￼￼A mukhannath who had dyed his hands and feet with henna was brought to the ￼Prophet. He asked: What is the matter with this man? He was told: Apostle of Allah! He affects women’s get-up. So he ordered regarding him, and he was banished to an-Naqi’. The people said: Apostle of Allah! Should we not kill him? ￼He said: I have been prohibited from killing people who pray. Abu Usamah said: Naqi’ is a region near Medina and not a Baqi (in other words not referring toJannat al-Baqi’ cemetery.) ￼
Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 41, Number 4910: Narrated (by) Abu Hurayrah
In the translated news services from the Muslim world, there are periodic reports of mass arrests of LGBTQ people. Some of these reports refer to “gay men,” others say “gay men and trans women.” Sometimes, buried deep, is the word “mukhannathun.”
Mukhannathun – and singular mukhannath – has been translated as “gay,” “queer,” even “third gender,” and none of these are wrong, per se. However, there’s a history behind the word that’s much richer.
It all starts with hadith.
Part I: The Hadith
So, Islam 101: Muslims are commanded to follow both Allah (Arabic for “the God”) and the Prophet Muhammad (P)*. Easy enough when someone’s alive, but how do you follow someone after their death? That’s when you turn to hadith.
A hadith, simply put, is an account of something the Prophet Muhammad (P) did , said, or approved/disapproved of. It can be anywhere from a single sentence or several pages. I’ve even included one at the top of the article.
Oh, and the plural of hadith is hadith. So, it’s “a hadith” singular, “these hadith” plural, etc.
Anyway – while these hadith were initially circulated by word-of-mouth (as was the Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran), over time, they were collected and written down. Scholars would spend decades travelling across the Muslim world, listening to as many hadith as they could, before finally writing them down. There are literally dozens of these collections. Each one contains thousands of hadith.￼￼￼￼￼
These collections aren’t monolithic, either. Some are considered more reliable than others (same goes for individual hadith). Also, some sects of Islam will only follow certain collections.
But, together, these collections make up the backbone of Muslim law. Just about all opinions by scholars rely on hadith in one form or another.
It’s almost impossible not to, considering their breadth and scope. While hadith are tightly focused, they cover a broad range of subjects. In these collections you see accounts of the Final Days, milestones in Islamic history, even snippets of the day to day like of Muslims at the time.
You also see mukhannathun.
Part II: Takan/Mukhannath/Mukhannathun
The word mukhannathun is tricky. It translates, roughly, to ‘men with the qualities of women.’ Conversely, you can refer to the ‘quality’ itself, and say someone has takan (think ‘swag’). And, to answer your question, its FAAB equivalent is mutarijjalun: women with the qualities of men. It’s commonly translated as ‘tomboy’.
This of course, raises more questions than answers. How do you define men? Women? Qualities? For Muslims, these aren’t thought exercises. As I said before, hadith are the backbone of Muslim law. Even a single word can drastically change opinions and attitudes.
It’s also difficult to interpret the Prophet’s (P) opinion of them. The hadith I quoted is a perfect example. I‘ve heard Muslims cite it as proof of Prophet Muhammad (P) ridding Islam of gay influence. Other Muslims claim it shows the Prophet Muhammad (P) saving the life of a queer Muslim while setting up a safe space.
Sigh. There are entire universities that do nothing but debate and interpret hadith. At this point, your interpretation will only say more about your own biases than those of the Prophet (P).
Instead of looking at intentions, it’s much more useful to look at the effects. For example: whether or not an-Naqi’ was intended as a safe haven, it sure functioned as one. It allowed mukhannathun to live and work without fear of reprisal.
Also, according to hadith, falsely accusations are a punishable offense. This includes mukhannathun.
Now, we can go back and forth about whether this constitutes a ban on homophobia or proof that takan is so bad it’s not to be taken lightly. But it is interesting how these words have developed as opposed to say, ‘gay’ or ‘queer’. While the latter have been used to derisively against all forms of deviance and non-conformity, mukhannath only refers to someone male-assigned and feminine. It’s certainly used derisively, but it’s a very specific insult.
As we’ll see, this has had a dramatic impact on trans* rights throughout Muslim history. In fact, you can see these effects only a generation later.