While critics continue to be dismissive, numerous gay Muslims are getting on with their lives and growing closer to Allah
I became a member of Imaan 18 months ago, when I stumbled upon their online forum almost randomly. I remember the moment so clearly, I kept pressing the back button on my browser, retracing the small steps from Google, thinking how come it took me so long, why didn’t I find this before? I’d spent a lot of time in Muslim countries before that day, but had never before heard sexuality being discussed so honestly by Muslims.
The possibility that Islam could have a space for me as a queer woman had seemed almost impossible to consider until that point. I had taken my shahada (testimony of faith) soon after reading the Qur’an for the first time, and never since doubted my belief in the truth of its message. Yet the actual reality of living as a Muslim was much harder as a gay woman, especially as the emphasis on heterosexual marriage is so pervasive in Muslim literature and consciousness.
As a convert I wasn’t surrounded by family pressurising me to get married – as so many born Muslims are – but almost every Muslim I met told me I needed to get married (and asap!) in order to learn about Islam. This made it hard to connect with my faith community, as I actually felt quite comfortable in my man-less life. I spent a many hours on the Imaan forum when I first joined, because although people do talk about sexuality and Islam, there’s a lot of just hanging out; I guess, exploring alternative ways of being. At one point I decided I would never go to an Imaan event, simply because I didn’t want to spoil the space that I’d found.
I changed my mind during Ramadan 2007. I had spent the first part of the month in the Middle East, and coming back to London, breaking fast alone while listening to khutbah on the internet just didn’t feel right. I hadn’t been able to access the Imaan forum while away (many Muslim majority countries block such sites) and when I heard that Imaan was hosting regular iftars (breaking of fast), I finally thought, if not now, when?
Attending that first social event was so frightening. To actually enter a room full of queer Muslims was such a bizarre thought, but actually it was just a room full of people breaking their fasts with dates and talking about their days. Still, I stayed nervous and must have only spoken a few words in that whole evening. Afterwards the sisters went for cake, and I was able to connect with them more easily. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the fact that there were existent, full-of-faith women practising Islam, and also queer, was the most inspiring thing. I started attending Imaan social and religious events as often as I could after that, ranging from an Eid party to film shows, dinners, interfaith events … and Gay Pride.
I’ve been blessed, through Imaan, to have met – and married – my partner, to have found some astounding friends and, inshallah, to have also grown in my Islamic faith. Simultaneously, I’ve heard people talk of such horrific experiences that I’ve realised the discussions that need to happen within the Muslim community have barely begun. For the overwhelming majority of born Muslims, the possibility of finding peace between their sexual orientation and their religious identity looks like a mirage on a distant landscape. This is a human rights issue. This is also an issue that could, and should, be solved by looking at our Islam. Some of the most fundamental tenets of Islam are compassion for others, human dignity, respect for life in all its forms and charity. The fact that so many brothers and sisters are turning – and being turned – away from their faith communities, their mosques, their families and even from their trust in Allah, testifies that somehow this compassionate side to our religion is not being lived fully.
The Holy Qur’an insists that there are multiple ways of understanding its message, and that overall, every believer is responsible for her own self, for her own choices, and for her own spirituality. When I read the Qur’an, the compassionate and merciful nature of our creator is the loudest message that I hear. In my understanding, the intricacies of human sexuality are not clearly spelt out within the Qur’an’s pages. Neither am I convinced that the infamous Lut narrative is a straightforward condemnation of consenting same-sex unions, although I respect that many Muslims read it as such. There has always been sexual diversity in Muslim history. It has received dramatically different “Islamic” responses, ranging from complete condemnation to widespread tolerance, to institutionalisation within specific Sufi contexts. It is important to recognise that there is no one right answer to questions of sexual ethics, and to keep returning, as the Qur’an tells us, back to Allah.
I think it is important to keep “subversive optimism” (as one gay Muslim website describes it) towards the future, without being naive about the pain involved for so many Muslims across the world. Just this year I know of two different lesbians who have entered into heterosexual marriages for the sake of their families, (and don’t forget, for every woman in a non-consenting marriage, there is also a man and often children as well). However, I also know two others who have had inspirationally religious civil partnerships, and heard of a queer Imam (in America) blessing a same-sex nikah. While critics will continue to be dismissive of such unions, numerous queer Muslims are, quite simply, getting on with their lives and growing closer to Allah as they do so.
It is not necessary to ask for absolute acceptance from our faith community; difference does not have to be threatening. The Qur’an tells us, as relevant as ever, that Allah:
… created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should know each other.
Yet is it too idealistic to ask for tolerance from our brothers and sisters in Islam? I guess on that question the only answer is “Allahu a’lam” (God knows better).
Note: This is a personal view by the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Imaan.