Shanon Shah – « Queer Muslim theologies »

Shanon Shah

« Queer Muslim theologies »

Stefanie Knauss – Carlos Mendoza Álvarez

Concilium 2019-5. Queere Theologien: Der queere Leib Christi werden
Concilium 2019-5. Queer theologies: becoming the queer body of Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologías queer: convertirse en el cuerpo queer de Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Teologie queer: diventare il corpo queer di Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Théologies queer : devenir le corps queer du Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologias queer: tornar-se o corpo queer de Cristo

I. Introduction

It is overwhelmingly assumed by many Muslims and non-Muslims that Islam can never accommodate lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) equality or inclusion. This was, for example, the underlying message of the Muslim parents who participated in a controversial, protracted protest against the teaching of relationships and sex education (RSE) and LGBT equality at Anderton Park primary school in Birmingham, England, in 2019. According to protest leader Shakeel Afsar, ‘All we are concerned [about] is we are having our children come home with material that contradicts our moral values.’[1] Yet this public confrontation between supposed custodians of Islam and pro-LGBT teachers has rendered numerous other people invisible, especially the Muslim parents who supported the school’s curriculum, whose views are marginal and considered sinful or heretical by those Muslims who believe that Islam explicitly condemns same-sex relationships and transgender inclusion.[2] A recurring theme in this storyline is that Muslims need to oppose LGBT equality because it is being imposed on them as part of an imperialist ‘Western’ agenda. 

What happens to people who identify as Muslim and L/G/B/T? How or why would they even try to reconcile their religious beliefs and their gendered or sexual predispositions, given the polarizing and toxic nature of the debate? 

This article proposes a typology of the range of queer Muslim theologies from a postcolonial perspective. The first half explains the conceptual basis for this typology whilst the second half provides examples of each ‘ideal type’ in this repertoire of interpretations. I mainly draw on my doctoral research which compared the experiences of gay, bisexual and lesbian Muslims in Malaysia and Britain, involving participant observation, in-depth interviews, and media analysis between 2012 and 2013, supplemented by my continuing engagement with several of my participants in both countries. My research also engages with my personal experiences and reflections as a gay Muslim man who was born and raised in Malaysia and is now based in Britain. 

Admittedly, ‘queer’ is not a term that many LGBT Muslims might adopt to describe themselves. In this article, I therefore adapt the approach of the queer theologian Linn Marie Tonstad, who distinguishes between ‘apologetics for the inclusion of sexual and gender minorities’ (which I refer to as ‘LGBT-inclusive’ interpretations, understandings or expressions of Islam) and ‘queer theology’ as a way of imagining a ‘sociopolitical transformation’ that alters ‘practices of distinction harming gender and sexual minorities as well as many other minoritized populations’.[3] My usage of ‘queer Muslim theologies’ explores the parameters of this latter understanding of ‘queer theology’. 

It might further be argued that ‘queer theology’ is rooted in a Western, Christian context. Yet if many Muslims agree that Islam is a religion of ‘social justice’,[4] then it makes sense to discuss ‘queer theology’ which pays particular attention to how religious understandings relate to ‘structures of oppression’.[5] Before exploring queer Muslim theologies, however, it is vital to contextualize the emergence of LGBT-inclusive understandings of Islam. 

II. Queer Muslims and the ‘clash of civilizations’ 

Socially progressive Muslim movements in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority contexts often incorporate LGBT-inclusive apologetics in their work, informed by the concept of ‘multiple critique’ introduced by feminist scholars.[6] Contestations of tyranny, injustice, patriarchy and heteronormativity within Muslim societies must thus be accompanied by a principled opposition to global inequalities that are rooted in Western political, economic and military dominance. From the standpoint of LGBT-inclusive Muslim understandings, this means that criticisms of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia within Islam must also be analytically integrated with opposition to racism and Islamophobia, especially in Western contexts. 

This ‘multiple critique’ is imperative when discussing queer Muslim theologies because gender and sexuality are pivotal to the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations’ between the West and the Muslim world. For instance, European elites in the Victorian era regarded Muslims as deficient because they were perceived as sexually licentious, whilst Muslim societies are now condemned for being too repressive. [7] Such attitudes towards gender and sexuality are increasingly used to demarcate the boundaries between ‘proper’ Islam and the West. Even Far Right ideologues in the West are now selectively appropriating pro-feminist and pro-LGBT attitudes to inflame Islamophobic sentiments, a phenomenon that the sociologist Rogers Brubaker refers to as ‘civilizationism’.[8]

For the gay Muslims I encountered in my research in Malaysia and Britain, this civilizationism often created what the sociologist W.E.B. DuBois referred to as ‘double consciousness’ – a sense of ‘unreconciled […] two-ness’ which involves ‘always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others’.[9] The ‘lived’ or ‘everyday religion’[10] of many of my participants instinctively and reflexively involved a multiple critique of Islamophobia, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. The varying emphases in these multiple critiques depended on the country context – most significantly, whether Muslims form a majority or minority of the population. 

In this article, I do not distinguish between the queer Muslim theologies expounded by ‘experts’ – including progressive academic scholars of Islam – and ‘non-experts’, or ‘lay’ Muslims. Queering Muslim theologies means exploring diverse sources and ranges of Islamic interpretations on gender and sexuality. I also use the term ‘theology’ loosely – often, what is being contested is not the nature of Muslim beliefs in the Divine, but the interpretation of specific Divine rulings in the worldly realm, or jurisprudence. Yet different approaches to Islamic jurisprudence often entail differing but unstated assumptions about the nature of God – the boundary between the theological and jurisprudential is often fuzzy. With this in mind, I now turn to a basic framework to discern the ‘ideal types’ in the range of contemporary queer Muslim theologies.  

III. A postcolonial typology of queer Muslim theologies

According to Rasiah Sugirtharajah,[11] the Bible has historically been used to uphold the colonial venture and its attendant logic as well as to resist colonialism. The exercise of power (and the lack of it) are central to Sugirtharajah’s analysis, which makes it an especially relevant lens to analyze queer Muslim theologies. 

  Sugirtharajah[12] proposes six interpretive possibilities or ‘readings’ of ‘how the Christian Bible fared in the experiences of both the colonizer and the colonized’, each with its own set of assumptions and consequences – ‘dissident’, ‘resistant’, ‘heritagist’, ‘nationalistic’, ‘liberationist’, and ‘dissentient’. Analyzing the colonizer and the colonized is crucial because both positions are internally diverse and involve complex layers of opposition and obedience to the larger project of modern European colonialism. Yet opposition, obedience, or other possible responses often led to different consequences, depending on whether one was the colonizer or the colonized. 

Dissident readings were early forms of ‘oppositional discursive practice undertaken by some colonialists’, for example, the Dominican missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas’s (1487–1566) resistance towards Spain’s treatment of native Americans.[13] Resistant readings were ‘undertaken by the colonized, the very people who felt the heavy hand of colonialism, suffocating under its rapacity’, such as Olaudah Equiano (1745–97), the freed West African slave who became an outspoken opponent of the slave trade.[14]

Heritagist readings are attempts by the colonized to ‘retrieve cultural memory’ from the erasure caused by the ideological components of European colonialism.[15] Nationalistic readings are those appropriated by the leadership elites of colonized nations after they gained territorial independence and were initially ‘characterized by a mood of buoyancy and self-reliance’ – they have often descended into authoritarianism and tyranny in several post-independence nation-states.[16] The post-independence developmental and political failures of many of these states gave rise to a strand of liberationist readings, exemplified by the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America.[17] Yet liberationist readings, for all their strengths, are often still Eurocentric. Dissentient readings are developed by those who have been doubly marginalized – by Western colonial powers and by their own post-independence, nationalist governments.[18]

Sugirtharajah’s typology can be useful for analyzing queer Muslim theologies with some adjustments, chiefly with queering the ‘colonizer’/‘colonized’ dyad. The ‘double-consciousness’ and ‘multiple critique’ of many of the queer Muslims I encountered suggests that the colonizer-colonized relationship is neither binary nor static and can manifest differently in different situations. For example, in Malaysia, some of the gay Muslims I met felt colonized (still) as Muslims on a global level yet marginalized as gay people on a national level. At the same time, because they were classified by the state as Malay and Muslim, they carried ethnic, religious, and often class privileges within Malaysian society. Therefore, in the remainder of this article, I re-interpret Sugirtharajah’s six-fold typology in the light of three core questions about queer Muslim theologies: are they undertaken by queer Muslims or heterosexual Muslims; do they primarily target Islamic teachings; or do they primarily target Western imperialism or neo-colonialism? 

IV. The range of contemporary queer Muslim theologies

In this section, I draw upon findings from my own participant observation and in-depth interviews as well as other examples from the mass media to illustrate the variety of LGBT-inclusive interpretations of Islam and other queer Muslim theologies at work today. 

(a) Dissident readings

In parallel with Sugirtharajah, these are inclusive interpretations undertaken by heterosexual Muslim allies of LGBT Muslims that challenge patriarchal or heteronormative expressions of Islam. Examples include the public statements in support of LGBT inclusion by Marina Mahathir, the Malaysian activist and former President of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation and current Board Member of the Muslim feminist organisation Sisters in Islam.[19]

The history and politics of such dissident readings mean that they carry different consequences in different contexts. For instance, Marina’s dissidence was risky, since she began articulating it in the late 1990s, when her father, then (and current) Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, had jailed his deputy premier, Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of corruption and sodomy. When dissident readings like these are carried out in Western contexts uncritically, they can amplify dominant stereotypes of Islam as exceptionally misogynistic and homophobic. 

(b) Resistant readings

These readings are based on similar premises as dissident readings but are carried out by LGBT Muslims. One pioneering example of this was the early work of the openly gay, Muslim-American scholar of Islam, Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kugle. He[20] acknowledges the influence of Islamic feminism in his work, and systematically argues for LGBT-inclusive understandings of Islam on multiple levels – Qur’anic hermeneutics, the analysis of hadith (the recorded Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). According to Kugle, the Qur’an – which is the Revealed Word for Muslims – is silent on modern conceptions of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘transgenderism’. He goes further to say that the Qur’anic worldview actually enjoins unconditional celebration of human diversity, but that this egalitarian ethos became distorted by the patriarchal, heteronormative political factions that emerged after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. This politicking influenced the interpretation of certain Traditions of the Prophet and even led to fabricated, homophobic hadith, which had a knock-on effect on fiqh rulings on gender and sexual relations. 

While Kugle’s work remains relevant and ground-breaking, it also largely functions as LGBT-inclusive apologetics rather than ‘queer’ or postcolonial theology. For example, he acknowledges that his approach is ‘essentialist’ – he regards gay, lesbian or transgender identities as innate and this presents him with particular analytical problems regarding bisexuality.[21] Meanwhile, as with dissident readings, resistant readings such as Kugle’s have been criticised by postcolonial scholars and traditional Islamic authority figures as pandering to Western attempts to construct colonially compliant expressions of Islam.

(c) Heritagist readings

In Malaysia, I came across recurring heritagist readings, exemplified by two of my participants unknown to each other – Amin,[22] a man in his mid-20s who was in a same-sex relationship but did not identify as ‘gay’, and Nonny, a woman in her late 30s who was also in a same-sex relationship and described herself as ‘fluid’. Amin and Nonny both grew up in rural parts of Peninsula Malaysia – Amin in the north, Nonny in the south – and both said that they were aware in their childhoods of men and women around them who might be labelled ‘gay’ or ‘trans’ by English speakers. These individuals were a minority in their mostly Muslim villages, and their identities were never explicitly named, but they were included in village life in non-judgemental ways. These stories comforted and inspired people like Nonny and Amin, who knew they were ‘different’ as Muslims but also felt culturally distant from urbanized or Eurocentric forms of LGBT activism. 

These stories resonate with the argument by the anthropologist Michael Peletz,[23] that there has historically been a high level of tolerance for ‘gender pluralism’ or ‘heterogender homosexuality’ in the Muslim Malay world. These heritagist readings can empower LGBT Muslims to reclaim their identities but they also run the risk of romanticizing, as opposed to queering, the past. In other words, Muslim societies have demonstrably been tolerant of sexual and gender diversity, but this tolerance was still predicated upon a hierarchy which privileged heterosexual relationships. Instead, contemporary LGBT rights activists claim full equality and inclusion as citizens of the nation-state, including rights to marriage, child-rearing, political leadership, and economic opportunities. Heritagist readings are therefore useful insofar as they distinguish between historical expressions of Muslim tolerance and contemporary struggles for equality in different political contexts.  

(d) Nationalistic readings 

These readings often overlap with postcolonial and traditionalist Islamic criticisms of LGBT-inclusive interpretations of Islam. A strong version of the postcolonial thesis argues that LGBT activism is inherently imperialist because it imposes Eurocentric concepts of sexuality and diversity on non-Western peoples.[24] Whilst some proponents of this thesis are primarily concerned with challenging Islamophobic strands in pro-LGBT Western activism, the argument has been selectively amplified by more traditionalist Islamic scholars who seek to discredit the work of scholar-activists like Kugle.[25] Such arguments can then be weaponized by nationalist elites in many post-independence Muslim states, supposedly on the grounds of resisting Western hegemony.[26] It is crucial to remember, however, that these readings are not solely produced by traditionalist heterosexual Muslims. For example, some of my Malaysian participants who identified more strongly with the Malay-Muslim status quo were quick to defend the country’s anti-LGBT laws to preserve their own privacy, personal safety, and social privileges. 

(e) Liberationist readings 

In the UK, groups such as Imaan, the London-based LGBT Muslim group founded in the late 1990s, are inspired by the work of scholar-activists such as Kugle. Newer collectives have emerged, too, promoting liberationist readings of Islam in relation to gender and sexuality, including Hidayah, a splinter group from Imaan, and the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, which does not solely focus on LGBT inclusion.

Encouraged by Kugle’s work and influenced by their subjective positions as Muslims in the West, the activists in these groups engage in a multiple critique of sexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia within Muslim communities, and racism and Islamophobia in wider British society. However, their circumstances mean that they sometimes interpret the gender and sexual politics in Muslim-majority contexts from Eurocentric, albeit Muslim-minority, perspectives. This has partly led some postcolonial critics to dismiss them as ‘Westernized elites’ and the equivalent of ‘native informers’ of Western neo-colonialism.[27] Such condemnations discredit the many valid, evidence-based criticisms that these groups have of patriarchal and heteronormative Muslim communities within the West as well as their valuable interventions in debates about racism and Islamophobia. 

(f) Dissentient readings

At the time of writing, dissentient queer Muslim theologies within Muslim-majority countries are still inchoate and largely invisible. However, throughout my research in Malaysia, I encountered sentiments by gay Muslims that qualify as dissentient readings. Instead of organizing as visible LGBT Muslim collectives, however, these gay Muslims I met preferred to integrate their LGBT-inclusive understandings of Islam into broader forms of activism for human rights and democratic reforms in Malaysia. Fauziah, a bisexual woman and observant Muslim in her mid-30s, expressed her rationale succinctly: 

‘Homosexuality is not a Western import, but rights movements are a Western import. And with the gay rights movement, sometimes I feel like we are importing things lock, stock and barrel, and don’t take into account that traditionally or culturally, psychologically, we do things differently here. Maybe being so in-your-face works against us sometimes.’ 

(g) Status quo readings

Where does this leave the example that opened this article? The Birmingham protesters appeared to advocate a strong version of the nationalistic reading explained above. But what about the Muslim parents who were secretly or silently uncomfortable with these protests? I would speculate that they disagreed with the protesters’ aggressiveness but might have still agreed that same-sex relationships are sinful. Unlike the protesters, however, they might distinguish this religious conviction from the need to respect civil provisions for equality and non-discrimination. I would further speculate that this is the default position of most Muslims in the West and even in Muslim-majority countries – they are not actively or aggressively anti-LGBT, but they are content with the status quo of Islamic teachings on gender and sexuality. It is beyond the scope of this article to analyze the contours of this position or the specific reasons for it.

V. Conclusion: Queer Muslim theologies, politics, and power

LGBT-inclusive interpretations of Islam are likely to remain marginalized and controversial as long as gender and sexuality fuel the polemics that postulate a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West. This article has instead proposed a typology of ‘queer Muslim theologies’ from a postcolonial perspective. This has yielded examples of multiple critiques of the ‘clash’ thesis, focusing upon the ‘double consciousness’ of LGBT Muslims in differing contexts and the sympathies of their heterosexual Muslim allies. The typology I have suggested, however, should not be taken as static or prescriptive; it is a heuristic tool to discern the assumptions and repercussions of existing queer Muslim theologies. If anything, this proposed typology reminds us of the diversity of Muslim interpretations of several issues, including gender and sexuality, and of the inseparability between theology, politics, and power. 


[1] BBC, ‘LGBT Lessons Protests Spreading’, BBC News, 16 May 2019, at

[2] Donna Ferguson, ‘“We Can’t Give in”: The Birmingham School on the Frontline of Anti-LGBT Protests’, The Guardian, 26 May 2019, at

[3] Linn Marie Tonstad, Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics, Eugene: Cascade Books, 2018, p. 3.

[4] John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 33–34.

[5] Colby Dickinson and Meghan Toomey, ‘The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field’, Theology & Sexuality, 23.1–2 (2017), 2.

[6] Omid Safi, ‘Introduction: The Times They Are A-Changin’ – A Muslim Quest of Justice, Gender, Equality, and Pluralism’, in Omid Safi (ed.), Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, Oxford: Oneworld, 2003, pp. 2–5.

[7] Joseph Massad, Desiring Arabs, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 37.

[8] Rogers Brubaker, ‘Between Nationalism and Civilizationism: The European Populist Moment in Comparative Perspective’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40.8 (2017), 1203.

[9] W.E.B. DuBois, Of the Dawn of Freedom, London: Penguin, 2009, pp. 3–4.

[10] Nancy T. Ammerman, ‘Introduction: Observing Modern Religious Lives’, in Nancy T. Ammerman (ed.), Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 3–18; Meredith B. McGuire, Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[11] Rasiah S. Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[12] Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, p. 44.

[13] Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, pp. 44–45.

[14] Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, p. 52–53.

[15] Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, p. 55.

[16] Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, p. 63.

[17] Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, pp. 65–66.

[18] Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, p. 67.

[19] Shanon Shah, ‘Liberal, Muslim, Feminist, and Comfortable’, in The Nut Graph (ed.), Found in Malaysia, Petaling Jaya: ZI Publications, 2010, p. 204.

[20] Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kugle, ‘Sexuality, Diversity and Ethics in the Agenda of Progressive Muslims’, in Omid Safi (ed.), Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, Oxford: Oneworld, 2003, p. 194; Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kugle, Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims, Oxford: Oneworld, 2010.

[21] Kugle, Homosexuality in Islam, pp. 9–12.

[22] I use pseudonyms for all my participants. 

[23] Michael G. Peletz, ‘Gender Pluralism: Muslim Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times’, Social Research, 78.2 (2011), 656–86.

[24] Massad, Desiring Arabs, pp. 173–74.

[25] Ovamir Anjum, ‘Editorial: Elements of a Prophetic Voice of Dissent and Engagement’, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 34.3 (2017), v–xxii; Jonathan A. C. Brown, ‘A Pre-Modern Defense of the Hadiths on Sodomy: An Annotated Translation and Analysis of Al-Suyuti’s Attaining the Hoped-for in Service of the Messenger (S)’, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 34.3 (2017), 1–44; Mobeen Vaid, ‘Can Islam Accommodate Homosexual Acts? Quranic Revisionism and the Case of Scott Kugle’, Muslim Matters (blog), 11 July 2016, at

[26] Han Sean Ong, ‘Najib: “Human Rights-Ism” Goes against Muslim Values’, The Star Online, 13 May 2014, at

[27] Massad, Desiring Arabs, pp. 173–74.


Shanon Shah is Lecturer in Religion and Social Science at King’s College London. His research explores the boundary between marginal and mainstream movements in contemporary Islam and Christianity, specifically through the lens of gender and sexuality. He is the author of The Making of a Gay Muslim: Religion, Sexuality and Identity in Malaysia and Britain (2018) and is a deputy editor of Critical Muslim. 

Address: Theology and Religious Studies, Virginia Woolf Building, King’s College London, 22 Kingsway, London WC2B 6NR, UK.