I’m providing below a translation of a short section from a book written by liberal Tunisian scholar and Muslim feminist Olfa Youssef. The book is entitled Ḥayrat muslima: Fil-mirāth wal-zawāj wal-jinsiyya al-mithliyya (The Puzzlement of a Muslim Woman: On Inheritance, Marriage, and Homosexuality) and the short section that I translate here concerns what is termed in classical Islamic literature al-liwāṭ which is understood as sexual relations between two males, a “deviant,” “condemnable,” and “punishable” behavior in the eyes of the great majority of traditional Muslim scholars.
In this excerpt, the Tunisian author skillfully challenges how Qur’ānic commentators understood the scriptural verses dealing with the subject and also attempts to include insights from Lacanian psychoanalysis to grasp the terminology that the Qur’ān uses. For more on the work of Youssef in general, you can read my article in the Journal of Religion and Society entitled Islamic Perspectives in Post-revolutionary Tunisia: The Work of Olfa Youssef.
The short translation covers pages 183-197 from the 3rd edition of the book published by Dār Saḥar lil-Nashr (2008).
Al-Liwāṭ as Discourse
There are in the Qur’ān many verses that deal with the unprecedented fāḥisha (abomination) that the people of Lūṭ* committed. Amongst such verses are:
“And Lūṭ, when he said to his people, ‘Do you commit abomination such as no one from among the peoples has done before you? Indeed, you approach men with desire, instead of women. You surely are a transgressing people.’” (7:80-81)
“Do you approach males among the peoples and leave what your Lord has created for you as mates? But you are a transgressing people.” (26:165-166)
“And Lūṭ, when he said to his people, ‘Do you commit abomination while you know? Do you indeed approach men with desire instead of women? Rather, you are a people behaving ignorantly.’” (27:54-55)
“And Lūṭ, when he said to his people, ‘Indeed, you commit abomination such as no one among the peoples has done before you. Do you indeed approach men and cut off the road and commit in your meetings that which is condemnable…?’” (29:28-29)
The reader of these verses can only notice the clear difference between the Qur’ān’s discourse on al-ṣiḥāq (sexual relations between two females) and its discourse on al-liwāṭ. Whereas the Qur’ān ignores al-ṣiḥāq, it mentions al-liwāt on many occasions. This is not strange. Al-ṣiḥāq remains outside the phallic organization of the world. It affects masculine narcissism, creates a different perception of woman’s sexual desire, and rejects limiting a woman to being an object of man’s desire, yet it still keeps intact the role of the woman as a possible object of man’s desire even if simply as part of an imposed reality. In contrast, not only is al-liwāṭ located within the phallic organization of the world, it transforms the male into an object of desire for the male. Therefore, al-liwāṭ transgresses the limits of existing outside the phallic organization and even destroys that form of organization, given that the latter can only be sustained through the existence of a single possible object of masculine sexual desire: the woman.
It is the condescending look toward the female socially, as a result of perceiving her as merely an object of male desire, that explains the adverse attitude towards and denunciation of al-liwāṭ. The Qur’ānic commentators disapprove of al-liwāṭ because it transforms the male into an object of male desire and therefore bestows upon the objectified male the characteristics of a female, destroying the symbolic phallic sign that most exegetes consider to be natural. For example, al-Rāzī says, “masculinity is the dwelling place of action and femininity is the dwelling place of passivity, so if the male becomes passive and the female active, that state is contrary to the requirements of nature and to divine wisdom.” Al-Liwāṭ is thus dangerous because it makes the superior, better, and active male acquire some of the lower passive characteristics of a female. That is why we still have today in Muslim societies a situation in which al-liwāṭ is denounced and yet if a sexual relation occurs between two men, the active partner is preferred to the passive one. This is because the latter is perceived in the social imaginaire to be playing the role of a woman and in the process lowering the status of men.
The Legal Ruling of al-Liwāṭ
In the previous chapter, we assumed that al-liwāṭ was an abomination the meaning of which was clear, namely approaching males sexually. Most Qur’ānic commentaries accept this meaning and focus on its implications. However, if we looked at the verses that treat the subject of al-liwāṭ and pondered over their meaning, we find that the abomination of the people of Lūṭ is specifically to approach males at the expense of women (min dūn al-nisā’). One verse says, “And Lūṭ, when he said to his people, ‘do you commit abomination such as no one from among the peoples has done before you? Indeed, you approach men with desire, instead of women (min dūn al-nisā’). You surely are a transgressing people.’” (7:80-81). Another verse states, “And Lūṭ, when he said to his people, ‘do you commit abomination while you know? Do you indeed approach men with desire instead of women (min dūn al-nisā’)? Rather, you are a people behaving ignorantly.’” (27:54-55) In other places in the noble Qur’ān, the abomination of the people of Lūṭ takes the form of sexually approaching men, cutting off the road, and committing that which is condemnable (al-munkar) in their meetings. Another verse says, “And Lūṭ, when he said to his people, ‘Indeed, you commit abomination such as no one among the peoples has done before you. Do you indeed approach men and cut off the road and commit in your meetings that which is condemnable…?’” (29:28-29)
It might seem that “approaching men” is a clear statement, by considering it primarily through its sexual dimension. On the other hand, exegetes widely disagreed over the meaning of “cutting off the road” (qat` al-sabīl) and committing “that which is condemnable” (al-munkar). Some of them read “cutting off the road” in its literal meaning, as highway robbery. Others read it in a metaphorical way despite the absence of any proof for such a reading, stating for example that it means “the cutting off of the habitual [sexual] way that involves women and that involves the benefit of maintaining the species.” Another interpretation maintains that it entails approaching itinerants with their wicked practice, for it was related about the people of Lūṭ that they did that to foreign travelers. Al-Ṭabarsī adds more details, mentioning that the people of Lūṭ “would threw stones at a traveler and whoever among them hit that traveler would have him. They would take his money, penetrate him, and ransom him for three dirhams; they had a judge making such rulings.”
Similarly, the commentators disagree about the meaning of “committing that which is condemnable” because of the broad character and ambiguity of the term “al-munkar.” Thus, interpretations differ from one an exegete to the other. Al-Ṭabarī says, “the interpreters disagreed on what God intended by al-munkar that these people [i.e. the people of Lūṭ] committed in their meetings. Some said that they farted on each other in their assemblies… Others said that they beat up whomever passed near them… Some said that they committed the abomination [i.e. sexual relations with men] in their assemblies.” Al-Ṭabarsī mentions that “their assemblies contained a variety of what is condemnable (al-manākīr) and ugly behaviors (al-qabā’iḥ) like insults, foolishness, slapping, gambling, beating, throwing stones on passers-by, and playing musical instruments.” Al-Rāzī considered al-munkar to be “exhibitionism,” meaning that they “watched each other as they sexually approached men in their assemblies,” quoting Mujāhid. Some exegetes preferred a particular interpretation of al-munkar over other possible ones. This is the case of al-Ṭabarī who states, “the best and most correct opinion is that ‘you beat up the passers-by and make fun of them,’ as reported from the Messenger of God, may the prayers of God and His peace be upon him.” But what is most important in my opinion is not agreement on one meaning for “cutting off the road” or for “committing that which is condemnable;” everyone has his proofs and interpretations. The Qur’ān allows for many possible readings, particularly when one deals with general and ambiguous phrases that can be interpreted both literally and metaphorically. What is most important in our opinion is to realize that the abomination of the people of Lūṭ was not only sexually approaching men, but extended to committing other acts that threatened the peace of other people and the safety of their selves and bodies. We can go even further than that and ask whether the abomination of the people of Lūṭ was to sexually approach men or whether it was to force themselves sexually on men without the latter’s consent, in addition to beating and insulting them and throwing stones at them.
The Qur’ānic story that is featured in the chapters of Hūd, al-Ḥijr, al-Dhāriyāt, and al-Qamar might make us lean towards this reading. God Almighty says,
“And when our messengers came to Lūṭ, he was anguished for them and felt for them great discomfort and said, ‘this is a difficult day.’ And his people came hastening to him, and before this they had been doing evil deeds. He said, ‘o my people, these are my daughters; they are purer for you. So be conscious of God and do not disgrace me concerning my guests. Is there not among you a mature man?” (11:77-78)
“And the people of the city came rejoicing. He said, “indeed, these are my guests, so do not shame me. And be conscious of God and do not disgrace me.” (15:67-69)
The same story is repeated in al-Dhāriyāt (51:24-37) and al-Qamar (54:37). All the stories agree on the point that the angels that came to Abraham to give him the glad tidings of the birth of his son also informed him about the severe punishment that would befall the people of Lūṭ. The commentators note that the people of Lūṭ run to his house to approach his guests, thinking that these guests were handsome men and unaware that they were in fact angels. The text of the Qur’ān emphasizes two elements. One is that the angels were guests. The term “guest” (ḍayf) or “guest of Abraham” is repeated in all the places in which the story is featured. The second element is the fears of Lūṭ upon learning about the coming of his people. He hoped for a force that would push them back; “he said, ‘If only I had against you some power or could take refuge in a strong support.’” (11:80). He called upon them not to shame or disgrace him, concerning his guests. It is clear from the above that the people of Lūṭ did not come to his house with an offer of a possible relation with his guests. They did not carry an offer that the guests might accept or reject according to a perception of sexual relations based on acceptance and consent. Rather, they came to the house of Lūṭ to force themselves sexually on his guests and therefore to shame and disgrace them in a society that considers generosity towards guests to be one of its greatest moral pillars. Many commentators attest to this point. For example, al-Ṭabarī emphasizes that Lūṭ was afraid for his guests and knew that he would need to defend them. It is obvious that defending someone only makes sense if the person is facing some form of harm. There is no need to defend someone who has a choice in doing something or not doing it. Within a similar framework, al-Rāzī highlights that Lūṭ “was scared for them [i.e. the guests] from the viciousness of his people and that they [i.e. the guests] would not be able to resist them [i.e. Lūṭ’s people].” Surely, one cannot imagine that resistance would emanate from someone who is willing or consenting to some act.
Al-Ṭabarī acknowledges the occurrence of “rape” when he interprets the saying of Lūṭ, “do not disgrace me concerning my guest” to mean “do not humiliate me by imposing on my guests that which they hate to be imposed on them.” Emphasizing that the guests hated what the people of Lūṭ wanted to inflict upon them, Al-Ṭabarī writes, “Lūṭ said to his people, ‘those to whom you came seeking to commit abomination are my guests and it is incumbent upon a man to be generous towards his guests. So, do not shame me, o people, concerning my guests and be generous to me by not inflicting harm upon them.”
We conclude from the above that the abomination of the people of Lūṭ might exceed beating, stone throwing, and insults to forcefully penetrating men, which means committing “rape.” And this is what Ibn ʿĀshūr states. He asserts that one facet of the abomination of people of Lūṭ is that they hate those they approach. It appears that rape was primarily committed against guests, meaning the strangers passing by the town. This might explain why the Qur’ān mentions “cutting off the road” and why the Qur’ānic story focuses on the status of the guests. It also clarifies what al-Ṭabarī reports about the people of Lūṭ having limited their “rape” to guests, for they said to Lūṭ, “we will not leave our practice, so do not invite, host, or harbor anyone; we will indeed never stay away from him and never leave our practice.” Ibn ʿĀshūr contends that the people of Lūṭ used to sit near the roads so that they grab whomever they choose among the passers-by.
Perhaps, the expanding character of the abomination of the people of Lūṭ and its exceeding of the familiar and apparent sexual relations with men led some jurists to consider that “the people of Lūṭ were punished for their unbelief.” That is why the punishment befell both adults and children.
Let us leave aside inquiring about the forms of the “abomination” as elaborated in the Qur’ānic stories. If we readily agree on the background of the prohibition of al-liwāt as a form of harming the other through beating, insults and rape, it remains that a careful reader must ask why the Qur’ān focuses on the widespread meaning of the abomination of the people of Lūṭ, a meaning present in most verses, represented by specifying that “approaching males” (ityān al-dhukūr) is approaching them “instead of women” (min dūn al-nisā’). This specification took the [grammatical] form of either al-ʿatf [addition through “and” or similar conjunctions] or the use of al-ḥāl [the circumstantial accusative].
An example of using al-ʿatf is when God says, “do you approach males among the peoples and leave what your Lord has created for you as mates? But you are a transgressing people.” (26:165-6-166) Here, if we follow the linguistic rule of al-ʿatf, we would recognize that the condemnation of approaching males is connected to the condemnation of leaving what God has created as mates. This is similar to one saying, “Do you eat bread and not eat apples?” In this case, one does not disapprove of the eating of bread only, but of the act of both eating of bread and not eating apples.
As for the use of al-ḥāl, it appears when God reiterates that the people of Lūṭ approach men at the expense of women; He says, “And Lūṭ, when he said to his people, ‘do you commit abomination such as no one from among the peoples has done before you? Indeed, you approach men with desire instead of women. You surely are a transgressing people,’” (7:80-81). God also says, “and Lūṭ, when he said to his people, ‘do you commit abomination while you know? Do you indeed approach men with desire instead of women? Rather, you are a people behaving ignorantly.’” (27:54-55) The phrase “instead of women” (min dūn al-nisā’) is in a position of al-ḥāl [circumstantial accusative], which shows that the abomination of the people of Lūṭ occurs when the two characteristics are present simultaneously, namely “approaching men” as one part and approaching them “instead of women” as another part. Linguistically, “approaching men” cannot even be considered forbidden except if it is accompanied by turning away from women and abstaining from relations with them. In other words, the prohibition concerns the combination of the two actions. It is akin to God saying, “do you command people to do good and forget [doing that] yourselves, while you recite the book; will you not understand?” The denunciation in this case is not of the “commanding of good” but of “forgetting the self” at the same time.
Whether the Qur’ān uses al-`atf or al-ḥāl, the connection that it makes between “approaching men” and “abstaining from women” cannot be without reason. This connection creates two possible interpretations. The first one is reading it as a description of the moment of the action. This assumes that that the phrase “instead of women,” meaning “abstaining from women” is simply an emphasis of “approaching men,” meaning penetrating men. In other words, at the moment in which a man is approaching another man, he is abstaining from women. The second reading considers the connection in a longer timeframe. In this interpretation, the phrase “instead of women” is a specification of “approaching men,” in terms of a period of time. Some men might limit themselves all their lives to “approaching men.” Others might combine between “approaching men” and “approaching women” during different parts of their lives, thus being bisexuals and not belonging to the group of those who “approach men” and “refrain from women.”
It is not our aim here to support one opinion over another. The aim of this work is not to provide final answers for we acknowledge that only God knows the [true] interpretation of the Qur’ān. The aim is rather to show puzzlement that calls for research and interpretative efforts. We can ask ourselves, using our divinely sanctioned human reflection and thinking, about the possible reason that led the word of God, in its wisdom and its eternal and universal relevance, to always connect the act of “approaching men” to that of “abstaining from women.”
Male homosexuality entails two elements. The first is desire for men and the second is abstaining from the other sex, meaning women, in either temporary or complete terms. We find that the Qur’ān concentrates on the second element. So, does the emphasis on this element, meaning the emphasis on “abstaining from women” as completing the embodiment of the abomination, have deeply unconscious indications?
To answer this question, it is necessary to remember what Lacanian psychoanalysis demonstrated about the unconscious representation of the sexual relation between a man and a woman. This relation is built on a paradox between two elements. One is symbolic, appears in language, and is based on complementarity. The other element is real, appears in the unconscious, and is based on separation. Language draws a relation of complementarity between the active man who has a penis and the passive woman who receives it. As for the unconscious embodiment of the sexual system, it establishes the man as desiring and the woman as object of desire. This duality might seem to be based on complementarity, but when we know that the object of desire for both men and women is the phallus and that the woman represents the phallus for the man, we recognize the paradox between the apparent complementarity and the actual separation. This is because when man desires the woman, he actually desires the phallus, meaning what he lacks. However, through this desire, it is expected of the man, who is lacking, to fill the lack within the other, meaning the woman’s lack of a penis. Therefore, the man is both lacking and expected to fill the lack within the other, leading “the symbolic complementarity in language to quickly become complex in the trial of the meeting.” This original splitting in the man between an original lack within him and the call of desire towards the woman, who is herself lacking and who seeks the man to fill that lack, explains the anxiety that the desire for the woman creates within the man.
In a famous phrase, Lacan stresses that, “a sexual relation does not exist.” In my opinion, this phrase goes beyond the negation of complementarity between the sexes; it reminds us of the original lack within man and thus of the original emptiness of desire. The latter cannot be filled through any object of transient need. In his essence, the human being is imperfect and desires what embodies perfectness, which is the “Other” from the perspective of psychoanalysis or “God” from the perspective of religion.
God Almighty asks the human being to accept his original inherent lack, by representing the human being as created and God as creator and by representing the human being as worshipper and God as worshipped. If the relation with the same sex creates complementarity more easily and if the essence of the sexual relation with the other sex is a reminder of the lack, it is logical that the Qur’ān denounces men abstaining from the other sex, knowing what such a relation entails in terms of facing anxiety and fear of castration. Thus, abstaining from women becomes a form of running away from characteristic human deficiency and might lead one to challenge it and consequently refuse one’s human limitations.
*The Qur’ānic version of the Biblical Lot. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’ān presents him as a prophet of God.
 The woman practicing al-ṣiḥāq remains in the male perspective a possible subject of male desire. See for example reports about women changing their practices from al-ṣiḥāq to heterosexual sexual activity in Nuzhat al-albāb, p. 245.
 Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, volume 7, page 176.
 Malek Chebel, L’esprit de serial: Mythes et pratiques sexuels au Maghreb, Paris, Payot 2003, p. 75.
 Majma` al-bayān, part 7-8, page 440.
 Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, volume 13, part 25, page 59.
 Jāmi` al-bayān, part 10, page 135.
 Majma` al-bayān, part 7-8, page 440.
 Jāmi` al-bayān, part 10, pages 135-136.
 Majma` al-bayān, part 7-8, pages 441.
 Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, volume 13, part 25, page 59.
 Majma` al-bayān, part 7-8, pages 440-441.
 Jāmi` al-bayān, part 10, page 137.
 ibid, part 7, page 79.
 Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, volume 9, part 18, page 32.
 Jāmi` al-bayān, part 7, page 84.
 ibid, page 526.
 Al-Taḥrīr wal-tanwīr, part 20, page 240.
 Jāmi` al-bayān, part 11, page 564.
 Al-Taḥrīr wal-tanwīr, part 20, page 240.
 Aḥkām al-Qur’ān, part 2, page 777.
 Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, volume 2, part 3, page 50.
 The “real” is one of three categories that Lacan uses in addition to the “symbolic” and the “imaginaire.” The “real” includes what cannot be represented by symbolic language.
 We need to remember that the phallus is not the penis but its symbolic representation. That is why the child represents for the mother an imaginary phallus.
 Rapport sexuel et rapport des sexes, p. 95.
 For a discussion on the difference between the “Other” and God, see Denis Vasse, L’Autre du désir et le Dieu de la foi: Lire aujourd’hui Thérèse d’Avila, Paris, Seuil 1991, p.209.
 Rapport sexuel et rapport des sexes, p. 364.