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Diversity in religion: Islam
Diversity in religion: Islam

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From the very early days of Islam, a central feature has been the ideal of ‘engaging in lawful behaviour’. This means acting in religiously-approved ways in all areas of life, not just as regards worship but also as regards to diet, trade and sexual relationships (among other things). This is a good example of the way that religions can encompass all aspects of culture and behaviour.

Religions are also internally diverse, and an important feature of Muslim legal tradition has been the way it has developed a range of opinions and attitudes about all sorts of topics and issues. So for example, although the Islamic legal experts usually condemned male same-sex relations (and were largely silent about female same-sex ones), they did not always do so. Nor did they agree about the punishments that might be imposed on those who engaged in prohibited behaviours. In any case engaging in same-sex relations was not usually seen as a particular problem in Muslim-majority societies; men who were taken to court under these charges were not usually severely punished.

In the nineteenth century, however, things began to change. The British Empire in particular introduced laws criminalising same-sex activities in most of the countries it ruled. These laws were often inherited by the successor states. In some Muslim-majority countries governments began to persecute gay men to show that they were standing up for what they claimed were Islamic values.

As a result in some Muslim-majority countries male same-sex relations remain illegal and harsh punishments are sometimes imposed on those who engage in them. In others, however, gay people are not criminalised, and in recent years more liberally-minded Muslims have begun to challenge these restrictions and to call for more freedom generally and more democratic government, which they regard as being fully compatible with Islam.

Like all religions, Islam is dynamic and changing.

Questions for discussion

  • Can you think of any other controversial issues on which Muslims may not speak with one voice?
  • To what extent do you think internal diversity is found in other religious groups?

Classroom activity

  • Take an issue which might be controversial at your school, such as an aspect of the dress code or attendance policy or rules governing the use of mobile phones.
    • How far does there seem to be diversity of opinion on this subject within the classroom?
    • Would consulting the school rules help us to understand what pupils and staff actually think and how they behave?
    • Are there differences in opinion on controversial issues in your school? If so, might we compare this to the way we find a range of views on controversial issues in religious contexts?

Mini research project

  • You might want to identify some of the different types of government to be found in the Muslim-majority world today. Countries you might want to compare and contrast include Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey, Somalia and Saudi Arabia.
  • Explore further the diversity within Islam. You might focus on:
    • the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, or the beliefs and practices of Sufi Muslims
    • the diversity of Muslims within a non-Muslim-majority country, such as Britain.

Useful organisations

Hidayah LGBTQI+ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] is a charity which provides support and welfare for LGBTQI+ Muslims. It also promotes social justice and education to counter discrimination, prejudice and injustice, and offers confidential email, social meetings and educational material.

The Inclusive Mosque Initiative is ‘an intersectional feminist mosque devoted to creating safer spaces for marginalised Muslims … including women, nonbinary and queergender people’.