God and queer: sex, homosexuality and transgenderism through the lens of Abrahamic religions

The attitude of Christianity, Islam and Judaism to the non-traditional sexual orientation

The issue of the LGBT causing heated debates in society affects religion too. This wave goes through all the modern popular culture. Modernist LGBT and queer theology, which is designed to evaluate the sexual revolution that unfolded about 50 years ago from a theological perspective, develops against this backdrop. Of course, the Orthodox theology of the three Abrahamic religions has its own opinion about it, moreover, which is mostly strict and unassailable. However, as Realnoe Vremya’s columnist Karim Gaynullin thinks, there is another factor of misunderstanding between the sides: those changes in the understanding of anthropology and the attitude to sexuality that differentiate realities of the monotheist Abrahamic tradition from the modern Western agenda.

Religion and anthropology

The first thing that unites the three monotheist religions is the fact that the person is considered by them as the apex of creation. The essence of the human being and the qualities inherent in him as the best divine creatures can ever have. The Book of Genesis claims that mankind is created “in God’s image, in God’s likeness”:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”

Although God’s likeness to his creation is denied in Islam (“There is nothing like Him”), there was great controversy over the existence of God’s image itself. The Quran also puts mankind as ruler of the earth (Al-Baqarah, 30):

“And (remember) as your Lord said to the Angels, ‘Surely I am making in the earth a successor.’ They said, ‘Will You make therein one who will corrupt in it and shed blood while we (are the ones who) extol (with) Your praise and call You Holy?’ He said, “Surely I know whatever you do not know.’”

In fact, this monotheist humanism is crucial — it indicates the idealisation of mankind, which is characteristic of the whole tradition. In other words, the way in accordance with which God invented mankind is considered the best for him.

Such a point of view was echoed in religious law. For instance, human skin may not be tanned in Islam (like it is written in El-Muhtar li'l-Fetva on Hanafi law). Because a man is a supreme creature. If one exists outside this religious idea, it might seem what’s wrong with a wallet from human skin? However, precisely the idea of the human being’s special superiority causes disapproval of such things among religious people — this is what differentiated monotheists from servants of pagan cults that practised human sacrifices.

Here we come to the topic of our talk. Religion considers sexual differences at birth as something that goes without saying. The Book of Genesis again explains it: “Male and female he created them” (1:27). The Quran also contains a dualistic outlook on human anthropology: “And created you in pairs” (78:8).

Religion and sexuality

The Quran strictly regulates that men may have sexual intercourse only with their wives and concubines. All other ways of satisfaction aren’t permitted. Consequently, women too must ensure chastity only for their husband.

Old Testament Judaism shares a similar view. Christianity also permitted only monogamous relations and simultaneously prohibited divorce. In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul says:

“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”

Judaism and Islam consider sexual relations as an indispensable part of marriage, including a means of pleasure. The Quran directly says: “Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth as ye will.” As one of the hadiths put it, this Quran ayah appeared because of a belief that spread among Arab Jews that if during the intercourse the woman was lying with her back to the husband, the child would be cross-eyed. As we see, the Quran disagrees with this.

It is also interesting how metaphorically sexual intercourse is compared as a result of which the man’s seed gets into the woman’s womb, and then they expect for a baby to be born with sowing a field when seeds are thrown into the soil and they are expected to sprout (Ibn Juzayy).

However, both Judaism and Islam strictly regulate sex, even monogamous sex. In Islam, sex outside marriage is prohibited, during the menses, anal penetration isn’t permitted, and intercourse in the daytime during fasting and pilgrimage. Judaism has a specific regulation too: for instance, women wash in a separate bath (mikveh).

Christianity has a completely different attitude to sex. Christian literature has an established relation between sex and the ancestral sin mankind committed. So the idea of celibate quite quickly spread in Christianity. In the same First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes that Christians shouldn’t have sexual relations in general:

“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”

Religion and homosexuality

The first mention of homosexual intercourse is found in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. And its prohibition is explained: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Book of Leviticus, 18:22).

Paul the Apostle:

“And the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans, 1:27).”

Prophet Lut addresses his people in the Quran in a similar way. He says:

“Do you commit shameless acts with your eyes open? Do you lustfully approach men instead of women? Nay, you engage in acts of sheer ignorance” (An-Naml, 54-55).

What is noteworthy in these three texts? First of all, talking about homosexuality, the holy texts speak about “lying”, about “intercourse” or “a sexual desire”, not about the orientation in the meaning homosexual people give it today — equal love between two same-sex partners.

In fact, homosexual relations have been widely spread always and in all societies. But the idea of “orientation” as a feature that is characteristic of a specific person is new enough, it arises only by the late 19th century. Two philosophers and preachers of the sexual revolution — Michel Foucault (an open gay who wrote the entire history of sexuality) and Judith Butler played a special role in developing the idea of “sexual orientation”. We can even say that the model of “sexual orientations” is still in embryonic form.

The comparison of homosexual relations with a woman in religious books is the second key moment. Homosexuality existed both in the ancient world and in the Middle Ages but was never considered as equal marriage. Such relations were primarily patriarchal — the relations between the student and the teacher or the slave and the lord. Partners often had a huge age difference. For instance, Greek mythology attributed such unequal relations to its divinities and heroes: Zeus (love for Ganymede), Achilles (relations with Patroclus) and others. Plato describes similar relations in a dialogue in Symposium.

Similar practices exist in patriarchal societies today too. For instance, the practice of bacha bazi (dancing boys) still exists in Afghanistan as a relic of paganism. Boys used to be spread across all Central Asia, and this occurrence considered as trouble of Muslim theologians — they urged people to treat young beardless young men (murd) more carefully.

Stringent punishment was imposed almost in all Abrahamic religions for a relation between two men. So, the death penalty was imposed for this in the Book of Leviticus. Sharia metes out the same. However, to register such a type of crime, by Sharia, four witnesses must see the penetration, which, obviously, rarely happened. While the sinner shouldn’t surrender to the authorities. For instance, the book of Muslim law Bughyatul Mustarshidin reads that those who committed the sin (of adultery) should hide it unless the judge learns about it, and if he learnt about it, one should preferably (but not necessarily) surrender and face punishment.

In the Christian world, the execution was the punishment for sodomites. In England, they were executed until modern times, homosexuals were one of the objectives of the Inquisition for long. Justinian’s Code in Byzantine envisages serious punishments for them: through castration and death penalty. In Rus, meanwhile, sodomite was little mentioned in legal documents.

Religion and change of sex

The idea of transgenderism became another complex new issue for religion. A certain percentage of people with anatomical sexual characteristics of both sexes during all the eras — hermaphrodites — has always existed. For instance, in Islamic law, they are prescribed to perform those gender roles fitted them the best. Some Islamic theologians even permitted changes, transformation into one of the sexes for such people.

However, when we aren’t talking about obvious biological hermaphrodites but people with a sexual disorder, the state of affairs is completely different. The Russian Orthodox Church categorically reproaches such transitions, while the Catholic Church thinks that the procedure of sex change doesn’t change the person’s gender in the eye of the church. Some reformist churches that are open to modernism are an exception.

A similar situation is observed in Judaism too: Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism are exceedingly hostile to the permission of such surgeries. At the same time, reformists are open to such moods.

Shia Islam is probably the only denomination whose conservative part wasn’t against the surgeries to change sex. Surprisingly, but amid the negative attitude to homosexuality as such, Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, considered such surgeries to change sex were permitted like those done for hermaphrodites. Nowadays the Republic of Iran is second in the world (after Thailand) in such operations.

Also, there is an entire community of Hijra in India and Pakistan as the legacy of the Hindu caste — a caste of untouchables that includes different representatives of the third sex. Though most of them are Hindus, some consider they belong to Islam. A custom obliges the Hijra to conduct rituals of castration, which causes enmity among Orthodox Muslims along with their behaviour.

So what do we see now all in all?

On the one hand, modernist theologians try to reconsider the restrictions related to gender relations in religions. Separate groups that are open to demonstrations of the non-traditional sexual orientation appear inside religions. However, these groups are mostly born in a favourable environment where the LGBT culture was given the green light. Religious people continue sticking to conservative norms in their environment, at times the norms are much stricter than their religion puts it.

The anthropological picture of the Abrahamic tradition will always be critical about the interference in what it sees as “the natural state” of a person, what is defined for him by God.

By Karim Gaynillin