On June 12, the free world woke up to the shocking news that no fewer than 50 people were killed and more than 50 people were injured at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The attack is the worst mass shooting in American history, and the deadliest terror attack that has occurred since 9/11.
The perpetrator was a 29-year-old Islamist named Omar Mateen, a U.S. citizen of Afghan descent who was residing in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. Mateen is reported to have pledged allegiance to ISIS, and was previously monitored by the FBI for his extremist proclivities. It is now quite clear that the mass shooting was yet another Islamist terror attack. There can be no doubt: Mateen was motivated to attack a gay nightclub because he believed this was a righteous Islamic cause of jihad fi-sabeel al-lah (in the path of God).
It is noteworthy that this attack comes on the heels of the “That They Live by Proof” Arabic audio recording released by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani on May 21. In it, Al-Adnani called for attacks against the United States and Europe during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (it has now been a week since Ramadan began). He reminded the “fighters and supporters of the Caliphate in Europe and America” that Ramadan is “the month of conquest and jihad.” Al-Adnani exhorted those who would heed his incitements to “Get prepared, be ready…to make it a month of calamity everywhere for the non-believers.”
Al-Adnani had a track record of being taken very seriously by Islamists. Only 18 days after he called for attacks against Russia in 2015, ISIS militants brought down the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268. Three weeks after Al-Adnani’s call to jihad during Ramadan, Mateen may have seen it fit to heed it.
It’s Not Crazy To Point to Islam
In light of this macabre attack, apologists for Islam will no doubt take to the microphones to boldly proclaim that all the world must be wary of Islamophobia and of unduly blaming all Muslims for the “senseless and nihilistic” crimes of a few. This, however, is an egregious straw man of the position of those who have legitimate grievances with Islam. Hardly any rational person believes that all Muslims are responsible for the actions of the relatively few people who perpetrate attacks like this.
Indeed, judging a religious population of more than 1.3 billion by the actions of some Islamists is unfair and absurd—but hardly any rational person, no matter how anti-Islam, believes that. Rather, many rational and well-intentioned people, now both on the Right and the Left (although still mostly on the Right), are concerned about the inherent tendencies towards violence and intolerance that are latent in the mainstream Islamic religion itself.
Although supporters of extremist Islamist groups make up a relatively small percentage of the total Muslim population, this leads to underestimating the scope of the Islamist problem. In absolute numbers, more than 60 million Muslims the world over, a population roughly equal to that of the United Kingdom, holds a favorable view towards ISIS. Millions more are unsure about whether they hold a favorable or unfavorable view towards ISIS, according to Pew research.
So when events like this occur, people who raise religious concerns do not blame all Muslims, but blame the religious ideology that motivates such hatred, a religious ideology that ultimately has roots in the Islamic source texts themselves. Fair-minded commentators, therefore, do not dismiss such murderous actions as nihilistic crimes against humanity. Rather, they understand the murderers are motivated not by a nihilistic urge for violence, but by cold and calculated reasoning that runs deep in the Islamic source texts and traditions. These source texts and traditions provide the fertile breeding ground for people like Mateen.
Yes, This Does Have to Do With Islam
Nevertheless, in the coming days we will certainly be told again and again by Islam’s apologists that “this crime has nothing to do with Islam.” Indeed, this propaganda battle has already begun. It has been reported that Mateen’s father, Mir Siddique, said that his son’s horrific slaughter “had nothing do with religion.” Siddique claims mere homophobic bigotry led his son to perpetrate such a heinous crime. He explains that one time his son became angry when two homosexual men kissed in front of him.
The topic of what motivates Islamic extremism is very important to our national security; therefore, it is paramount that one be able to set aside one’s emotion in investigating this. As we have seen this week, many lives are literally on the line. One must be able to fearlessly look into the well of history and accept it for what it is, not for what one wishes it to be. As the saying goes, one cannot change the past, but must learn from it.
On May 9, 2016, ISIS thugs blindfolded an unidentified man and threw him off a five-story building in Manbij, a city in the Aleppo province of Syria. A mob of hundreds of people, including children, gathered below the building to witness this execution. Repugnantly, the mob stoned the victim’s body after it hit the ground, probably to make sure he was dead, if not to symbolically partake in the execution.
This was not the first time ISIS committed such an act, for it executed a number of homosexuals in Mosul and in Raqqa this way. Sunday we witnessed an Islamist who had declared his allegiance to ISIS gun down many people at a gay nightclub in Florida.
There is a pattern in the way ISIS and its supporters execute those it alleges are homosexual: ISIS usually, although not always, has them thrown off of tall buildings. As inhumane as these executions may be, murdering homosexuals in this way does not come from a nihilistic urge for carnage. No, these are cold and calculated steps taken by murderers who believe they serve God through such acts.
Theological Reasons for Islamists’ Hostility to Homosexuals
Indeed, it can be argued that executing homosexuals by such means as throwing them off high buildings is motivated by a fairly prevalent Islamic tradition. To understand why ISIS takes part in such vile acts, it is necessary to understand the reasons ISIS itself, as a self-declared Islamic caliphate, invokes in performing such acts. What follows is a brief analysis of the theological reasons for ISIS and Islamists’ animosity towards homosexuals.
First, there is relatively good evidence that Islam prohibits homosexual acts. This can be gleaned from reading the Qur’an (Q 15:73; 7:80-82; 26:165-175; 27:55-58; 29:28-29), which talks about the punishment that God visited upon the “people of Lot,” which the Qur’an takes to be a lecherous people who participated in homosexual acts, echoing the Biblical story of Lot’s visit to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament (see Genesis 19).
Indeed, in Muhammad Malik’s English translation of the Qur’an, the comment on Q 15:73, which talks about two angels’ visitation to the people of Lot, reads as follows: “The same angels came to Prophet [Lot] and executed Allah’s decree of stoning to death the nation of homosexuals.” So strong is the association with the people of Lot and homosexuality that it has become common among Arabs to call a homosexual male by the pejorative term “Loti” (لوطي), after the prophet Lot’s namesake. (The non-pejorative term is “مثلي”.)
Furthermore, that Islam prohibits homosexual acts is also relatively uncontroversial among Islamic scholars. Only in recent memory do you have the emergence of a handful of openly homosexual imams, and even then this novelty is an exclusively Western phenomenon. So ISIS has good grounds for taking homosexual actions to be sinful.
Second, there is a hadith in “Sahih Al-Bukhari,” the most trusted collection of Sunni ahadeeth, where Muhammad curses “effeminate men.” It reads as follows: “The Prophet cursed effeminate men [those men who are in the similitude or assume the manners of women] and those women who assume the manners of men, and he said, ‘Expel them out of your houses.’ The Prophet expelled out such-and-such a man, and `Umar expelled such-and-such a woman.”
This hadith does not go so far as to recommend that homosexuals be killed, but it does provide fodder for Islamists who want to persecute homosexuals. It is not implausible for Muslims to interpret the above hadith to mean they should treat homosexuals with contempt. Indeed, Mateen’s contempt for the homosexual men who kissed in front of him, as reported by his father, seems to be perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the above hadith.
ISIS’s Favorite Homosexual Hadiths
Third, a prominent hadith (saying) attributed to Muhammad mandates the death penalty for partakers of homosexual acts. However, to my knowledge only one such hadith is considered reliable by Muslim scholars, and it is not found in the two Sahih collections (“Sahih Muslim” and “Sahih Al-Bukhari”), the two most trusted collections of ahadeeth. The only textual evidence in the (relied-upon) ahadeeth that talks about the punishment for homosexuality can be traced back to a hadith in “Musnad Ahmad,” a collection of ahadeeth that is attributed to Ahmad ibn Hanbal (c. 780 – 855 A.D.), the founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, one of the four most prominent schools in Sunni Islam.
The hadith has Muhammad saying that “whomever you find doing the actions of the people of Lot, kill the one doing it, and the one it is done to.” ISIS has invoked this hadith on multiple occasions in carrying out its executions. It is the most prominent anti-homosexual text in Islam.
Fourth, a contemptuous attitude towards homosexuals is found in some prominent and authoritative Islamic manuals of jurisprudence, like “Umdat As-Salik,” or “The Reliance of the Traveler,” an authoritative manual of Shafi’i jurisprudence written by the fourteenth-century Islamicist Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (1302–1367). The section on “sodomites” in “Umdat As-Salik” cites the above hadith, along with two others found in the hadith collections of Ibn Hibban and At-Tabarani (two collections that come after the six canonical Sunni ones). They are, respectively, as follows (Book P (كتاب الكبائر), sec. 17.3): “May Allah curse him who does what Lot’s people did” and “Lesbianism by women is adultery between them.”
Fifth, while there is a consensus amongst Muslim scholars that homosexual acts are sinful, there is no consensus about the proper punishment of such acts. Some Muslim scholars, including early ones, reject the above hadith on killing homosexuals as having a weak isnad, or chain of transmission, and therefore judge it to be unreliable. The scholars’ beliefs here reflect the multiple traditions relating what the companions of Muhammad believed vis-à-vis homosexuality.
Some traditions relate that Ibn Abbas, Muhammad’s cousin, said homosexuals should be thrown off the highest place in a city. Other traditions, like those attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib (the cousin of Muhammad and the fourth “rightly guided” caliph), and Abu Bakr, the first “rightly guided caliph,” record that homosexuals should be burned to death.
It’s Not Just ISIS That Despises Homosexuality
Given the aforementioned texts, ISIS’s reasoning is quite simple here: true Islam is the Islam that was practiced in its first three generations: the generation of the Messenger Muhammad, the generation of the companions of Muhammad (الصحابة), and the generation of the followers of the companions (التابعون). Since in these generations Muslims executed homosexuals, today homosexuals, the analogy goes, should be executed as well; in particular, they should be executed in ways that resemble how they were killed in the three aforementioned generations.
One such manner of execution is that attributed to Ibn Abbas: throwing homosexuals off rooftops. ISIS believes this is in keeping with what was practiced in the first three and best generations of Islam, as is clear from what is released in its videos and published in Dabiq (Dabiq is the name for ISIS’s English magazine).
These are some of the fundamental motivations behind the Islamist contempt for homosexuals. This Islamic animosity towards homosexuals has become ingrained in contemporary Muslim society, as can be discerned from many polls. For example, Pew Research has found that overwhelming majorities of the people surveyed in Muslim-majority countries state that society should reject homosexuality. The relevant numbers include 97 percent in Jordan, 95 percent in Egypt, 94 percent in Tunisia, 93 percent in the Palestinian territories, 93 percent in Indonesia, 87 percent in Pakistan, 86 percent in Malaysia, 80 percent in Lebanon, and 78 percent in Turkey.
But it is not just Muslims in Muslim-majority countries who have a very low view of homosexuality. A recent poll, for example, found that 52 percent of British Muslims believe homosexuality should not even be legal, compared with just 5 percent of the general British population who believe this (and it is not implausible to suppose that a significant part of that 5 percent is comprised of Muslims). In addition, many Muslim-majority countries—such as Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates—have laws that contain strict hudud or punishments of homosexual acts, including penalties like imprisonment, flogging, and execution.
Is There Any Ground for Reformist Muslims?
All this being said, reformist-minded Muslims may want to utilize historical curiosities present throughout Islamic history in their well-intentioned but perhaps overly optimistic attempt at reforming Islam. One such historical curiosity is the abundant evidence that, following the reign of the four rightly-guided caliphs, some Ummayyad and Abbasid caliphs led lecherous lives, and even flaunted their homosexual preferences and welcomed homosexuals to their courts.
Indeed, the famous Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas (756 – 814 A.D.), Caliph Haroun al-Rashid’s favorite court poet, was a rake and lecher who wrote on wine, pederasty, and male love. Thus, at the peak of Islamic civilization homosexuality was relatively tolerated in at least certain segments of society and perhaps even celebrated at the caliphal court.
Of course, ISIS and like-minded Salafi-Islamist groups see this is a blot in Islamic history and a deviation from the rightly-guided path (الصراط المستقيم) that the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs should have inherited from as-salaf as-salih (the good predecessors). “Salafis,” a designation literally denoting “those who follow the predecessors,” seek to restore Islam to the times of as-salaf as-salih. They yearn to bring the Muslim umma (nation) back to the days, traditions, and practices of the first three generations of Islam. This is ultimately their architectonic goal.
Although the condemnation of homosexual acts has relatively strong textual basis in Islam, the same cannot be said about the appropriate punishment for such acts. Further, as we have seen, anti-homosexual sentiment was not always shared in the highest places of Islamic power. The ahadeeth and other traditions are also not founded upon bedrock historical truth, as they come long after the death of Muhammad. Indeed, pace what Muslim scholars believe, most of the ahadeeth, inciting violence or otherwise, very likely do not originate from Muhammad. In addition, early Muslim scholars themselves disagree about whether the foundational hadith text mandating the execution of homosexuals is considered reliable.
Mateen and his Islamist ilk are actors on a stage that goes back more than a millennium. It is paramount that national security officials realize this and educate themselves on the Islamic sources and tradition from which Mateen and his cohorts draw inspiration. Moreover, as we have seen, reformist-minded Muslims have leeway, even within their own Islamic paradigms, to consign these anti-homosexual traditions to the dustbins of history.
 This hadith is copied in other hadith collections, particularly in the canonical Sunan collections—viz., in Sunan Al-Tirdmidhi, Sunan Abi Dawood, and Sunan Ibn Majah, which are all part of the Sahih Sittah, the six most trusted collections of Sunni ahadeeth. Furthermore, there is another hadith found in Sunan Abu Dawood that says the following: “If a man who is not married is seized committing sodomy, he will be stoned to death. Abu Dawud said: The tradition of ‘Asim proved the tradition of ‘Amir b. Abi ‘Amr as weak.” However, is in mentioned in note in the hadith, it is not considered to be reliable.
 For a critical examination of the hadith literature, see Igńac Goldziher’s pioneering Muslim Studies, trans. S.M. Stern and C.R. Barber (Chicago: Aldine Atherton, 1971); Goldziher’s German original, Mohammedanische Studien, was published in 1889-90. Also see Joseph Schacht’s seminal work, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950).