Transgender and Islam

Sumayyah Dawud
Sumayyah Dawud is a close, dear friend of mine, who I was fortunate enough to meet last year during my Islamic studies.  I say fortunate enough, because she’s one of those people  you meet every now and again who just has that wow factor. Not just because she is a lovely, friendly  person, but also because of her beliefs. her passion for activism, humanitarian work in the causes she believes in and the strength of character she exhibits on a daily basis, just to be her and live her life.

Sumayyah emailed me recently, saying she had been excluded from praying at her local mosque because of the mosque leaders interpretation of the Quran on the subject of being transgender and muslim.   This interpretation resulted in them issuing a “fatwa”, which not only stopped her attending prayers, isolating her and preventing access to study material,  but which effectively lifted her niqaab and outed her to the local community.

Obviously, there are many things about this which are plain wrong and wholly unacceptable, not just from a human compassion perspective, but also from  a transphobia one too.  Curiously, the ruling doesn’t make total sense  from Islamic perspective  either. Let me explain…….

Sumayyah had already been praying and supporting the work of the mosque for a number of years, when she was asked suddenly to provide evidence of her gender.  She duly did this, on the express understanding that this “proof of gender” would not be distributed to the wider committee members, but would inform “a sponsor” on the committee of her status, allowing them to convince others.

Unfortunately for Sumayyah, the person  she shared this personal information with then distributed it to other members on the committee as part of the debate on her gender and her rights under islam.  Although bad enough and worthy of being labelled hate incidents on their own, this was nothing compared to the broadcasting of this information to the wider mosque community, sealing her exclusion, and marking her as a potential target for abuse and prejudice.  Although time can be a great healer, in this digital age, where data is stored, tagged, shared and archived, there is ultimately no hiding once a story like this breaks.  Whether you consider it unfortunate, careless, negligent or deliberate, these incidents have the mark of Hate crime all over them.  (In response to this disclosure, Sumayyah has since given two press interviews to bring attention to this issue and put forward her side of the story, which you can find at the bottom of this page)

Then,  there is the subject of the interpretation to consider.  Last year, when I asked to study at my local mosque, Khalil simply said “all we ask is that you respect our traditions and apply yourself respectfully, dutifully and honestly as muslimah.  We in return will do the same and support you”   It was a simple, 5 minute conversation and  even though my studies have since ended,  the respect I have for the way I was welcomed and treated and debt I owe friends like Khalil, Sumayyah and Amanda for their acceptance and support of me is one I will always remember. As Sumayyah said herself.

Joanna is a dear friend of mine whom I met after knowing our friend Amanda. (Amanda converted to Islam here in Phoenix and has had significant involvement with our Muslim community) Joanna has explored Islam and enjoys wearing the niqaab which is something Amanda and I also wear as well. We find the niqaab valuable and important in protecting our modesty as females, strengthening our relationship and closeness to Allah (swt), and providing a positive contribution to Islamic identity. Joanna and Amanda have been and continue to be a great source of support for me and I cherish our friendships very much.

During my studies, one of the things I was keen to understand was “trans and islam”.   According to the scholar and hadith collector An-Nawawi, Transgender people were historically referred to as Mukhannath, and he provides the following definition of them:-

“A mukhannath is the one (“male”) who carries in his movements, in his appearance and in his language the characteristics of a woman. (Khuntha, a separate term, is usually taken to mean of both genders) There are two types; the first is the one in whom these characteristics are innate, he did not put them on by himself, and therein is no guilt, no blame and no shame, as long as he does not perform any (illicit) act or exploit it for money (prostitution etc.). The second type acts like a woman out of immoral purposes and he is the sinner and blameworthy.”.

This explanation comes from observations made from  a number of Hadith and Sunnah, including these two below :-

Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 41, Number 4910:
“A mukhannath who had dyed his hands and feet with henna was brought to the Prophet. He asked: What is the matter with this man? He was told: Apostle of Allah! he affects women’s get-up. So he ordered regarding him and he was dismissed to an-Naqi’. (this is a region near medina)  The people said: Apostle of Allah! should we not kill him ? He said: I have been prohibited from killing people who pray.  (This is often reasoned to mean that Muslim trans women are accepted as they are “within the boundaries of Medina and Mecca”.)

Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 32, Number 4095:
“A mukhannath used to enter upon the wives of Prophet. They (the people) counted him among those who were free of physical needs. One day the Prophet entered upon us when he was with one of his wives, and was describing the qualities of a woman, saying: When she comes forward, she comes forward with four (folds in her stomach), and when she goes backward, she goes backward with eight (folds in her stomach). The Prophet said: Do I not see that this (man) knows what here lies. Then they (the wives) observed veil from him.” (This is often reasoned as allowing Muslim trans women to share the same spaces as women and be treated as women)

As well as these, there are also the following facts……

As early as 1988, gender reassignment surgery was declared acceptable under Islamic law by scholars at Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest Islamic university. In Iran, in 1987, Ayatollah Khomeini declared transgender surgical operations allowable…..

………since this ruling, a number of clinics have opened specifically to serve transsexual patients, mostly in Tehran. Iran has assumed the unlikely role of a global leader for sex change (second only in popularity to Thailand), even becoming, as The Guardian observes, “a magnet for patients from eastern European and Arab countries seeking to change their genders.” The increase in public disclosure has in turn led to more operations — Najmabadi reports that many transsexuals, especially those coming from provincial towns outside Tehran, find out about such clinics and state support of transsexuals through press coverage………

While these statements go some way to clarifying the position of trans-sexuals within Islam, there is some ambiguity regarding the status of transvestites.  Pro campaigners of transvestite rights often quote Quran passages such as  2:187 which states

“They (your wives) are your garment and you are a garment for them”

Although this passage is more usually interpreted as affirming the rights of women within Islam and specifically in marriage.  Some liberal scholars have chosen to interpret “garment” literally as meaning clothing, rather than as “protection”.  They also point to texts such as the collection on wikiislam that you can find here, which, depending upon your interpretation of the word “garment” or “robe” could be taken to allow cross-dressing.

So why, given these , as well as other interpretations by  more liberal scholars would the ICC Tempe Mosque leaders apparently ignore them,  openly debate and share Sumayyahs gender and then perhaps most confusingly, withdraw their initial “transgender policy” and ruling after publicising it on their website ?

Curious, I decided to ring the mosque to speak to someone on this issue.  To date, I have tried four times and still not been able to speak to someone directly who can provide any clarification.  I’ve spoken to several people who have politely referred me to people who would be in later, or would take a message, but as yet no-one has responded.  Having received no answer, I have since written to the mosque on behalf of the transgender charity I support here in the UK and  sincerely hope they respond with compassion, reason and a genuine apology, offering a sensible way through this, rather than silence.

Sadly, it is rare that an openly LGBT Muslim would feel welcome at a mainstream mosque.  Cultural norms and the usual, traditional readings of sacred texts often uphold  the gender binary as well as traditional views of  sexual orientation that don’t allow for the range of identities that we now know exist.  Many transgender Muslims even after surgery will suffer rejection, socially and culturally, as well as verbal and physical violence if discovered.

There’s no need for this – pure and simple. It’s easy when you think about it and you don’t have to think too hard.  Sumayyah having reverted in 2013 had all aspects of her past life washed away by  Allah (swt).  Within Islam, only Allah (swt) can do this and offer judgement over her.  In his eyes, Sumayyah is a woman and muslim and that ought to be that.

For her part (as you would expect from her) Sumayyah continues to pray and follow Islam outside of the mosque as best she can and remains open to the possibility of reconciliation.  She also continues to support many wider community interest projects.  Me ? I’m just proud to know her and call her my friend.

You can catch an interview she gave to the phoenix news here and the interview with the daily beast here)

Making Dua

7 thoughts on “Transgender and Islam

  1. I’m giving my problems anonymously so I’m 2 things I’m going to say . I’m a Muslim girl 22 years old and I fell in love with a trans Muslim convert man and we’ve been together for 5 years and we have recently broke up and he says he has too many things on his mind for a relationship so what do I ? . And the 2nd thing on my mind is I dropped out of college and have been depressed ever since I want to go back but idk I have dyscauclia its a math learning disability . Any anonymous advice Joanna?

  2. I am a white, English teansvestite that prefers to dress as a muslimah and wishes to fully adopt the lifestyle of a Muslim female. I have made many attempts to make contact with Muslims to learn from and hopefully gain acceptance from the wider Muslim community but to no avail. Although my story is somewhat different from Sumayyah’s, I can empathise with her completely

      1. Hi Joanna,
        Thank you for your comment and please accept my apologies for the late reply – been a vey busy month or so! I’d love to chat about my experiences – would you like to do it in this forum?
        Yazmeen x

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