Shameful Pleasures, Pleasurable Shame: Some thoughts on queer Muslim experiences of (re)citing the Qur’an

The Qur’an–or any book for that matter–can cause a lot of shame. And for those of us who find it most difficult to mold ourselves to Islamic norms, we might be more familiar with it than other Muslims. Because this emotion is so common among queer Muslims, it is worth thinking about. And how I want to talk about it is even more important. When shame comes up in conversation, I have the habit of framing it within some neat and tidy story about arriving at more liberating interpretations. I might say something like: “Oh, I used to feel shame but alhamdulillah not anymore.” I find that shame is much easier to talk about when I’ve imagined that I’ve finally surpassed it. Found myself liberated on the other side of some closet door. So my starting point is considering shame as something that, in reality, probably never leaves us. For me, it continually returns to me, unsettles me. It’s always resisting my desire for closure.

Perhaps the reason I find it so difficult to face the way shame actually operates in my life and in many other queer lives is that it is too uncomfortable to look at in the eye. But, following the lead of the late queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, I want to resist the urge to look away and instead reflect on it. I want to reflect on what it does to us queer Muslims, what it says about us, and how our experiences of it shape us.

I want to argue along with Sedgwick that shame may not merely be a common experience for us LGBTQ+ folks; it might actually be formative to our very identities, absolutely integral to the performance and re-citation of our queerness. I make this argument because we ought not to be allergic to talking about shame. Rather than pretend we’ve surpassed it or believe in its eventual disappearance from our lives, I think it is much more fruitful to talk about the ways it (continually) shapes who we are as queer people of faith. And shame, as something that we experience and perform over and over again, is also something that not only insists upon our existence but can remake us in enticingly queer ways too.

In a phrase, shame matters to our queerness.

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Queerness, Embodied Shame, and Saying “no” to Marriage

Recently, a gay Muslim friend asked me when I was getting married. I could have laughed. Kept the question in the realm of the jocular. Instead, I responded that I didn’t really want marriage anymore.

“Why? I thought that was your thing?”

It was this why that I did not know how to answer. Especially as it demanded an explanation for my giving up something that was apparently a constitutive part of me. Something that was my “thing,.”

I had had a lot of thoughts on the matter but I had already decided that anything I would have said at that moment would have been an insufficient explanation to what was no longer a mere question but a pointed accusation. Not wanting marriage carried so much more weight than a personal preference. The position required a defense. And it required a response to every question carried behind that weighty why: if you love him, why won’t you marry him? Aren’t you committed? Now how will you reconcile your relationship with your religion? How will you reconcile your sexuality with your religion? How will you finally make sleeping with your boyfriend right before God? How do you plan on being a good Muslim now that marriage is off the table?

I forgot my lame attempt at an answer. Maybe something like “it feels too straight to me” and then feeling terribly dismissive of the institution he clearly still valued. Luckily, our conversation moved on to other things. But his why remains with me, an important ethical and theological demand for me to take account of where I’m at today when it comes to regulating relationships, sex, and romance.

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Resurrection before resurrection

The altar was a home
where belonging was never settled,
around which every space and no space
was for those in love with God’s body,
every place and no place for loving Christ
with all our hearts and all our bodies.

We were all in the bridal chamber
waiting for the god-groom to enter,
yet every desire of un-divine flesh
the priest wanted us to confess.

God never really ever entered
the bridal chamber of this altar.
Every time Christ’s body entered my mouth
I remembered my lust for others.

Where, then, oh God
can I meet you in love?

Jesus, son of Mary said:

“when you pray, go into your room and close your door.”

Those of us who already worship behind closed doors
know this in our skin.

It is in my bedroom where I hear God say
that he was a hidden treasure and loved to be known.
Here, his other-worldly presence captures me in its gravity.
He makes me a hidden treasure,
And I want to be known by him.

His gravity does not pull down;
it warps the space time around me,
in the way he gently curves his presence into my bed.
The tighter my orbit around his existence,
the wider time becomes
and merely living no longer makes sense.
He makes my heart beat
as if it has never given me life before,
because his eyes have slaughtered me.
He creates me out of nothing,
then kills me,
then creates me again,
before the day of resurrection.

As I touch him,
he has already taken into account my every cell,
measured every curve of my fingertips.
He was already closer to me than my jugular vein.
I am accounted for
before the day of accounting.

This life continues to eat away at me.
My body is decomposing in the earth
desiring the homeland I will never reach.
I continually fail to survive this diaspora,
but here in my bed, he brings me back to himself again and again.
Meeting me in my brokenness, torn-apart-ness.

He puts me back together,
Atom by atom, saying
kun fayakun,
be and it is,
just as it was with Adam,
before the day of gathering.

Here in my room,
behind the closed door,
I stay up late,
standing and prostrating,
my body meeting his.
As he meets me in my entirety,
I collapse into his eternity.
The “you” in kun
is where I’ll forever be lost-found,
for if the trees were pens,
and the seas ink,
his divine words would never be completed.
I drown in his speech,
this recitation on my lips, on my tongue.
Instead of pens, I am praying with these trees,
intoxicated by the musk of their flowers.
Instead of ink, these seas are wine,
and I am drunk off a cup bearer’s smile,
in a daze, stupefied
by this nur I see in a thousand faces
and I am polyamorous,
feeling this stupor of love
this sakratu’l-mawt
this intoxication of death before death.

Do I believe in the resurrection?
And my body responds:
Don’t you believe in the way
he gives you your every breath,
as much as he takes it away?

Notes: once during Sunday school our teacher wrote down the four Greek words for love (αγάπη, φιλία, στοργή, έρως). All these words label the ways we love God. The question he asked that so quieted that room continues to quiet my own spirituality: can we love God with éros? Can we love God erotically? Sexually? 

Love is about connecting to God and similar to my own worshipping, the worshipping of others (especially non-humans) has also followed me. Namely, the Qur’anic references to birds, or everything in the universe praising the divine. A friend at the 2017 LGBTQ Muslim Retreat reminded me of this, sharing a story of their mother explaining why the branches of the willow tree sway. They ended their reflection with a prayer: “may we pray with the trees this weekend.”

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Book Review: Anthony Petro’s After the Wrath of God


After the Wrath of God, published by Oxford University Press (2015)

In After the Wrath of God, Anthony Petro writes about the role American Christianity has played in shaping the religious, political, and moral discourses on the AIDS epidemic. Christian responses to the epidemic were diverse and Petro goes beyond those which describe it as the wrath of God. These responses were focused on evangelizing for a particular vision of sexual ethics: abstinence and monogamous marriage. American Christians, specifically conservative evangelicals and Catholic leaders, believed that AIDS could not be solved by medicine alone; it required a moral stance on sexuality. In this way, moralizing the AIDS epidemic allowed the religious (and influenced politicians and public opinion) to formulate a new sexual ethics. Continue reading

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Book Review: Jahangir and Abdullatif’s Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions

Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions is an important contribution to the academic discourse that attempts to formulate queer-affirming approaches to Islamic texts and traditions. Junaid Jahangir and Hussain Abdullatif write about the juristic and exegetical work of Muslim scholars, both contemporary and classical, as well as recent research on sex, sexuality, and gender done by academics in Islamic studies. It is fitting that Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, the author of the groundbreaking Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims (2010), wrote the forward to Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions. Kugle’s writing and Junaid and Abdullatif’s jointly authored work are both labors of love for their Islamic faith. Jahangir and Abdullatif take religious tradition seriously while advocating for interpretations of that tradition to center the humanity of queer Muslims. Continue reading

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Book Review: Najmabadi’s Professing Selves

In Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, Afsaneh Najmabadi writes about the lives of contemporary transgender Iranians. In several ways, her book is a sequel to her Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (2005). This past work explored the shifts in Iranian constructions of sex/gender/sexuality from the Qajar period to the Pahlavi dynasty. She documented the adoption of the modern gender and sexuality binary and how that intersected with Iranian masculinity, femininity, family, and nationalism. Professing Selves picks up this social history after the fall of the Pahlavi state with the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In contrast to Women with Mustaches, ethnography forms the heart of her book. She started fieldwork in Iran in 2006, interviewing transgender men and women, psychologists, doctors, and clerics. Her book focuses on the lives of her transgender informants but with important considerations of how the scientific, medical, legal, and religious discourses inform trans and other non-heteronormative lives. Continue reading

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Mourning Karbala and Remembering the Other’s Story

Yesterday was Ashura and that means, as a Sunni, it was an optional day of fasting. For Sunnis, the day has celebratory connotations. According to a hadith it is the day God saved the Israelites from Pharaoh. But to the Shi’a, Ashura is a time of mourning, remembering the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE/61 AH when Hussain, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and Ali’s son, was brutally killed along with the men in his army who had stood up against the much larger army of Yazid (a distant cousin whose father, Mu’awiya, had taken the caliphate after the assassination of Ali).

When people asked me which kind of Muslim I am I used to answer “just Muslim.” Later on, especially in response to non-Muslims, I would add “but I’m more Sufi” (a Muslim way of saying “spiritual but not religious”). Failing to recognize my own Sunni-ness is similar to failing to recognize my whiteness: qualifying my identity with little thought as to what privileges are attached to that identification. It is easy for me to say “just Muslim” when I pray in Sunni-normative spaces. This is not as simple for Shi’a Muslim-Americans. The sacred spaces I frequent are the same spaces that mark a Shi’a as an outsider.

When I was involved in the Muslim Student Association, there was always that usual email that went out reminding us all to fast on Ashura. Then one year, a Shi’i member called us out. The email was sent out to everyone, a long response to MSA’s inconsiderate holiday greeting, in which he explained his frustration and pain. Ashura is a day of mourning, he reminded us. And it was not just the insensitivity he had issues with; he challenged the entire Sunni telling of that part of Islamic history. Sunnis thought it good enough to call it a great fitna that, even though it divided the ummah, was better left unremembered. After all, the disagreement was over the leadership of the Muslim community. And the “Islamic” form of non-hereditary and un-pope-like government prevailed.

What bothered the Shi’i MSA member was Sunni ignorance which resulted in disrespecting the Prophet’s family. What bothered me were the Sunni responses–also sent out to everyone on the list serve–which miserably failed in acknowledging the complaint.  Also what concerned me: the Shi’i who had called us out was a friend. And someone who had been friends of other Sunni MSA members. We had shared meals together. Prayed together. Fasted together. Watched movies together on Friday nights. We Sunnis should have known better.

The Sunni responses to my friend also failed to have any kind of honest reflection on the Sunni-normative narration. But if we, as Muslim-Americans, are to ever move forward in these intrafaith interactions, this reflection is absolutely necessary. Similar to interfaith meetings, it is not enough to talk about our similarities and tolerate our differences. Real encounter means we give more breathing room for our often competing stories to truly speak to one another.

The Shi’i narration of Karbala forces me to rethink the Sunni one. It opens up my eyes to the horrific crimes against the Ahl al-Bayt.  It challenges that Sunni sense of superiority because we apparently rejected hereditary leadership and the excessive-honoring/near-idolizing of the descendants of the Prophet. It feeds into modern Sunni claims that we are more democratic and more authentically monotheistic than Shi’a. But pre-Karbala there was already a hereditary caliphate: all the caliphs from Abu Bakr to the Umayyads were related to the Prophet either through marriage or bloodline. Also conveniently left out: that one Sunni opinion about the caliphate being limited to Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh. Not to mention the honor descendants of the Prophet have in Sunni communities. Also not mentioned: the shared Sunni-Shi’i spaces commemorating the same religious figures (e.g. visitations to the tomb of Fatima or the head of Hussain in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which, by the way, is in the same mosque where the head of John the Baptist rests). Marking Shi’a as outsiders to authentic Islam contradicts the shared Sunni-Shi’i respect for the Ahl al-Bayt.

The time of the “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” and those that followed was not discussed in detail in the predominantly Sunni masjids that I know. It is as if the title “rightly-guided” was good enough to leave out Islamic history after the Prophet’s death. The Salafi-ness of the Sunni mosques I have prayed in probably didn’t help: idolizing the Salaf conveniently pushes early Islamic history as irrelevant to contemporary Islamic piety.

There were a few words about power struggles and the unfortunate sectarian split. These few words on the most tumultuous time in early Islamic history was disconcerting–how could such a beautiful religion whose unity under the simple creed of monotheism and belief in the Prophet Muhammad have faced such near-destruction? And how could the followers of such a faith come close to wiping out the entire family of the Prophet?

Shi’i Muslims make remembering this traumatic time period–events that would have plunged me into doubts about the revealed nature of my faith–a part of their piety and theological reflection. What I have come to respect is the way Shi’a keep the memory of Karbala alive and how that remembrance nourishes their spirituality. Sunnis and Shi’a both have lost Hussain. But it is the Shi’a who incorporate that sadness into their piety. Rather than ignore it, they struggle with it. They sit with the pain and they tell a story about it. For Shi’a, it is a story about injustice and the oppressed. And the retelling of this story of oppression is sanctified with ritual. “Everywhere is Karbala and everyday is Ashura” because the jihad against injustice, even if it means we are on the loosing side, is always the right side to be on and continue to happens.

To return to the Sunni importance of Ashura: God freeing the Israelites is not irredeemably contradictory. Both Karbala and Moses in Egypt are stories about oppression. It is important to look behind us at the parting sea at the injustices we have been delivered from. Even more important: to look ahead at what injustices continue.

Some Muslims do not think too highly of A’isha. I still don’t know what to do with this. But what I can say is this: if my sanctified image of A’isha prevents me from seeing the sanctity of another’s story then I’m willing to sacrifice that holiness for seeing the humanity of the other side.

This reminds me of the ways stories, told over the generations, are codified. Stories are used as signs for a community and, continually recited, renew that community’s sense of cohesion and identity. Encountering the near-other, e.g. a Sunni talking to a Shi’a, inevitably challenges these stories that are so integral to our communities. It makes us uncomfortable. In the case of these near-others who might share competing versions of the same events, we might misunderstand this encounter as discomforting because of varying truth claims. But this discomfort is actually about something bigger: the identity of our communities.

Rather than react negatively to the discomfort, we should allow the encounter to remind us about the imperfection of our own stories. If asks us to not take our stories for granted. After all, narration is a creative process. The stories we tell are a product of that. But they have frayed edges. Talking to the near-other reminds us of these imperfect and unraveling edges. It breaks the idolatry of our own stories. Returning to my thoughts on A’isha, the meeting of two different narrations has the possibility of doing two things: it might open myself up to the humanity of the other’s story and in turn reminds me of the humanity of A’isha.

And to be sure, encountering the near-other does not only mean calling us out on the frayed edges of our story-telling. It also means honoring the threads that still bind these same stories together. In the case of mourning Karbala, it opens up a theological discussion about what it means to remember pain, injustice, and oppression.

image taken after dhuhr/asr prayer at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, MI

image taken after dhuhr/asr prayer at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, MI

For further reading, check out this Sunni reflection on Karbala and the month of Muharram posted on the Muslim Vibe.

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