"He makes them male and female": Intersexuality in Tafsir and Hadith Literature

By Indira Falk Gesink
Submitted to Session P5000 (Textual Configurations of Gender and the Body, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
Gender/Women's Studies;
“He makes them male and female”: Intersexuality in Tafsir and Hadith Literature
According to queer activist Faris Malik, conventional heteronormative exegesis of Surat ash-Shura verses 49-50 effaces older interpretations that ascribe intersexuality to the will of God. The verses read: “God has dominion over the heavens and the earth. He creates what He wills. He prepares for whom He wills females, and He prepares for whom He wills males. Or He pairs them male and female (yuzawwijuhum dhukr?nan wa in?than), and He makes those whom He wills to be ineffectual (‘aqim). Indeed He is the Knowing, the Powerful.” The first verse states that only God has the power to confer sons and daughters: to some, God gives males, to others, females. Malik claims that English translators fudge the second verse by rendering it “Or He gives some people both sons and daughters, and makes some barren.” My exploration of tafsir literature from the 7th to 20th centuries demonstrates that Malik has a point: early Qur’an interpreters did relate divergent opinions on the meaning of the verse. While the majority of interpreters explained verse 42:50 as saying that God gives some people both male and female offspring, some (for example, al-Qurtubi) also related the alternative reading that God may make a single person both male and female. Hadith collectors also related reports of hermaphrodites, citing the infinite creative power of God. As demonstrated in my previous scholarship on legal manuals and medical texts from the 8th-17th centuries, Muslim jurists acknowledged intersexuals as natural variants of human sexual development and treated them as a third sex, with unique gendered procedures for prayer, circumcision, dress, manumission, inheritance, and burial. The hadiths and divergent interpretations of verse 42:50 support my contention that Muslim scholars did not (contrary to Sanders 1991) universally understand biological sex as dimorphic. In keeping with the Galenic models of sexual development then in vogue throughout Hellenic-influenced societies, all sexes were some variant of originally-male development (Laqueur 1990, 2003; Ze’evi 2006), with intersexuals as a medial possibility between wholly-male and wholly-not-male (female). Divergent interpretations of verse 42:50 reflected and reinscribed the dominant medical theories about sex, and informed adjudication of sex in ambiguous cases. This study provides a historical context with which to frame contemporary discussions of intersexuality, gender reassignment, and gender tolerance in Islamic contexts.