The caliphate illusion: “Restoring” what never was

 
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By Khaled Diab

The tyranny of Arab secular dictators and destructive Western hegemony combined to enable ISIS to “restore” a brutal caliphate which never existed.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has "restored" is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has “restored” is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Monday 7 July 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply, the Islamic State, as it now prefers to be called – is well on the road to achieving its end goal: the restoration of the caliphate in the territory it controls, under the authority of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Islamist militant leader since the early days of the American occupation of Iraq.

The concept, which refers to an Islamic state presided over by a leader with both political and religious authority, dates from the various Muslim empires that followed the time of Muhammad. From the seventh century onward, the caliph was, literally, the prophet’s “successor.”

The trouble is that the caliphate they seek to establish is ahistorical, to say the least.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

For instance, the Abbasid caliphate centred in Baghdad (750-1258), just down the road but centuries away (and ahead) of its backward-looking ISIS counterpart, was an impressively dynamic and diverse empire. In sharp contrast to ISIS’s violent puritanism, Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture, including odes to wine and racy homoerotic poetry.

The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.

With the Bayt al-Hekma at the heart of its scientific establishment, the Abbasid caliphate gave us many sciences with which the modern world would not function, including the bane of every school boy, algebra, devised by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Even the modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by the “first scientist” Ibn al-Haytham, who also made major advances in optics.

With the proliferation of sceptical scholars, even religion did not escape unscathed. For example Abu al-Ala’a Al-Ma’arri was an atheist on a par with anything the modern world can muster. “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true,” he thundered. “The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”

And he uncharitably divided the world into two: “Those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

And it is this tolerance of free thought, not to mention the “decadence” of the caliph’s court, which causes puritanical Islamists of the modern-day to harken back to an even earlier era, that of Muhammad and his first “successors” (caliphs).

But the early Rashidun (“rightly guided”) Caliphs bear almost no resemblance to Jihadist mythology. Even Muhammad, the most “rightly guided” Islamic figure, did not establish an Islamic state, at least not in the modern sense of the word. For example, the Constitution of Medina drafted by the prophet stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and even pagans all have equal political and cultural rights. This is a far cry from ISIS’s attitudes towards even fellow Sunni Muslims who do not practise its brand of Islam, let alone Shi’a, Christians or other minorities.

More crucially, the caliphates in the early centuries of Islam were forward-looking and future-oriented, whereas today’s wannabe caliphates are stuck in a past that never was.

How did this ideological fallacy of the Islamist caliphate come about?

To understand the how and why, we must rewind to the 19th century. Back then, Arab intellectuals and nationalist wishing to shake off the yoke of Ottoman dominance were great admirers of Western societies and saw in them, in the words of Egyptian moderniser and reformer Muhammad Abdu, “Islam without Muslims”, hinting at the more secular reality of the Islamic “golden age”. Another Egyptian moderniser, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, urged his fellow citizens to “understand what the modern world is”.

Interestingly, many of these reformers were educated as Islamic scholars but were enamored of modern European secularism and enlightenment principles. Taha Hussein, a 20th-century literary and intellectual trailblazer, started life at Al Azhar, the top institute of Islamic learning, but soon abandoned his faith.

Many Arab nationalists not only admired Europe and America but believed Western pledges to back their independence from the Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe”.

The first reality check came following the Ottoman defeat in World War I when, instead of granting Arabs independence, Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them, as if the region’s people were the spoils of war.

Disappointed by the old powers, Arabs still held out hope that America, which had not yet entered Middle Eastern politics in earnest, would live up to its self-image as the “good guy” and deliver on its commitment to “self-determination”, as first articulated by Woodrow Wilson.

But following World War II, America filled the void left by France and Britain by emulating its imperial predecessors, though it steered clear of direct rule. Instead, it propped up unpopular dictators and monarchs as long as they were “our son of a bitch”, in the phrase reportedly coined by Franklin D Roosevelt. This principle was eloquently illustrated in the same person, Saddam Hussein, who was an ally against Iran when he was committing his worst atrocities, such as the al-Anfal genocidal campaign and the Halabja chemical attack of the 1980s.

This resulted in a deep distrust of Western democratic rhetoric, and even tainted by association the very notion of democracy in the minds of some.

Then there was the domestic factor.  Like in so many post-colonial contexts, the nation’s liberators became its oppressors. Rather than dismantling the Ottoman and European instruments of imperial oppression, many of the region’s leaders happily embraced and added to this repressive machinery.

The failure of  revolutionary pan-Arabism to deliver its utopian vision of renaissance, unity, prosperity, freedom and dignity led to a disillusionment with that model of secularism. While the corruption and subservience to the West of the conservative, oil-rich monarchs turned many against the traditional deferential model of Islam.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

This multilayered failure, as well as the brutal suppression of the secular opposition and moderate Islamists, led to the emergence of a radical, nihilistic fundamentalism which posited that contemporary Arab society had returned to the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (“Age of Ignorance”).

The only way to “correct” this was to declare jihad not only against foreign “unbelievers” but against Arab society itself in order to create a pure Islamic state that has only ever existed in the imaginations of modern Islamic extremists. These Islamists misdiagnose the weakness and underdevelopment of contemporary Arab society as stemming from its deviation from “pure” Islamic morality, as if the proper length of a beard and praying five times a day were a substitute for science and education, or could counterbalance global inequalities.

The wholesale destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic infrastructure triggered by the US invasion created a power vacuum for these “takfiri” groups – first al-Qaeda and then the more radical ISIS – to make major advances.

In an interesting historical parallel, the man considered “Sheikh al-Islam” by many radical Salafists today, Ibn Taymiyyah, also emerged during a period of mass destruction and traumatic upheaval, the Mongol invasions. He declared jihad against the invaders and led the resistance in Damascus.

Despite ISIS’s successes on the battlefield, there is little appetite or support among the local populations for their harsh strictures,  a dact reflected by the 500,000 terrified citizens who fled Mosul. Even in the more moderate model espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist dream of transnational theocratic rule appeals to a dwindling number of Arabs. Only last week, Moroccan women showed their contempt for the conservative prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, by converging on Parliament armed with frying pans after he’d argued that women should stay in the home.

Rather than a caliphate presided over by arbitrarily appointed caliphs, subjected to a rigid interpretation of Shariah law, millions of Arabs strive simply for peace, stability, dignity, prosperity and democracy. Three turbulent years after the Arab revolutions, people still entertain the modest dream of one day having their fair share of “bread, freedom, social justice,” as the Tahrir Square slogan put it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in the New York Times on 2 July 2014.

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A successful caliphate in six simple steps

 
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By Khaled Diab

ISIS really doesn’t get what restoring the caliphate means. Here’s how in six simple steps, from Caliphornian wine to cultural melting pots.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

Tuesday 17 June 2014

To the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS),

I understand you wish to restore the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But are you sure this is really what you want? As a secular, liberal Arab living in the 21st century, I’m not keen on turning back the clock in this way, but I think I’m better prepared for it than you.

Judging by your brutal and bloodthirsty behaviour and the twisted rulebook you’ve released, I have this sneaking suspicion that you have no idea what bringing back the caliphate actually means or involves. Let me give you a clue, it would entail thriving in diversity, penning odes to wine, investing in science, patronizing the arts… not to mention appointing a gay court poet.

For your benefit and other jihadist novices, here is my guide to how to build a successful caliphate – or “bring back glory of the Islamic Caliphate”, to quote you – in half a dozen simple steps:

  1. Caliphornian wine and Caliphornication

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart

Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,

Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,

If I mentioned any other Paradise, I’d be worse than a dog.

Omar al-Khayyam (translated by Karim Emami)

ISIS has banned alcohol, as well as drugs and cigarettes, in the domain under its control. But what these fanatics seem to misunderstand is that alcohol may be prohibited religiously (haram) in Islam, but there was plenty of full-bodied Caliphornian wine around,  as the above verse by Omar al-Khayyam illustrates, which follows in the tradition of khamariyat, or wine poetry.

“Commanders of the faithful” they may have been but Caliphs were known to indulge in the unholy grape. These included the Umayyads and the Abbasids. Even Harun al-Rashid, who is regarded as the most “rightly guided” of the later caliphs, is reputed to have drunk. And even if al-Rashid himself did not partake, his court did, as mythologised in many stories of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, especially his gay court poet Abu Nuwas, who definitely preferred wine to girls.

Don’t cry for Leila and don’t rejoice over Hind

Instead drink to the rose from a rosy red wine.

A glass which, when tipped down the drinker’s throat,

Leaves its redness in both the eye and the cheek.

Camp, outrageous, irreverent and witty, Abu Nuwas was considered the greatest poet of his time and is still up there among the greats, despite the more puritanical age we live in, where his odes to male love would make a modern Muslim blush.

Come right in, boys. I’m

a mine of luxury – dig me.

Well-aged brilliant wines made by

monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!

Roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!

and afterwards you can take turns

shampooing my tool.

During to the apparent jealousy of his mentor in Harun al-Rashid’s court, Ziryab, the Sultan of Style, fled to the rival Umayyad court in Cordoba, where, among other things, he taught Europeans how to become fashion slaves.

  1. Strength in diversity

Diversity and multiculturalism were the hallmark of Islam’s most successful caliphates and caliphs. In fact, the lightning speed with which the Arabs were able to conquer a vast empire was partly faciliated by the greater freedom and lower taxes they offered local populations compared to the bickering former imperial masters. This was coupled with an early form of welfare state established by the second caliph, the austere Umar Ibn al-Khattab who lived in a simple mud hut to be close to the poor and believed in social and economic equality.

Under the Umayyads, whether centred in Damascus or Cordoba, and the early Abbasids, Islam’s “golden age” was characterised, rather like today’s America, by a complex synthesis and symbiosis between the cultures which fell under Islamic control as well as neighbouring civilisations. It incorporated Christian, Jewish, ancient Greek, Byzantine, Persian and even Chinese ideas and added to them to create a new, dynamic whole. The Ottomans were also at their most successful when they tolerated and promoted diversity.

This is a far cry from the uniform puritanism ISIS seeks to impose on its self-described caliphate.

  1. Tolerance is a duty

The ISIS advance has resulted in the mass flight of Christians from northern Iraq. And the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul fears they will never return, while the ancient Assyrian community of Bartella wait in terror.

This fear is hardly surprising given the treatment ISIS has meted out on fellow Muslims, such as the mass executions of Shi’a soldiers, not to mention the oppressive rules ISIS has outlined for Muslims in its conquered territory.

This is very different from the ideals of religious tolerance which Islam’s various caliphates often aspired to, with probably the Umayyads and Ottomans in their heydays winning top prize in this category, and qualifying as the most enlightened of their age.

Even the traditional notion that non-Muslims are dhimmis (protected minorities) who are free to practise their faith but are inferior to Muslims contradicts the principles of equality embedded in Islam. This is amply illustrated in the Constitution of Medina drafted by Muhammad himself which stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans all have the same political and cultural rights. So it would seem that Islam, as practised by its prophet, gave Muslims an advantage in the hereafter, not the here and now.

Moreover, the Quranic injunction on “no compulsion in religion” also means that ISIS has no right to force Muslims to pray, whether in the mosque or otherwise.

  1. Ijtihad and the greater jihad

ISIS and other violent jihadists not only conduct “holy war” incorrectly, inhumanely and for the wrong reasons, they also ignore the “greater jihad”, the struggle to build a better self and society.

In addition, their fixation on implementing “sharia” is baffling. This is partly because their interpretation of it is at odds with traditional scholarship. Moreover, sharia has differed significantly over time and place.

More fundamentally, the bulk of what is regarded as Islamic law today was reached through the reasoning of early Islamic scholars. Since we live in radically different times, it is high time to reopen the gates of ijtihad – which were sealed by the Abbasids in a bid to cement their authority – and to rethink and reinvent the Islamic legal system.

In its heyday, the Abbasid Caliphate’s capital Baghdad – which ISIS are perilously close to conquering – was a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention. This was epitomised by the Bayt al-Hekma, which was a world-leading institute of learning until the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, devastating Abbasid society to a similar degree as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  1. A woman’s place is in… public

ISIS has informed women that their place is in the home and that outdoors they must wear “full, wide Islamic dress”.

Well, they should start with themselves and wear the hijab too, since, if it is an obligation at all, it is one that applies to men too.

Although Islam is a typical patriarchal society, women’s place has never been solely in the home, except in a minority of cultures. It might shock ISIS to learn that the idea of cloistering women out of the public eye may not have been an Islamic idea at all but one borrowed from the Byzantines.

Women played a key role in the spread of Islam by the word, such as Khadija and Aisha, and by the sword, such as Hind bint Utbah and Asma’a bint Abi Bakr – sort of Kill Bill characters of the medieval world – who were instrumental in the defeat of the Byzantine forces in one of the most decisive battles in history.

In addition, women made important contributions to science, philosophy and society throughout Islamic history – a role that has been under-researched but is eliciting more interest today. They even ran empires, albeit discretely.

Most importantly, Islam’s attitudes to women have varied according to local culture. Iraqi and especially Syrian women have been on a long road towards emancipation, and even the faithful among them see no contradiction between their religion and gender equality.

  1. Secularism is the solution

Muhammad never nominated a successor (caliph) nor spelt out a method for identifying one, hence Islam does not prescribe, nor does it need a caliphate. In addition, the caliphate often led to instability due to the absence of clear rules for the transfer of power, and contributed to the absolutists attitudes the region’s leaders traditionally have to power.

In addition, the prophet never established an “Islamic state”. In fact, his rule of Medina was incredibly secular. Moreover, Islam’s greatest successes were achieved by rulers who were largely secular, especially when compared to their times.

In fact, it could be argued that the only truly Islamic state, is a spiritual state, a state of mind.

Contrary to what Islamists tell us, secularism is the solution – but I don’t mind if you call it a “caliphate”.

In fact, if you build a caliphate like this, I can guarantee you, judging by the interest on Twitter, that you’ll be drawing immigrants from all over the Muslim world.

____

This piece was republished on BuzzFeed on 20 June 2014.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Islamism is the illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islamism is not the solution but is built on an illusion. Islam’s past strength was actually a secular one based on free thought.

Saturday 17 August 2013

SONY DSC“The people want to apply God’s law,” one group of male protesters chanted.

“Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party.

As if that wasn’t enough, all over the Raba’a al-Adawiya encampment, what seems to be a current hit on the Islamist charts was urging everyone within earshot of a loudspeaker to “Tell the world that Egypt is Islamic.”

But that is not exactly the message that has been reaching the international community from the pro-Morsi camp. Although only a single letter separates the two in Arabic, there is a world of difference between the democratic legitimacy (Shari’ya) the Muslim Brotherhood asks of the world and the Shari’a protesters were loudly demanding.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I wondered? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

I doubt many non-Islamists when they think of Morsi’s “democratic legitimacy” would ever associate that with implementing Shari’a, as countries which have done so sit near the bottom of the league in terms of freedoms and rights.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I stood there in Raba’a, a scarce secular soul, I pondered a question I have asked myself repeatedly: what exactly is the point of the Islamist project in a Muslim society?

After all, Egypt already implements Shari’a in its personal and family law, with all the gender and other inequalities that involves. In addition, there is absolutely nothing to stop a devout Muslim from practising every facet of his or her faith.

In contrast, Egypt has no civilian family courts for those who wish to run their personal affairs according to modern, secular standards. Moreover, though freedom of expression is a constitutional right, this freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years by the obscure, vague and innovative legal concept of “insulting religion”.

But does centuries-old Islam, the world’s second largest religion, really need self-appointed defenders to shield it from “insult”, when the Qur’an itself welcomes doubt, questioning and even ridicule?

And why do these self-appointed defenders of the faith contradict the example of the prophet they claim to emulate? For instance, Muhammad pardoned one of his scribes, Abdullah Ibn Saad, even after he claimed that the Qur’an was invented and Muhammad was a false prophet.

These examples highlight how Islamism, rather than providing the solution, as it claims, is actually built on an illusion.

Islamist discourse, on the whole, holds that the reason for the Muslim world’s decline is its deviation from Islamic law and values. That explains why Hassan al-Banna, despite his attempts to inject some elements of modernity into traditional Islamic thought, fixated on questions of morality and Shari’a. One of his ideological descendants, Sayyid Qutb, went so far as to invent the dangerous idea that Muslims were living a period of modern “Jahiliyyah” (pre-Islamic ignorance).

But by misdiagnosing the malaise afflicting society, Islamists have prescribed totally the wrong medicine, with severe and debilitating side effects.

Any objective, dispassionate reading of Islamic history reveals that Islam’s former glory was actually built on a largely secular foundation. In addition, the start of its decline coincided with the victory of rigid dogma and orthodoxy – represented by the likes of the “father of Salafism” Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century – over reason and intellect.

Muhammad himself never established anything resembling what we would call an “Islamic state” today. His secular-sounding Constitution of Medina actually defines Jews, Christians and pagans – i.e. every member of Medina’s society – as being full and equal members of the Ummah.

During what is widely regarded as Islam’s “golden age”, the political and social mechanisms governing the lives of Muslims were generally secular. Though the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs derived their claim to legitimacy from Islam, they were essentially secular rulers, presiding over secular governments. They were autocratic, not theocratic.

In fact, their honorific title “commanders of the faithful”suggests that caliphs derived their authority from their Muslim (and other) subjects and not from Islam itself. Moreover, most enlightened caliphs were derided by conservatives and traditionalists as immoral and decadent.

Take Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph and stuff of legends. Under his rule, the sciences, culture and the arts flourished, despite clergy’s disapproval of the company he and his libertine son, al-Amin kept, including the outrageous and camp court poet, Abu Nuwas, considered the greatest poet of his time.

Freethinking philosophy also flourished during this era, both under the Abbasids and the Umayyads. The Muʿtazilah, for example, held that rationality, expressed through reasoned debate known as “kalam”, are the “final arbiter” that trumps “sacred precedent”.

In such a climate, it is unsurprising that non-belief was accepted and atheistic scholars, such as Ibn al-Rawandi were published, only to have their works destroyed by later, less tolerant generations.

The reasons for Islam’s subsequent relative decline are manifold: the loss of dominance over global trade, the Mongol invasions, intellectual stagnation, infighting and factionalism, colonialism, and more.

However, deviation from some imagined “pure” moral state is not one of the factors, and belief in this illusory mirage will delay effective reform. In the 21st century, the best system that encompasses the spirit of past Muslim success is enlightened secularism. That might explain why the renowned 19th-century reformer Muhammad Abduh once said that in France he saw “Islam without Muslims”.

 

Note: This article was written before the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi encampments occurred.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 15 August 2013.

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Gay pride (and prejudice) through the ages

 
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By Khaled Diab

Historical examples of homosexuality being tolerated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam can help overcome homophobia and reinvent these faiths.

Thursday 28 February 2013

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval "same-sex union"?

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval “same-sex union”?

It is almost spring, and love, of the gay variety, seems truly to be in the air. The last few weeks have brought a constant stream of good news for LGBT communities in Europe, not to mention encouraging developments in the United States and even within the Catholic Church.

British and French MPs spread the love in the run up to Valentine’s Day by giving non-heterosexual marriage a resounding vote of confidence, while Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of so-called “successive adoption” by same-sex couples.

Across the Atlantic, where same-sex marriage has faced stiff opposition from religious and social conservatives, a pro-gay marriage ad campaign featuring prominent Democrats and Republicans, including Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, has just been released, while there is talk that Barack Obama is planning to utilise the Supreme Court to push for same-sex matrimony.

Homosexuals, not to mention feminists, have toasted the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who “made homophobia one of his battle cries”, according to one activist. This has left many in the LGBT community hopeful that the next and future popes will be more relaxed towards questions of sexuality, while activists have been urging the Vatican to wake up to reality.

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,”  wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, the Holy Father’s previous incarnation, in an opinion he wrote for his predecessor Pope John Paul II in 2003 on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Why? Apparently, because “marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law”.

Although the argument that homosexuality is unnatural is contrary to the available scientific evidence and undoubtedly angers gay communities and their supporters, this idea is common not only in the Catholic Church, but in other branches of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

However, despite Ratzinger’s protestations, deep, deep inside Christianity’s historic closet, there was greater tolerance of homosexuality than appears at first sight. Although the medieval and pre-modern church, especially during the various inquisitions, was well-known for persecuting and killing homosexuals, it may, at least at times, have been rather gay-friendly.

For example, though the modern clergy, with the exception of some reformist churches, tends to reject the idea of gay marriage, it appears that two men – but not women – could sometimes be joined in holy union in the Middle Ages.

In a practice known as Adelphopoiesis, two men would be joined in what American history professor John Boswell has controversially described as “same-sex unions”, although his contention has been challenged by the clergy and other scholars who insist that, though the practice walked and talked rather like a church wedding, the union in question was actually a spiritual and celibate one and closer to the concept of “blood brotherhood”.

Although the practice of Adelphopoiesis may strike the modern reader as surprising, once it is placed in the context of Greco-Roman culture, which had a profound impact on early Christian and Muslim ideals, it is not. In the male-centric classical view, men’s affection for each other was the most sublime form of love, while women didn’t really count for much, as attested to by the absence or belittling of lesbianism in classical, Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions.

This idea of the superiority of male love, and the tolerance thereof, can be seen in the odes to homoerotic passion of the camp and irreverent Abu Nuwas, the Abbasid court laureate who was believed to be the greatest poet in Islam, and whose work was not censored, strangely enough, until the early 20th century.

Moreover, medieval Islamic scholars tended to hold that male homosexual acts did not merit worldly punishment, rather like how ancient Jewish legal practices upheld such strict rules of evidence in cases of “sodomy” that it was near impossible to prove and secure a death sentence. This is a far cry from the contemporary puritanical attitude towards homosexuality in much of the Muslim world, where gay people often potentially face the death penalty

The sublimation of mutual male affection has been (re-)interpreted by modern scholars, commentators and even clergy as a sign of homosexuality in the most unexpected quarters. Not only have many interpreted Jalal al-Din Rumi’s love poetry, or ghazal, dedicated to his older spiritual master Shams-e-Tabrizi, as a sign that the legendary Sufi poet had homosexual tendencies, there have even been suggestions that none other than Jesus Christ was gay.

That a man in his 30s apparently had no wife or girlfriend, even though Jewish law would have allowed him to marry, but was friends with a prostitute, hung out with a dozen other blokes, including one “Beloved Disciple”, in the words of the Gospel of John, could be interpreted as repressed homosexuality by the modern secular ear. Needless to say, the very suggestion is rejected as outrageous and insulting by the church and the majority of Christians.

Although early Christianity and medieval Islam seemed to have adopted some elements of the classical tolerance of certain aspects of homosexuality, at least the male variety of it, all the Abrahamic faiths have inherited the Old Testament tradition which condemns as sinful homosexual acts (the idea of homosexuality or sexual orientation did not really exist until modern times, or was at the very least more fluid).

For instance, both Christianity and Judaism draw on the Book of Leviticus (18:22) which commands the believer: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

One reason why homosexuality elicits such a disproportionate reaction in all three religions is because of its powerful potential to subvert the traditional patriarchal order. Traditional models of marriage, after all, are more about procreation than recreation, and about prescribing and cementing a strict gender hierarchy, in which man sits on the throne and woman washes his royal feet. “Same-sex marriage fundamentally challenges the basic sexual premises of marriage as a contract,” writes Kecia Ali, a professor of religion, in her taboo-shaking book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

The most common justification for the prohibition on homosexual behaviour in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is, of course, the allegorical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, two Biblical cities which were destroyed by fire and brimstone for their sinfulness. Although none of the scriptures spell out homosexuality as the nature of the sins committed by the Sodomites, who wanted to rape God’s angels, sodomy, or liwat (i.e. pertaining to Lot’s people) to Muslims, has for centuries been assumed to relate to anal sex, or more broadly, homosexual male intercourse.

This is not a valid connection to make, many contemporary activists claim. “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe,” writes Jay Michaelson, the American-Jewish academic and activist.

But is such revisionism honest? I believe that, in the balance of things, the Abrahamic tradition is homophobic, as was the Greco-Roman tradition, though to a lesser degree. Nevertheless, though such revisionism may not be honest, it is useful and perhaps even necessary, to bring religion into the 21st century.

While I personally reject religion because of its intrinsic contradictions and inherent unfairness, I accept that faith can give a structure to the world for believers, and a perceived higher purpose to their lives.

That is why religion has been invented and reinvented endlessly over the centuries. What we call Judaism, Christianity and Islam today, for instance, bears little resemblance to their original counterparts. And just as no modern believer seriously accepts their religions’ ancient attitudes towards, for example, slavery and warfare, people will one day hopefully look back on the current debate over homosexuality and faith as archaic.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 February 2013.

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