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'Not a black-and-white' matter: Mufti of Singapore sets out detailed views on LGBT issues

SINGAPORE — The Mufti of Singapore, who oversees religious rulings for Muslims in the country, has for the first time set out publicly detailed views on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.

Mufti of Singapore Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir.

Mufti of Singapore Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir.

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SINGAPORE — The Mufti of Singapore, who oversees religious rulings for Muslims in the country, has for the first time set out publicly detailed views on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.

Noting that LGBT issues are "not black and white", Mufti Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir said that LGBT individuals have experienced hurt and the role of religious institutions is to find ways for people to heal.

The Muslim community is navigating the way forward together, he added. 

He made these comments in an interview for CNA documentary Regardless of Sexuality, which premiered on Wednesday (Apr 26).

The documentary examines what it takes for LGBT individuals in Singapore to reconcile their sexuality with their family and faith even after the repeal of Section 377A criminalising sex between men.

Here is the full interview conducted by Dr Janil Puthucheary, chairman of, the national body promoting harmony:

Dr Janil: When you had to tackle LGBT issues as Mufti, had you been Mufti for very long at that time?

Dr Nazirudin: I became the Mufti in 2020, we had the global pandemic to deal with, a whole host of unprecedented issues, questions and challenges. Thereafter, we had the issue of the Fatwa Tudung for nurses. And then we had LGBT. So very difficult, multi-dimensional issues in a very short span of time.

Dr Janil: Some very hefty things, very early on in your position.

Dr Nazirudin: Yeah. And I think the theme that underpins many of these issues is how do we keep the society and the community together and intact, to keep it cohesive. And I think these are the kind of issues that if we're not dealing with it in the right ways, and with the right mind, society can break up.

Dr Janil: You've said that LGBT issues shouldn't be seen as black and white. What did you mean by that?

Dr Nazirudin: I think the LGBT issue and increasingly a lot of social issues that we deal with are multi-dimensional. There is the social aspect, which I think is a very critical part of the debate and discussion, the impact on individuals, on families, on society as a whole. And also, for communities and between communities, there’s also the legal aspect. And for communities like ours, the Muslim community, there is also the theological aspect, the religious teachings and doctrines, and values. So it's multi-dimensional. And we have to look at all these aspects before coming up with a particular guidance or direction. And I think it's also a very highly emotional issue. 

It's very highly emotive because we're dealing with people's lives, with people's, you know, values, beliefs, aspirations, struggles. I think, however, and whatever people feel about it, that feeling is quite visceral, it's, it's a very personal view. So, people tend to take very strong positions on this, and you could be on either side of the debate. And I think, a sensible and responsible religious guidance and leadership has to take into account all these nuances, complexities and considerations. So it's not black and white.

Dr Janil: But there are people who say that it is black and white, because they would consider it a sin.

Dr Nazirudin: If we focus on the theological aspect to it, there is the question of sin. But there is also the question of compassion, question of empathy, the values that go along with certain religious positions, how do you balance that? And I think as how it has always been a challenge for us to strike that delicate balance. How do we bring these values, when we also convey the religious doctrines and teachings to the community, as we deal with many other kinds of behaviours and actions, as believers as Muslims.

Dr Janil: Is that balance reflected in the statement that MUIS (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) put out in response to the proposed repeal of 377A?

Dr Nazirudin: The position that we put forth, I think it's a first attempt at trying to really grapple with those complexities, trying to put a clear, religious doctrine insofar as what Islam feels about homosexuality. At the same time, recognising there are those other aspects and dimensions of the issue. There are individuals who self-identify as Muslims, but also as part of the LGBT community, who may be conflicted in their sexuality. Who may want to remain as very good Muslims, at the same time, struggling with the sexual identity. So that there is that dimension that needs to be addressed, that needs to be tackled.

There is also a society that is beginning to evolve and change, getting very diverse, and also with very strong opinions on this particular issue. How do we, I think as a responsible community, how do we contribute towards keeping our society intact, cohesive, strong together, at the same time, recognising that we have different and strong views on certain positions?

Dr Janil: The statement didn't read like a first draft to me and to I think many members of the public, it seemed to come across as a very considered and mature position.

Dr Nazirudin: It's part of a process and it's actually the first step that we're taking. It took us quite long, several months, because we had to consult quite a wide range of religious teachers, leaders, the asatizah, the religious fraternity, to hear the different voices and opinions on this issue. And a lot of us grapple with the essence of what we're dealing with. It's quite new, especially for our community in dealing with LGBT issues, more openly, talking about it in a more open way. Considering that there are individuals within our community that self-identify, and it wasn't easy, but I think this is just the first step, because we need to think of what is the kind of advice that we could offer. And what is the kind of support that we could offer for individuals who need that support to remain good Muslims, to remain connected with their faith, at the same time, feeling conflicted with their sexuality.

Dr Janil: You had multiple views coming at you?

Dr Nazirudin: What it demonstrates to me personally, is that this is not a black and white. My fellow asatizah religious teachers would have told us it's not difficult. It's not complex. Just put out a position what Islam says on homosexuality, and we move on from there. But it wasn't. And the reason was because they recognise that it is their duty as well, to provide the kind of guidance and in dealing with homosexuality from an Islamic perspective, was recognising that we are in a diverse society, multi-religious, multicultural, and open society as well. There are freedoms in our society, to adopt a particular lifestyle. 

No one forces us to adopt it, no one stops you from adopting a particular lifestyle, either. But these are the very freedoms that have allowed us to pursue our religious life, to uphold our own religious values and teachings. So I think a lot of people fear the freedom because you're free to choose. And to some people, this freedom can destroy, but it is the very freedom that also allows us to, you know, to practice our religious lives. So I think they recognise this, they recognise this tension. It's a very pleasant, but complex conversation that we're having. And I think that's reflected in the time that we needed to think of the right kind of position to put forth, recognising all these developments around us and within our society.

Dr Janil: Were you concerned at any stage about how the process was going?

Dr Nazirudin: I think what was most important is that we had the courage to talk about it more openly amongst the community of asatizah religious teachers and leaders, we had never done so in the past. And one of the issues then was, when could we come up with something. There was always that urge of, you know, there is a timeline, at which point, we should come up with a position, I took the personal position that we cannot rush this. And one of the very important principles for me in dealing with a lot of the issues which are very complex, I think, is to give it enough thought, to consult enough people to hear the different voices before we come up with any position. And to me this is an issue that you should not rush because it's a generational challenge.

It is for this generation to sort of chart the path ahead in dealing with the shifts in our society. So for us, in particular, how do we uphold our religious traditions and at the same time, being inclusive, creating an inclusive society? How do we convey our religious doctrines and teachings and at the same time being compassionate? So these are not easy questions. These are really difficult questions for us.

Dr Janil: Do you see a generational shift? 

Dr Nazirudin: I think it's more of a question of what one's environment is, regardless of age or position in life. And once more, I think there are families who are very open in terms of discussing difficult issues, and are willing to take in very diverse perspectives, from the young, from the old and from other backgrounds. And I think our society has also shifted, it has changed with education, with technology, with empowerment, and all these inform the views that one may have on many issues. So certainly, we begin to see some shifts.

And I think the challenge for us is, how do we contribute positively to this change? There is an assumption that religions, in particular, if you look at Islam, is anti-change or anti-modernity. It's always a counter-current, to progress and modernisation. And I think that's a very inaccurate view of Islam as a faith. We have always taken the position that we should contribute to this conversation in a very constructive way. Because modernisation is a process. Being an inclusive society is a process, what form it takes, how it turns out eventually, how our society turns out eventually, is a process of constant negotiations. And we should be part of that process contributing to those conversations.

It's not a case where as the Mufti or as a Muslim, you embrace change unquestioningly, or, without kind of a critical thinking as to what, what happens now and in the future. Rather you should contribute to the process by putting forth your values, your principles, and how you think a society can become better in the future. And I think that's also where the statement is coming from.

Dr Janil: Did you personally have an intellectual struggle?

Dr Nazirudin: I do, of course. And my particular struggle is again in trying to place values that are taught in my faith. Compassion, empathy, kindness, charity, in the context of what we're dealing with, with people who hold on to different values, in terms of sexuality, and even the ideas of family and relationships. At the same time to recognise there is a line that has to be drawn at some point between religious authority and individual autonomy.

At some point, our authority stops, and the individual’s autonomy takes over. They have the choice to make their own decisions, guided by the moral conscience and compass. Our role is to provide that moral compass from a religious standpoint. How do we do that? How do we balance it very carefully? And this is for the longer term good of society and the community. I think that is a struggle that continues with me. And I think we are just in the process of starting to talk about it more openly and trying to find what are the best directions ahead.

Dr Janil: Have your views and positions changed as a result of the struggle?

Dr Nazirudin: I think it's a cardinal rule, in my job and in in issuance of guidance, religious guidance, to really understand and understand correctly and comprehensively what we're dealing with. And I think that there's a lot to be, still yet to be understood. So we can't pretend that we know everything and I think as we move on, certain things will evolve. And our thoughts on this will also mature accordingly.

Dr Janil: You talked about taking time to consult, to gather views. But society and the world can change quite fast. How do you ensure the relevance of religion to that process then if there's a need to go slow to gather all the views, and yet, the world is changing fast around you?

Dr Nazirudin: If you look at the LGBT issue in other parts of the world, in some countries they are very far ahead on the scale of how they deal with homosexuality and LGBT issues. Some have gone way beyond in terms of gender identity and dealing with those kinds of issues. But at the same time, you also see that in those kinds of societies, the discourse is getting a lot more complicated. In other words, there are counter-movements within the society, because there are new concerns that emerge.

So I think, if anything, it tells us that with this kind of very profound social changes, I think it needs time, in as much as there is a very strong desire for things to move quickly and change quickly, I think we need time to process what is going on around us. We’re not speaking of decades of thinking about issues, but at least you need to think of a thorough, robust and comprehensive process of hearing different voices, to first understand the issues accurately, and then look at your traditions, look at the principles and values and how these relate to those kinds of changes.

Today, we look at the implications, for example of massive industrialisation and the impact on the climate. So we are beginning to ask ourselves very fundamental questions of our duties and responsibilities to the world, to the climate to the environment. And so there is always a kind of a rethink as to what would have been the better approaches in dealing with progress in that sense. And I think this social challenge that we have, social issue that we're dealing with, it's also an example of why we should spend enough time to think about it and put forth a response that I think, would at least relate to the challenge and resonate with people in dealing with the challenge and not to take a quite a simplistic approach in the interest of, you know, rushing through things.

And I could be wrong, but I personally feel that it is my responsibility to exhaust all avenues of thinking about issues, and give the issues due consideration before coming up with any particular position. In particular this involves a very fundamental shift in our society.

Dr Janil: But along the way, there are frictions within the community as these matters remain unresolved. I've met individuals who say they are gay and Muslim. I've met individuals who will say that you can't be both. One of the individuals that I've met says that he's welcome in the mosque, even though he is known as someone who's gay. But his friends wonder why he's allowed in the mosque. How do you deal with and resolve these types of frictions within the community?

Dr Nazirudin: Specifically to the issue of Muslims, I think one of the important aspects of talking about friction is really, what are the sources of friction in these kinds of situations. One of which is that there is still some level of uncertainty for many people on what is the religious attitude towards homosexuals and homosexuality in general. As it relates to religious practice, as it relates to religious spaces. So some may think that you should welcome anyone who comes to the mosque, some others may think that, well, the mosque is not a place for homosexuals, for example. When someone comes to the mosque, what is the first question that we ask and you think of? I think the first question should be that this is a Muslim, who wants to go to the mosque, and get closer to God, have a closer relationship with his or her Creator. 

As a Muslim, as a believer, whatever the sexual orientation, which, in most cases, would be a private matter for the individual, is something not for us to question, not for us to judge at the point in which someone comes to the mosque. Otherwise, you would need to ask, and it's, it's completely wrong practice. Everyone who comes to the mosque, on their private life, or other aspects of their, of their personal life. And I think that is not the right thing to do as Muslims, and as a religious institution.

So one of the sources of friction is really about understanding the religious position and attitude towards such individuals or segments within the community. And this is something we are working on as well. But the other important thing, insofar as the source of friction, I think, is really because for some people, this is a conflict that needs to be resolved with one winner at the end, whether it's mainstream Islam or the majority, and that's almost a kind of a zero-sum game mentality, which I think it's not the right attitude to adopt in dealing with this kind of complex challenges.

Dr Janil: You talked about not wanting a zero-sum game mentality amongst the people who consider this. Why is that important? Is there a danger that you're worried about?

Dr Nazirudin: I think it's because we recognise that for some individuals there have been accounts of their personal struggles of abuse, of ridicule, of rejection, that has led to various types of harm that they have been through and put through.

Dr Janil: Because they're LGBT?

Dr Nazirudin: Because they're LGBT. But there's also the very genuine fear and concern and anxiety within the larger segment of the community insofar as what the future will look like. We share this fear and anxiety. But we are also aware of the hurt and pain that people have gone through, and I don't think, and especially in our religious institutions, that our role, or what we do, should exacerbate that hurt and pain and prolong it. 

Our role is to find ways for people to heal, that hurt and pain to heal. So, if you have a winner, then you have someone who will basically be happy with an outcome in which LGBT individuals, for example, are not allowed to come to the mosque. But then it destroys their faith, it destroys their identity as Muslims, and vice versa, as well.

So I think we need to find ways in which you know, we can meet in between, and recognising that there are aspects of the faith that are very personal and private. There are aspects of the faith that are public. And it's about managing this, which we have to look into very carefully and find ways. And that would be the next steps that we will need to think of.

Dr Janil: In parts of the world, and in other communities, as this matter has been dealt with, one of the concerns is about a backlash from the attempt to be inclusive. Was that a concern that you have?

Dr Nazirudin: I think certainly, again, depending on how people understand these issues, and what opinion they hold and these opinions, I suspect are held very dearly and strongly and deeply by people. I think they would be angry and terrified with a position that is seen, deemed to be very inclusive, very open and tolerant. I've been personally accused of not fulfilling my duty as a Mufti. 

Dr Janil: Is that how they see you?

Dr Nazirudin: I've been personally accused by some people in particular online as being derelict in my duty as a Mufti, because I was seen to not have objected very strongly, in very strong terms to the repeal of 377A, for example, from which such people considered that we have taken a very liberal, open view on homosexuality. And I think, again, this is the danger of you know oversimplifying what is, in actual fact, a very profound, a very fundamental challenge in our society.

So we have put forth a very nuanced position, and I think it's important that we continue to convey our views in a cool-headed, rational, calm and civil way. To the government, to the rest of society, we’ve put forth our religious position on the matter, which is very clear. But at the same time, we recognise that we have to look at social change, especially in the context of Singapore, a very open, a multicultural diverse society.

Dr Janil: So it sounds like there are groups that want you to have a very simple guidance, black or white, right or wrong, reduce everything down to a single question. But you don't see that as your duty?

Dr Nazirudin: Because it doesn't help. 

Dr Janil: Why not?

Dr Nazirudin: For people who struggle with the religious position and continue to have ambiguities on it. We have an answer for them, we have guidance for them. And we say that, if you're in doubt of whether, as a Muslim, you can practice homosexuality, then our response is no, you can’t. But we're not just dealing with that religious position for individuals who have queries on whether you could practice homosexuality. The issue that we're dealing with is what's happening in society? And how do we then engage with and relate to the diverse type of individuals in our society? And I think that is a lot more complex question to deal with.

Dr Janil: What do you see then as the duty of the Mufti in dealing with this diversity in society and within the community?

Dr Nazirudin: I think the Mufti has to help the community navigate these changes and challenges. And navigating is not a straightforward position. Because our voice is being heard by very different groups of people. There are LGBT individuals, the wider LGBT community, there are LGBT Muslims. There are the Muslims who want to practise their beliefs and principles and values of the faith. And within that large group, you have people with very different opinions and positions on this.

So we don't want the community and the society to break up because of these different attitudes towards the LGBT issue. And not especially because of religion and what the faith says. So my duty is to help them see the broader picture to recognise where we are in terms of the religious doctrine and the theological position, but at the same time, bringing in those values, of the faith to help you remain confident as a Muslim in facing these challenges and not to fear the freedom and choices that people may have.

Because for us, what is the most instructive thing is that moral compass within, the moral conscience as a Muslim. What are your principles and your values? Even if you're an LGBT individual, and you're Muslim, how does that moral compass work so that you can continue to be faithful, at the same time you're able to deal with the challenge of homosexuality in a more confident way. 

Dr Janil: You talked about these lines, this balance between authority and guidance and individual autonomy. So when it comes to an LGBT individual, who decides if they are part of the Muslim community – that individual, the community, you?

Dr Nazirudin: I think faith has two important dimensions – one, personal and second, communal. Personal, it's a very deep belief in the creator, in God, in your faith in Islam. And it's not for anyone to question that, because it's a very unique relationship you have. And it's through your life experience, you know, through the ways in which you make meaning of life around you, that you may continue to maintain that faith.

And I suspect for a lot of people, LGBT or not, I think that personal dimension is extremely important to them, and they wish to preserve it that way. But faith also has a communal dimension, a community of believers, and here we speak of the Muslim community in Singapore. And insofar as practices that concern the community, places of communal gathering like the mosque, for example, certainly there are certain expectations of what can be done, what cannot be done, and what can be taught and preached et cetera, that we have to provide the guidelines. 

And that's where my duty is. So for any such individual, no one stops them from having this personal relationship with God. And it is not for us to comment on that. But where it basically crosses over into our area of interest is when they begin to preach that personal faith, according to how they understand it, in ways that may conflict with how the wider community understands a particular issue, whether it's homosexuality or anything else, I think there are certain sets of teachings and doctrines and principles that we'll live with as Muslims. And we protect as a community, the idea of the family and many other things. So when it comes to that, I think we need to draw the line.

And that's where authority comes in, to ensure that the community remains intact, because otherwise you will have a situation of extreme diverse and clashing opinions that may only you know, break up that community that may only create a certain level of chaos, that could lead to a lot of tensions and conflicts and misunderstandings. So, again, striking that balance between personal and communal. And I think a lot of people understand this, what they are appealing to is that do not judge me on my personal belief, and therefore exclude me from a faith of which they strongly identify with. And I think our role is to really help everyone navigate this.

Dr Janil: It sounds to me like your priority in this matter is holding the whole community together with all the diversity of views that may have, that you want to bring everyone together on a journey and you accept that there are going to be differences of opinion within the community.

Dr Nazirudin: Well, I learn from history that there have been so many episodes within Islamic history of the Muslim community breaking up because of differences of opinions. I think in our context, if we don't manage this carefully, I mean, that could happen as well. And looking at, you know, the regional context of very different voices and attitudes and opinions. So I think it's important that we continue to engage the community widely on these issues, and try to have a moderate position, which respects our traditions, our doctrines and teachings, whilst at the same time helping people navigate some of these challenges.

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