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.
To argue that shame matters to our queerness, I focus on the experience of Qur’an recitation. This is not merely because of its ubiquity in our Islamic piety; it is also because that act of reading itself already shares some of the same embodied characteristics of shame. Sedgwick points this out when she says that reading and shame both involve a “hyperreflexivity” of the body: downcast eyes, lowered head, a self-absorbed retreat from the world (1995, pp. 518-520). This is especially true in the heightened ritualized way of reading Qur’an, whether in prayer or not: the requisite ritual purity, the eyes lowered in pious reverence and concentration (khushūˁ), the careful attention to proper pronunciation.
The performamativity of reciting/reading (qirā’ah) merges with shame when we encounter such verses such as:
“We also sent Lot to his people. He said to them, ‘How can you commit this outrage with your eyes wide open?/ How can you lust after men instead of women? You are foolish people!’/ The only answer his people gave was to say, ‘Expel Lot’s followers from your town! These men mean to stay chaste!’” (Qur’an 27: 54-56)
Somehow, in a passage such as this, the Qur’an can conjure shame within us. It seems to implicate us in its verses. The eyes downcast in pious humility become the downcast eyes of shame. We suddenly experience a drastic change in our relationship to the text.
This is a cognitive and physical disruption to our recitation. It is a break in our relationship to the text (Sedgwick, 1993, p. 7). What starts off as an experience of intimate communion with God’s Words becomes a kind of rejection. The text becomes the person who can no longer bear to look at us, the accused. In response, we blush, feel ourselves “turn[ed] inside out” or “outside in” (Sedgwick, 1995, p. 520). The very words we chant on our tongue, lips, next to our jugular veins expel us. We experience a kind of dissonance in a similar way that ritual prayer can. It is, as Laury Silvers writes of prayer, an “embodied dissonance” in which we experience homophobic and transphobic shaming as piety. We experience our break in relationship with the divine as a rejection because of a perceived lack of goodness or righteousness.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when we first find such verses personally accusatory. Perhaps a different yet similar kind of hail happened on the playground. Or when our parents dragged us to the mosque one Friday and we overheard some uncle whispering about someone else’s child. Or maybe the shame from reciting these verses comes in combination with an even earlier memory: the last time our father or mother let us pray with our parent of the opposite gender/sex and then, for reasons beyond our immediate comprehension, we must pray with people whose gender and sexuality we supposedly ought to share.
In any case, eventually, these verses illicit shame. We seem to recognize how certain normative acts of piety–like gender segregation–expose–to ourselves, to others, and to God–an apparent lack of piety within us. There is a sense that something isn’t right about us.
Verses that tend to accuse us are like eyes that refuse to look in our faces. Or suddenly look at us differently. Strangely, rejection and alienation aren’t the only things that happen here; we also arrive at some new understanding of ourselves. We become queer, gay, trans, different, not-cis, not-straight. Maybe even before we can name it. We know we are suddenly dangerously different. Frighteningly odd. We become queer. And with every recitation, we are not merely reminded of some troubling relationship to God and our communities and families; the recitation of shame also reminds us of our queer selves. Part of who we are and continually become as people of faith is determined by this shame. The practice of recitation becomes a performance of queerness.
Performance or recitation of shame, queerness, or Islamic normativity is iterative. Here, I draw from that other queen of queer theory, Judith Butler, who argues that gender is performative. That is, gender isn’t a natural truth about ourselves; rather, it is a set of culturally determined acts that society compels us to re-cite over and over again. One can say that gender, sex, and sexuality are all scripts that make us into who we are. Sedgwick, riffing on Butler, writes that shame is also performative. It compels us to act it out and by doing so, it makes us. Shame is also part of the performance of queerness.
Ashamed recitations happen over and over again. We may recite such verses before our Qur’an teacher. We would be cross-legged, face down, eyes on the floor, absorbed in reciting these verses from memory. As a student, we may forget one or two verses. The teacher might give a hint: the first word of the verse or a loose English translation. We will find that our body remembers. Then, coming (again) to the verses we dread reciting, our face heats up in embarrassment. We hope our body’s accusations are not legible to the people around us. We know we are queerly different because we are continually becoming different every time we recite these verses with our eyes caste down with hot faces, tensing our shoulders, holding our own sweaty hands. Shame and queerness literally writes itself into our skin.
Even if we’ve never acted on our desires, there is the strange experience of feeling implicated in certain verses. We experience these verses as talking about people of our lusts, going beyond bounds of decency and getting what they deserve. The raging sexual desires that drive the men of Sodom to Lot’s door feel like something we have already taken part in. Lot is pointing an accusatory finger at us: “How can you commit this outrage?” And perhaps in a horrifying way, as the reciter, we hear Lot’s condemnation in our voice. We hear ourselves say these words to ourselves, a self-accusatory text. Lot is a prophetic accuser handing us, the accused/accursed, our indictment then compelling us to read it aloud, commit it to memory. This is a performance of shame and a recitation of queerness.
In reciting these verses, we enact a certain moralized knowledge about one’s body. It is remembering an internalized index that fashions our religiosity. The reciter is an embodied concordance of the Qur’an. A word such as al-fāḥisha—translated here as “outrage”—has a particular sexual valence. One has encountered the homosexualization of the term in sermons and in online fatwas. While one is reciting ata’tūna’l-fāḥisha, we are also reciting a certain understanding of this verse. Our downcast eyes, sweaty hands, and knot in our guts are performances of: how dare you come to homosexuality and ya Allah I am that.
Guilt is not an accurate term here. We do not need to have “acted” on “it” to feel the emotive force behind such recitations. I also doubt we have to be gay men to experience shame in these verses–seemingly literal references to male homosexuality is proximate enough to multiple sexual and gender deviances (and, to be sure, it operates as such in “mainstream” spaces to condemn all kinds of deviance). The force of a prohibition is not simply against homosexual acts but both specifically homosexual and generally queer existence which intensifies around sites of arousal, the imagination, the eyes, the private parts. Shame “permanently intensifies or alters the meaning of—of almost anything: a zone of the body, a sensory system, a prohibited or indeed a permitted behavior” (Sedwick, 1993, 12). Even when we cannot understand Arabic, when we hear the imam recite during prayers, we always hear the word al-fāḥisha. And it is always talking about us. About the sexual desires we have. About the sex we had. About the sex we wished we had. About the sex we’re terrified of having. About the ways we are not proper women or men. About the sexuality that already burns our flesh in its lustful longings. About hellfire and eternal punishments. Towns overturned in the sky for having done this. The thrown of God shaking in rage over it.
We as the reciters, in feeling this accusatory charge attached to our bodies, may recall another verse we may have memorized: “They will say to their skins, ‘Why did you testify against us?’ and their skins will reply, ‘God, who gave speech to everything, has given us speech” (Q 41:21). Verses such as these stick in our mind without our willingness to actually memorize them. It is as if our skin is already speaking for us.[i] This is because these verses express normative valuations of the body that attach themselves to a reciter’s flesh. In the context of shame, it is not any deviant sex or gender act that marks us but, again, the performance of downcast eyes and dread felt in our gut.
Reciting a Predetermined Script
These verses we recite and memorize are not necessarily homophobic or transphobic. Qur’anic verses rarely come to us weightless of human interpretations. No matter how much the imam (or even ourselves) insist on one particular reading as the literal, truest-to-the-original meaning. One cannot simply read the Qur’an and come directly to an understanding of the divine word. Interpretations have already arrived well before we open up the Qur’an, read a translation, or open up our mouth to recite it from memory.
At this point, it may be useful to speak more about Judith Butler. Ways of being human are always contingent on time and place. Our gender and sexuality come to us prepackaged. But we are made to experience them as natural, matter-a-fact, as precisely the stuff of inner truth that is beyond their social construction. It is what we modern Muslims probably hear in verses such as “wa mā khalaqa’l-dhakara wa’l-unthā” (“by the male and female He created,” Qur’an 92:3). God swearing by the creation of male and female sounds like gender dimorphism is the only God-ordained, natural way of being human. And these naturalized human constructs are performed, acted out in our everyday lives and in Qur’an recitation, thereby reinforced over and over again.
But the over-and-over-again iterative nature of performances are also fragile. Normative, “literal” readings/recitations are unstable, at risk of change and manipulation. A conservative, mainstream scholar who takes the prohibition of homosexuality without saying may recite the associated verses anyway. This reminds me of Butler writing about normative society’s violent anxiety towards gender deviance as evidence that gender is nothing but an act and in no way “ontologically necessitated” (Butler, 1988, p. 528). The heteropatriarchy must constantly insist upon the correct ways of doing gender–or religious normativity–the right way: the right way to dress, the right way to act, the right way to interpret these verses.
Recitations are always re-performances of ritual scripts, citing again and again constructed ways of being in the world. This also means that the continution relies on perfect (read: mainstream, normative) recitations. But perfection does not always happen. After all, Muslims already do not recite the Qur’an in the same way (it’s happened before and probably many times that a Muslim man from the Middle East takes the Somali who just lead prayer aside, telling him he did it wrong). Recitation as a performance always leaves room for improvisation, for improper citations of norms, and unexpected performances that expand the meanings of Muslim piety.
Shaking in Fear and Excitement
My point here is that even though experiences of shame cause us alienation, making us feel the pain of our queer otherness; it also drives us to formulate new understandings of ourselves that can be empowering even as they cause us to look down to the floor. The above verses about Lot is one site where a queer Muslim recognizes their desires as pleasurable. A queer body is called into existence by the recitation. We are at once called out for our difference and invited inwards to our deviancy. To oneself: Oh. I do want to sleep with someone of the wrong gender. And tell me more about these boys of paradise, as beautiful as scattered pearls, in that one verse in surah al-Mulk (see: Q 76:19). The queer performativity of shame shakes us in fear and excitement, alienation and enticement both.
Shame does not go away. It continually rescripts us. It is “integral to and residual in the processes by which identity itself is formed. They are available for the work of metamorphosis, reframing, refiguration, transfiguration, affective and symbolic loading and deformation” (Sedgwick, 1993, 13). In the recitation of the Qur’an, shame continues to be reproduced in a circular way. Shame prompts recognition, formation, reformulation of a person with prohibited desires. Shame then continues to surface through verses that remind one of one’s embarrassment. This reinforces identity, maintains the performance. And it redirects us in surprising ways, enticing us, giving names to new desires.
Sedgwick calls shame “a kind of free radical” (1993, 12) that continues to rework and resignify our bodies. Erotic passions and erotic zones of the body can be felt in new ways, opening up to new embarrassments awakening to new desires. I am not talking about the myth of shame passing away into liberating closure; I am talking about closure that is withheld by its very operation. It might immobilize. But it also incites. Nothing is final. Nothing is resolved.
Similarly to the Qur’an.
The Queer(‘s) Qur’an
The Qur’an and the queer Muslim, the recitation and the reciter, both reveal their mutual messiness through the experience of shame. There is a disjunction between what the recitation apparently performs (an insistence to not be a homosexual or other queer body) and how one should actually go about not being one. There are ritual scripts of averting one’s gaze, of avoiding the “opposite” sex, of praying with other men, of avoiding “bad” company. But shame continues to re-visit a queer Muslim. Praying next to another man who was never supposed to be a distraction. Where averting my gaze from women feels like piety but averting my gaze from men continues to already feel like a condemnation. What shame shows us is the impossibility of ritual mastery and the possibility—indeed, the necessity—to rethink, if not how to not be a homosexual (within a script designed for and by heterosexual men) then how to find a livable life as a homosexual. To realize that script I’ve been given is incomplete, messy, and up to reinterpretation. Up for deviant re-citations.
Within the Qur’an, the queer Muslim finds a surprising ally. In the Qur’an, the story is already rarely ever told in a complete, unbroken, consistent narration. It withholds the pleasure of a complete telling, a clear narration, a comprehensive account. Social norms and normative interpretations may fill in the gaps.[ii] But all in all, pleasurable inconsistencies abound. Kecia Ali brings an example of this in her contrasting of two qur’anic tellings of Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus: one occurring in the Chapter on the Family of ‘Imran (Q 3) and another in Mary’s Chapter (Q 19). In some ways the narrations inform one another yet in other ways they challenge one another. In this way, the Qur’an, in its very messiness, in revealing Mary as both “settled and unsettling,” is a queer text (Ali, p. 24). As for Lot’s story, the sexual impropriety of his people is not always mentioned (Q 51:32). Sometimes other misdeeds are listed with that of their sexual misconduct (Q 29:29). Other times, the Qur’an simply asks the reciter to remember the people of Lot (Q 38:13), then quickly moves on to other subjects. As much as shaming recitations stylize and engage an embodied Qur’anic concordance, something is not exactly concordant after all. There is a sense that not all meanings have been exhausted. Verses are crossed wires of truth that were supposed to be clear. But revelation proves to be rather muddled.
It is not my intention to romanticize shame as a site of queerness. Rather, shame is a site of queerness already, no matter how we feel about it at any given time or place. My intention in this preliminary reflection on queer Muslim recitation of the Qur’an is to show that shame—much like the norms in which we are embedded—is a set of experiences that comes without our choosing. And also that shame is not the end of our agency. In the face of the very norms that interpret queer existence away, one persists anyway precisely because shame is a means of constituting a queer identity. Even as norms see that we are properly disciplined, where the majority hopes and even plans for our marginalized existence–or even for our non-existence–shame betrays the norm it is supposed to uphold and, strangely, queerly enough, it continually insists upon our existence.
Where shame is meant to police us, it actually makes us and unsettles us. And where it unsettles us, it shakes us in ways that remake what comes to us prepackaged. Just as it abides in us, escaping an ultimate solution, resisting our attempts for our liberation from it, shame insists on the impossibility of closure. It opens up space for new significations, revealing the incompleteness of norms. Norms do not have the final say about who we are, what we do, and how we ought to live. In this way, shame plays itself out in our lives rather queerly. We are incited, tempted to improvise in our ritual readings of Qur’an, making possible new, shamefully pleasurable styles of recitation.
Abdel Haleem, M. A. S. The Qur’an. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Ali, Kecia. “Destabilizing Gender, Reproducing Maternity: Mary in the Qur’an.” (unpublished)
Butler, Judith. “Performative ACts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal. Vol. 10, No. 4, 1988, pp. 519-531.
_____. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 2007 (first published: 1990).
_____. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.
Hollywood, Amy. “Performativity, Citationality, Ritualization.” Acute Melancholia and Other Essays: Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” GLQ, Vol. 1, 1993, pp. 1-16.
_____. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 21, no. 2, Winter 1995, pp. 496-522.
[i] Re: Mark Jordan’s essay on Foucault, “Chatting Genitals” in Convulsing Bodies (2014).
[ii] Re: Aish Geissinger’s paper presentation at AAR in November 2017: while very little is said of the People of al-Rass, they show how such references to al-Rass were read by some scholars as condemnations of homosexual intimacy between women.