The Making of a Gay Muslim

Religion, Sexuality and Identity in Malaysia and Britain

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Shanon Shah
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     2017.
     354 pages.
     $139.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783319631295.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Making of a Gay Muslim begins with the observation that discussions about Islam and homosexuality have not changed over recent years, with questions continuing to revolve around whether it is possible to be both gay and Muslim and why someone would choose to be so. In popular discourse, Islam is consistently framed as being unaccepting and intolerant of homosexuality due to its rigid stance on gendered and sexual roles. However, as Shanon Shah rightly points out, what is missing from the debate are the voices of those who are living as gay Muslims. This book works to show that Islam is not anti-homosexual by design and that people of all genders do indeed live as gay Muslims.

The book aims to explore the intersection of religion and sexuality by focusing upon Islam as a “lived religion” in the everyday practices of people from Malaysia and Britain. This gives the book a unique focus and is an underlying strength throughout. In focusing upon Malaysia, where Islam is the state religion, and where the complexities of ethnicity and nationalism are bundled up with authoritarian state control; and Britain, where although Christianity is linked to the state through the Anglican Church, religious messages are less formally asserted; allows Shah, as a social constructionist, to explore what aspects of society are in fact most crucial in the making of a gay Muslim. 

The first thing that a reader will notice upon beginning the book is the writing style. Shah’s prose is vivid and energetic, and the reader feels drawn to the text and the writer. Stories and observations are interspersed with references to academia, activism, and religious writing, adding weight to the powerful participant views. The writing style is also supported by an honest and transparent approach. Throughout the book, particularly during chapter 2, which is largely concerned with research methods, Shah talks openly about his approach and its possible shortcomings. This is refreshing, and allows the reader to understand the challenges of conducting interviews and ethnographic research. 

The book is structured logically and contains eight chapters, beginning with an introductory chapter setting out the scope, aims, and goals of the book. Chapter 2 tells us how Shah negotiated recruitment. Some fascinating issues are raised, such as conducting research with members of different classes, or more specifically accessing spaces that were viewed as belonging to a different class. These issues are considered in relation to gay Muslim identities later in the book, but it would have been interesting to hear more about Shah’s understanding of why crossing class boundaries was so challenging.

During chapters 3 and 4 the reader begins to understand the scope of the work and its ambition to explore all the potential forces or structures that impact upon being gay and Muslim. In chapter 3 Shah engages with debates on the study of Islam and homosexuality, particularly in relation to the work of Scott Siraj al-Haq Kugle. Shah demonstrates how Islam is not specific about homosexuality; religious texts are unclear on the topic, and the homosexuality under discussion is not what we know of as “gay” in modern times. The complexities of culture, ethnicity and nationalism, and globalization are also considered. The fourth chapter then takes a wider view to explore the impact of the state upon identity, highlighting how legal and cultural legacies impact upon gay Muslim lives.

Chapters 5 through 7 are where the book tackles the major research questions, although importantly the ideas and debates from the previous chapters are woven in throughout. Chapter 5 explores negotiating gay and Muslim identities in relation to how Islam can be interpreted. The arguments here are complex but clear as Shah uses Robert Merton’s theories on adapting to structural conditions to explain how his participants related to pressures on their religious and sexual identities. There is also an engaging discussion of national stereotyping and the reclamation of the term “coconut” to pick apart ethnicity and notions of being out of place. Chapter 6 foregrounds Islam, considering how a gay Muslim identity could be formed in light of “Islamic socialization” though family, schools, peers, and the state. 

However, Shah’s focus upon social forces/structures means that there is less consideration of private lives. There is little consideration of the role of identity in relationships or intimate life. This could have helped to accentuate the argument that the participants are active agents in shaping their identities. The use of Islam as a cultural resource rather than a social institution is put forward as an everyday way to study religion in light of the fluidity of identity. Chapter 7 examines how religious ideology is transmitted through the media and how these boundaries are negotiated, specifically focusing upon how the participants negotiated their identities while seeing homosexuality as either halal or haram. Chapter 8 concludes the book, offering several clear and important statements about the work and suggestions on where research could go next.

By the end of the book we are clear about the processes and structures that gay Muslims have to negotiate and how these work in everyday life to inform their identities. What is most gratifying is that all readers will learn something because not only does the book have much to say about being gay and Muslim, but it also speaks to wider issues such as perceptions of sexuality and Islam and living with “outsider” identities. The Making of a Gay Muslim is an excellent and engaging work which deserves to be widely read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alexander Toft is Research Fellow in Sociology at Coventry University.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shanon Shah lectures in the sociology and anthropology of religion and researches into contemporary Islam and Christianity in Malaysia and Britain

Keywords: 

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