Theologian Amanullah De Sondy wants Islam to tolerate homosexuality again, just as it did generations ago
You don’t expect to start an interview with a leading Muslim academic by discussing the state of Rafael Nadal’s knees. But Dr Amanullah De Sondy, from Glasgow University’s School of Divinity, is a bit different from your average theologian. He has just returned to Scotland from Wimbledon, where he worked as an umpire for the second year running. Our dinner-time meeting has to be rescheduled because of the late finish of the men’s final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick.
De Sondy was living in All England Lawn Tennis Club accommodation overlooking Federer’s garden until the day before we meet. But it is where he chose to watch the Centre Court action last Sunday that is most interesting. He could have stayed in London, but had promised to attend church in Dumbarton with a Christian friend; “as I do now and then”. They joined the minister for lunch, and spent an enjoyable afternoon watching the tennis from the comfort of the manse.
When we finally meet he is charming and informal. He wears jeans and a loose, embroidered tunic in the traditional South Asian style. It makes him look rather like a Bollywood heart-throb. Recently poached by a leading New York college, it is easy to imagine him making quite an impact on the American academic circuit.
De Sondy is militantly ecumenical; he counts priests and rabbis among his friends. However, his commitment to good interfaith relations is the least controversial thing about him.
Several leading publishers are vying to buy his recently completed PhD thesis as a book. At the moment it is called “Constructions of masculinities in Islamic traditions, societies and cultures, with a specific focus on India and Pakistan between the 18th and the 21st century”. With a racier title (How about “Men, Sex and Islam”?) it is easy to see its commercial potential.
It challenges assumptions about what it means to be a Muslim man. The Koran does not, says De Sondy, demand a bearded
patriarch with several wives and dozens of children. There are dysfunctional families in Islamic tradition, he says, prophets without father figures and revered holy men who led “effeminate” lifestyles. Most controversially, he challenges homophobia in Islam. “Homosexuality is not incompatible with Islam. The two can and have co-existed. The important thing is to link it with living a good life and creating a good society.”
He disagrees with those who claim the Koran condemns homosexual practices. Gay men are regularly put to death in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, so this is explosive stuff.
“If you ask them privately, the vast majority of my generation of Muslims are deeply homophobic,” he says. “I think it is particularly entrenched because so many Muslim societies are rooted in traditional ideas of the family and patriarchy. It’s time to challenge all of that.”
De Sondy knows his conservative opponents will use one particular story, which appears in both the Koran and the Bible, to justify oppression. This is when God sends angels to destroy the sinful inhabitants of Sodom.
“It is often said to illustrate God’s disappproval of homosexuality. But on closer inspection it is really about his disapproval of the rape of young boys that was happening in the place. There is a big difference.”
Intolerance is not necessarily part of Muslim tradition, De Sondy argues. Islamic cultures are diverse and, historically, there are examples of people living openly in same-sex relationships. He blames conservative political Islam, spread by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi Wahhabi sect, for creating a puritanism which limits sexual freedom and demands the subjugation of women.
“In the 16th-century Punjab, there lived a Sufi \ saint and poet called Shah Hussain who is greatly venerated. He fell in love with a Hindu boy. They lived together and are buried side by side in the same tomb. Pilgrims come to the tomb and shrine in Lahore district even today, but some people want to rewrite history, saying the boy was in fact a girl.”
He also points to the presence of “antinomian Sufis in the Indian subcontinent — men who have pierced ears and dance in women’s clothing”.
The concept of antinomianism probably comes close to describing De Sondy’s own academic approach. Rooted in the Greek word for unlawful, it can be applied to people of any religious denomination who do not consider themselves bound by traditional ethics or morality. They believe salvation comes through faith alone.
De Sondy argues that the central tenet of Islam is submission to God; this is what the word means. “Everything else is secondary to that, whether it be ideas about women being second-class or veiled, or men being patriarchs. These are cultural constructions. They are rituals. What we really need to ask if we want to know whether something is right or wrong is: ‘Does it affect our relationship with God?’”
Still only 29, De Sondy is a second-generation Scottish Pakistani who grew up in the shadow of the Gothic university in the west end of Glasgow, where he attended Hillhead high school. His father travelled the world before settling in Scotland and served as a policeman in Hong Kong. His mother, a talented seamstress, did not finish primary school. Although conservative in religious belief, they had friends from diverse backgrounds and De Sondy’s father was popular with the white Scottish customers at his newsagents in Pollokshields.
It was one of these customers, an elderly catholic woman, who changed the course of De Sondy’s life. When she stopped coming to the shop, she wrote to his father to say she was ill and in a hospice. De Sondy, then 16, found the letter and began visiting her. They struck up an unlikely but strong friendship. When she died, she left him a small legacy, which he spent studying Arabic at religious schools in France, Jordan and Syria. “I began to realise that these schools were very conservative. It made me ask questions,” he recalls.
On his return to Scotland, he enrolled for a degree in religious studies and education at Stirling University and is qualified to teach about all world religions.
“Some Muslims have asked me how on earth I can teach about other religions. But there is no reason why not.”
Forced conversion and demonisation of “the infidel” are not Islamic, he says. He points out that the Prophet Mohammed took as his wife a Coptic Christian woman. She refused to convert to his new religion and he accepted this. Although De Sondy argues that the Koran was written for a tribal society and should not be interpreted literally, he still believes in its primacy. “The Islamists are free to interpret it in their own way. I hope to challenge that, however,” he says.
Outwith academia, he writes a popular blog called Progressive Scottish Muslims. Many Muslims privately approve of it, but remain wary of publicly supporting him for fear of a backlash from hard liners.
He likes to undermine stereotypes. He has just returned the kilt he wore to receive his PhD at Glasgow University two weeks ago. “I am very proud of both my Pakistani and Scottish heritage,” he says.
As a student, he was a member of the SNP but worries the Scottish government is too close to conservative Islam. “They should be careful. The Westminster government allied itself closely with the Muslim Council of Britain, then discovered some of its leaders opposed commemorating the Jewish Holocaust annd supported the jihad against Salman Rushdie.”
Soon he will fly to America, where he has accepted a post as assistant professor in world religions at Ithaca College, one of the country’s most respected teaching universities, in upstate New York.
“I think it is easier to speak out and ask questions in the US,” he says. “Many Muslims in this country, because they originate in Pakistan and India, have been shaped by the Raj, by notions of anti-imperialism. In the States, it’s different. They are not obsessed with Islam versus the West and they are obviously not anti-American. They can therefore concentrate on nuances of faith and how it is practised.”
There is the added attraction of more tennis. He hopes to umpire at the US Open, which, by fortunate coincidence, takes place in New York City, a short hop from his new home.