Celebrating LGBT Muslims in history

Abu Nuwas – a great Muslim scholar who wrote unashamedly about LGBT love

Muslim LGBT visibility has been increasing in recent years. On Pride in London – Muslim LGBT groups are often very vocal and one carried a placard last year saying: “See ya down at the mosque!”

Obviously this scandalised many. But there is a strong LGBT tradition in the Muslim world going right back through the centuries.

It may come as a surprise to know this but in Muslim history, homosexuality was often considered as perfectly acceptable. And there were leading scholars and even members of the ruling elite who expressed love and affection for members of their own sex.

Many Muslims I know today are exasperated that bigoted views within Islam – especially from violent extremists – have clouded out the more exotic and colourful history of the religion. They also dispute claims that the Qur’an prohibits gay and lesbian love. In fact, it doesn’t even mention homosexuality.

The rulings that are often cited from anti-LGBT Muslims frequently come from later “hadiths” – claimed sayings of the Prophet – that range from reliable to totally unreliable in terms of authenticity. Or they originate in the schools of jurisprudence that arose centuries after the Prophet’s death in the Abbasid Empire.

I was surprised several years ago to find wall paintings in a bathhouse in Jordan dating back to the two hundred years after the emergence of Islam that depicted dancers and even animals like bears playing musical instruments.

It sparked my realisation that Islam was far more tolerant a thousand years ago than it is in many countries today. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back to that version of the faith with its inclusivity and joyousness. Let me give you some examples of LGBT people in Muslim history.

Abu Nuwas was a poet whose full name was Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami and he lived most of his life in Baghdad – the incredible capital of the Abbasid Empire. Much of his poetry is too racy to quote here but this is one of his milder verses:

He sports a short tunic over his slender thighs
But his shirt is long of sleeve.
His feet are well-shod, and under his coat
You can glimpse rich brocade.

Other Muslim poets in history who publicly declared their homosexuality included the Persian Ibn Dawud (868-909 CE), the Andalusian Ibn Quzman (1080-1160 CE) and Ibn Hamdis (1053-1133 CE) who lived in Sicily when it was under Muslim rule. None of them faced a real threat of being put to death because in the “Golden Age” of Islam (when Muslim culture influenced the whole of Europe), the authorities turned a blind eye.

So why did things change?

The usual explanation is that the European powers introduced harsh anti-homosexual legislation in Middle Eastern countries when they ruled them in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That’s, however, part of the story. Because since then, the same European powers have liberalised their attitudes and laws towards LGBT people – while in contrast the Middle East has, if anything, got way more intolerant.

Why?

The main reason is the emergence of political Islamism which has characterised homosexuality as a western decadent phenomenon. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution – but even before that – there’s been a movement against LGBT rights that we can see getting worse in countries today like Indonesia.

It’s very sad to see countries that once had a vibrant LGBT scene – even if it was underground – now becoming fiercely homophobic. Take for example the detention in Lebanon last year of the organiser of a Gay Pride march. This in a country where the capital Beirut was once described as the “Paris of the eastern Mediterranean”.

This leaves many LGBT Muslims feeling marginalised and some even coming to believe that they might even be undermining their own faith by “tainting” it. Mercifully, there are those prepared to speak out bravely and advocate a reconciled Muslim and LGBT identity. Groups like Imaan in the UK come to mind.

And in many ways, they are helping to revive a traditional, pluralist and tolerant Islam that if revived, could help us all to move forward together in harmony.

Now isn’t that a nice idea?

LGBT men hanged in London – in 1743

Attitudes towards LGBT people have changed over the centuries. Sometimes there have been periods of relative tolerance followed by extreme cruelty. The eighteenth century was incredibly camp when it came to fashion and manners but you could be hanged by the neck for being an active homosexual.

I know because two LGBT men were hanged for the crime of sodomy near where I live in the year 1743. They had basically cruised each other in central London and then been caught in the act.

LGBT men hanged for their sexuality

Kennington and the surrounding area has a big LGBT population these days but being gay in 1743 could have landed you in terminal trouble. In fact, the sorry scene that unfolded in August of that year reminded me of the hangings of gay people recorded in Iran in recent years.

But this was London – and barely 250 years ago. The scene of the execution was near Kennington Park pictured below in the mid-winter.

Kennington Park (formerly Common) where executions once took place

LGBT men hanged in public

James Hunt and Thomas Collins were accused of the crime of “sodomy”. The two men were from the parish of Saint Saviour’s in Southwark and had committed an act “not fit to be named among Christians” in June that year.

Both denied the charge. Hunt was 37 and Collins was 57, so both mature, grown men. Not that their age made the slightest bit of difference in an eighteenth century courthouse.

Hunt was born in Rotherhithe, reasonably well educated, apprenticed to be a barge builder when young, raised as an Anabaptist but deemed to be a bit bolshy.

While in prison, he was preached at by an Anglican vicar who reminded him that his soul was in danger of eternal torment. Hunt responded that it was those who had brought the false charges against him who had truly sinned. With the prospect of being hanged in public, it’s not surprising that Hunt continuously denied being gay.

Who wouldn’t?

Men hanged for being LGBT in public

Collins was from Bedfordshire and had served in the army, been married and a father to several children. His wife was from Southwark. Coming back to London, having been away, he was walking across London Bridge on his way to see his granddaughter. As he turned into Pepper Alley, he saw Hunt walking in front of him.

Collins asked Hunt if there was a “necessary house” nearby – for which read, public toilet. They both went in together but then two other men entered and Collins claimed they set about mugging them but found no valuables to take. Or as Collins put it – here is no feathers to pluck.

Unfortunately, the account given by Hunt put himself in the privy before Collins so their accounts clashed a bit on detail. Enough to result in a death sentence by the court.

Hunt had given his version of events to the aforementioned Anglican vicar who then passed on the damning testimony. Unsurprisingly, when the time of execution arrived, Hunt was in no mood to pray with the man of the cloth who had brought him and Collins to the gibbet.

Hunt said he was glad to be rid of this life. And he and Collins both died together. They were strung up to a tree, then the cart that had brought them drove away from under their feet. After half an hour they were cut down. Collins’ body was taken for dissection – a common practice in those days – but he was returned as his body revealed signs of venereal disease.

Terrible and brutal times for the LGBT community. Happier days now. A sad story of two gay men hanged for the crime of love.