The Kingdom in the Closet

Sodomy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, but gay life flourishes there. Why it is “easier to be gay than straight” in a society where everyone, homosexual and otherwise, lives in the closet
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The People of Lot

Yet a paradox exists at the heart of Saudi conceptions of gay sex and sexual identity: Despite their seemingly flexible view of sexuality, most of the Saudis I interviewed, including those men who identify themselves as gay, consider sodomy a grave sin. During Ramadan, my Jeddah tour guide, Yasser, abstains from sex. His sense of propriety is widely shared: Few gay parties occur in the country during the holy month. Faith is a “huge confusion” for gay Muslims, Yasser and others told me. “My religion says it’s forbidden, and to practice this kind of activity, you’ll end up in hell,” he explains. But Yasser places hope in God’s merciful nature. “God forgives you if, from the inside, you are very pure,” he said. “If you have guilt all the time while you’re doing this stuff, maybe God might forgive you. If you practice something forbidden and keep it quiet, God might forgive you.” Zahar, a 41-year-old Saudi who has traveled widely throughout the world, urged me not to write about Islam and homosexuality; to do so, he said, is to cut off debate, because “it’s always the religion that holds people back.” He added, “The original points of Islam can never be changed.” Years ago, Zahar went to the library to ascertain just what those points are. What he found surprised him. “Strange enough, there is no certain condemnation for that [homosexual] act in Islam. On the other hand, to have illegal sex between a man and a woman, there are very clear rules and sub-rules.”

Indeed, the Koran does not contain rules about homosexuality, says Everett K. Rowson, a professor at New York University who is working on a book about homosexuality in medieval Islamic society. “The only passages that deal with the subject unambiguously appear in the passages dealing with Lot.”

The story of Lot is rendered in the Koran much as it is in the Old Testament. The men of Lot’s town lust after male angels under his protection, and he begs them to have sex with his virgin daughters instead:

Do ye commit lewdness / such as no people / in creation (ever) committed / before you? For ye practice your lusts / on men in preference / to women: ye are indeed / a people transgressing beyond / bounds.

The men refuse to heed him and are punished by a shower of brimstone. Their defiance survives linguistically: In Arabic, the “top” sodomite is luti, meaning “of [the people of] Lot.”

This surely suggests that sodomy is considered sinful, but the Koran’s treatment of the practice contrasts with its discussions of zina—sexual relations between a man and a woman who are not married to each other. Zina is explicitly condemned:

Nor come nigh to adultery: / for it is a shameful (deed) / and an evil, opening to the road / (to other evils).

The punishment for it is later spelled out: 100 lashes for each party. The Koran does not offer such direct guidance on what to do about sodomy. Many Islamic scholars analogize the act to zina to determine a punishment, and some go so far as to say the two sins are the same.

Two other key verses deal with sexual transgression. The first instructs:

If any of your women / are guilty of lewdness, / take the evidence of four / (reliable) witnesses from amongst / you/ against them; and if they testify, / confine [the women] to houses until / death do claim them, / or God ordain them / some (other) way.

But what is this “lewdness”? Is it zina or lesbianism? It is hard to say. The second verse is also ambiguous:

If two men among you / are guilty of lewdness, / punish them both. / If they repent and amend, / leave them alone …

In Arabic, the masculine “dual pronoun” can refer to two men or to a man and a woman. So again—sodomy, or zina?

For many centuries, Rowson says, these verses were widely thought to pertain to zina, but since the early 20th century, they have been largely assumed to proscribe homosexual behavior. He and most other scholars in the field believe that at about that time, Middle Eastern attitudes toward homosexuality fundamentally shifted. Though same-sex practices were considered taboo, and shameful for the bottom, same-sex desire had long been understood as a natural inclination. For example, Abu Nuwas—a famous eighth-century poet from Baghdad—and his literary successors devoted much ink to the charms of attractive boys. At the turn of the century, Islamic society began to express revulsion at the concept of homosexuality, even if it was confined only to lustful thoughts, and this distaste became more pronounced with the influx of Western media. “Many attitudes with regard to sexual morality that are thought to be identical to Islam owe a lot more to Queen Victoria” than to the Koran, Rowson told me. “People don’t know—or they try to keep it under the carpet—that 200 years ago, highly respected religious scholars in the Middle East were writing poems about beautiful boys.”

Even Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab—the 18th- century religious scholar who founded Wahhabism—seems to draw a distinction between homosexual desires and homosexual acts, according to Natana DeLong-Bas, the author of Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (2004). The closest Abd al-Wahhab came to touching upon the topic of homosexuality was in a description of an effeminate man who is interested in other men at a wedding banquet. His tone here is tolerant rather than condemnatory; as long as the man controls his urges, no one in the community has the right to police him.

Religious scholars have turned to the hadith—the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad—to supplement the Koran’s scant teachings about sodomy and decide on a punishment. There are six canonical collections of hadith, the earliest recorded two centuries after Muhammad’s death. The two most authoritative collections, Rowson says, don’t mention sodomy. In the remaining four, the most important citation reads: “Those whom you find performing the act of the people of Lot, kill both the active and the passive partner.” Though some legal schools reject this hadith as unreliable, most scholars of Hanbalism, the school of legal thought that underpins the official law of the Saudi kingdom, accept it. It may have provided the authority for the execution this February. (Judges will go out of their way to avoid finding that an act of sodomy has occurred, however.)

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

The gay men I interviewed in Jeddah and Riyadh laughed when I asked them if they worried about being executed. Although they do fear the mutawwa'in to some degree, they believe the House of Saud isn’t interested in a widespread hunt of homosexuals. For one thing, such an effort might expose members of the royal family to awkward scrutiny. “If they wanted to arrest all the gay people in Saudi Arabia,” Misfir, my chat-room guide, told me—repeating what he says was a police officer’s comment—“they’d have to put a fence around the whole country.”

In addition, the power of the mutawwa'in is limited by the Koran, which frowns upon those who intrude on the privacy of others in order to catch them in sinful acts. The mandate of the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is specifically to regulate behavior in the public realm. What occurs behind closed doors is between a believer and God.

This seems to be the way of the kingdom: essentially, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Private misbehavior is fine, as long as public decorum is observed. Cinemas are forbidden, but people watch pirated DVDs. Drinking is illegal, but alcohol flows at parties. Women wrap their bodies and faces in layers of black, but pornography flourishes. Gay men thrive in this atmosphere. “We really have a very comfortable life,” said Zahar, the Saudi who asked me not to write about homosexuality and Islam. “The only thing is the outward showing. I can be flamboyant in my house, but not outside.”

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