As much as I feel a sense of responsibility to speak up as a queer Muslim, I am less clear about how to go about my choice of words. Especially because my primary intention in this post is to address my fellow Muslims who are speaking about homosexuality and other forms of queerness who, I believe, are representative of the on-going un-mosque-ing of queer Muslims and the perpetuation of stigma around queer identities in Muslim communities.
I want my words to not only be spoken but also to be heard and understood. I want a language that you, my reader and sibling in Islam, will immediately understand. Something that allows, in some miraculous and perhaps even spiritual way, another Muslim human to understand exactly what is in my heart and mind.
Queer Catholic poet, Pádraig Ó’Tuama expresses it perfectly when, in a chance encounter with a sister in faith who asks “I heard you are gay now. Are you still a Christian?” to which Pádraig thinks to himself: “oh how shall we tell this story?”
The concerned whispers in the mosque about a convert who now says he’s gay. How his gayness is a deviance from what Allah intended for him. Voices like eating donkey flesh, praying that he will see the error of his ways and repent, make tawbah, that is, return to the straight path.
And here I am, angry at words I hear and others I do not. And my own whispering–no, loud angry voices–yelling in my heart, adding up like so many black specks of sin, harboring anger that keeps me from forgiving them. Maybe they, who used to call me brother, akhi, will repent and love me again?
How shall we tell this story indeed. Where to begin? Where to end? And what ought to be said in between?
Maybe I ought to start where it hurts the most.
Over and over again, the dominant Muslim voices I hear speak of homosexuality (and sometimes about transgender identities) in terms of deviance and unnaturalness.
First of all, I want straight and cisgender Muslims to know that queer people are just as human as anyone else.
We have a capacity to love, but perhaps in ways that are different than what is more common. And yet, in many ways, we love the same way as many other humans do. When Allah said:
“Another of His signs is that He created spouses [azwaj] from among yourselves for you to live with in tranquility: He ordained love and kindness between you. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect” (Qur’an 30:21)
can we really claim that the only pairing that God is speaking about here is exclusively between a man and a woman? There is a certain kind of wonder and awe to human attraction, both the sexual and romantic aspects, to create a relationship in which tranquility (s-k-n), love (muwaddah), and kindness (rahmah) are born between persons.
Sexuality and love is expected to be experienced in one specific way. Verses that talk about the pairings of male and female, man and woman, are used as a means of excluding the wondrous sign that is the beauty of other pairings. Rather than be a cause for reflection, too many Muslims dismiss queer relationships as abominations.
Abomination. Deviant homosexuals.
That’s where we’re at as an ummah. There is so much more to wonder in our creation that is immediately cut off by those words. You will have noticed that I use the word “queer” and not “gay” or “lesbian” in an attempt to represent the diversity that is sexuality and gender. In too many of our communities, not only is it not okay to not be heterosexual, it is not okay to have a lack of sexual attraction. Whether a queer Muslims is gay or asexual, we are both perceived as a corruption to the heterosexuality we are supposed to have as our fitrah. As a fellow queer Muslim blogger explained in a post on asexuality:
“When your sexual orientation cuts you off from how your community or your society expects you to experience and express your sexuality, when you have to search for alternative interpretations and obscure texts to justify the existence of your sexual orientation and its validity within the religion, when you have to tell people that your sexual orientation is not ‘normal’, is not how they believe God created everybody to be, you’re queer.”
Queer Muslims are cut off from their communities and families, if not outwardly, inwardly alienated and dejected. We experience a lot of spiritual harm because of this exclusion. And the Muslim community as a whole is excluded from new interpretive possibilities of the Qur’an that may widen our capacity for wonder and reflection upon the diversity of our creation.
One verse that took up new meaning for me after reading Siraj Kugle’s Homosexuality in Islam was the following:
“God has control of the heavens and the earth; He creates whatever He will–He grants female offspring to whoever He will,/ male to whoever He will, or both male and female, and He makes whoever He will barren: He is all knowing and all powerful.” (Qur’an 42:49-50)
There are two interpretive possibilities here: 1. that “both male and female” [yuzawwijuhum=combines/pairs them] could refer to intersex individuals or genderqueer persons; and 2. “whoever He will barren [ˁaqīm]” could refer to those whose genders or sexual orientations do not lead to procreation (gay men, lesbians, asexuals, etc.).
A few years ago when I came out to a few (and outed to many more) in my former Muslim community, I remember the conversations I had with a Saudi friend of mine, who, I may add, is far more knowledgeable than me. I was reading Kugle’s book at the time, trying to figure out where I fit in. While we painstakingly went through each verse covering the story of Prophet Lut, pbuh, and his people, we also covered verses like the ones above. I would ask, “well, what about this interpretation?”
To verse 42:49-50, he stated what I believe to be the standard Sunni interpretation: i.e that “both male and female” simply means a single boy and a single girl child and “barren” simply means a woman who cannot have children.
Conversations like these did not go very far. Perhaps both of us came at the assumption that our interpretation was the correct one. But a more pressing question for me is: why must we stick to an interpretation that leaves little space for other siblings in Islam, especially those who largely do not have a voice in the majority of their home and former communities?
I remember halaqahs in which my shaykh would advise that when one runs into an ambiguous ayah or hadith and there are multiple interpretations, one is within their right to choose the easiest one. Multiplicity is a rahmah, a mercy from God. And I would add, as surely as he would, the interpretation that gives dignity to another human being has more legitimacy than the one that oppresses.
Returning to the conversations I would have with my Saudi brother, one particular verse that he continually brought up was the following:
“The love of desirable things is made alluring for men–women, children, gold and silver treasures piled up high, horses with fine markings, livestock, and farmland–these may be the joys of this life, but God has the best place to return.” (Qur’an 3: 14)
For him, this ayah was his argument against the gay identity I was beginning to claim. In his thinking, it was one thing to do a homosexual act (it was one of the major sins [kabā’ir], after all); but it was an even more dangerous thing to justify those acts by a self-serving interpretation. This would mean kufr, rejection of Islam itself, to many Muslims.
With this verse, he tried to convince me that Allah had naturally bestowed upon men the desire (shahwah) for women, that is, my same-sex desires (also shahwah) were not God-intended.
It is these interpretations that are the most damaging. After all that struggle and confusion there was nothing really there to struggle with or be confused about?
But my sexual orientation is not fake. And it is not a mere aberration.
In response, I asked him if it was a deviance to my nature if I did not have desires (also shahwah) for horses, gold, silver, livestock, and farmland? God clearly did not make “alluring” to me any of these things.
“Well, horses, gold, silver… these are metaphorical.”
And in my mind I think: look who’s playing the game of self-serving interpretations now.
And another thing: by shahwah, do we always mean sexual desire? And when it does refer to sexual desire, is it always the same kind of sexual impulse that is merely misplaced heterosexuality for a homosexual? When the men of Prophet Lut’s town gang up on him at his house and ask for his three angelic guests, lusting (shahwah) after men instead of women (Qur’an 27: 55), is this the same kind of shahwah that is experienced between couples? Is it the same kind of shahwah that is a part of the tranquility, love, and kindness that God creates between people as a sign for us to reflect upon?
Not Your Western Deviance
Queer Muslims are not a result of a Western invention either. To those fellow Muslims who try to use this argument, please do not avoid a real conversation by claiming homosexuality and other queer identities are merely part of a liberal and secular agenda.
Being queer and Muslim is much more than the words you use to describe us. Or that this agenda is a danger to our families and communities. News flash: we are part of those families and communities that conservative and moderate Muslims are referring to. Our safety is also important. And we care very much about the well-being of our families and communities too.
Several times, within the queer Muslim safe spaces that we create for ourselves, I have been in discussion about what it means to be gay, lesbian, trans*, etc. in societies that celebrate normative stories about queerness. The normative story being the coming out narrative of the liberated gay white boy. Coming out, only one possible facet to the life of being queer, is not always a thing that people do, especially when we consider the intersection of our queerness with religion, race, ethnicity, class, ability, culture, etc. Queer Muslims might even face stigmatization and prejudice from other queers for the way we may approach our queerness differently because of our faith, race, ethnicity, or culture. We are and continue to navigate our own stories and the ones we hope to create for ourselves.
Fellow Muslims that continue to other-ize us as part of a larger secular, liberal, and anti-religion, anti-family problem (read: enemy) should know that by doing so they are doing nothing to address the apparent “problem” of sexual and gender minorities. And for sure, they are doing nothing to open up dialogue on an “issue” that is not Muslim-proof.
And then there are those who say it does not matter if queer identities are real or not, natural or unnatural. The jury of the scientific community is apparently still out debating this.
Notwithstanding much improved psychological understandings about sexuality and gender or research into the sexual and gender diversity that is found throughout creation, too many hold the belief that claiming a queer identity is synonymous to feigning responsibility for the actions resulting from that identity. That is, queer people are placing blame on God for what they do. It would be similar to a murderer claiming God made him a murderer and that legitimates his crimes. And as a side note, no Muslim who makes this argument has ever explained to me this incredible leap of logic to equate queerness to murder, alcoholism, drug abuse, etc.
Keep in mind that this is a kind of answer that is heard as scholarly advice in answer to a Muslim struggling to make sense of one’s same-sex attractions, gender identity, etc. We bring up an issue that we are too afraid to bring up in our own communities. And in our anonymity, we think we are safe; however, this ignorance is not exactly the qualities of any safe space.
And we know this.
Too many of us queer Muslims are self-deprecating when we anonymously seek advice. As if permission to talk about a taboo subject such as one’s asexuality/transgenderism/homosexuality/etc. is on the condition that we talk about how we know it is wrong, that it disgusts us, and, though we do not know why we are the way that we are, we understand it is unnatural and a deviance from whatever divinely intended nature we hypothetically had before it was somehow corrupted.
Since when does a scholar or fellow Muslim, to whom we are desperately seeking guidance from, ever address the spiritual harm that our questions reflect?
The best answer we have is the patronizing: “we all have tests given to us by Allah. This is your test. Don’t loose hope. Pray. Fast. Read the Qur’an. Maybe even get [hetero] married. You can do it!”
Queer Muslims experience so much pain and spiritual suffocation. Over and over again we are reminded that what we have is a test and that Allah only tests us with what we are capable of handling.
And to this, I think quite a number of us queer Muslims would respond with a “f*** you” to such a sad attempt at giving us hope and reassurance.
It is not even an attempt at an answer. At least not the kind of attempt we need. The kind of attempt our souls and bodies need for the spiritual nourishment that we are so hungry and thirsty for.
We did not ask for your patronizing pat on the shoulder.
With that off my chest, I would hope for more compassion from fellow Muslims. And real hope, reassurance, and guidance.
I am not sure what to do when someone says “this is a test.” This entire life is a test. Allah “created death and life to test you and reveal which of you does best” (Qur’an 67: 2). We know this. Our queerness is a constant reminder of it. It is not just about struggling with “feelings.” It is also struggling with our faith. With God. With other Muslims. With our families. In our relationships.
To remind us that we are living a test is to state the obvious. It tells us nothing new. And it gives us no direction. Tell me something tangible that I can do to help myself understand my sexuality, my queerness, and relationships better so that it improves my life, my relationships with others, and my spirituality rather than make me feel suffocated.
Even as I criticize my fellow Muslims for not providing adequate guidance, I myself am often at a loss for words. And I am not the only queer Muslim to feel this way.
Mohammed Yusuf, a guest writer on Virtual Mosque wrote:
If you’re a Muslim struggling with your sexuality, I’m not going to offer you some generic advice as some scholars might, and then avoid your actual concerns altogether. I really wish I could point you in the right direction—but that’s part of the point of this article, that the Muslim community needs to do more to support those of us who are homosexual and Muslim.
As a collective ummah, in Mohammed Yusuf’s words, we are indeed ignoring “the elephant in the (prayer) room.” The community does indeed have a responsibility to talk about it.
Opening up conversation will most certainly not match with the ideal situation that I imagine, but at least by speaking with compassion we might be able to figure out the best words, thinking, and approaches to this issue. In the same way, our Islamic centers also avoid other elephants in the room, namely, the exclusion of women from prayer spaces, communal areas, and leadership positions in too many mosques. And one may talk about this all under the larger concern of being “un-mosqued.”
For queer Muslims, Mohammed Yusuf does offer some powerful words. After expressing his loss for guiding words he writes to his fellow queer Muslims:
I will say, though, that you’re definitely not alone. There is an Islamic viewpoint that says the having of same-sex feelings is itself no sin. And contrary to how others may make you feel, you’re no less of a human being or a good Muslim. I wish you all the best, and really hope you find the support you need.
Though upon meeting other queer Muslims, I often imagine myself to have nothing to offer, we both realize that the next best thing we do give one another is the knowledge that we are not alone.
And to be sure, we were never really alone. There are other unicorns out there. We have probably prayed next to Muslims like us, both of us struggling in that secret jihad that is our queerness and wrestling with our faith in our own individual ways.
And you, straight, cisgender sibling in Islam, have most likely and unknowingly prayed besides us as well.
In addition to knowing that we are not alone, there is also an increase in literature and relative visibility to alternative interpretations and theologies. One only has to know where to look.
Requisite reading for all queer Muslims is Siraj Kugle’s Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. His book is the first radical attempt to interpret the Qur’an and Hadith from a queer perspective. While I doubt it is and will gain little credible traction and consideration by mainstream and whom Kugle calls “neo-orthodox” Muslims, it opened up my mind to a different viewpoint. One that was much needed during a time when I felt Islam itself was rejecting me.
As for an attempt at dialogue in Muslim communities, I find that I can no longer attempt meeting fellow Muslims “halfway” as a means to bridge understanding. It is hard for me to say “yes, the Qur’an does say that, but have you considered this?” It is hard for me to say because there is so much suffering. And suffering and rejection that is more than I have or ever will experience thanks in large part to my whiteness.
I once heard Hamza Yusuf, in response to a quesiton about homosexuality, that this is an “issue” Muslims cannot “waffle on,” that is, though our lives in the West witness increasing acceptance of queer people, there is no room for us in our religion or communities to do the same. We must stay true to our Islam.
But in the same way, I do not think that we can waffle on our position against oppression and prejudice.
Too many fellow Muslims do not see queer people as oppressed in any way. Many are quite adamant about queers not being real minorities. Again, we are apparently only an unfortunate byproduct of some Western, secular deviance. Similarly, this is probably why they reject the idea of any queer identity because it legitimizes the realities of our sexualities and genders.
Our scholars, community leaders, and other siblings in Islam need to stop dismissing the realities of our queerness. Just because these realities are not your own do not mean they do not exist. And just because they are not common to human experience does not mean that it gives you the right to place blame on some deficiency in queer people that has somehow corrupted what is supposed to be our “normal” straight and man/woman identities. We live in the same imperfect societies and environments as you. And we all have our deficiencies in our humanity. We are all children of Adam and Eve and we deserve the dignity that comes with that.
Obviously, a change in language and a change in thought would help a lot. Language and thinking that is a lot less ignorant. And without the ignorance that is written off as okay because one is apparently speaking directly on behalf of the divine intentions of Qur’anic verses and not influenced by bias or self-serving interpretations. It is okay to say “I do not know much about what queer is.” But it is not okay to believe queer identities are not worth learning about because they do not exist in your understanding of the text.
It is not okay to interpret us away because our existence is inconvenient to your cry for preserving the integrity of some romanticized notion of a stagnate, unchanging, homogeneous, always relevant Islamic tradition. Our dignity as human beings and as Muslims is more important than the integrity of this orthodox “tradition.”
I would pray that you, my fellow Muslims, would be open-minded enough to learn about a human experience other than your own. While we queer Muslims will go on making safe and sacred spaces of our own to find dignity, fulfillment, and rest from the suffocation of your Islamic centers, I hope that our Islamic scholars, leaders, and other Muslims also make attempts to make more compassionate space for us.
And so I will end this post with a simple plea: please make space for your siblings in Islam.
“You who believe, if you are told to make room for one another in your assemblies, then do so, and God will make room for you” (Qur’an 58:11)
May Allah forgive us all for our shortcomings and reward us for what good we do in this life. Oh Allah, we take refuge in You lest we should stray or be led astray, or slip or be tripped, or oppress or be oppressed, or act ignorantly or be treated ignorantly. Rabbanaa, increase us in knowledge. Increase us in knowledge. Increase us in knowledge.