Sara Omar, a Postdoctoral Associate at the Yale MacMillan Center Council on Middle East Studies, visited campus on Thursday, Oct. 11, to discuss her studies pertaining to homosexuality and the development of modern Muslim discourse surrounding the topic.
She began the lecture with a description of the scope of her studies and the information she sorted through to understand how homosexuality is talked about in Muslim countries.
“I started out looking at same-sex intercourse and same-sex sexual acts…and I decided to look at that as a lens through which I can explore the development of Muslim discourse,” Omar said. “So law, Ḥadīth, tafsir (exegesis), medicine, theology.”
By sorting through the different practices surmised from the Quran, Omar began to discover why homosexuality was so problematic in Islam and why a culture of suppression of homosexuality came about in the Middle East. To help the audience understand the main premise behind the different bodies of work that diminish homosexuality, Omar played a clip from an unlikely source.
“It may be an unconventional way to start, but I figured it might be interesting,” she said.
The clip was from the opening scene from the movie “Fiddler on the Roof.” As the scene came to a close, the main character, Tevye, made the connection between the Jews of his village and the fiddler on the roof. He states that Jews made use of tradition to establish a societal norm. Omar showed how this notion is relevant to her studies.
“The reason why I begin with this is because I think it encapsulates much of what’s going on in modern Muslim communities,” she said.
In her research, she has found that tradition is the primary factor that controls the discourse surrounding homosexuality in the Middle East. Practices have become so ingrained that tradition has not allowed room for deviance.
“I think the crucial part of this is to think about how it is that Muslims today are using the past to justify the present,” she said. “How they are using the past to establish a sense of authenticity.”
These traditions did not arise from thin air. In fact, the passage commonly used as a justification for anti-homosexuality would be that of Sodom and Gomorrah as it appears in Genesis and that of Lot as it appears in the Quran.
She explained the specific part of the Quranic passage that would now be considered contentious.
“This part of the story was really problematic,” she said. “The story again is that Lot housed guests who were visitors, and these visitors were angels. And he gave them hospitality. He opened his home. He invited them in. They come into his home, and the townspeople, as soon as they get wind of this, they come rushing at his house, almost knocking the door down, demanding he bring out the guests so that they may know them.”
The debate then surrounded what ‘knowing’ the guests meant. To many of those who practice what Omar calls “interpretive continuity” and thus emphasize the homophobic implications of this text, the townspeople wanted to commit sodomy against the angels. This interpretation presents a prohibitive mandate against homosexuality. Meanwhile, those on the more progressive side of the spectrum state that the townspeople wanted to rape the angels, and therefore the message is one of prohibiting sexual violence.
Many modern scholars, on both sides of this spectrum, have utilized and appropriated a certain concept to enhance their argument as well, Omar explains.
“They appropriate this concept in the Quran of fitra…It’s a difficult word to translate, but it’s internal disposition,” she said. “The context [in the Quran], at least the way in which it has been debated historically and in the early historical way, in trying to address what is this natural disposition, this fitra, early Muslims have argued that it has to do with monotheism…and it’s their culture, their society, their family that corrupts their internal disposition.”
Some conservative scholars would argue that homosexuality distracts a person from their natural inclination towards Islam and is thereby a negative force. On the opposite side of the debate, however, some utilize the concept of fitra as one’s affinity toward the person one loves. This interpretation allows for more inclusivity of homosexuality.
“[They are] using the same exact concept in two very different ways,” she said.
The core of this debate, Omar believes, is whether or not one’s natural inclination towards homosexuality was fitra or not.
“It develops over time to what we have now with…scholars citing it, and appropriating it, to make a case for or against fitra,” Omar said.
Sabrina Khattab ’19 attended the lecture. She discussed her Egyptian background and how that made her excited to attend the event.
“I’ve never been to an event that had to do with homosexuality and Islam,” she said. “We don’t really have anything that has taken the two together. It’s almost like taboo to talk about it.”
When asked about what she thought of the talk, Khattab liked that both sides were being represented in a very balanced, fair way.
“I really liked that she gave multiple perspectives,” she said. “And she gave the quotes [from the Quran] that people are using to justify [homosexuality] but also the quotes that people are using to do the opposite.”
This balance allowed Khattab to reassess some of what she consider her own culture’s issues surrounding the conversation about homosexuality.
“I never even thought that ‘What if [the story of Lot] had nothing to do with homosexuality?’” she said. “I think that people, in my culture at least, take certain things from text to go with what they already want to do.”
In this vein, Omar ended her lecture the way it began, allowing the audience to consider how much tradition plays a role in our lives and how that can help us understand the role tradition has in the Middle East and in Muslim discourse.
“This idea of the weight of tradition and how much it has stayed with us…how much we use tradition as this double-edged sword,” she said. “It’s something that roots us, because this is what we know. We grow with it. We grow up in a household of tradition, and it doesn’t just have to be Islamic and religious traditions, it can be any traditions…While they root us, and they give us a sense of belonging, and a sense of community, at the same time, they also could lead to a blind way of thinking, and not reexamining the past.”
Jordan Saliby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.