The gender dyad in the Qur’an

Repeatedly in the Qur’an, we read that God has created humanity male and female. This duality plays a directly theological role: in contrast to God, who is absolutely One and eternal, who has no partners or offspring, humanity is dual and reproductive. It seems that the gender dyad is so fundamental to the Qur’an’s teaching as to leave no room for either homosexuality or for more fluid definitions of gender (as in trans experience). Indeed, the latter possibility never seems to come up, while several tellings of the Sodom story not only make it much clearer than the Bible does that homosexuality is the big problem — but that such a practice was literally unthinkable before the Sodomites invented it.

I wonder, though, if there may still be room to maneuver within Qur’anic terms toward a more open attitude to non-binary gender experiences and expressions. I have a sense that the purely negative theological role of the gender dyad may be the opening — the point of such declarations is to clarify humanity’s radical difference from God, rather than to make normative claims about human character. Presumably if humanity was more polymorphous, its difference from God would be even more strongly highlighted.

Further, we can see evidence that God views variety (beyond duality) to be a positive benefit to humanity, as in 49:13, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” As with the gender dyad, the multiplicity of nations is not a curse or a failing (as in the Biblical narrative of Babel), but a positive opportunity for growth and communion. Could the same not be true of a more expansive view of gender experience and expression?

(Perhaps this is a stretch, and I am after all an outsider — but I am committed to the project of finding liberatory readings of scriptural traditions generally.)

8 thoughts on “The gender dyad in the Qur’an

  1. ‘It seems that the gender dyad is so fundamental to the Qur’an’s teaching as to leave no room for either homosexuality or for more fluid definitions of gender (as in trans experience)’ –

    I think you might be reading the ‘Lot’ parable in the Qur’an through too biblical a prism.

    ‘We sent Lot and he said to his people, ‘How can you practise this
    outrage? No one in the world has outdone you in this. You lust
    after men rather than women! You transgress all bounds!’

    I think it’s saying something far more profound in terms of desire. That you only desire something if it has already been aesthetically framed for you. Sexuality [oedipal, latent bisexuality] is therefore ‘framed’ by the coercive effects of civilization, between power and love. The ‘homosexuality’ in this instance is a symptom of a wider moral turpitude (the real target) ‘You transgress all bounds’. Lust has lost its innocence and is predicated *in this instance* on power and denigration. ‘How can you lust after men, waylay travellers, and commit evil in your gatherings?’ Clearly relates to rape for instance. The ‘How can you practise’ simply begs the question in terms of structural relations of power and how that feeds back into individual experiences and relations of sexuality (The Qu’ran knows full well that there are things we can do nothing about) .

    The onus then is primarily NOT on the symptom, but the root.

  2. I hope you’re right, but I think that’s an overly optimistic reading. The homosexual element is singled out in a way that it definitely is not in the Genesis account and later biblical responses to it.

  3. There’s an article in the inaugural issue of the Transgender Studies Quarterly titled “Islam and Islamophobia” but from my skim of it it doesn’t really go deeply into anything, only discusses 24:31 briefly, and talks more about the hadith, though the references might be useful? It’s a really short piece in any case.

  4. I don’t really know this stuff, but I know that Iran is remarkably supportive of getting transgender surgeries. But I also know there is a lot of assumption that support (even coercion) for such surgeries are probably based around normative gender roles and anti-homosexuality. So, it probably doesn’t contradict your interpretation.

  5. I just want to be clear that in my criticism ‘I think you might be reading…through too biblical a prism.’, does in no way suggest that Professor Kotsko misreads the literal text – he is surely right to point out the emphasis on the ‘ homosexual element’. The contention would be that the Qu’ran can not be read like Genesis or Leviticus, but more akin to a Psalm (or a poem) or the way one might radically read the Gospel of John – each verse or parable in tension with another. In this spirit his intervention on ‘growth and communion’ is to be welcomed. Can the line ‘You lust after men rather than women!’ not be read animatedly, with humor or bathos? The ‘literally unthinkable’ sodomy is cosmic irony. Not unironically, Noah’s whole world was devastated due to his people’s depravity. To me it would be like reading the story of Christ ‘breathing life’ into birds of clay as as physical rather than the intended metaphorical.

    In the finding liberatory readings I’d also say that since this verse tells the story of something that occurred in the past, from a time before time the Qu’ran was written, (‘We sent Lot and he said to his people’) is suggestive of a parable of splitting and destabilization rather than of homosexuality as such (one can’t talk about homosexuality without talking about a patriarchal masculinity in thrall to itself, the media of power, and the material destabilization of women as mothers (childhood sexuality is intimately bound with the mother)). The chaos in the story of Sodom in the Qu’ran (of a liberated desire not unlike online pornography) is the story of men, women apart from a passing reference to Lot’s wife, fall out of view. Basing the story in the past would be a way of making visible invisibilized structures of injustice (rampant mercantilism?) in the here and now.

  6. “the gender dyad is so fundamental to the Qur’an’s teaching as to leave no room for either homosexuality or for more fluid definitions of gender”

    This sounds too literal a reading, and a bit anachronistic to my ears. It’s not that, I think, the Qur’an is interested in a strict dichotomy of genders specifically, but dualities in general. Employing a metaphor of, say, good and evil surely does not presume an absolute division between the two in terms of human potential, it’s just a strong and widely used (in all ancient traditions, Islamic or not) literary tool to demonstrate extremes. Indeed it is the same Qur’an that speaks of humans as having been made “in the best of forms” (95:4) or “more excellent than others” (17:70) continuously on the one hand, yet harshly criticizes, even vilifies them as an ungrateful, lowly species on the other.

  7. The phrase you quote is preceded by “it seems,” and I think my subsequent analysis is in the ballpark of what you’re saying. I’m setting up the apparent literal meaning in order to complicate or deepen it.

  8. Ah, sorry if I read you uncharitably. Your “it seems” sounded like “it’s clear that…” to me, so I felt the need to intrude. You’re also right to point out that it’s talking about procreation there, so even if the Qur’an had no problems with homosexuality, at least with a pre-modern, non-anachronistic understanding of it, it might not have made sense for it to point out more ‘nuanced’ versions of gender categories anyway?

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