By: Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson

Source: Sandala Blog

A group of the extremists among the Imamis consider the legal obligation [to believe] in the inviolability of their leaders. They consider that to even be consistent with their treatment of animals and their servants. They have gone to an extreme in such matters that they have removed the veil of modesty from their faces and become objects of ridicule, amusement, and mockery of religion.

They even believe that this inviolability extends to every aspect of their lives such that they could not even theoretically make a mistake in their reports or testimonies in courts of law. But perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this is that they permit those same leaders, and even in some instances consider it their obligation, to practice taqiyyah [dissimulation]. They claim this is part of our religion. In other words, they permit bold-faced lies. If such is the case, how then is it possible by any stretch of the imagination to depend upon the inviolability of their words? If you permit them to say what they don’t believe, if you can’t trust them with what they say [as it may be taqiyyah], then how can you consider their actions inviolable? If it is permissible to dissimulate in their words, then certainly the same applies to their actions.

– Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 478 AH/1085 CE), al-Ghiyathiy


The English love their tea, and some also seem to relish tempests in their teapots. In America, we love our mountains, and we tend to make them out of molehills. Making a big hullabaloo over small matters is a common human affliction.

Recently, a storm has been brewing in one of the tearooms of Cambridge, and it involves someone I have known and respected for more than three decades. Dr. Tim Winter, who teaches theology at Cambridge University’s Wolfson College, has been accused of homophobia for making remarks about homosexuals that, according to some, warrant his expulsion from Cambridge’s prestigious faculty.

The offending remarks are from a Rihla (Muslim teaching program) in 1995 when Dr. Winter was answering questions from a group of Muslim students, and they surfaced now through a video clip that was posted online. Dr. Winter answered a student’s question regarding homosexuality with what would pass as a normal response in almost any mosque throughout the Muslim world, and is the belief held by hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide. In essence, he said that homosexuality is an aberration and not consistent with the natural functions of the body.

The root of the problem here lies in not distinguishing between the same-sex attraction that many people, including obviously some Muslims, feel, and the actual act of sexual relations between two people of the same sex. As Dr. Winter explained in his answer, some people appear to be born with the tendency towards homosexuality, but “if they do not act upon this tendency, they are not sinning.” Unfortunately, that distinction is not commonly drawn, and this troublesome conflation—and the rarely understood nuanced difference in our religious tradition—is increasingly causing problems for Muslims. Too many of us alienate many good Muslims when we fail to make this distinction and simply demonize them.

Our scholars clearly made these distinctions in the books of Islamic jurisprudence and use the term ma’bun to refer to someone with same-sex tendencies. Imam Dasuqi says that if such a person leads the prayer, his prayer is valid. In fact, the actual text he was commenting on addresses who can or cannot lead the prayer. Quoting Mukhtasir Khalil, Dasuqi writes, “It is discouraged [but not prohibited] for a eunuch (khasi) or homosexual (ma’bun) to be a regular prayer leader.” In his commentary on this, Dasuqi, who died in 1815, explains:

It is disliked [but still valid] for a ma’bun to be an assigned leader of the obligatory prayers as well as for communal supererogatory prayers, but not tarawih, or travelers’ prayers, or as someone who leads them on occasion. And the intended meaning of ma’bun is a male who is effeminate in his speech, similar to a woman’s speech, or someone who desires rectal intercourse but doesn’t practice it, or someone who has practiced it but since repented yet, nonetheless, has set tongues wagging.

In the wake of the storm that engulfed Dr. Winter, he has apologized, and his retraction and clarification should be taken at face value as genuine maturity and growth in understanding.

Unfortunately, some critics and many troll commentators have suggested that Dr. Winter is practicing “taqiyyah,” a word now entering the Western vocabulary as Islamophobes increasingly promote it to insinuate that Muslims represent a “fifth column” of subversive quislings hell-bent on putting every pig farmer in the West out of business and forever banishing pork rinds from convenience stores. But, as the above-mentioned quote of Imam al-Juwayni shows, while taqiyyah is practiced by a small minority of sectarian Muslims, it is not in any way part of the Sunni tradition that Dr. Winter adheres to, and it is not permissible for a Sunni Muslim unless that person is under immediate threat of death. It is certainly not morally acceptable to practice taqiyyah simply to save face with a verbally hostile public or to preserve one’s job. Islamophobes will naturally argue that I am practicing taqiyyah here, so you can’t really win with them. But if that was the case, morality would lose all meaning, and a man’s word would be of no significance, something incomprehensible to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Prophet Muhammad’s character—he was called “al-Amin” (the trustworthy) because he was known never to break his word, ever.

Fascists demand always that there be only one way of thinking, living, or believing. But ours is a pluralistic world, and our grandmothers and grandfathers fought a great war to prevent fascists from having their way in it. In a free society, Dr. Winter is entitled to believe in his faith, and his faith prohibits and deems sinful the act of sexual relations between unmarried couples whether gay or straight (since some states have now legalized same-sex marriage). What he has retracted and apologized for is the manner in which he said what he did at the time. “I believe—and Allah is my witness—that I was right, in Sharia, and considering the maslaha [commonweal] of the Muslims, to dissociate myself from the lecture and to apologize,” he wrote recently.

And then he added: “The key point is this: mercy and understanding are better than recrimination.”

One critic argued that Dr. Winter’s characterization of his comments as “youthful enthusiasms” is unacceptable given he was in his mid-30s at the time. However, in the Arabic language, the word “youth” (shab) indicates a period of one’s life that lasts until the age of 40, and, while perhaps not in the case of that critic, most of us are full of folly before the age of 40 and too many of us well after that. As someone who has known Dr. Winter over the years, I can say that while he, like all of us, is capable of mistakes and, like the rest of us, carries the baggage of “youthful enthusiasms,” he has always been one of the youngest wise men I have ever known.

Whatever his opinions on any subject, he is never fanatical and never imperious in his approach. Moreover, the guidance that he would impart to fellow Muslims who share the same beliefs as he does would naturally differ from his lectures whereby he would be sensitive as a professional and acknowledge the diverse sensibilities of a post-modern student body with all the varieties that that entails. I am sure that those who have been fortunate to study with him at Cambridge, whether gay or straight, would concur.

Meanwhile, let us be aware that much more formidable storms are raging in the world. We should be far more occupied with putting out the fires of war and tending to the needs of the refugees of real tempests than trying to get someone fired for “youthful enthusiasms.”