On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court extended marriage rights to same-sex couples in all 50 states.
The shift toward acceptance of gays and lesbians has generated a muted debate among American Muslims. That there has been no knee-jerk reaction to the ruling is a testimony to the growing maturity and independence of the American Muslim community. (About 42 percent of American Muslims support same-sex marriage, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.) This is even more important because the Supreme Court decision came during the month of Ramadan. Passionate discussions are taking place at iftar tables, in mosques, at the breakfast table and on social media.
Muslims cannot privately consider same-sex couples as morally inferior while publicly maintaining that everyone is equal under the law. It would be hypocritical to call on others to fight Islamophobia while propagating homophobia. American Muslims should confine this decision to the political realm. Regardless of one’s theological inclinations, this is a legal ruling by a secular institution, not a fatwa by a religious authority.
True, Islamic law forbids homosexual relations. And same-sex marriage is considered a sin. Still, that does not mean this particular understanding of Islam is not contestable. For example, Islamic scholar Siraj Kugle has written a critical assessment of homosexuality in Islam in a book by the same title. Others, including America’s first openly gay imam, Daayiee Abdullah, and gay communities such as the Muslim Alliance and Al-Fatiha Foundation have contested the traditional understanding of same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court’s decision is a good example of how law changes as public opinion shifts the balance of political power. Muslim societies are not immune to this inextricability of law and politics. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood for decades insisted on the superiority of Sharia-based states, and some Salafi scholars even deem democracy as kufr (disbelief). But after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011, the Brotherhood and many of those scholars embraced democracy. Today disgruntled Muslim Brotherhood leaders and their supporters openly preach the virtues of democracy, in part because the global legitimacy of democracy has made it very attractive to Islamists. Similarly, as same-sex marriage becomes a global norm, it will become difficult for Muslims to advocate against it.
Unlike Christianity, which advocates for one-man, one-woman marriage, Islamic law permits a more complex model of the family unit. A Muslim family can include many wives and many slave girls, all in sexual relationship with one man. Muslims more or less have moved away from this model, and today conservative Muslims, especially in the U.S., privilege the Christian concept of marriage — a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman. This in itself is a kind of silent reform.
True, there are a lot of myths and fallacies about homosexuality and its social consequences repeated in Muslim communities. These include false beliefs that homosexuality leads to pedophilia and that it is an ideology and people can be misguided into being gay or lesbian. But as same-sex marriages become more common and more Muslims come in contact with married gay couples, many of these myths will undoubtedly be busted. For now, the orthodox position on homosexuality remains safe.
American Muslims should welcome marriage equality because, after nearly 240 years, the U.S. political system has delivered for some what was promised to all Americans by the Constitution: equality under the law. In fact, it offers us an opportunity to demand that the same equality be extended to members of religious and racial minorities. Just as sexual profiling has now become illegal, so should racial and religious profiling. Those who are dismayed by the marriage equality decision must remember that just a few weeks ago, the same court overwhelmingly ruled in favor of the right to wear hijab, arguing that Abercrombie & Fitch’s decision not to hire Samantha Elauf because of her headscarf violated her civil rights.
There are also historical reasons for supporting marriage equality. Muslims decriminalized homosexuality more than a century before the West. The Ottoman Empire decriminalized homosexuality in 1858. Homosexuality was visible during the Islamic golden age, when science, philosophy and Islamic theology flourished in the Muslim world. Muslims should stay true to their history of tolerance by dealing with oppressed minorities such as the LGBT community with compassion and understanding. By doing so, they will serve as models for other faith communities.
American culture is paradoxical. While it tolerates alternative lifestyles, it also manifests a deeply held conservatism about sexuality and family relations. Muslims must not be part of this schizophrenic morality. We cannot combat Islamophobia and demand equal treatment for Muslims while propagating homophobia and calling for legal discrimination against another minority group. Put simply, we must extend to others the same acceptance we demand for ourselves.
The holy Quran teaches that God has “endowed the children of Adam with dignity.” This is an inalienable right for all. No one should strip another of this God-given dignity. And treating those who are of a different faith, different race or different sexuality as less than us violates this right. And it would be a moral crime. Thus we must accept and validate the dignity of same-sex couples, which the Supreme Court has finally recognized.