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The Aspects Of Gender Ambiguity In Islam

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In Gender Ambiguity in Islam, South Asia and Contemporary Pakistan, the treatment of sex/gender non normativity in Islam is as diverse as Islam itself. Historical and scholarly sources reveal theological differences in constructions of sex, gender and sexuality. Meanwhile, the history of the Indian subcontinent indicates that individuals with gender and genital ambiguities went from having important social functions to being criminalized. However, in present-day Pakistan, the laws related to Khawaja Siras have both constrained and empowered gender ambiguous people, but these policies diverge from similar laws in other Islamic nation states. Despite the rights granted to them, Khawaja Siras continue to suffer from stigma and marginalization in mainstream society.

In the Islamic Approaches to Sexual and Gender Ambiguity, among the various forms of sex/gender non normativity, contemporary Islamic law accepts most unequivocally the condition of intersexuality, where individuals are born with a mixture of both male and female hormonal, chromosomal and/or genital features. Medieval Muslim jurists addressed the issue of intersexuality because it presented a predicament for the Islamic worldview’s strict gendered and sexed boundaries (Bucar 2010, 604). Although they were a biological reality, without a precise gender/sex, intersexual had no point of entry into the social world (Sanders 1991, 88). As a solution, jurists advocated assigning a gender role to intersexual, and later, when the technology became available, some thinkers supported corporeal modifications to make the intersexual sex more distinct (Bucar 2010, 604). Today Islamic jurists make a distinction between “ambiguous” and “non-ambiguous” intersexual. The latter category includes either “males with some extra elements or females with some extra elements” (Cilardo 1986, 129). According to most interpretations of sharia (Islamic law), the sex of intersexual with unambiguous genitalia can be determined at birth. The “ambiguous” category (khunthā /khunsā mushkil) consists of those whose physiological features do not allow us to determine their prevailing sex (Cilardo 1986, 129).

The opinions of the various sects and schools of Islam differ on ways of determining an ambiguous intersexual’s sex/gender. While some advocate assigning a sex at birth, most agree that the sex of ambiguous intersexuals should be determined at puberty when they develop either male or female physical characteristics (e.g., signs of facial hair, nocturnal spermatic emissions, or a flat chest in the case of men) (Cilardo 1986, 132-3). Some schools accept an individual’s personal declaration about their physiology as confirmation of their sex/gender, but this testimony can be rejected if the person’s sexual organs are known to be ambiguous (Cilardo 1986, 133-4). Finally, those ambiguous intersexuals who do not develop distinctive markings of sex at puberty are subjected to and granted special rules and rights, which relate to such practices as circumcision, prayer, pilgrimage, marriage, witnessing, punishment, inheritance, death, and so on (Cilardo 1986, 135-50).

Islamic approaches to intersexuality demonstrate that Muslim jurists focused on external physical characteristics as determinants of an individual’s sex/gender. The body is given acceptances the key marker of gender. The Quran’s use of gendered terms and images, religious historian, Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, representing a less common viewpoint, argues that the Quran simultaneously invokes gender difference (i.e., between male and female) and ambiguity (2010). However, neotraditionalists typically maintain that God arranged not only humanity but the entire cosmos into distinct and unambiguous gendered pairs (Kugle 2010, 245). Such orthodox interpretations contradict contemporary biology’s discovery of complex gendered behaviors in animal species, and ignore modern physics’ long abandoned simplistic dichotomies (Kugle 2010, 246). Kugle contends that scientific breakthroughs should deepen Quranic interpretations and enable a break from patriarchal predeterminations (Kugle 2010, 246). For instance, Quranic verses that describe human diversity in terms of shades of colors are often taken literally as referring to racial difference while overlooking other forms of human variance as evidenced by modern science and human experience (Kugle 2010, 247-8).

In addition to the Quran, Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, provides key philosophical concepts that relate to gender ambiguity. According to Sufi thought, the heart is perceived as the seat of the soul, where the soul is understood to be an ambiguous force, a consciousness, which connects the spirit and the body (Kugle 2010, 236-7). “The soul…perceives itself to be female or male, or possibly both-male-and-female or neither-malenor- female” (Kugle 2010, 237). Sufi thinkers locate the soul as being immersed in gender duality. Importantly, Khawaja siras in present-day Pakistan attributed their gender difference to a feminine heart/soul, which they claimed to possess.

The hadith (sayings and teachings ascribed to Prophet Mohammad PBUH) and oral narratives about Prophet Muhammad PBUH provide evidence that he interacted with gender ambiguous individuals known as mukhannath (effeminate men or sometimes transvestite men) and eunuchs during his lifetime in Medina (Babayan and Najmabadi 2008, 163; Kugle 2010, 249). Kugle’s analysis of early Islamic texts and hadith reveals that mukhannaths were defined by their gender performance (i.e., mannerisms, speech and attire) rather than sexual behavior and desire, and their gender ambiguity was seen as an innate disposition (Kugle 2010, 253). Islamic holy literature suggests that there were also “some women who ‘assumed the manner of men,’ who were known as mutarajjulat” (Bolich 2007, 124)..Gender crossing was considered blameworthy only for those who were not effeminate by nature and adopted such behavior purely for ulterior motives (takallufi) (Kugle 2010, 253-4). Kugle contends that Prophet Muhammad’s condemnation that “God cursed the males who appear like females and the females who appear like males,” only applies to takallufi mukhannaths, a belief that diverged from dominant interpretations of this hadīth in Pakistan. Many scholars claim that the Islamic tradition accepts mukhannaths contrary to the popular belief that Prophet Muhammad condemned them. The Prophet’s wives were regularly visited by mukhannaths inside their rooms (Kugle 2010, 250). According to several hadīth, the Prophet banished a mukhannath who frequented his house, not due to his gender difference but because he overstepped ethical norms by using his knowledge of women’s affairs to rouse men to be intimate with women out of wedlock (Kugle 2010, 23).

Mukhannath had special functions in early Islamic society as entertainers, singers and comedians, and as intermediaries who had access both to the private domain of women as well as the public sphere of men (Kugle 2010, 254). However, sources rarely mention the mukhannath following their persecution in the eight-century by an Umayyad governor of Medina who ordered such individuals to be castrated (Kugle 2010, 255). They later reappeared in Baghdad during the Abbasid Empire, but by then the Islamic discourse on gender ambiguity had been replaced with a focus on homosexuality, which viewed the mukhannath as men who played the passive role during same-sex anal intercourse (Kugle 2010, 255-6; Rowson 1991, 693).

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Today, many Islamic jurists variously define mukhannath with respect to gender ambiguity, a lack of sexual desire (Haneef 2011, 101), and/or sexual incapacity (e.g., the inability to sustain an erection) (Bolich 2007, 124). They condemn “artificial” mukhannaths or those who “deliberately deviate from the norm of their gender,” but generally accept those “who innately suffer from some kind of behavioral abnormality,” so long as they do not do not engage in illegitimate sexual behavior (Haneef 2011, 101 and 106). Some of the shariáh laws pertaining to erotically inclined mukhannaths include punishments for committing sodomy, prohibition from mingling with and marrying women, and restrictions against providing testimony in court on the grounds that they lack moral rectitude and cannot be considered credible witnesses (Haneef 2011, 101). Hence, juridical logic expects mukhannaths to be either asexual or unable to engage in sexual behavior. In contrast, in contemporary Pakistan, the term mukhannath was largely believed to be applicable to someone with genital ambiguities.

In addition to mukhannaths, the second category of gender ambiguous individuals present during the Prophet’s time was the eunuch. The Prophet’s first documented encounter with a eunuch was when a woman named Marya, presented to him as a gift by an Egyptian governor was escorted to Medina by her castrated servant (Kugle 2010, 250). The eunuch was allowed to live with Marya as her servant once it was established that he did not have sexual access to her (Kugle 2010, 251). The decision validated the value and social role of eunuchs in Islamic society. The Prophet spoke against the practice of castrating slaves, but those castrated elsewhere by non-Muslims were accepted into the Islamic empire where they served as household servants (Kugle 2010, 250). The gender ambiguity of eunuchs differed from that of the mukhannaths in that it was socially imposed rather than being an intrinsic trait, and yet, what enhanced this ambiguity was the deficiency of “testes-produced hormones” in eunuchs following the removal of their sexual organs (Kugle 2010, 253). Due to their ambiguity, eunuchs came to be seen as neither men nor women and therefore, able to mix freely with both (Kugle 2010, 252). Their gender status enabled them to serve as a “human veil” during communal prayer where they were instructed to stand in a row behind men but before women (Kugle 2010, 252).

By the turn of the twentieth century, eunuchs were serving this and a number of other important functions at the Ka’ba, the sacred site of pilgrimage for Muslims in Makkah , and at Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (the Mosque of Prophet Mohammad) in Medina, where they were employed (Burton 1857; Young 1993). Originally purchased as slaves by the Ottoman administration from Ethiopia and Sudan, these eunuchs were responsible for cleaning both holy sites, and for keeping men and women apart during pilgrimage at the Ka’ba (Young 1993, 290).

In actual practice the aghawat could not physically divide the crowd by sex, but they could stand for a neutral category, separating and coordinating the categories of men and women. Their castrated state made it possible for them to touch women without breaking their ritual purity (wudu). (Young 1993, 291-2).

Tawashi was the generic name of the eunuchs of the holy mosques (Burton 1857, 418), but the title given to them was aghawat (or agha in short), which means elder, elder sibling, chief or master in Turkish (Young 1993, 290). The term denoted respect for these black eunuchs of high stature. Some sources claim that eunuchs still serve the mosque in Makkah, but they are fewer in number today than in the early 1900s (Young 1993, 298). Khawaja sira informants often mentioned these individuals and saw them as their ancestors. However, they knew little about these eunuchs other than the role they played in the ritual purification of the holy sites of Makkah and Medina.

Religious history and holy literature indicate that Islam recognizes four distinct types of beings: men/males, women/females, ambiguous intersexuals (khunsā mushkil), and gender ambiguous persons (mukhannath) (Bolich 2007, 124).

South Asia has a rich history of gender ambiguity, one that Gayatri Reddy (2005) broadly divides into four chronological time periods: ancient, medieval, colonial and contemporary. Evidence of third-sex/gender figures appears foremost in ancient Indian texts from the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions where they are referred to as kliba, pandaka, trtiyapraktri and napumsaka (2005, 19). The meanings of these terms variously included unmales, third sex, third nature, eunuch, “someone ‘who was sterile, impotent, castrated, a transvestite, a man who had oral sex with other men, a man who had anal sex, a man with mutilated or defective sexual organs, a hermaphrodite, or finally, a man who produced only female children”(2005, 21).

At the end, the historical and legal information pertaining to sex, gender and ambiguity. It will elucidate that the ideas presented here in both overlapped with and diverged from popular understandings of sex/gender variance in Pakistan. For instance, the Khawaja Siras of the medieval period, though vaguely similar, were not the same as those who had appropriated the term in contemporary Pakistan. It will become clear that Khawaja sira identity politics took a lead from localized religious and cultural beliefs that, although diverse, provided either a parochial or an ambivalent outlook on non-normative genders and sexuality.


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  10. Reddy, Gayatri. “Sexual Differences and Their Discontents: Shifting Contexts of ‘Thirdness’ in Hyderabad.” In The Phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India, edited by Brinda Bose and Subhabrata Bhattacharyya, 301-322. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2007. With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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