The real meaning of Easter – and how best to see it than a visit to the church of Bom Jesus in northern Portugal. I was there in August last year to look at the life-sized depictions of the Passion of Christ. Each station of the cross has its own little chapel up a steep hillside just beyond the city of Braga. And it’s well worth the trip!
The church of Bom Jesus covers a hillside and more than likely was the site of a pagan temple – especially as Braga was the Roman city of Bracara Augusta. A Christian church was there in the Middle Ages but the baroque pile that confronts you today dates back to around 1722. Last year, UNESCO listed it as a world heritage site – and about time too!
It’s incredible and you’ll be glad to know that I got my iPhone out and filmed this for you. Here is the Easter message in beautiful 18th century sculpture. Visiting it now will be difficult with the wretched Coronavirus restricting all our movements around the world.
So, enjoy the Passion of Christ this Easter with my little video.
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.
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.