Unpacking the story of Sodom and Gomorrah

This is a revised and more extensive version of my previous article: Islam and Homosexuality.

For the longest time, the verses on the people of Prophet Lot have been used as a blanket condemnation for homosexuality in Islam. As someone who is a strong believer that things happen based on Allah’s will, I find it very hard to accept the notion that Allah will send people to Hell solely for their sexual orientation, which is more often than not an innate nature.

The discrimination of the homosexual Muslims based on religious scripture and the continuous fear-mongering that exists drives the people who do not conform to mainstream social narratives away from religion. I have seen, time and time again, people telling the homosexual Muslims to “pray the gay away” and that their existence is a test in its entirety. By telling them that Allah does not bless them, that He hates them, that they will go to Hell for the mere reason of falling in love does not cure them. If it was that simple, many homosexual Muslims would have changed by now. But instead of shaming their religion, they have chosen to fall out of it. They have completely lost faith in Islam, a religion that is supposed to be compassion-centred and inclusive, because where they were supposed to find peace, they found contempt instead.

Everywhere, I see self-loathing homosexual Muslims, or ex-Muslims, who cannot reconcile themselves with their faith because of the toxic that society feeds them. They live in anger with themselves, and instead of trusting Allah, they blame Him for their shortcomings, which in this case, is homosexuality.

But is homosexuality and Islam really mutually exclusive?

I have been trying to decode the story of the people of Prophet Lot, to figure out if it was really homosexuality that was condemned in their societies. I have had the privilege to meet with and speak to a lot of people that have given me links, books and resources on the various interpretations of the story. While in school, it was commonly taught that the story revolves around homosexuality, the months I have spent studying it led me to believe that it was more than just that.

I have made it a mission of mine to unpack the story, and to share with the world what I have learned. While I do not guarantee that I what I know is the Truth, I believe we can all learn something by looking at things from an alternate perspective. It is in my best intention to help homosexual Muslims around the world reconcile with themselves, and their faith, and to remind them always that Allah is watching, He understands and He is Merciful.

Sodom and Gomorrah

There is no conclusive evidence that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah existed, however, archeologists, geologists and researchers have found very interesting finds in excavation sites that are situated near the Dead Sea, which is were these cities were presumed to have existed.

Sodom and Gomorrah are not the real names of the cities. In Hebrew, s’dom means “burnt”, while ‘amorah means “a ruined heap”. This goes to show that the names of the cities were given after they were destroyed. [1] These two cities were also not the only cities destroyed. There were five cities situated on the Jordan River plain in the southern region of the land of Canaan, known as “cities of the plain”. Four of these cities were destroyed, and one of them was spared. While the Qur’an does not state the name of these cities, they are mentioned in the Bible:

“…these kings went to war against Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboyim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar).” [Genesis 14:2]

“The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur–nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, which the LORD overthrew in fierce anger.” [Deuteronomy 29:23]

The four cities that were destroyed were Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, while the city that was spared, was Bela, which was later known as Zoar*.

*Zoar comes from the Hebrew word sa’ar which means to be/become insignificant/small. [2]

Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic and there were over 2100 deities that were worshipped. Some of these deities were:

  • An: Sumerian god of the sky
  • Marduk: Principal god of Babylon
  • Ishtar: Goddess of love, fertility, sex and war
  • Nabu: Mesopotamian god of writing
  • Ninurta: Sumerian god of war

The cult of the goddess Ishtar, for example, involved sacred prostitution. Offerings of orgies with male and female prostitutes were conducted in the temples as a celebration of victory of war. These prostitutes were considered holy temple servants and to have sex with them was seen as virtuous. There was also the ancient god Molech, in which young children will be sacrificed to him by burning them as mentioned in the Bible:

“Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” [Leviticus 18:21]

It was common practice by Assyrian priests to don women’s clothing to acquire the magic of Ishtar and to castrate themselves to imitate the god Attis. [3][4] The lower acolytes of the temple also ritually offered themselves to all men that came to the temple. These holy temple servants were called qadesh, which means sacred/holy, however the term was used by Hebrews as an equivalent of the word “sodomite”. [3]

From here, we can see that the religious practices of the Canaanites were homosexual in nature, though it does not, in any way, mean that they were homosexual in orientation. A lot of the men were already married and have children.

From iconographic evidence dating back to 3000 BC, homosexuality was an accepted part of the Mesopotamian scene. It was mentioned in many literary and legal texts. For example, classical Greece and Rome accepted it as long as it was between two consenting adults. Homosexuality was an integral part of temple life in Mesopotamia, and there was no blame for practice of it outside of worship. However, passive roles in homosexual relationships were looked down upon for effeminacy, and practices such as father-son incest and pederasty* were regarded as wrong. [5]

*Pederasty is a (usually erotic) homosexual relationship between an adult male and a pubescent or adolescent male. This practice is still rampant in certain parts of the world, for example, Afghanistan. Studies of Ottoman criminal law showed that persistent sodomy with non-consenting boys was a serious offence. [6] According to a friend who studies Anthropology in Purdue University, most pederasts aimed foreigners who entered their land to become their sex slaves, which would explain why the people of Sodom gathered to Prophet Lot’s house to take his guests into custody.

From the readings that I have encountered, it would seem that anti-gay prejudice, or homophobia, stems from Mosaic Law (in the Old Testament). Half of the Mosaic Law gave the death penalty for crimes that were sexual such as [7]:

  • Rape by a man of a betrothed woman in the countryside
  • Being either participant in consensual sexual activity, in which a betrothed women consensually loses her virginity to a man
  • Adultery with a married woman
  • Marrying one’s wife’s mother
  • Certain forms of incest
  • Male on male sexual intercourse
  • Bestiality
  • Prostitution by the daughter of a priest

The Reallexicon der Assyriologie (Lexicon of Assyriology) concludes:

“Homosexuality in itself is thus nowhere condemned as licentiousness, as immorality, as social disorder, or as transgressing any human or divine law. Anyone could practise it freely, just as anyone could visit a prostitute, provided it was done without violence and without compulsion, and preferably as far as taking the passive role was concerned, with specialists. That there was nothing religiously amiss with homosexual love between men is seen by the fact that they prayed for divine blessing on it. It seems clear that the Mesopotamians saw nothing wrong in homosexual acts between consenting adults.

Nor were homosexuals shut away in Mesopotamia. There were homosexual cult prostitutes, who took part in public processions, singing, dancing, wearing costumes, sometimes wearing women’s clothes and carrying female symbols, even at times pretending to give birth. These professional homosexuals were forced to take the passive role in intercourse and for this reason were despised as unmanly. Sometimes they are called ‘dogs’. ‘It therefore appears that these types of person, as in other places and periods including our own, formed a shady sub-culture where all sorts of ambiguities, mixtures and transformations were possible.”

Considering the widespread acceptance of homosexuality in ancient times, the Hebrews, were in fact, the only people in ancient history that condemned homosexuality. As the polytheists of Canaan carried out these indecent religious rituals, such as male prostitution, pederasty, castration, temple orgies and propitiatory child sacrifice, the Mosaic Law was sent down to stop these practices. However, prohibition of these religious practices quickly turned into prohibition of male homosexuality in general.

With that being said, the men of Sodom asking for sexual intercourse from Prophet Lot’s guests were of no surprise. But what was truly shocking was their total disregard for the principles of hospitality. They did not treat guests with courtesy and kindness, and in fact scolded Prophet Lot for protecting his guests:

“They said, “Have we not forbidden you from [protecting] people?” [Al-Hijr 15:70]

Which in return, Prophet Lot responded:

“And his people came hastening to him, and before [this] they had been doing evil deeds. He said, “O my people, these are my daughters; they are purer for you. So fear Allah and do not disgrace me concerning my guests. Is there not among you a man of reason?” [Hud 11:78]

Sodom and Gomorrah were common pitstops for foreigners as they were situated on a highway that merchants used for trade. Their location was mentioned in the Qur’an:

“And surely it is indeed on a way that still exists.” [Al-Hijr 15:76]
“So We exacted retribution from them. They were both on an open highway, plain to see.” [Al-Hijr 15:79]

The only highway that existed during the time of Sodom and Gomorrah and still exists today is the Arava Highway, also known as Route 90. Merchants used to take Route 90 across Israel to get from Egypt to Syria and vice versa. (refer Figure 1) Many cuneiform tablets, temples, tombs and traces of vegetation was found at excavation sites of the highway. These findings showed a thriving and populated society that existed before. [8]

Figure 1

The presumed location of Sodom and Gomorrah is placed near fault lines. The earth’s crust is divided into approximately 12 different plates, and as these plates are constantly shifting, it produces many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The Middle East and countries on the eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea are situated at geologic crossroads of plate boundaries, crisscrossed by many major fault lines. (refer Figure 2) Geologists have noted that the floor of the Mediterranean Sea is fracturing. [9] This would mean that the area around Israel and the Dead Sea is prone to cataclysmic events, the latest being the 1927 Jericho earthquake.

Figure 2

It has been also been researched that the submerged floor of the Dead Sea is only about as old as the time of Prophet Abraham. [10] This coincides with the Qur’anic verse in which it mentions the highest part of the city became the lowest:

“So when Our command came, We made the highest part [of the city] its lowest and rained upon them stones of layered hard clay, [which were]…” [Hud 11:82]

The Qur’an dan the Bible both mention a shower of brimstone onto the cities. Brimstone is the archaic name for sulphur, which is usually found in areas of volcanic activity.

The Dead Sea was given the Roman name “Lake Asphaltitis” (Lake of Asphalt). Oil slicks regularly occur on the surface of the water, including chunks of tar and asphalt. This could be sign of ancient earthquakes or volcanic activity. A research was done to show that it is possible for a whole city to drown with an earthquake of magnitude strength six. [11]

As Sodom and Gomorrah were situated near the Dead Sea, they have enough water to irrigate their lands, resulting in abundance of resources and food. However, they disregarded hospitality laws by Prophet Abraham and were cruel to wayfarers and foreigners that came to their land. This ultimately led to economic exploitation and other social extremities, including rape, xenophobia and infanticide. Asphalt (bitumen), which is still found on the Dead Sea today, was one of the major trading products in Mesopotamia. It was used by the Egyptians in their mummification process. [12] This could also have been one of the main products of Sodom and Gomorrah, as they were rich cities, and they are presumed to have been situated near the brim of the Dead Sea.

It is common belief that the stones that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah were sent from Heaven, but scientific research has shown that it could have been a result of a cataclysm, a natural disaster.

It is said in the Qur’an that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah committed abomination that no civilisation before them has ever committed.

“And [We had sent] Lot when he said to his people, “Do you commit such immorality as no one has preceded you with from among the worlds?” [Al-A’raf 7:80]

There is research that claims the destruction of the cities happened circa 2300 BC [8]. If homosexuality has dated back to 3000 BC, then the Qur’an must be referring to something else other than homosexuality. Could the Qur’an then be referring to their indecent, perverse and sexual religious acts? Not only that, but the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were cruel, selfish and inhospitable people.

From the readings that I have made, I came to the conclusion that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were not destroyed for homosexuality, but for a number of different atrocities. As far as sexual orientation goes, the abomination was not same-sex relationships, but rather, religious practices that were related to rape, molestation and idolatrous sexual practices in the temples.

Contrary to popular belief, the hukum on homosexuality in Islam is not truly clear-cut. It is a debate that is still ongoing in the Muslim world. To understand the Qur’an to its fullest, we cannot only just read the Holy Scripture, but also study it from its historical, geological, social and cultural context. There are many things that we still have not discovered, and even my own research is not complete.

While my aim is to provide an alternative to the story of the people of Prophet Lot, I would also like to emphasise that it is not my intention to change minds. You are completely free to believe what you want, even if it means disapproval of homosexuality. However, I urge the acceptance of their existence as human beings, and to look pass biases and prejudices, and treat them kindly as human beings as you would want others to treat you.

“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do.” [Al-Ma’idah 5:8]

My research is in no way conclusive. Wallahualam. Just as any other Muslim, I am merely a lost mortal soul seeking the Truth. May Allah bless us, and grant us patience in our pursuit of knowledge. Inshallah.


[1] http://hoperemains.webs.com/sodomandgomorrah.htm
[2] http://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Zoar.html#.VgVBAHhDv0A
[3] http://rictornorton.co.uk/homopho1.htm
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attis
[5] http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_attitude_wenham.html
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacha_bazi
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_capital_crimes_in_the_Torah
[8] http://www.aish.com/ci/sam/48931527.html
[9] http://www.kjvbible.org/geology_prophecy.html
[10] http://www.varchive.org/itb/deadsea.htm
[11] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/cultures/sodom_gomorrah_01.shtml
[12] https://books.google.com.my/books?id=1o_pCAAAQBAJ&pg

25 September 2015

Shafiqah Othman Hamzah

Shafiqah is a Singapore-born Malaysian who is best known for her advocacy on social and human rights issues. She is notably known for her tweets and for being a columnist on Malay Mail.

%d bloggers like this: