This has been cross-posted from The Asexual Agenda
In my post, Islam, Patriarchy, and the Recalcitrant Asexual Wife, I analyzed orthodox Islamic discourses on marriage and how they may impact asexual Muslims who are seeking to get married but who do not wish to or who are unable to provide sex.
My analysis showed that there are two elements of Islamic discourse on marriage that may be oppressive to asexual Muslims. The first element is the idea that the purpose of marriage is the regulation of sexual desire. In the discourse, this is taken to create a right to sex on the part of each spouse, and an obligation on the part of the other spouse to provide sex. This in turn leads to conceptualizing a spouse who withholds sex as recalcitrant. Recalcitrance (nushuz) is seen as putting the marriage in danger and thus triggers a series of rights and actions for the other spouse than can ultimately lead to separation through divorce. The second element is patriarchal interpretations of Islam that severely disadvantage women and put an asexual wife in a much more vulnerable position than an asexual husband.
There is already a great deal of Islamic feminist work to dismantle patriarchal interpretations of Islam so I will not spend more time on this element here. Instead, I would like to focus on the first element, the sex-normativity of Islamic discourse on marriage.
As I argued in my earlier post, sex-normative discourse about marriage leads to the conceptualization of the asexual spouse as innately recalcitrant. Or, as I put it there, as an asexual woman who is unable to provide sex, I am not able to be a “good Muslim wife”. There are a variety of tools I can employ to secure rights for myself to a celibate marriage, but as long as the sex-normative framework remains in place, these can only be exceptions to the general rule or special arrangements. The state of innate recalcitrance remains in place and I would revert to it whenever the exceptions or special arrangements fell through.
This creates a situation where behavior that I engage in because of my sexual orientation (i.e., avoiding sex) becomes marked as inherently disobedient to what these discourses tell me are God’s commands. Moreover, if I attempt to avoid this inherent disobedience by choosing not to marry, I can then be stigmatized as going away from the way of the religion (I should also note that stigma for failure to marry is often much greater for women than for men because we are seen as failing to fulfill our womanly duty to be wives and mothers).
There’s no way for me to win here. Whether in or out of marriage, I am seen not only as not “normal” by not having sexual desire, but as innately disobedient to God’s commands regarding sexuality. The only way for me to avoid this would be to submit on an ongoing basis to something I would experience as oppression and trauma (i.e., unwanted sex).
It is for this reason that I consider asexuality to be queer within Islam. It is not hypervisible in the way that homosexuality is (indeed it is invisible and erased) and the stigmas are different. But it is still in some way deviant.
Asexuality is usually not seen as deviant in Western discourses. Ianna Hawkins Owen argues that this is due to the racialization of asexuality as white. I think this is true, but it is also very specific to the U.S. context and to the recent historical period.
I believe that its deeper roots are in Christianity and a perceived association of celibacy as purity. In reality, most Christian discourse is very sex-normative as well. Moreover, as much as celibacy is seen as virtuous or pure, the concept of self-restraint is central to it. Purity is achieved by overcoming desire and showing self-mastery (interestingly, Ianna Hawkins Owen argues the same thing about whiteness and sexuality). Having a lack of desire is seen as unnatural or somehow “lazy”. If asexuals are “pure”, we’re doing it wrong!
Nonetheless, this is a trend that is found to some degree in Christianity. The thing is, Islam is not Christianity. Celibacy or self-restraint from desire is not seen as the ideal in Islam. In my original post on Asexuality, Islam, and Queerness, I quoted several foundational texts in Islam that strongly discourage celibacy and encourage enjoyment of sex in marriage. 1,400 years of Muslim scholarship has followed this lead.
Even in Christianity, sex-normative discourse means that in reality asexuals are often seen as not normal or not natural. But without the countervailing factor of the idealization of celibacy that one may find in Christianity, I believe that asexuality is much more obviously deviant, and queer, in Islam.
The message of jumu’ah prayer that Friday at the Retreat gives spiritual importance to this family reunion of unique and diverse individuals. El-Farouk Khaki, one of the founders of el-Tawhid Juma Circle’s Toronto Unity Mosque gave the khutbah (sermon) and spoke more or less around the topic of the Retreat: “strength in diversity.” For me, one of the take-aways was what he said about the signs or ayat of Allah.
The word “ayat” refers to both verses in the Qur’an and the signs or reflections of the Divine. My favorite verse related to this (ask me next week and I might give you a different one) is in Surat Fussilat:
“We will show them Our signs in the universe and in their own selves…” (Qur’an 41:53)
As far as the ayat of the Qur’an, we show a lot of respect and reverence. We make sure the Qur’an doesn’t touch the ground. We often make sure we are ritually pure when we pick it up to read. And we read it in a state of focus and attention (khushu’), cognitively and spiritually acknowledging it as holy.
When do we afford the same kind of respect and reverence to other ayat of God? Are living breathing human beings of any less importance than a revealed book (to whom it was revealed for)? El-Farouk also asked us to look around ourselves, at the beautiful woodlands that surrounded us, asking us if we ever show the same reverence to nature and our planet.
Reading the Qur’an for the first time, the idea of ayat was one of the things that drew me into Islam. That Friday–and the entire Retreat–became a reflection upon the ethical implications of such a theology.
For queer Muslims, the presence of God in our lives has often been ignored and pushed aside. The normative rhetoric of preachers reduces us to desires, lusts, and mere feelings. Rather than approaching our gender identities and sexual orientations as legitimate challenges to normative religious thought, they interpret these identities away by defining them as a struggle. In the lived experience of queer Muslims, this jihad can become a lonely battle of covering up our identities, putting on straight and/or cis-gendered masks.
In contrast, asserting that God is equally present in our lives, El-Farouk’s khutbah comes back to mind as I remember him reciting:
“…and We are closer to [human beings] than their jugular vein.” (Qur’an 50:16)
He incited everyone to notice that this divine nearness was not qualified. The verse does not read “and We are closer to straight men” or “closer to cis-gendered persons.” Allah is accessible to all. This makes the issue of pushing queer Muslims aside a pressing theological and ethical question. The same could be said of Muslim women whose presence is marginalized and limited in many Muslim communities, leadership positions, and Islamic spaces.
Each of us are endowed with ayat of Allah. Each of us have reflections of God within each of us. Imagine if we treated one another with the same reverence and respect we impart on the Qur’an. What if we treated one another and the planet as holy? Could the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, have meant this when he told us that the whole Earth is a masjid for us (a mosque; a place of prostration), that the physical place of a mosque is no more fit for prayer and no more holy than the green grass outside?
What was so incredibly moving and overwhelming was how this ethic of ayat was put into practice. Normally, in any Islamic space (MSA meetings, events, the Islamic Center, etc) I assume discomfort and I often mentally prepare myself for unjust and un-compassionate reactions to my presence. I never realized how much this mindset had become such an expectation until I found myself in the Pennsylvania woods at a queer Muslim retreat.
It was everything short of physically jarring to sit in a circle–literally and metaphorically–and have my identity validated and honored. We prayed together, side by side. Gender mattered not, nor did my sexuality. And in the same breath, my sexuality did matter because it was honored and respected as an ayah of Allah. We were all afforded the same access: we could lead prayer, call people to prayer, pray in the back, pray in the middle, pray to the left or right, or sit down and watch. I felt that our presence, no matter where or what kind it was, was honored as an integral part of the community we had formed.
I remember clearly fajr prayer, the pre-dawn salat on that Saturday and being asked to give the call to prayer. I had not done it for so long I thought for sure I would forget or stumble over the words of the adhan. It turned out to be a very moving moment for me. And of all prayers to call for the fajr prayer. It brought back memories of going to the mosque everyday and feeling such a sense of belonging when I would be invited to give adhan, to lead prayer, or read hadith after prayer. Giving the adhan during the retreat only emphasized the sense of community I already felt."