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Muslim clerics approve new transgender rights

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.


Credit: K.M. Chaudary via AP

When Pakistan’s Muslim clerics make the news, it’s generally for their conservative stance on issues like women’s rights and blasphemy. However, as the Washington Post‘s Pamela Constable writes, a group of fifty such clerics in the eastern city of Lahore recently passed a fatwa, or religious edict, affirming the rights of transgender people to marry and denouncing any mistreatment of them. As the group’s leader, Zia-ul-Haq Naqshbandi, said of the decision: “We need to accept them as God’s creation, too . . . Whoever treats them badly—society, the government, their own parents—are sinners.”

As a result of the fatwa, transgender people can now marry, inherit land, and receive Muslim funeral ceremonies. Moreover, the clerics charged the Pakistani government with ensuring these rights and protecting the transgender in their country. While much of the language used by the clerics, particularly regarding the right to marriage, is vague at best, it does appear to signal a shift in the way Pakistani Muslims are to approach what remains a small, yet often persecuted, minority.

In a land where homosexuality remains a banned practice and those who engage in that lifestyle are still forbidden to marry, many hope that the new rulings are simply the start of a larger progression. Such hopes, however, are perhaps misguided. You see, while transgender rights are often part of a larger social movement in the West, Pakistan has long viewed them as an inherently different subject than homosexuality. As Constable notes, the country “has a long South Asian tradition of accepting transsexuals and people of non-traditional genders as part of society.” She goes on to write that “some eunuchs and others have been viewed as having mystical powers” and that there is a tradition of awarding rights to transgender individuals, such as job quotas and ID cards as a recognized minority, that homosexuals and others are routinely denied.

As such, perhaps the clerics’ primary concern is not so much awarding new privileges as making their previous approach more universal. Transgender people in the country are still regularly bullied and targeted by many in Pakistani society despite the laws already in place. New rulings and laws are not going to change the day-to-day lives of these individuals unless the hearts and minds of those doing the persecuting change as well. To that end, the fatwa states, “Making fun of [transsexuals], teasing them or thinking of them as inferior is against sharia law, because such an act amounts to objecting to one of Allah’s creations.” If the people of Pakistan can accept that perspective, perhaps they will come to accept—or at least no longer persecute—the transgender people in their midst as well.

There is an important distinction, however, between valuing transgender people as the beloved creation of God and approving of their lifestyle. It’s unclear where the Pakistani clerics fall on that spectrum, but Scripture is clear where we should. God’s word calls us to love one another just as Christ loves us (John 13:34, 1 John 4:8–11). However, the Bible is also clear that to accept or justify another’s sin is one of the least-loving things we could do for them (Romans 2:6–11, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11).

That distinction is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in a culture that often values an individual’s rights over what God says is right. Honestly, this shouldn’t come as a surprise though. After all, why would people who don’t believe in or value God base their lives around his teachings? As Christians, we don’t allow the Qur’an or the teachings of Confucius, for example, to dictate how we live. The same principle applies to the non-Christians in our culture.

While that neither justifies their sin nor excuses us from keeping to God’s truth, it should prepare us to understand that holding to God’s word on issues like the moral viability of a homosexual or transgender lifestyle is going to place us in opposition to the larger society around us. However, that makes it all the more important to remember both sides of the spectrum described above.

If we condemn the sinner along with the sin, we err just as much as those living in opposition to God’s word. At the same time, if we deceive ourselves into thinking that accepting what God rejects shows love to the lost, then we once again stand alongside the sinner in opposition to our heavenly Father.

So remember that it is not only possible but loving to genuinely value and respect an individual as the beloved creation of God while also refusing to accept their sin as permissible. That’s what Christ did for us, and it’s what he calls us to do for others as well. Will you start today?