The re-instated word on the legal status of sex reassignment surgery (SRS) within Islam continues to stand as “not allowed” on all counts except for hermaphrodite people. The ban on SRS was first introduced in 1983 but occasionally a re-issue of the fatwa is necessary mainly as a reminder to Muslim Malaysians that they’re being policed.
International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) law lecturer Shamrahayu Abdul Aziz is incredibly confident that Islamic jurisprudence is very clear on the issue of transsexualism. She goes on to say that “Islam’s position on this is so clear it is not even debatable today. Islam does not permit sex changes to avoid any confusion and problems that would crop up later”.
According to the law lecturer, “it would be confusing for Muslims to conduct burial rites for those who undergo a sex change when they die, with questions raised about whether the body should be treated as a man or a woman”.
Yes, it is not news to Muslim Malaysians that we are an easily confused lot. Or at least this is what Malaysians politicians, religious leaders, and other pundits seem to assume. But Muslim Malaysians are especially (and dangerously) confused when it comes to religious matters says this enlightened bunch. Of course this assumption is not only deeply patronising but also very offensive. It is important to be wise to this condescending talk of confusion, because popular Islamic discourse is used in Malaysia to portray Muslims as unknowing, naïve, and intellectually dependent on clerics and Islamic teachers to conveniently close all debate on religious matters. So, because you are easily confused you must not question or criticise what is purportedly set in stone ‘by Islam’.
The truth is, this potential gender ‘confusion’ brought upon by SRS has nothing to do with Islam. If anything, it’s not confusion but transphobia. A person can only allow themselves to be ‘confused’ because they choose to be ignorant about the realities of being a Muslim transgender and transsexual person in Malaysia. Ignorance or “confusion” is not an excuse when it comes to SRS and therefore whatever reason to disallow SRS will not hold water.
Other clerics and key figures in Islam are more progressive about transsexualism and transgender people. It is common knowledge that Iran has long been an unlikely capital of SRS ever since Ayatollah Khomeini recognised its significance for humanitarian reasons in 1978. Early Islamic scholars Ibn Abd Al-Barr, Ibn Qudamah, and Ibn Abbas wrote about transwomen in neutral terms, describing their mahram status amongst cis Muslim women.
It is important to note that the Qur’an does not mention the terms khunsa (hermaphrodites), mukhannis (biological males who identify as women and want a change of their biological sex) or mukhannas (biological males who identify as women but do not consider changing their biological sex).
According to some scholars however the Qur’an does have a reference to people who are neither male or female, ‘aqim (translated into English as ‘ineffectual’) in verse 42: 49 and 50.
So what’s this then about Islam being clear on its position against SRS when we have opposing opinions that are backed by religious discourse? And why is gender confusion an excuse when gender diversity is explicitly described in Islamic texts in neutral terms? What is clear is that there are differing opinions that can be used to support the right to SRS. All one has to do is to carefully examine the texts of the Quran, hadith, sunnah, and other scholarly texts.
In sum, the refusal to engage with the wealth of Islamic texts on gender diversity, some of which are fascinating and surprisingly progressive, only exposes prejudices against the experiences of transgender and transsexual people. Instead, conservative scholars like Shamrahayu Abdul Aziz come up with blanket justifications that serves only to highlight the pettiness that encumber the gender privilege of people like herself.