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Critique Essay History Law/Legal Nonfiction Social Sciences Theory

Countering Islamic conservatism on being transgender: Clarifying Tantawi’s and Khomeini’s fatwas from the progressive Muslim standpoint

By Aisya Aymanee M. Zaharin and Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2020

In the late 1980s, prompted by an actual case of an assigned male-at-birth (AMAB) transgender person who was allowed to have genital reconstructive surgery, two fatwas1 were issued. One was by the Mufti of the foremost university in Islamic scholarship, the Al-Azhar University (Tantawi in June, 1988), and the second was by the Spiritual Leader of Iran (who was Khomeini in 1986). Initially, these fatwas were upheld as a tolerant and progressive approach of Islam toward transgender Muslims. However, due to the strong majority of Islamic conservatives who continue to be prevalent in Iran and other Muslim countries, Muslim transgender women are still suffering from heightened stigma and transphobia, discrimination and injustice, violence and persecution (Barmania & Aljunid, 2017; Carolina, 2018; Lee, 2012; Sarcheshmehpour et al., 2018). In this editorial, we provide a counter-narrative to Islamic heteropatriarchal conservatism that constructs Islam as homo/bi/intersex/transphobic. We challenge the conservative arguments based on the verse in the Qur”ān (4: 119) that states “God has created everything as it is”, and “changes in one’s body are only allowed under medical circumstances”. These arguments are highly ambiguous and the verse has long been taken out of its original context by the conservative view (Youssef, 2016). Not only are these arguments in contradiction with the principle that “God does not make mistakes”, they are also irrelevant as far as modern medical science is concerned. Tantawi (Sunni) and Khomeini (Shia) fatwas are then explored as they allow Muslim transgender people to receive treatment and/or gender affirming surgery and, therefore, show how the fatwas provide trans-inclusiveness in Islam. While we are cognisant that Tantawi and Khomeini fatwas did not address the legal rights of cisgender same-sex attracted people, we offer a perspective which encourages a deeper understanding of the progressive Muslim standpoint within the periscope of Muslim Sunni and shia construal in order to reach a more nuanced understanding of an archaic position on being transgender posed by Islamic conservatism; and thereby encourage stronger voices and empowerment within transgender Muslim communities. Islam has always taken sides with the oppressed rather than with the oppressor since the day of its establishment, and this includes taking a stand against transphobia, xenophobia and misogyny (Duderija, 2010, 2013, 2016). Esack (2006: 125) connects the “principle of prophetic solidarity” in the early time of Islam with the marginalized and oppressed communities (mustad’afin: the weak one) of the world today (Esack, 2006). Ironically, the spirit of Islam is all about empathy, tolerance and understanding, yet the practice of Islam carried out by many Muslims expresses the opposite. In challenging and remedying the normative discourse of prevalent unsympathetic conservative fatwas toward transgender people, we analyze the main sources of Shari’a, the Qur’ān and Hadith, while reclaiming transgender Muslim identity by highlighting Tantawi’s (Sunni) and Khomeini (Shia) fatwas in relation to modern scientific arguments. The analysis reveals that being transgender is a natural occurrence and the Qur’ān unequivocally acknowledges the existence of transgender people (Qur’an, 42: 49–50).

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