How Muslims View Gender Ambiguity
Just recently, Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special, “The Closer,” debuted on Netflix and has drawn criticism from LGBTQ+ advocates, artists, and Netflix employees for his remarks and jokes about the trans community. In the Special, released October 5, Chappelle’s humor is more openly transphobic than ever. Many trans viewers feel Chappelle’s comedy has escalated into overt hate — and they’ve been voicing their complaints directly to Netflix. Despite the uproar, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos defended Chappelle and his comedy. “We don’t allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe The Closer crosses that line,” he wrote in an internal email on October 8. It’s a tangled, unpleasant mess, but it’s a critical moment, both for Netflix and for the increasingly vocal trans audience that’s fed up with Chappelle. Chappelle insists his jokes — in which he has derisively referred to the LGBTQ community as “the alphabet people,” “gross,” and “confusing,” among other things — have been misconstrued by angry progressives.
Chappelle has another problem; he’s Muslim. While Islam supports heterosexuality, there is nothing but contempt for homosexuality. To mainstream Muslims, transgender issues are mostly haram as I will explain below. That being said, transgender men and women are recognized and accepted in many Islamic cultures worldwide. The concept of a man or woman identifying as a member of the opposite gender is more acceptable than that of a man or woman expressing sexual desire for someone of their gender.
As early as 1988, gender reassignment surgery was declared acceptable under Islamic law at Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest Islamic university. In Iran, in 1987, Ayatollah Khomeini, a member of the Shia sect, declared a fatwa that transgender surgical operations are allowable. The basis for this attitude of acceptance is the belief that a person is born transgender but chooses to be homosexual. However, if they can change sexual gender through surgery, they would no longer be homosexual.
Gender ambiguity in Muslim societies
In Muslim society, there are five identified manifestations of gender ambiguity:
Castrated, human males are Eunuchs. They were employed as guards and servants in harems and as chamberlains to kings in the Middle East and China. Eunuchs have male sex organs and are raised as boys until castrated—primarily by cutting off the testicles. Eunuchs inhabited an in-between position legally and socially of neither gender while occupying a high-level function as guards and servants for the women’s quarters of aristocratic households, where sexually potent men were not allowed access. They could rise to positions of great power and authority in compensation for their exposure to enslavement, violence, and castration as youths. Some Muslim eunuchs became highly successful courtiers or generals. By this operation, eunuchs do not change to females but are left legally and socially in an in-between position, belonging to neither gender. Indeed, during his life, the Prophet allowed a eunuch servant to live with his wife, and until recently, elderly eunuchs guarded the Prophet’s tomb in Medina.
Hijras are born with male sex organs and raised as boys, but they assume a female identity after becoming adults. Many in South Asian countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, undergo ritual castration to remove the testicles and penis. On a trip to Bangkok, my wife and I experienced dancing hijras dressed as women on a boat trip down the Chao Phraya River. Hijras wear female clothing, grow their hair long, use makeup and wear jewelry. They try to exaggerate their role by copying the female voice. They are perceived as “third gender” (neither male nor female) in their societies.
The mukhannath, according to later Muslim scholars, mainly identifies as a man who resembles or imitates a woman in the weakness of his limbs or the softness of his voice. Mukhannaths are born with male sex organs but exhibit effeminate behavior. Therefore, the term does not explicitly describe sexual organs or sexual orientation. There is considerable evidence that in pre-colonial Islamic communities, mukhannath worked as servants if they had no carnal interest in women. They would then be allowed to enter women’s private places such as harems and other exclusively female spaces. Those males whose effeminate qualities are innate and natural and do not experience sexual attraction toward women receive no blame, guilt, or shame as they are not considered sinners and should not be punished. Later, in medieval times, mukhanath also came to be used for those persons who took on a passive role in same-sex acts. Muslims had accepted the mukhannathun (plural form) in the holy boundaries of Islam, and they were employed as royal teachers. At the same time, some held important political positions in the court, as documented throughout the Mughal era in India (1526–1827).
Mamsuhs are persons who lack either male or female genitals.
Finally, khunthas (hermaphrodites/intersexes) possess both male and female sex organs or genitals.
Each group described above has had a rough time living in their respective Islamic patriarchal cultures and societies. Indeed, traditional Muslim scholars and jurists often just ignored them. Of the five groups, scholars openly discussed khuntha and mamsuh because, from their point of view, these two groups are biologically ambiguous, unlike the other three. Scholars discussed them because their ambiguous nature had to be defined concerning Islamic duties. Therefore, Muslim jurists mostly talk about khuntha and mamsuh in Islamic ritual and law contexts, such as prayer, prayer, pilgrimage, marriage, inheritance, and penalty. Even though these practices were studied by traditional Muslim scholars, this did not mean that khuntha and mamsuh could live in Islamic societies with honor and without suffering from discrimination and oppression.
The modern term transgender identifies women and men who feel trapped in the wrong bodies and may decide to change their bodies through sex-reassignment surgeries. This identity does not sit easily with the categories established by Islamic societies in premodern Islam. Nevertheless, there are overlaps, and, of course, many transgender persons exist and have existed in Muslim communities. In recent years, transgender people have become more visible as they openly struggle to achieve their rights. They have begun to protest the marginalization, violence, and discrimination entrenched in a patriarchal culture
It has been firmly pointed out, on the one hand, there is no explicit verse in the Qur’an that discusses bisexuality. Instead, it addresses a specific sexual behavior in the verses relating to the tribe of Lot. A thorough analysis of the Qur’an concludes that there is no direct reference to a prohibition on changing one’s gender within it. However, one section in the Qur’an (42:49-50) emphasizes that because Allah could create ‘what He wills,’ then the existence of a diversity of gender identity in humans and animals are designed according to Allah’s will not because of a mistake. For this reason, transgender people should not be considered sinners and shameless due to their characteristics. The existence of these people is also a sign of Allah’s natural creation. Most Muslims uphold the prevailing conservative opinion that a person is forbidden to change what Allah has created based on an interpretation of the Qur’ānic verse (4: 119).
In conclusion, I might add that while our society in the West is undergoing profound change in this realm, transgenderism is starting to make a wave in Islamic culture. The progressive side of Islam is changing the perception of the issue, but the conservatives are resisting. It may take another decade, but while transgenderism is gradually taking hold in Islamic countries, there will be stronger resistance to the acceptance of homosexuality.