By Nailul Farah Mohd Masbur
Despite the whispers that the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code may happen, Singaporeans were still caught by surprise when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long made the official announcement during his 2022 National Day Rally speech. The response was expectedly diverse and divided. From the euphoric, to the pragmatic, and then to the opposing spectrum of enraged and devastated.
What of the Muslim community? At the onset, by and large, many were shocked, upset, and also angry about this development. Then came the question, how do we respond to this? There was almost an overnight scramble where the community came abuzz with the discussion of how do we, as a community, respond to this?
As an advocate on this issue, it came as no surprise, and my first reaction was, ‘ah… it has finally happened’. However, as the situation unfolded, I slowly came to realise that this is a blessing. This is a blessing to Muslims in Singapore. It is an opportunity to directly confront a situation that for many years, the community has been hesitant to openly discuss. The community is now intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally building its capacities.
Sadly, this development also came with an outpouring of hateful and abusive language across all social media platforms. From those celebrating and those fighting against the repeal. This was personally very upsetting to witness. Especially when the behaviour was coming from Muslims, not towards a circumstance, behaviour, or incident, but rather towards fellow human beings. It made me realise that humans easily demonise the other. Once a label, filled with otherness and disdain is attached to a fellow human, the labeller forgets there is a human being standing behind that label.
Personally, as a Muslim, I feel the best way forward is to start with going back to our deen. Let’s start by going back to Islam and self-reflect. What does Islam teach us? At its core, it is to stand firm on our principles and embody excellence in character.
I do not believe in affirming same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. After critically engaging with Islam’s legal perspective on these issues, and analysing the Quranic revisionism arguments, I am convinced with the stance reflected in the irsyad (religious statement and guidance) released by Singapore’s Office of the Mufti on 22 August 2022 (in summation):
Islam prohibits same-sex romantic relationships and the redefinition of unions and ‘marriages’ that excludes the possibility of procreation between couples. Islam also prohibits the redefinition of gender identity that contradicts the biological gender we have been born with. This includes the prohibition of crossdressing and medically changing our biological gender.
Our Creator has given us, His servants, guidance through the Quran and the Prophet’s sunnah (prophetic traditions) and seerah (life of the prophet). My faith in Him as the Most Wise, the Most Merciful, and the Most Compassionate, means I believe this guidance will bring ultimate good to all of mankind. How then do I live by these principles and facilitate this goodness? Do I force them on those around me? Even those who disagree? No. I will not do that. Because that will go against the principle of being wise, merciful, and compassionate.
So, in my effort to facilitate this good, I stand by the following verse from the Quran 16:125:
(O Prophet), call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and reason with them in the best manner possible. Surely your Lord knows best who has strayed away from His path, and He also knows well those who are guided to the Right Way.
For me, da’wah, or Islamic advocacy, has to always stand upon wisdom. And wisdom can only be realised through seeing, acknowledging, and addressing the lived reality of humans. And that begins with listening and empathising. Who are our brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction? Who are our brothers and sisters who experience gender dysphoria? Have we taken the time to hear their voices? To understand them? To acknowledge their lived experiences? How can we wisely speak of their reality without first extending our hands and our hearts to understand their reality?
I invite all of you to consider this. Does standing on our principles not also mean exemplifying mercy, empathy, compassion, and enduring kindness? Is embodying these values not wisdom? Is it not just? We need to firmly hold on to our convictions but we do so with these values. Values which are etched in our Prophet’s (peace be upon him) da’wah (Islamic advocacy).
In the spirit of living by these principles, I strive to listen to individuals who either lived this reality, or have walked with those who lived this reality. I did my best to listen before I speak, and when I do, I am careful to be emotive and not aggressive. I extend my friendship, my ears, and my heart. And when words or actions are unwise, I extend to them my du’as (supplications), in my heart and in my prayers. I’ve shed tears, in private, rather than in public, for those who have been so rejected and unheard that they’ve chosen to no longer hear.
I speak, and I advocate for my principles, because I stand by the goodness within them, but I do while also trying my best to ponder on stories such as these (names have been changed in accordance to Chatham House Rules):
“It’s hard, it’s lonely. I’ve never asked for help and I’m terrified of publicly sharing my story for fear of the rejection I may face. I choose to fight this alone. I know what Islam teaches, I believe in it. But it’s hard and I don’t always do well sticking to it. Especially on very lonely and quiet nights, it’s so hard not to act on these feelings. But I’m trying my best, I’ll keep trying my best”. – S, a Muslimah experiencing same-sex attraction.
“I know what Islam teaches. I’ve been fighting this feeling for very long. I’ve never acted on it. But it’s been very lonely, very difficult. But I’ve come to the conclusion that Allah created me this way for a reason. And I’ve found my purpose. My purpose is to help other Muslims who are also struggling like me.” – Reworded quote from a story shared about Q, a Muslim experiencing same-sex attraction.
“Adam is a trans man who has left Islam because he doesn’t feel accepted in the faith for wanting to be who he is, among other reasons. Sonia is a trans femme, who has found greater conviction in Islam since she started transitioning. Danial is a gay man who still identifies and (religiously) practices the Islamic faith. He has a partner who left Christianity for similar reasons as Adam and cannot fathom why Danial would want to remain in a faith that condemns him. Danial has to live with the label that he is one of the ‘condemned’. He may joke about it but I can only guess what that label can do to a person’s mental health. Sue is a lesbian who was traumatised from the ‘spiritual healing’ which was meant to ‘exorcise her lesbianism’ and as part of ‘praying the gay away’. She shared how she was held down and touched without her consent, and how she still relives that trauma to this day.” – Shahrany Hassan, founder and director of The Whitehatters.
“I had an encounter with a transgender. Since young, he found himself interested in all the girl activities. As he grew older, he began to be attracted to men. Friends shunned him and sometimes he got bullied. Because of constant bullying and shaming, he quit school at 15 years. He started doing his own research and came across the transgender community. That was his first encounter to affirm his ‘being’ as a woman.” – Rahayu Mohamad, former president of PPIS.
What can I do to help our brothers and sisters in Islam who are striving to overcome their same-sex attraction? Or who are struggling to live with the gender Allah has bestowed upon them? What are their rights over me as their sister in Islam? How can I help make their journey easier and less lonely? What happened to our brothers and sisters who left Islam? Who and what have driven them away from our beautiful faith? What should we do about the trauma, pain, and injustice that have been committed against them? What led them to making the choices they have made? How do we stand on our principles and ensure we show compassion to their struggles? And how do we reconcile with standing firm on these principles, while also respecting the choices they have made for themselves?
These are not simple questions with simple answers. They are complex and deserve a nuanced response. This is the human experience. It is not easy, but always, I’ve learned, it’s better to pause, ponder, and say, ‘I don’t know, let me think and learn more about this first’, than to be hasty, and give reactionary responses filled with short-sightedness and frustration, causing hurt and undue damage.
In my own journey, among the most challenging opportunity was to speak at an event hosted by The Whitehatters. It was called ‘Let’s Talk about LGBTQ: From Non-Affirming Faith Inclusive Perspectives’. The Whitehatters is a centrist non-governmental organisation (NGO) established in 2014. It is an organisation committed to creating safe spaces for people to see each other as humans first and are committed to building a socially cohesive society that transcends religious, racial and social barriers.
This initiative, compared to other advocacy opportunities, was particularly challenging because I had to speak about my principles and perspectives in a roomful of people who held wildly contrasting perspectives on same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. Hence, it demanded I exercise utmost wisdom and sensitivity, while not being apologetic and hesitant about my principles. Among the advocates in attendance were Ms Shahrany Hassan, the founder and director of The Whitehatters, and Ustaz Dr Firdaus Yahya, one of Singapore’s prominent Islamic scholars. I asked them two questions, and these were their responses:
Q: How do you think the Muslim community should interact with Muslims who have same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria?
Ms Shahrany Hassan:
With more empathy, and without judgement. Showing compassion and mercy, simply being kind and friendly, does not mean that you compromise your values and beliefs. So be kind, always.
Ustaz Dr Firdaus Yahya:
There are three ways:
- Abstain from any condemnation and degrading names.
- Try to understand their position, emotions, and condition.
- Befriend them so that they have someone reliable to look up to if they have problems later.
Q: What are your hopes for the Muslim community with regard to matters on same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria, and its relationship with Muslims who experience them?
Ms Shahrany Hassan:
Everyone wants to belong and feel accepted. We need to establish support groups, led by mental health professionals, for those who are struggling with their identity – a safe space for individuals to talk through their issues. And to respect whatever decisions they come to, even if we do not agree. Quintessentially, we need to recognise and value the sanctity of life. By helping support persons in difficult moments, we develop the potential for communities and society to pull through challenges together. In good faith, we seek to aid, soothe, develop, and improve both ourselves as well as those around us. Even when it is uncomfortable, or inconvenient, we ought to aspire towards this ideal.
Ustaz Dr Firdaus Yahya:
My hope is that the community does not ostracise them. Instead, try to open up opportunities for them to learn more about Islam and to be aware that it is not their same-sex attraction that they should feel stressed or depressed about, rather, what they should focus on is avoiding the following forbidden actions in Islam: indulging in anal intercourse, engaging in sexual petting, cross-dressing and changing genders.
The wisdom, which each of them carefully shared with me, I hope could be used to bring us closer to becoming a Muslim community that truly lives by Islam. To inspire us to understand and with conviction, stand on our principles, then see and engage humanity the way our Prophet (pbuh) did. He observed, listened, and understood who he was speaking to. And with wisdom and immense patience, he artfully responded.
I pray we continue to strive to act upon the guidance and teachings of our Creator, and ease others’ path towards following this guidance. I pray we always see the human and their humanity, humble our egos, and through empathy and enduring compassion, be the reason others see the beauty of Islam and choose to submit themselves to Allah, our Merciful Creator.
Nailul Farah Mohd Masbur is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Master’s degree in Political Science. Her area of interest includes Islamic political thought, public and foreign policies, and ethics.
This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, January 2023, Volume 18, Issue 1.
Photo by Marta Branco from Pexels