality” is never even used and does not exist in the Qur’an.
ISN’T THERE ONLY ONE WAY TO READ THE QUR’AN?
NO. There are several ways to read the Qur’an. People can read literally, word for word and using exact definitions; they can read semantically, thinking about a word’s meaning in a particular sentence and in other places in the Qur’an; and they can read thematically, finding the meaning of a whole passage by looking at how it relates to themes in the Qur’an.
WHAT HAS LED MUSLIMS TO BELIEVE THAT HOMOSEXUALITY IS WRONG?
There are a number of possible reasons.
Some people feel that homosexuality is wrong because of a personal prejudice. If someone is heterosexual and only knows heterosexual people, he or she may feel that it is the only natural way to be. Without knowing any gay, lesbian or bisexual people, they may prejudge—or show prejudice—against homosexuality. Others believe that homosexuality didn’t exist in Islamic countries until Europeans and Americans brought it there. They feel it is a kind of corruption that came from outside Islamic culture.
Some people feel that homosexuality is wrong because early Muslim scholars concluded it was. Later scholars often simply referred back to literalist rulings. In that way, conclusions made centuries ago by human scholars are reinforced and continue to be followed as if they were God’s absolute truth. An example is in the story of the prophet Lut, or Lot, which is often invoked to denounce homosexuals. But Al Kisai Al Kufi, who was an early leading authority on the Qur'an, took exception to this, saying the story of the people of Lut referred to heterosexual men who raped other men.
CAN ISLAM ACCEPT HOMOSEXUALITY?
YES. In Islam, there is a solid basis for respect and acceptance of diversity—including sexual diversity. Although historically many Muslim law-makers forbade homosexual acts, it is important to remember that Islamic law is not the word of God. Islamic law is the result of reasoning by law-makers, so the law is made by human beings. That doesn’t mean Islamic law is not important for Muslims, but it does mean that it is not a perfect reflection of what God wants for human beings.