Late last year, two incidents brought homosexuality to the forefront of public debates on Arab social media. The first was in November, when British racing driver Lewis Hamilton wore a rainbow helmet in support of the LGBTQ community at the Formula One races in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The second was the anti-gay rhetoric offered in December by former Egyptian football player Mohamed Aboutrika on the Qatari pan-Arab TV channel beIN Sports, in which he urged Muslim soccer players to boycott the English Premier League’s Rainbow Laces campaign.
In reaction to these incidents, hashtags, memes, fake news and fierce debates flooded Arab social media, with participation from hundreds of thousands of users. While both those for and against homosexuality participated in this conversation, the debate itself, like many other social media controversies, unfolded within echo chambers where no party is exposed to or interested in engaging with opposing arguments. And even when the sides engaged in debate, the discussion only reinforced one’s opinions.
Amid this chaos, there is at least one aspect of homosexuality both parties agreed on, namely labels. In today’s Arabic, two terms can be used to refer to homosexuality: “shudhudh jinsi” and “mithlyah jinsiah.” The literal English translation of the former is sexual abnormality, sexual deviance or perversion, whereas the latter translates as sexual sameness or similarity. Those against homosexuality insist on using the term “shudhudh” and vehemently reject the use of the term “mithlyah,” while the opposite is true for the supporters. In her study “The Phenomena of Shudhudh Jinsi in the Arab World: Causes, Effects, and Solution Mechanisms,” professor Nuha Qaterji proposes that the first tool to combat homosexuality in the Arab region is to “stress on using the term shudhudh when talking about this sexual activity and the refusal to use the more neutral and descriptive term mithlyah, which lacks any moral judgment that prohibits and rejects this activity.” Oddly enough, both those who oppose and support homosexuality acknowledge that shudhudh is a morally loaded and biased term against homosexuals. This is why proponents call for ending the use of this term, because it is derogatory, and opponents call for using it instead of mithlyah, because it is more authentic and less conciliatory to Western values.
Yet before the 20th century, Arabs and Muslims never used shudhudh jinsi to describe homosexuality. For more than a millennium, many learned elites, including religious scholars, linguists and poets, discussed all kinds of sexual relations, including what they called “liwat” and “sihaq” (which refer to male and female sexual acts respectively), that were close to our modern understanding of homosexuality, without using terms like deviant, abnormal or unnatural.
Shudhudh is a translation of a modern Western concept that was developed in the late 19th century within an emergent medical-scientific preoccupation with sexuality in Western Europe when anti-hedonist, Victorian morality of austerity, restraint and prohibition on expressing sexual desires was dominant. When it was first introduced in Arabic in the early 20th century, shudhudh did not exclusively mean homosexuality. Instead, it was more of a scientific and medical category and included a wide range of sexual activities deemed “deviant,” like masturbation, sadism, masochism, fetishism, etc. And contrary to what opponents of homosexuality often claim, mithlyah is not a recent translation of homosexuality that aimed to replace the term shudhudh and normalize homosexuality. Rather, it was the original term that earlier Arab translators chose for homosexuality, coined at the same time as the term shudhudh and within the same movement of translating modern European psychological and sexologist literature. It then took more than three decades for shudhudh to become a synonym of homosexuality and the favorite term in the anti-homosexuality Arab discourse.
Based on pre-modern Arabic dictionaries, it is clear that shudhudh has only recently been used to describe homosexuality. One of the best-known dictionaries, Lisan al-Arab (Tongue of the Arabs), written by the North African lexicographer Ibn Manzur in the late 13th century, has an entry for the term “shadh,” which is the linguistic root for shudhudh. Shadh has several meanings, and homosexuality is not among them. Instead, shudhudh means “becoming different from the majority, or rare” or being a stranger from one’s home and neighborhood.
One of the ways that Ibn Manzur explains the meaning of a word is to quote old poems, Quranic verses or the Prophet Muhammad’s hadiths (sayings and acts). The shadh among people, the dictionary explains, is the person who no longer resides among his own tribe and community. In one instance, while discussing the meaning of shudhudh, he quotes a hadith by the Prophet about “the People of Lut.” Unlike the Biblical Lot, the Quranic Lut is a prophet who was sent by God to a people equivalent to the Biblical Sodom whose sins include idolatry and sodomy. The divine punishment of the people of Lut came from the angel Gabriel, who uprooted their towns and raised them up to the sky before smashing them to the ground. If pre-modern Arabic language associated shudhudh with homosexuality, then this hadith would be the most appropriate place to show this association. Yet, the hadith does not use shudhudh to describe the sexual behavior of the people of Lut. Even more striking, the hadith uses a variation of the term shudhudh when it mentions that Gabriel did not miss the shadhs among them. However, shadhs here mean “their remnants” or “the rest of them.” In other words, even in this specific and supposedly appropriate context, the term kept its general meaning related to strangeness and rarity. (The Quran uses different words when referring to the condemned deeds of Lut’s people: “fahisha,” or obscenity, and “khaba’ith,” or lewdness. Both terms encompass acts beyond same-sex sexual relations, such as highway robbery and dealing in unspecified dishonorable or shameful acts in their assembly.)
This does not mean that pre-modern Arabic scholars did not know the terms shadh and shudhudh as intellectual and scholarly categories, but it does mean that they never associated them with sexual activity or understood them to mean unnatural or treated them as morally loaded terms. For example, the famous 15th-century Persian scholar al-Sharif al-Jurjani wrote an encyclopedia that includes the main Arabic terms of science, philosophy, art and religion. Under “shadh,” he provides one linguistic usage of the term. “Shadh,” al-Jurjani says, “is what contradicts the rule regardless of its quantity.” It signifies something equivalent to exceptions to grammar rules, and these exceptions can be plenty and common, not necessarily rare.
The science of hadith, a branch of Islamic studies, provides another notable example of shadh’s usage in pre-modern Arabic. In this field of study, scholars investigate the validity of a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and classify it according to its truthfulness. When a hadith meets a strict set of standards, it is accepted and called “sahih.” When it fails to meet any of these standards, it’s considered a fabricated hadith. Between these two extremes, other classifications exist. One of them is “shadh,” defined as a hadith that differs from a more reliable hadith that is told by a more trusted source.
It’s not only that pre-modern Arab-Islamic thought never used shudhudh in reference to homosexuality; it also had no term for the concept of homosexuality as understood today. Islamic intellectual and Harvard history professor Khaled El-Rouayheb made this conclusion in his book “Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World 1500-1800.” The modern concept of homosexuality includes not only a sexual relationship between two people of the same sex but also desires without action, love and aesthetic enjoyment. French philosopher Michel Foucault, in “The History of Sexuality,” shows the novelty of the term homosexual by comparing it with another related term, sodomist. According to Foucault, in European legal traditions before the 19th century, sodomy was “a category of illegal actions.” In other words, it did not include desires, identity and emotions. But this has changed with the rise of the term homosexual, which, he added, became “a person who has a past, case history, childhood, nature, and style of life, an exterior appearance and a collection of acts.” This shift from the illegal sexual act to the homosexual inclination of love, actions and character means that we are dealing with two different, albeit interconnected, subjects.
El-Rouayheb surveyed the pre-modern Arab-Islamic culture. He found that traditions distinguish between the partners in a same-sex relation — between the active and passive partners in the relationship. Whereas the term encompasses both partners, the active partner in Arabic and Islamic cultures is often called “luti” and the passive one is called “mukhanath” or “mabun.” Luti refers to the people of Prophet Lut and, as El-Rouayheb puts it, the closest English equivalent to it is a pederast.
Mabun, on the other hand, is a medical term that refers to a person inflicted with a disease called “abanah.” Pre-modern Arab and Greek medical scholars believed that a person inflicted with this disease desires being anally penetrated. Mukhanath refers to an effeminate man. Muslim scholars differentiate between an inherent form of this tendency and an acquired one. The 15th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Hajar says that a “mukhanath is one who looks like women in his acts and way of talking. If this was inherent, then no one can blame him. However, if this is not inherent, then this is the reprehensible one and he would be called mukhanath regardless of if he engaged in sexual activity or not.” Needless to say, these pre-modern scholarly views were not necessarily shared by society.
In addition to the absence in Arabic or Islamic terms that convey the modern meaning of homosexuality, this same culture is filled with same-sex love. El-Rouayheb quotes Joseph Pitts, an English sailor who was captured and enslaved in Algeria for 15 years in the 17th century and later wrote a book about his experience. Joseph noted that “this horrible sin of Sodomy is so far from being punish’d amongst” the Algerian society. Instead, it is “part of their ordinary Discourse to boast of their detestable Actions of that kind.” He then goes on to say, “’Tis common for Men there to fall in Love with Boys, as ’tis here in England to be in Love with Women.”
Indeed, the public display of same-sex love was common and normalized in pre-modern Arab writings and poetry. El-Rouayheb quotes many poems that were written by Muslim scholars such as Sheikh Abdullah al-Shabrawi, who was the 18th-century rector of al-Azhar, one of the most important Muslim universities in the world. In introducing one of his poems, al-Shabrawi writes, “I also said a love poem of a youth who studied with me the sciences of language, addressing him dallyingly.” The poem continues:
O gazelle! You whose movements are a snare for mankind.
What have you done to a lover who is anxious and visibly ailing?
Overflowing with cares, love-struck, ill, infatuated with your love.
Who is enraptured with joy if you confer a greeting one day.
And who, if you walk past, cries: “How sweet you are with that bearing!”
This public display of same-sex love in the pre-modern, Arab-Islamic tradition made Arab modernist intellectuals uncomfortable. The period between the late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed the rise of an intellectual Arab modernist movement called Nahda, or Renaissance. In his book “Desiring Arabs,” Columbia University professor of modern Arab thought Joseph Massad shows how modern Arab Nahda intellectuals adopted a variety of strategies to explain away certain aspects of their culture that did not fit with Victorian notions of what is shameful and appropriate. One of the earliest examples of Nahda intellectuals’ perplexity with sexuality in the Arab-Muslim culture was the Egyptian pioneer Rifaah al-Tahtawi. In his famous book about his travels to Paris in the early 19th century, al-Tahtawi compliments the Parisians for “their not being inclined toward loving male youths and eulogizing them in poetry.” He stresses that this sort of inclination “is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals.” He even compliments Parisians for replacing the masculine with feminine when they translate Arab poetry that involves same-sex love and conveys his unease with how widespread this form of literature is among Arabs. To prove his point, al-Tahtawi quotes verses from a Yemeni poet who defends himself for writing only about women:
I have never chosen flirting with beardless youths a doctrine
Even if my nature is ridiculed and blamed
So embedded was the practice of referencing same-sex love in poetry that when this poet chose to only write love poems about women, he was ridiculed to the point that he had to write a poem defending himself.
Shudhudh referred to a range of sexual activities such as masturbation, sadism and masochism when it first appeared in Arabic in the early 20th century. Egyptian psychologist Abdulaziz al-Qawsi was among the first psychotherapy specialists to introduce this translation. It appeared in an appendix to his 1946 book, “Fundamentals on Psychological Health,” which provided Arabic translations of English terms, and he used shudhudh as a translation of sexual abnormality. As for homosexuality, al-Qawsi used the term mithlyah — the very term that contemporary Arab anti-homosexuality discourse considers a recent innovation to replace shudhudh and normalize homosexuality.
That same year, another pioneer in Arab psychology, Sabri Jirjis, published his book “The Problem with the Psychopathy Behavior,” which also included an appendix of translated terms. Jirjis translated abnormal as shadh and homosexuality as mithlyah.
Shudhudh was also used in mainstream media articles in the same sense as academic and scientific Arabic. Also in 1946, in the article “Crime and Sexual Shudhudh,” which appeared in the Egyptian magazine al-Thaqafah (Culture), author Hassan Jallal described a series of crimes that occurred in Alexandria in which the perpetrator killed his female victims after raping them. For Jallal, this behavior was sadism and thus shudhudh.
The term shudhudh was not strictly used to describe what psychologists at the time considered sexual abnormality or deviance. It was used by practitioners, too, to refer to broader concepts of “abnormality.” Amin Sami Hassonah, the director of an Egyptian education institute, wrote an article about “shadh children,” in which he divided children at the institute’s psychology clinic into three categories: talented, ordinary and shadhs. Hassonah then divided the shadhs into three subcategories: mentally shadhs, sensually shadhs and bodily shadhs. A child with dwarfism, for example, was considered a bodily shadh child.
These diverse meanings of shudhudh that were dominant in the first half of the 20th century find their roots in several fields, such as psychology and mental illness in Europe. As Foucault once explained, the modern abnormal is “a descendant of… three individuals: the monster, the incorrigible, and the masturbator”. Let’s take the monster as an example. In pre-modern European law and science, the monster was differentiated from the disabled and deformed by the fact that it is basically a mixture of two realms that do not naturally mix. The monster can be partly human and partly animal, partly man and partly female, partly bird and partly horse, or even a human with two heads and one body. Because of its mixed nature, the monster is considered as a “transgression of natural limits.” The monster’s mere existence challenges nature’s classifications and laws as pre-modern scholars understood them. However, in modern times, the monster ceased to be a mixture of unmixable natural elements but a moral monster. While in the past criminal behavior was expected from natural monsters, the relationship was reversed in the 19th century. Instead of expecting criminal behavior from every natural monster, the new expectation is that there is a moral monster behind every criminal. Foucault showed how the natural monster became the extreme case of a motiveless cannibalistic criminal and, by the mid-19th century, became the abnormal who transgressed and deviated from the norms and traditions of society. These modern monsters commit their transgression by representing a minor diversion or deviance from what is familiar. The familiar here refers to the dominant social norms and values, and dissenting from these is not restricted to appearances but also includes behavior, morality and mental capacity.
Emerging 19th-century fields such as psychology, psychiatry and sexology focused on identifying sexual abnormality and its boundaries. In the process, however, these fields also played a role in reinforcing the familiar. Unlike pre-modern moralists and anatomists who thought that a weak moral will or a biological malfunction in the genitals caused sexual “perversions,” the main argument advanced by these specialists was that functional diseases of sexual instinct caused sexual deviance. At the core of this argument is the claim that there is something called sexual instinct, that it is naturally linked to its object — the opposite sex — and its purpose is reproduction. It also presumes that this instinct emerges in the human body during puberty and slowly decays thereafter.
Since these are the general natural characteristics of the sexual instinct, it seemed logical for 19th-century sexual theorists to consider any contrary sexual desire or activity to be unnatural and thus pathological. Also, this instinctual and psychological view about sexual deviances led these specialists to call for curing perverse individuals instead of considering them criminals or sinners. Given that these are not physical diseases, these specialists argued that the treatment should be psychological.
This was the theoretical background that shaped the modern study of what were deemed deviant or abnormal sexual activities and practices. The most important text in this field, published in 1886, was “Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study,” in which the Austro-German psychiatrist and forensic expert Richard Von Krafft-Ebing categorized homosexuality as antipathic sexuality, a sexual perversion, among others, that did not lead to reproduction.
Krafft-Ebing also popularized the term “homosexuality,” which was coined, according to historian Jonathan Ned Katz, in 1868 by the Austro-Hungarian nationalist and reformer Karl Maria Kerpentry. Kerpentry combined the Greek prefix “homo,” which means same, with the Latin noun “sexus,” which means sex. Kerpentry used the word in two pamphlets addressed to Prussian Minister of Justice Adolph Leonhardt, in which he advocated for the decriminalization of homosexuality in the German penal code.
It was Sigmund Freud who took these theories to another level, leading him to conclude that homosexuality should no longer be considered a pathological sexual deviancy. He achieved this, as philosopher Arnold Davidson has shown, through two critical engagements with the basic concept of the sexual instinct. In his 1905 “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” Freud argued that there was no natural object of the sexual instinct. He emphasized this by using of the term “sexualtrieb,” or sexual drive, instead of the sexual instinct. Thus, by declaring that sexual instinct has no natural object, homosexuality ceased to be unnatural and thus not pathological deviance.
Freud’s second critical contribution was that sexual instinct is composed of a number of component instincts, which he specifies in two ways. The first are the parts of the body that are capable of sexual excitement, or erotogenic zones, such as the oral or anal regions. The second type of component instinct is vicarious experience, such as scopophilia (ogling or peeping). By allowing sexual instinct to include component instincts that originate from a variety of body parts other than the genitals and have aims other than propagation, Freud radically broke with the 19th-century consensus that the natural aim of sexual instinct is propagation and the natural object is the opposite sex’s genitals.
These critical engagements with the concept of sexual instinct led Freud to the conclusion that people are born sexually neither normal nor perverse but that they become this way or another. This conclusion meant two things: First, unlike other theorists who claimed that sexual drive starts during puberty, Freud claimed that a child has sexuality and characterized it as perverse sexuality since it involves a variety of partial component instincts. It also meant that not all perversions are pathological but that they become pathological if they satisfy certain conditions. The first is exclusivity. For example, if there is a person who enjoys punishment, this enjoyment by itself is not enough to declare him pathological. However, he becomes pathological if he enjoys punishment exclusively and nothing else. Freud explains this exclusivity by a fixation on one of the component instincts in the first five or six years of childhood and by regression to this fixation during puberty.
If exclusivity explains pathological sexual perversions, and a childhood fixation explains this exclusivity, then what explains the fixation itself? It took Freud 20 years to come up with an answer. In his short article “Fetishism,” published in 1927, Freud introduces a theory that all pathological sexual perversions result from the denial of a traumatizing sexual experience related to what he considers an inevitable Oedipus Complex. Each child will grow sexually attached to the parent of the opposite sex and hostile toward the parent of the same sex. At the same time, a boy will discover that girls have different genitals from his and vice versa. This situation creates what Freud calls castration anxiety and penis envy. Boys become scared of the idea of being castrated and girls become envious for lack of a penis. Thus, fixation is the result of the way each person resolves this complex in the early years of childhood. In this theoretical framework, it is not possible for homosexuality to be pathological deviance since it is not a result of the Oedipus Complex.
In parallel to these developments in psychology, there were other developments in another new field called sexology. The field’s most popular thinkers, namely Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfield and August Forel, advocated for a sexual reform program that would decriminalize all kinds of sexual deviances. While they agreed that these sexual desires and activities were not aimed at reproduction, they insisted that they do not constitute any social harm.
When these theories and bodies of knowledge were translated into Arabic, they were introduced as scientific with all the authority that science carries. And it is within this translation movement that the term shudhudh was coined.
In “The Sexual Life and Psychology,” published in the famous al-Risalah (Message) magazine in 1946, Fadhl Abu Bakr summarized Freud’s theory and explained how the child is sexually “shadh.” “Sexuality begins with shudhudh when the child is three years old,” Fadhl wrote. When he wrote about the child’s sexual attachment to his mother, he commented that this was considered “shadh with regard to the tradition and norms, but it is natural with regards sexual instincts.” He talks about homosexuality at the end of the article without using an Arabic term for it. Instead, he uses a French term when he says that there are many kinds of sexual shudhudh: “One of these kinds is Homosexualité, which includes males and females where the sexual relationship is between two people of the same sex … and another kind is masturbation.” This quote is important as it shows that while shudhudh was used as a general term that includes homosexuality and masturbation, homosexuality itself has no equivalent Arabic term. This further demonstrates that when the term shudhudh was first translated into Arabic, it was not a translation of homosexuality.
Almost a decade before this article, Jirjis wrote “The Sexual Culture and Some of Its Pioneers,” which appeared in Almajalla Aljadidah (New Magazine). In it, Jirjis presented Krafft-Ebing’s book and commented that it “forces its readers to calmly sympathize with those unfortunates whose sexual preferences push them toward all kinds of shudhudh contrary to thousands of religions.” Jirjis then praised the sexologist Ellis for his steadfastness against the backlash his writings caused in Britain. He also introduced Forel, whose book “The Sexual Problem” he had translated and which the Egyptian intellectual Salamah Mousa reviewed in the same magazine. Before concluding his article, Jirjis left room to introduce female theorists in this field, such as the British activist Marie Carmichael Stopes, whose book “Married Love” (1918) was translated into Arabic in 1925. With this book, Stopes led the way in explaining female sexuality and educated her married female readers about their bodies and sexual needs, instilling in them a new set of sexual expectations from their husbands.
The early meaning of shudhudh, with its scientific and medical connotations, remained in circulation until the 1970s. In 1953, the Egyptian intellectual Abbas al-Aqqad published a book about the ninth-century Arab poet Abu Nawas. Abu Nawas was famous for his explicit sexual poems about girls and boys, and al-Aqqad relied on Ellis’ theory of narcissism as a sexual abnormality to psychoanalyze Abu Nawas’ personality. For al-Aqqad, Abu Nawas was shadh not because he was sexually attracted to other males, but because he was a narcissist. In 1975, Iraqi professor of Islamic studies Abdul-Malik al-Saadi published his master’s degree thesis “Prohibited Sexual Relationships and Their Punishments in the Sharia.” Al-Saadi uses shudhudh in the same generic, scientific meaning that includes homosexuality and masturbation. His usage of the term relies heavily on the writings of the Iraqi forensic medicine scholar Wasfi Muhammed Ali who taught at the Police College in Baghdad for several decades. In his writings, Wasfi uses shudhudh in the same way it was first translated. Despite the changes that the term went through in Arabic public discourse, Arab academics, especially those working in fields such as psychology, psychiatry and forensics, still use it in its original meaning.
Since the early 1970s, this broad, generic meaning of shudhudh has gone through three main transformations. The first was that its meaning was narrowed down to only include homosexuality. One of the earliest writers who used the term in this way was the famous Egyptian intellectual and feminist scholar Nawal El Saadawi in “Woman and Sex,” published in 1971. Here, we notice two important changes to the meaning of shudhudh. The first is that it becomes synonymous with homosexuality. As for other sexual abnormalities, El Saadawi uses the Arabic term “inhiraf,” which better captures the word deviancy. The second change is that El Saadawi challenged the psychological context within which the topic of shudhudh is often discussed and replaced it with a sociological one. Her basic claim is that both the state and social institutions play a consequential role in producing shudhudh. She advances this argument to show that schoolgirls who fall in love with other girls are doing this because of social and political pressures and not because of some internal psychological causes. Moreover, this transformation was presented as a critique of Freud, whom El Saadawi thinks was reductionist in his approach to the shudhudh phenomenon. She writes:
Traditional psychologists, Freud at the top of them, have neglected society and its role in shaping the person’s sexuality. Instead, they were interested in what happens inside the person more than in the external environment. For this, they missed a lot. The limitation of Freud’s theory became evident when we discover that … conflicts that a child struggle with, which Freud explained by sexual frustration and envy, are nothing but products of a person’s interaction with social forces and pressures.
Ten years after El Saadawi’s transformation of the shudhudh phenomenon from a psychological to a social one, Egyptian author and journalist Muhammed Jalal Kushk represented the second transformation, when he claimed that homosexuality is basically a civilizational issue. In 1984, he published “Muslim Impressions on the Sexual Question.” While the Nahda/Renaissance Arab intellectuals approached the topic from a Eurocentric, medical-scientific approach, Kushk adopted what he called an Islamist approach. By this, he meant approaching the topic within “the frame of the eternal civilizational confrontation between the west and the east.” For him, this confrontation was “my primary preoccupation. For me, Islam is the philosophy, identity, and personality of our oriental civilization.” This meant that he was in a state of “conflict of civilizations” with the West in his dealing with these topics, with the aim to achieve moral victory and cultural liberation. In other words, he was engaging in what can be described as a political and epistemological resistance against the West. While earlier Nahda’s intellectuals differentiated between the political in the West and the aesthetic, moral and epistemological, they thought of these latter aspects as universal and not necessarily Western. For Kushk, however, all of these aspects of the West are linked together and constitute parts of the same whole.
How does this Islamist approach differentiate Kushk’s dealing with the sexual question from the earlier Nahda intellectuals? There are three differences. First, he started from the premise that Islam considers sexual pleasure as a virtue or a blessing — a person gets divine rewards if engaged in sex legitimately — whereas Western civilization considers it a sin. He relied heavily on the British historian Reay Tannahill’s book “Sex in History” to prove the Christian origins of the “sex as sin” thesis that defines the West’s approach to sex. Regarding the Western sexual revolution, Kushk claims that this revolution proves his point. This revolution is nothing but a violent reaction to this view. In other words, without the negative view of sex, there will be no need for a revolution. Then he moves to prove “sex as virtue” in the Islamic tradition. He quotes the 13th-century Damascene scholar Ibn al-Qayem al-Jawzayah, who stated that sex has three aims: propagation, pleasure and the elimination of the harmful health issues resulting from not releasing the sexual liquids from the body. Thus, Kushk uses the premise of “sex as virtue” to declare that most sexual desires and activities are not abnormal or deviant. He rejects prohibition of masturbation, anal intercourse between males and females, oral sex and other behaviors.
Yet the only activity that he insists on keeping as shudhudh is homosexuality. This is not because he thinks there is something inherent in the sexual activity itself that renders it to be shudhudh but because he considers homosexuality to be a moral indicator of civilizational decline. For Kushk, every civilization goes through three stages: rise, prime and decline. To successfully pass the first stage, certain conditions are required, including men willing to sacrifice their lives for others and women willing to bear future fighters and soldiers. When a civilization succeeds and reaches the prime stage, Kushk claims, a moral shift takes place. Individualism slowly occupies the place of older ethics of sacrifice and reproduction. Being individualist means that one ceases being morally responsible for one’s civilization and future generations. With these ethical changes come changes in attitudes toward reproduction and raising children. They become a burden and different birth-control measures are invented. New sexual pleasures are explored, and chief among them is homosexuality. This is how Kushk defines the relationship between homosexuality and civilizational decline — as a symptom. For him, homosexuality represents the extreme expression of individualism and thus the extreme form of rejection of what he considers an imperative moral responsibility to one’s civilization and future generations. In this way, Kushk explains the growing visibility and recognition of homosexuality in the West as a sign of the beginning of the West’s decline.
To support his theory, he goes back to two Muslim cultural moments: the Abbasid era and Muslim Andalusia. In both moments, he claims, the decline of civilization was associated with homosexual activities becoming visible and widespread. While he agrees with the Nahda intellectuals in their rejection of the same-sex love poetry that was prevalent in pre-modern Arab-Islamic culture, he differs on how he expresses this rejection. The Nahda intellectuals rejected it because it is contrary to a Victorian morality that they internalized as universal; Kushk rejected them because of their role in bringing down civilization.
Although Kushk reserved the word shudhudh for homosexuality and looked at it from a civilizational perspective, he was against its criminalization. He argued extensively, trying to prove that there is no stated punishment in Islam for homosexuality and that it is left to the “legislative authority” to decide what should be done. He concluded his book with an odd opinion. In the Quran, there are several verses about heavens and the pleasures that Muslims will enjoy. Among these pleasures, some verses mentioned “al-wildan al-mukhaladun,” or the immortal boys, whose beauty was described as “scattered pearls.” For Kushk, these heavenly boys are there for sexual pleasure. He justified this opinion by saying that good and bad cease to exist in paradise. For him, the afterlife is only about what is delicious and more delicious.
These two transformations meant that the narrow meaning of shudhudh to exclusively mean homosexuality occurred only in the last third of the 20th century. It was also during this time that the term started to be used in a derogatory manner. The exact moment of this change is unknown but happened amid a rise in Islamist movements in the region starting from the 1970s and the global anti-homosexuality discourse associated with the spread of the AIDS pandemic.
The final transformation of the term shudhudh occurred in the past decade and it involved the fact of its becoming the central notion in an anti-homosexuality discourse that has become dominant and officially supported. When the two controversies that I started the article with erupted, the Saudi Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Shaikh issued a statement that was circulated in most Saudi media outlets. In the statement, he declared that “God considers shudhudh to be among the worst and ugliest crimes.” If one could travel back in time to 2009 and started observing what are the top 10 controversial topics discussed in the Arab media, my guess would be that homosexuality would not be among them. Something happened in the past 10 years that pushed it to be among the top controversies.
This last transformation has to do with an important recent political change that is taking place in the Arab world. Among the ways that Arab states substitute their lack of democratic legitimacy is by assuming moral authority. In the past five decades, this moral authority was exercised through regulating religion and subjugating Arab women. This is why gender and religious issues were among the hottest controversial topics in this period. But recently, and in reaction to the Arab Spring, the new authoritarian Arab regimes have changed how they treat both religion and women. If you are an Arab dictator and want moral legitimacy, but you do not want to derive it from Islam or gender, what is the most convenient source that fits your new secular conservative agenda? Arguably, the answer is adopting anti-homosexuality and, to a lesser degree, anti-atheism discourse.