A lot of people have asked me what I think of Prof Jonathan Brown‘s recent article on Islam and Homosexuality. I look up to Prof Brown and I always recommend people read his excellent book, Misquoting Muhammad. His recent article makes several strong points. But towards the end, he states:
“As a Muslim American, I support the right of same-sex couples to have civil marriages according to US law.”
He explains this position in two ways.
First, he argues that no specific group in society should be able to dictate to everyone else who can and cannot get married. If specific groups could control marriage in this way, then who’s to say that the American majority might not one day decide to ban Muslim marriage? If Muslims are not comfortable with that possibility, then, to avoid inconsistency, they should defend LGBT marriage. (Prof Sherman Jackson made this argument in one of his articles on this topic several years back.)
Secondly, he argues that there is precedence in Islamic jurisprudence for allowing, i.e., tolerating, unconventional marriages from other faith communities. As evidence, he cites how Muslim judges in the past tolerated Zoroastrians practicing incestuous “self-marriage” within Muslim lands, while those judges acknowledged that incest is contemptible. He doesn’t provide a reference for this claim (correction: he does, I somehow missed the footnote), but Faisal Kutty made this same argument a couple of years back in a HuffPo article and he cited an opinion from Ibn al-Qayyim. I haven’t tracked this down to verify, but let’s just assume for the sake of argument.
Both arguments, in my opinion, are problematic.
As for the first argument, Muslim marriage is currently not legally recognized in the US in the sense that the nikah does not count as marriage as far as US law is concerned. Muslim couples still have to register a civil marriage in order to be legally married. As far as the requirements of civil marriage, there is nothing that is required civilly that violates an Islamic marriage or would be difficult for Muslim couples to abide by, so it is not clear how US law might be changed to prevent Muslims from registering a civil marriage. Would county registrars interrogate people to see if they’re Muslims and, if if they are, refuse to marry them on that basis? So, there are already some disanalogies between Muslim marriage and gay marriage.
Another problem is the Faustian nature of this reasoning. As a community, what other Islamic values would we be willing to bargain with in order to protect ourselves from possible majoritarian backlash? Where is the line? I don’t see a principled program here from those Muslim scholars who support gay marriage. This ties into some larger issues with Muslims’ understanding of liberal secularism and how it does(n’t) work, but I’m not going to delve into that here.
The main problem with the second argument is that, in premodern societies, prior to the emergence of the modern nation-state, the practices of one segment of the population would not necessarily transfer to or impact another, separate segment. Religious communities were separate, had their own identities, lived according to their own laws (as long as they were “people of the book” and even that was sometimes broadly defined to include Zoroastrians). In this way, the existence of incestuous marriages would not have had much impact on the dominant Muslim majority.
But we live in a very different circumstance. First of all, we are all subsumed into this larger American identity and the law of the land plays a big part in the wider cultural identity. Being American is slowly coming to include within its definition being pro-LGBT and to not be pro-LGBT means being unAmerican (just look at how GOP politicians reacted to Orlando and how quickly they were willing to throw Muslims under the bus as unAmerican, even though most of them had always been on the anti-LGBT side). So, endorsing gay marriage will eventually lead to a conception of American-ness which will marginalize those people who believe gay relationships to be immoral, i.e., an increasingly smaller number of Muslims, orthodox Jews, and Christians.
Secondly, as Americans, most people see no difference between legality and morality. Even if (some) Muslims today can endorse gay marriage while simultaneously believing it to be morally abhorrent, there is no chance the next generation will be able to maintain that logical distinction. And this is something easily observable in our current society. The laws and normative assumptions of the majority inevitably affect the views of the minority. Why else do first and second generation Muslims lose their Muslim values? Why would we contribute to that cultural tide by going out of our way to endorse gay marriage, rather than pushing back against it, given the opportunity?
Anyway, a have a lot more to say on this, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
If I could summarize my view, I would put it like this. We need to stop thinking solely in terms of whether our political positions will cause backlash or will lead to a curtailment of Muslim civil rights or a loss of other benefits Muslims currently enjoy. There are much, much bigger stakes here, most important of which is our ability to perpetuate the deen through the coming generations bi idhnillah, and sexual ethics is a critical part of that. Will Islam last in America? It definitely will not if we and our institutions (*cough* CAIR, ISNA *cough*) are willing to bargain with core values as soon as there is the slightest cultural pressure.