Sexual Diversity Issue in Islamic Malaysia

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In 1998, Malaysia came under the scrutiny of international spotlight when the then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was arrested on the accounts of corruption and sodomy charges. Public outcry ensued and controversy followed. Regardless of whether the charges were laced with ulterior and politically motivated fabrications, the reports were made all the more damaging because of “Anwar’s history as the charismatic leader of the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (ABIM), the nation’s largest grassroots Muslim movement.” Years down the road, the effects of the event can’t be denied in the attention it demanded of dialogues in regards to sexual diversity and its place in Islam. For many Malaysians, it is considered a taboo and many were still trying to hide it away where forgotten shameful past is stored, never to see the light of days again. But recent, sudden surge in the numbers of hate crime inflicted onto the people who identified themselves as members of the sexuality non-binary and in the openness in which the discussion is approached onto on social media provoked fellow Malaysian to look the matter dead in the eyes.

In his journal article entitled, “The Malaysian Dilemma: Negotiating Sexual Diversity in a Muslim-majority Commonwealth State”, Shanon Shah talked about how the discourse regarding sexual diversity in Malaysia started off with the wrong, truly controversial foot and in return set off a sort of a hostile domino effect. Not only that, putting into accounts that the usual conception in which Islam condemned homosexuality and hence no form of acceptance or tolerance must be spared for the wrongdoers. Amongst the most contentious of dialogues in regards to sexual diversity is whether the desire to have same-sex relationship is inborn or a manifestation of social construction. Not only amongst renowned scholars of the West, Islamic scholars had also advanced forward and provided their insight on it, which later in return further divided the scholars into two opposing ideas on the nature of sexuality as seen from an Islamic perspective. To truly put this into perspective, think about oil and water, night and day – different comparisons of two diverse elements and concepts.

The former incapable of ever mixing together given the two entirely opposing natures and the latter, different yet compatible. A union that not only enriches the lives of many but also ever so effortless. Such as when one thinks about the communion of Islam and the concept of queerness. Are they like oil and water or night and day? What about the Islamic essentialist view and the Islamic constructivist view on queerness? Would their unification be effortless and provide a middle ground where the merger of Islam and queerness be made possible and a sanctuary of acceptance and tolerance be made available?

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The partition between the two school of thoughts between the Islamic scholars in matter of sexual diversity put the subject into the vicinity of two extremities. First and foremost, the essentialist approach to same-sex desires and acts as proposed by the revisionist Muslim scholars is full of loopholes and too narrow including being inclusive of bisexuality and the queer Muslims who truly believed their orientation to be socially constructed. Not only that, their argument is farfetched and mostly uphold by the celebration of diversity as described in the Qur’an with no strong support. Nevertheless, a prominent revisionist Muslim scholar, S. Kugle, brought forward his insight and described the diversity of sexuality in terms of its involvement with the “inner core of the human personality.” To further addressed this in details he went on to specify the Qur’anic debate about personality and claimed that sexuality when considered in the holy book consisted of interactions between the “genetic Tabia” and “childhood Shakila” which are the first two basic levels of personality as depicted.

However, K. Ali in his book, “Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence” objected that understanding the discourse of sexual identity, such as homosexuality, as essential (or “just created that way”). He claimed it an ahistorical move and the implication of ignorance and disregard in which same-sex desire and practices have operated in other times and place. He disagreed with the essentialist approach on the basis that the subject is approached with three assessments of the nature of homosexuality which are lifestyle, desire and act or practice. The first of which is clearly a matter of choice and a result of socially constructed pressure in the sense one can choose willingly whether or not to lead an openly homosexual lifestyle. Interestingly enough, it opened a discussion amongst Muslim scholars about the innate subject of desire. “Desire has been conceived as one of the rudiments of free will by Muslim philosophers.”

Some scholars believe that in the case of homosexuality being a form of innate desire liken to a normal person’s desire to commit sin, it must foremost be eminent the two different concepts of intention (niyat) and desire (mail/shuq). “Muslim philosophers believe that to have desire and free will with respect to taking action needs at least four rudiments in advance.” If all the four rudiments are met, one can choose whether or not to carry out the act or practice. This act of deciding is what Muslim scholars refer to as the “divine trials”, in which “implies that God is testing individuals who desire same-sex relationships, and he will provide them with more rewards in return if they adhere to his law and take no action.”

This is the space in which Islamic essentialism and constructivism form a middle ground, where innate or inborn desire meet at a meeting point with acts or practices that manifested from social construction. This area remains underdeveloped in Islamic philosophy. In a country such as Malaysia where the collision between the two extremities is ever present and ever prominent, the middle ground can be studied and hence applied for an availability of a space where sexual diversity can be better understand without paramount hostility.

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