Thursday, June 25, 2015

(Mis)Understanding Transgender: Outdated Fataawah, Scholarly Disengagement, & Lack of Tarbiya

Originally published here and here at

WITH EVERY PASSING year – indeed, with every passing month – Muslims are faced with new intellectual and societal challenges to their faith. Whether it’s atheism, scientific claims about evolution, or social matters related to gender and sexuality, many Muslims (especially in the West) find themselves questioning traditionally held beliefs and practices. Most recently, one of the issues to affect both the wider society and media, and the Muslim community, is that of transgender people and how the concept of gender is defined – and practiced.
Since the story of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner hit the media, a few notable issues have arisen.

1) Outdated Fatâwa

Transgender issues have not been dealt with in the general Muslim community to any great scale; discussions surrounding these matters have been, until now, limited to certain circles – progressive, academic, and (Islamic) scholarly.

Three Categories

In the latter category, fatâwa  have been issued discussing the permissibility of sex-change operations (, but sometimes the wordings tend to conflate transgendered individuals with intersexed individuals.  (
The general conclusion of the scholarly community appears to be limited to ruling that cross-dressing and seeking sex change operations on the basis of identifying as the opposite gender isarâm.
Those of the former two categories who address transgender issues, even when Muslim, do not give much weight or authority to the views of traditional scholarship; they focus primarily on secular liberal theories and beliefs surrounding gender and sexuality. This implies, perhaps, that the progressive and academic thinkers do not see traditional sources as capable of dealing sufficiently with current issues.
While they may acknowledge that traditional scholarship considers those actions to be arâm, most (if not all) of them may not consider the Quran or Sunnah to be perfect and the ultimate source of non-negotiable authority. This is in contradiction to the position of Ahl Al-Sunnah, which holds that the Quran is the perfected, preserved, and undoubted Word of Allah, and that the authentic Sunnah of the Prophet œ is a primary source for all Islamic rulings, second only to the Quran.


Going back to traditional scholarship: While their foundation is sound, what many unfortunately don’t realize is that their outdated language severely affects whether they are taken seriously or not.
Previously issued fatâwa need to be re-issued with a broader, more comprehensive understanding of the current thoughts and discourses surrounding LGBTQ (Lesbian – Gay – Bisexual – Trans-Gender – Queer/Questioning) matters.


While their renewed rulings may end up having the same conclusions (i.e., that homosexual activities are prohibited), the language that is used matters a great deal in terms of how people are able to understand and comprehend the matter.
As it stands, assumptions such as “such people are just seeking attention” do not accurately reflect the situations of many individuals going through these issues.
In other cases, the language used in the fatâwa indicates that the one(s) issuing it were not fully aware of what transgender really means, or the issues surrounding it. (

What is Missing

Many fatâwa conflate various aspects of LGBTQ issues without understanding what they mean to begin with, or failing to recognize the differences among them.
  • One common issue is assuming that ‘transgendered’ and ‘hermaphrodite’ (or intersexed) are one and the same.
  • Another is not knowing or being aware of the discussions surrounding gender and sexuality and how they are (and are not) related.For example, a common belief amongst secular liberals is that “gender is a social construct.” There is also the concept of the ‘gender binary,’ and terms such as ‘CIS,’ ‘male,’ ‘female,’ ‘gender-fluid,’ and ‘agender.’ To effectively respond to all these concepts, those issuing the  fatâwa must be aware of them to begin with.(
  • Something else to be aware of is that there is still no biological (or, for that matter, social and psychological) conclusion as to the ‘causes’ of LGBTQ identities and behaviors.
    Thus, making statements such as “no one is born gay,” or “these are psychological perversions” can very well drive away those who may be struggling with legitimate and serious desires and issues, but are still seeking to understand whether they can be considered Muslim due to their belief in tawîd.


  • It is necessary to avoid being sucked into any particular group’s agenda or to fall for their propaganda, but equally necessary to know the information being provided and disseminated by those groups.At the end of the day, there is not always a need to offer one’s personal opinion regarding a matter, as long as the Islamic ruling is laid out clearly and in an appropriate manner.

2) Lack of Scholarly Engagement and Clarification

Popular Shaykhs in North America have remained largely silent or vague when it comes to LGBTQ matters. When the term ‘transgender’ hit the general public this week, eliciting questions and confusion from many Muslims, very few well known individual speakers and ¢is  spoke up (or wrote) about it. This is unfortunate considering that we tend to have a few general categories of positions taken within the Muslim community:
  • Those who know the ruling on it already and accept it;
  • Those who know the traditional ruling but object on ideological grounds;
  • Those who are confused about it but, due to the silence from Muslim leaders, remain unclear both in what the Islamic rulings are and how they are to behave towards LGBTQ individuals.
As to the first group, they are further divided into:
  • Those who remain generally silent, and
  • Those who go to an extreme and become not only angry, but obsessive on the topic.
Many of the latter throw around offensive slurs and verbally attack and threaten to harm those who identify as LGBTQ. Obviously, the latter behavior is unacceptable and unbecoming of a Muslim; having strong convictions and beliefs does not mean being an abusive jerk.
As for the third group, the silence from scholars – and the lack of research on their part – simply contributes to the rising trend of Muslims who have a very vague or weak foundation in their faith. More and more, as Muslims are bombarded with numerous different messages and agendas from countless angles, there is a weakening of strong scholarly output clearly addressing relevant issues as they come up.

A Current Critical Crisis in our Community

Muslims are being introduced to concepts and ideas that have previously been foreign to them, and without firm (as well as understanding and compassionate) guidance from those with religious knowledge, they are left floundering. To that end, the very idea of a concrete Islamic moral compass has become strange to many, leading them to question previously established and undisputed Islamic rulings that have little difference of opinion.
With regards to LGBTQ issues in general, it should not be so hard to say:
  • that yes, the Islamic stance is clear (and to give fiqhi rulings accordingly—incorporating current terminology),
  • but that the Islamic stance does not necessitate being harsh and abusive

Public Elucidation by Up-to-Date Islamic Scholars

More knowledgeable Muslim leaders need to be willing to speak about these matters to the public, and be available for answering such questions.
Otherwise, we will find increasing numbers of Muslims falling into the second category of positions taken, that is, those whose moral values are not based upon an Islamic worldview as communicated to us in the Quran and Sunnah, but one which comes from a secular perspective that does not recognize the supremacy of religious authority.
If anything, this perspective denigrates the importance of religion and how it is implemented at a personal and societal level.
Local Leadership in One-on-One Engagement
In addition, local scholars and leaders must be able to engage with those who are themselves struggling with gender and sexual identity. They should be able to understand the discourses surrounding these concepts, and be aware of how delicate and difficult it is for individuals to navigate these inner struggles. They should be able to provide both Islamic rulings as well as guidance defined by wisdom and compassion.

Activating a Cohesive Islamic Authority to Lead the Way

It may seem like a great deal to demand—due to lack of a cohesive Islamic authority in general—but the role of scholars and community leaders in the West is already expanding. Muslims in non-majority Muslim countries especially need to be able to have local leaders to whom they can turn with their questions, without fear of being ignored or turned away.
Now more than ever, we need to see leadership that can respond swiftly and wisely to the issues of the day with strength and nuance. But first of all, we need the engagement of our top scholars with the whole of the LGBTQ issues, culminating in their widely accessible clarification and renewed fatâwa to address specifically the current social context in current terminology.
Hence, again, we see the necessity of ¢is who are not only knowledgeable at a theoretical level, but engaged and in touch both with wider the society and with the Muslim community specifically.
IN PART 1 we noted the critical lack of up-to-date fatâwa on the current issues concerning LGBTQ affairs—stemming from a general absence of engagement in the social context of non-Muslim majority countries.
The average Muslim’s understanding is thus hindered, and very possibly his Islamic moral compass is unsupported and under-informed on this point. Our top scholars need to step up to the plate with informed clarification of all such practical matters and our local leaders need to be engaged, one-on-one, with those who may come to them struggling with transgender issues.
Not only does our community need to be educated on LGBTQ concerns and our local leadership trained to counsel individuals in their struggles, but parents also need to be sufficiently informed in order to properly engage with their kids on this hot topic. And that is where we pick up the question again with point #3 below.
LGBTQ is a topic needing new examination and investigation, since, most likely, most of today’s Muslim parents have been totally unexposed to such current issues. It was perhaps a totally irrelevant social issue in their childhood. Today’s Muslim kids need guidance on all moral and behavioral questions, and today’s Muslim parents need to be able to understand the world which their kids must confront and negotiate. Neither parents nor kids should be forced to put their heads in the sand, like the proverbial ostrich, and refuse to accept facing the issues due to a lack in readily-available Islamic guidance.

3) Muslim Parents and Tarbiya

It is unfortunate to see that when it comes to knowing about, understanding, and talking to their children about sensitive issues, many Muslim parents are extremely behind. Although some of them have chosen to live in a non-Muslim country, while others were themselves born and raised in such regions, too many Muslim parents remain dangerously uneducated – sometimes willfully, sometimes out of unconscious incompetence.

Today’s Red Flag for Parents

Either way, the lack of education and proactive discussion is extremely concerning. Muslim parents cannot afford to remain ignorant or in denial about the very real, very relevant issues taking place in the societies where we live. The fact that we have chosen to live in these societies and to raise our children within them means that we cannot use such excuses such as “This doesn’t happen in our countries,” or “My kids don’t know about this,” or “Our parents never spoke to us about this, and we came out just fine.” The fact is, we are not ‘back home,’ our kidsare exposed to a great deal more than we realize, and we do not live in our parents’ time.
The Prophet œ informed us:
The Messenger of Allah œ said: Each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible for his flock. The amîr (ruler) who is over the people is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock; a man is a shepherd in charge of his household and he is responsible for his flock; a woman is a shepherdess in charge of her husband’s house and children and she is responsible for them; and a man’s slave is a shepherd in charge of his master’s property and he is responsible for it. So each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible for his flock. (Al-Albani, Sunan Abi Dawud 2928, graded ai)
As parents, we are shepherds over our children and will be held accountable regarding them on the Day of Judgment. Their education and their tarbiya (training) is our responsibility, and failing in their tarbiya – or in taking the appropriate measures to provide them with the correct education and training – is a burden we will suffer the consequences of.
We simply cannot afford to live in ignorance of our present world and the reality we live in.

A Double-Whammy for Our Kids

LGBTQ issues are at the forefront in media, pop culture, and even in the classroom. Despite a concerted effort, on the part of the LGBTQ community, to ensure the unwavering support of certain groups and actions, there is the irony that very often, the children are not always clearly educated about the differences among the various issues.
Thus, while kids are often told at school that they must support LGBTQ pride, many don’t know the difference between homosexuality and being transgender. Neither their secular educators nor their Muslim parents take the time to explain what these various labels mean.
For Muslim kids in particular, their parents and their communities are usually at least a decade behind in current events, and so they have a double issue of not knowing what certain terms are currently used to mean, but also not knowing what the Islamic perspective of those matters is—and how their behavior should reflect their attitudes.

What Can We Do as Muslim Parents?

Just as scholars need to be up-to-date with what’s going on in the world, so too do we Muslim parents have to know what our children are being exposed to through media and pop culture. Music videos and magazine covers, movies and social media – we have to know what the headlines are, what is being said and communicated, what messages are being pushed. We need to see for ourselves what they are exposed to.
Once we know what is being taught, we need to be pro-active and teach our children even more – to sit down with them and speak with them frankly about the difference between the values we hold as Muslims, and the ever-changing man-made codes of the world around us.

Overcoming Our Inhibitions for the Sake of our Children

It is necessary for us to emphasize that our morals come not from our own desires or societal norms, but from Allah and His Messenger œ. We also must convey to our kids the need to recognize certain actions and behaviors as sinful, without expressing disrespect or ill manners to those who exhibit those traits.
We ourselves should be educated enough to discuss topics which we may personally feel uncomfortable with, so that we can make our children feel comfortable enough to ask us these questions – and so that we can provide them with the correct answers.
We cannot allow our own discomfort in discussing delicate sexual matters, for example, to get in the way of educating our children as they need to be educated. When we are living in a sexually explicit type of society, we need to take our responsibilities as parents extremely seriously. We cannot complain about the ‘bad influences’ of society, or pretend they don’t exist, and yet constantly put our kids in the line of fire and expect them to emerge unscathed and protected from all fitna. Nor can we then be surprised when they come home having engaged in behavior that we consider arâm. Neither can we accept for them to have a worldview completely dissociated from that of Islam.

Doing Our Own Homework

We absolutely must wake up and realize the reality that we live in, acknowledge the issues that exist, make an effort to educate ourselves and understand these matters as clearly as possible, and acquaint ourselves with and reaffirm what the Shari¢ah has to say.
At the end of the day, we must understand – for ourselves and our children – what Allah and His Messenger say about these matters. It may not be politically correct or conform to the popular stance of the day, but it does conform to the concept of Divine Justice, the standard to which we will be held on the Day of Judgment. It is from within this paradigm, this worldview, that we must evaluate everything that is going on around us; and it is based upon the Divine standards for our behavior that we must act.
It’s as simple as that.
It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. [Sûrat Al-Aḥzâb, 33:36]

How To Approach Our Children

As a parent myself who has already had to explain the concept of transgender and homosexual to my 5 year old daughter – simply because we live in an environment where it is quite common to see such individual—I have some advice to offer in terms of how parents can begin to discuss this issues with their children:
  • For younger children who notice certain behaviors and ask questions, it is important to be very honest and frank with them, while keeping in mind age-appropriate language. It is also important to be aware of one’s body language and tone of voice, as that can affect how your child understands your answer.”Why is that man dressed like a woman?” is an example of a question that a young child might ask. Ideally, a good response would be along the following lines: “Some people feel that they prefer to dress up in the clothing of the opposite gender. Sometimes, they feel that they were born in the wrong type of body and that they are actually women in men’s bodies, or the other way around. Allah told us that it’s not allowed for Muslims to do that, so we don’t do it. But even though we disagree with what other people do, that doesn’t mean we are allowed to be rude or disrespectful to them.”
  • With older children, it is a good idea to have family meetings or discuss the day’s events at dinnertime or any other scheduled daily family gathering. Ask them about what they have heard and learned at school, offer them your own insights or questions about what is new in pop culture and the media, and establish open, honest communication.Remind them regularly that what Muslims consider acceptable or not is based on what Allah informed us in the Quran and Sunnah, as He is the All-Knowing and All-Wise. Encourage them to ask questions, no matter how ‘taboo’ or ‘sensitive,’ and provide them with well researched, Islamicly correct answers.
In this way, the children will experience a safe and Islamically sound environment in which to discuss these issues.

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