Reflections on the 2014 LGBTQI Muslim Retreat

As a queer Muslim, I have often felt like a living contradiction of identities. Crashing into my burgeoning acceptance of my queer self were friends who saw it as their religious duty to explain to me how diametrically opposed this identity was to my Muslim self. In many ways, the Islamic spaces which were indispensable places of belonging for me–either with friends or at the mosque itself–had essentially ceased to be healthy environments (if they really ever had been), even though people had once accepted me with open arms when I converted.

This lost sense of community faded away as I became sucked into internal arguments with myself and external arguments with others in an attempt to legitimize my sexual orientation in light of my faith. The few friends who stood with me were beacons of hope and helpful conversation partners along this journey to figure out what being Muslim and queer meant to me.

This figuring out of seemingly contradictory identities–read: “reconciling”–was the mindset with which I attended 2014’s LGBTQ Muslim Retreat. Organized by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD), it ran from May 23-26 over Labor Day weekend.

On the first day of the Retreat, I worded my intention this way: that I was there to listen to people’s stories. It was about learning about how others reconcile their various sexual and gender identities with their faith. I looked forward to these conversations in a safe, accepting, and welcoming space.

But the Retreat ended up being so much more.

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the (sacred) grounds of the retreat center

On the last night, I remember sitting around talking to new friends and one of them said how he had not realized how much he had needed a community. His point immediately reverberated with me and I ended up talking shortly about that during a wrap-up session the following day.

Listening to people’s stories and discussions on how we all made sense of our diverse identities were common place. But that in no way defined the Retreat itself. From the first day the whole experience was immediately one of community and unconditional love.

It even began on the train ride I took from the Philadelphia airport to the Retreat center where I met my first two new friends—that is, once we had realized that the three of us were going to the same “retreat” and cautiously revealed both our queerness and Muslim-ness to one another. Once we arrived, this quickly accelerated into an overwhelming experience not only because of the physical presence of so many of us queer-identified Muslims in one place but because of the way we interacted with one another. In many ways, it was like a family reunion. And for those of you who dread family reunions, imagine one in which all your favorite people, cousins, and relatives were present greeting you and wanting to talk to you all at once.

Community, Dialogue, and New Friends

There were many conversations with new friends that stick out in my memory and for me, these interactions were just as important as any other aspect of the Retreat. Conversations during workshops and group discussions on race, privilege, religious diversity, community building, coming out, sexuality and gender, pronouns, sex, etc. overflowed into our everyday conversations. I felt that I learned just as much from new friends as I did from lectures and workshops.

Sitting down with a new friend or having someone new approach me meant a lot to me. I was interested in learning more about others and people were interested in learning more about me. I felt that I mattered and I was appreciated, not in spite of the identities I could now wear freely on my sleeve but because of them. To clarify, it was not that I’m valued solely for those identities either. It was more about acknowledging the uniqueness each of us brought to one another and the space we shared.

And to be sure, we were a diverse group of human beings. Many of my preconceived ideas of what our queer Muslim community looked like (heck, I didn’t even know we really had one) were completely torn away as I met people from various ethnic, cultural, and religious identities, as well as meeting other re/converts such as myself.

We Are All Ayat of Allah

The message of jumu’ah prayer that Friday at the Retreat gives spiritual importance to this family reunion of unique and diverse individuals. El-Farouk Khaki, one of the founders of el-Tawhid Juma Circle’s Toronto Unity Mosque gave the khutbah (sermon) and spoke more or less around the topic of the Retreat: “strength in diversity.” For me, one of the take-aways was what he said about the signs or ayat of Allah.

The word “ayat” refers to both verses in the Qur’an and the signs or reflections of the Divine. My favorite verse related to this (ask me next week and I might give you a different one) is in Surat Fussilat:

“We shall show them Our signs on the far horizons and in themselves, until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth. Is it not enough that your Lord witnesses everything?” (Qur’an 41:53)

As far as the ayat of the Qur’an, we show a lot of respect and reverence. We make sure the Qur’an doesn’t touch the ground. We often make sure we are ritually pure when we pick it up to read. And we read it in a state of focus and attention (khushu’), cognitively and spiritually acknowledging it as holy.

When do we afford the same kind of respect and reverence to other ayat of God? Are living breathing human beings of any less importance than a revealed book (to whom it was revealed for)? El-Farouk also asked us to look around ourselves, at the beautiful woodlands that surrounded us, asking us if we ever show the same reverence to nature and our planet.

Reading the Qur’an for the first time, the idea of ayat was one of the things that drew me into Islam. That Friday–and the entire Retreat–became a reflection upon the ethical implications of such a theology.

For queer Muslims, the presence of God in our lives has often been ignored and pushed aside. The normative rhetoric of preachers reduces us to desires, lusts, and mere feelings. Rather than approaching our gender identities and sexual orientations as legitimate challenges to normative religious thought, they interpret these identities away by defining them as human imperfections to struggle against. In the lived experience of queer Muslims, this jihad can become a lonely battle of covering up our identities and if we can manage, putting on straight and/or cis-gendered masks.

In contrast, asserting that God is equally present in our lives, El-Farouk’s khutbah comes back to mind as I remember him reciting:

“…We are closer to [the human being] than their jugular vein.” (Qur’an 50:16)

He told everyone to notice that this divine nearness was not qualified. The verse does not read “and We are closer to straight men” or “closer to cis-gendered persons.” Allah is accessible to all. This makes the issue of pushing queer Muslims aside a pressing theological and ethical question. The same could be said of Muslim women whose presence is marginalized and limited in many Muslim communities, leadership positions, and Islamic spaces.

Each of us are endowed with ayat of Allah. Each of us have reflections of God within each of us. Imagine if we treated one another with the same reverence and respect we impart on the Qur’an. What if we treated one another and the planet as holy? Could the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, have meant this when he told us that the whole Earth is a masjid for us (a mosque; a place of prostration), that the physical place of a mosque is no more fit for prayer and no more holy than the green grass outside?

What was so incredibly moving and overwhelming was how this ethic of ayat was put into practice. Normally, in any Islamic space (MSA meetings, events, the Islamic Center, etc.) I assume discomfort and I often mentally prepare myself for ignorant and un-compassionate reactions to my presence. I never realized how much this mindset had become such an expectation until I found myself in the Pennsylvania woods at a queer Muslim retreat.

It was everything short of physically jarring to sit in a circle–literally and metaphorically–and have my identity validated and honored. We prayed together, side by side. Gender mattered not, nor did my sexuality. And in the same breath, my sexuality did matter because it was honored and respected as an ayah of Allah. We were all afforded the same access: we could lead prayer, call people to prayer, pray in the back, pray in the middle, pray to the left or right, or sit down and watch. I felt that our presence, no matter where or what kind it was, was honored as an integral part of the community we had formed.

I remember clearly fajr prayer, the pre-dawn salat on that Saturday and being asked to give the call to prayer. I had not done it for so long I thought for sure I would forget or stumble over the words of the adhan. It turned out to be a very moving moment for me.  And of all prayers to call for the fajr prayer. It brought back memories of going to the mosque every day and feeling such a sense of belonging when I would be invited to give adhan, to lead prayer, or read hadith after prayer. Giving the adhan during the retreat only emphasized the sense of community I already felt.

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No More Masks: Unconditional Love and Acceptance

Our differences are just as intertwined with our sense of community as our shared identities tie us together. I did not have to wear a mask. And while it was certainly not surprising for such a retreat, it was wonderfully refreshing to have my own identities as well as those of others to become part of conversations in Islamic spaces. And to be sure, these were not typical conversations.

The height of belonging in my “home” Muslim community in which all of my identities were openly acknowledged was at a friend’s house. This friend had invited a few other mutual Muslim friends from the community to discuss being gay and Muslim in a safe space. It was refreshing in the sense of giving me a place to talk about myself openly and have fellow Muslims interact with me calmly and rationally.

But it was no coming out party. The more we talked the more it felt like an intervention, to show me that my friends were there for me to support me through this “jihad.” One friend thanked me for reminding him that none of us are perfect and that, just like him, we all struggle with our sexual desires. I left feeling that something was lost in translation but at the time, this was the best I could hope for from the Muslim community I used to call home.

In (refreshing) contrast, what do you do when you are given a space in which the unconditional love of your whole self is the fundamental base to the community you find yourself in?

After being so accustomed to the contrary, the first two days of the retreat I would describe as overwhelming. In my discussions with new friends, it was certainly a common sentiment. One of the facilitators even advised us during an announcement that we should not feel obligated to attend every event and workshop and to feel free to take time out for oneself, take a walk in the woods, go to the art studio on campus, or spend time alone in our rooms.

As one of the co-chairs of the Retreat put it, some of us suffer from FOMO, i.e. fear of missing out. For better or for worse, I was one of those who could not imagine missing out on any workshop, event, or opportunity to socialize. And to make matters better or worse, I seemed to be perpetually caught between two great opportunities and having to pick one over the other (where’s a time turner when you need one?).

Rethinking “Reconciliation” and Finding New Language

This retreat has also caused a slight (but important) shift in the way I think about my identity as queer and Muslim. One of my new friends spoke critically of an article that talked about the retreat as a place where “attendees try to reconcile their faith and sexuality.” A retreat participant wrote a response to this article that is worth reading, writing about what the experience of the retreat really was for her.

For sure, I thought my primary experience would be one of reconciliation, but this was not the case. And if this idea of “reconciliation” was present at the Retreat, it was there to be challenged.

Reconciliation means to bring two disparate things into harmony, to make them compatible with one another. For me, this word “reconciliation” may have been appropriate to describe how I used to approach being queer and Muslim, but my experiences and meeting other queer Muslims at the Retreat have lead me to rethink this. Actually, when my identities were accepted and affirmed by default, these identities no longer became an issue of reconciliation.

The subtext of the Retreat was a resounding affirmation that sexuality and gender are matters of fact. They are truths to our being. They are real. Likewise, our faith, no matter where it is or how we define it, is also part of that reality.

Both sexuality/gender and faith/spirituality/religiosity coexist within each of us. While the challenges these two aspects of our personal identities might suggest the need for reconciliation, neither exists isolated from the other. Both overlap with one another, albeit many times in complicated and even paradoxical ways.  Yet they inform our unique experiences of the world.

For me, my life as a convert to Islam has principally seen my sexuality and faith as in conflict. I was essentially taught that only heterosexuality could exist in harmony with my faith. There was a time when much of my spiritual energy, as draining as it would later become for me, was dedicated to suppressing my “homosexual desires” and try to live outwardly as a straight Muslim, seeking heterosexual marriage.

It was all justified in the language of “for the sake of Allah.” Pursuing heterosexual companionship was pleasing to Allah while pursuing homosexual companionship would cause divine anger. When this was not working I rebelled against it, insisting that being gay and Muslim can be reconciled. I have since realized that, at least for me, this word “reconciliation” was still entrapped in this discourse of “queer” being contrary to “Islam” when in fact, I have always been both. Whether I accepted that or not was always besides the point. As I worded it in a poem I wrote:

They say:

“Feelings are merely feelings.”

The problem of my homosexuality is so easy

Because all I have to do is not act on it

And I want to scream so many things

Because I don’t know what part of me

Doesn’t act on it

This shift away from the language of “reconciliation” has been liberating for me. It has helped me become unapologetic about the reality of my self. In the context of a queer Muslim community, I was able to experience what this truly means. Quite simply, I am who I am. My queer identity no longer qualifies my state of iman (faith). It has no importance in the quality of my religiosity or spirituality. And yet, in the same breath, my queer self has every importance for my spirituality, as now I am learning how to treat it with gentleness, respect, and reverence as an ayah of Allah.

Right now, I am not exactly sure what word fits to describe the way my sexuality and faith interact, but it is certainly not about fitting the “queer part” of me into the “Muslim part” or vice versa.

Firstly, they are not “parts” or halves of me that suggest divisibility or separateness even though not too long ago this may have come close to describing my experience. Whenever I was in my Muslim part of my life, whether that was at the mosque or with Muslim friends, my sexuality did not magically disappear. Likewise, my Islamic self did not become irrelevant in queer spaces or in the same-sex crushes, experiences, and relationships I have had.

Lastly, I have reached the point where choosing one identity over the other has become unacceptable and non-negotiable. Where ever I am, who ever I say I am or am not, and who ever one says I can or cannot be, I am and always will be, unequivocally myself. Whether or not people are bothered by this is not their concern. Rather it is my individual self that must come to terms with its creation and its choices.

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tea, breakfast, and tea at the retreat

Sharing Joy and Knowledge

I hope that my writing makes it clear that being a queer Muslim is not defined by experiences of pain and exclusion as we struggle with the apparently insurmountable challenge to “reconcile” our sexual orientations and gender identities with our Islam.

In stating this I do not mean to discount experiences of marginalization and suffering. During the Retreat’s talent show I was able to share some of my poetry about the pain and anger I have had to face as a queer Muslim and that was incredibly cathartic for me. It was also important for me to know it resonated with others and that I was not alone.

However, the Retreat was overwhelmingly a gathering about joy rather than sadness. This, even above sharing my own stories of struggle, was the most healing and refreshing aspect of that weekend: a much needed feeling of affirmation.

Besides the feelings of belonging, acceptance, and community experienced throughout the Retreat, the talent show was one of the most joyful memories I have. We shared our music, we sung together, we clapped together, there was dancing, poetry from the heart, and spoken word. The sum of our talents that night expressed so many experiences greater than the sum of our stories of pain and exclusion.

Learning more about my faith was also a very positive experience. We had a talk on religious diversity in Islam as well as one titled “queering the Qur’an.” Both workshops reminded me of an Islamic reform movements course I took a semester prior to that spring because it freed me from thinking about Islam in monolithic ways.

I came into Islam through a Salafi door in which interpretations of Qur’an and hadith were often one-dimensional and one only had to submit to such understandings to get closer to Allah. For me, there came a time when the intensified focus on the rules of worship and behavior could only take me so far. And there was only so far I could grow religiously if the most pressing questions in my life were not to be entertained or explored in deeper ways than mere textbook answers of “that’s just the way things are.”

The learning, open dialogue, and questioning done at the Retreat was refreshing, especially in an Islamic context. This was most vivid for me in rethinking the way I approach the relationship between my sexuality and faith. It is not a question of reconciliation. It is more a question of how each identity can enrich the other. For example, what religious language can I use in my same-sex relationships? What aspects of companionship and marriage work and do not work? What expressions of sexuality can be religiously grounded and which ones challenge my religious orthodoxy or the cultural values I have learned?

And to be sure, this frees up sexuality and faith into larger and more important inquiries. As Kecia Ali writes in her Sexual Ethics & Islam, the question of same-sex marriage in Islam is a part of rethinking Islamic marriage, rethinking nikah, mahr, and reflecting on the possibilities for a more gender equitable practice of Islam.

This is why talks on “queering the Qur’an” and religious diversity throughout Islamic history were important discussions at the Retreat. It provided much needed conversational space to talk about Islamic tradition, what the Qur’an is, and what Islam can be for us today in light of such a diverse community of which all of us at the Retreat bore witness.

Spiritual Healing

In much the same way community was a surprising need fulfilled that I was originally not searching for, spirituality was another. When I was coming out to my Muslim friends, I talked to an older re/convert who identified with my struggles, talking about how the mosque can be a “spiritually suffocating” place. His words struck a chord with me and it is an issue he began discussing openly in Muslim communities, much to the discomfort of those who do not wish to hear such criticisms of the exclusionary communities we often create (unintentional as this may be in many cases). There are many reasons for Muslims to feel un-mosqued, not the least of which is coming to terms with one’s sexuality or gender.

Daily prayers, dhikr/zikr (words of remembrance), and spaces of free speech provided the kind of spiritual place I had forgotten I needed. After salat/namaz we would share our thoughts. We would also talk about loved ones who were on our mind and for whom we wanted to collectively pray.

Dhikr was meditative and uplifting, reflecting on the Names of God or praises on Prophet Muhammad. I have always been mystically inclined, so it was wonderful to explore that part of me in group worship. At the same time, in much the same way that gender neutral prayer space was initially challenging for me, this way of dhikr was also challenging, having come from a more textualist approach to Islamic practice.

The most moving dhikr for me was at the end of Sunday night activities. Past midnight, more than a dozen of us gathered in the campus’ worship hall, sat on the floor in a circle, and were lead through a meditative dhikr commemorating the Miˁraj (Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to the heavens).

Afterwards, an atmosphere of tranquility had settled itself in the room as if we had made the night journey of the Miˁraj ourselves. People were invited to share what was on their mind and more than once I was brought to tears. Thankfully, a box of tissues was being passed around.

I reflected upon the entire Retreat. If the shade of the trees of Paradise are God’s mercy, then no where have I felt that mercy in quite the same way as at this retreat. I said that I felt blessed to have sat under the shade of so many who made up this tree of mercy planted in those past few days. After a moment of quiet, the one who had lead us in that night’s dhikr responded to me to remember that I was also a leaf in that tree.

I miss the evenings and mornings filled with dhikr and it is something I am trying to incorporate into my daily practice as a Muslim. This practice of dhikr is not only remembering Allah and the prophets but also has become a means of remembering the spiritual connections I made with others at the retreat, an unspoken du’a (invocation) that I may once again find myself among such company.

Still Processing…

The Retreat has given me a lot to think about. What I learned in the academic-style spaces, the worship/spiritual spaces, and the social and story-telling spaces will be influencing a lot of my thinking on religion, spirituality, identity, and queerness. There is still much to be processed and I suppose that is one of the most refreshing and nourishing aspects of the Retreat: that the spiritual and intellectual food for thought has greatly impacted my life, extending further than the event itself and into my life.

Anyone who has attended or is thinking about attending certainly will have slightly (and maybe even very) different experiences than I had. Overall, my experience was about finding community and spiritual nourishment. This was an experience that I would have missed out on if I had not challenged myself to attend and, once there, if I had not opened up my mind and heart, challenging the limits of the orthodoxy I was accustomed to.

I believe that the Retreat becomes for anyone whatever that individual is seeking. I came to hear about experiences, share stories, and to learn. But I never knew I needed what this retreat really gave me the most of: a sense of community, spiritual enrichment, and allowing me the space to reflect on the relationship between my sexuality and my faith.

It was incredibly healing to be in a space in which my whole self was welcomed and loved by others. Equally moving was to meet people as fellow human beings and finding strength and support in that. Whether it was found in all our unique selves united in reciting dhikr or in our loving interactions in which we found God’s shade under each others’ branches and leaves, it was evident to me that we are all unique creations of Allah finding strength in our diversity.

prayer rugs

pray rugs laid out for salat at the retreat

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