Gay and Muslim? The Advice You Should Have Received

I read with dismay the purported advice (really just a continued dig at me) to a fellow Muslim woman seeking advice about her attraction to other women:

A Cry for Help

I have a question and I really don’t know where to turn. This is something I can’t even talk to my parents or friends about, so I hope you can help me. I am a 19-year-old Muslim girl and I’m sexually attracted to other girls. Please don’t judge me. I know it’s not right to act on my feelings and so far I haven’t, alhamdulillah. But I come from a good Muslim family, and now I live away from home for college and it’s getting more & more difficult to stay away from sin. I’m part of the MSA (Muslim Student Association) & I tried to bring up this topic once (without telling them it was about me); and the Muslims got all upset & some people started making jokes about “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” And I was just asking what someone with these feelings should do to stay away from sin. I didn’t say homosexual acts are okay! Now I’m getting really depressed and feel so alone. I’m even starting to question my faith. I mean, why can’t Muslims with gay & lesbian feelings get advice or help when Muslims have no problem giving advice to Muslims who don’t wear hijab, who drink, who commit zina, and even Muslims who don’t pray! Do you know of any online resources or support groups for Muslims I can join anonymously? I don’t want to lose my faith. Please help me. –Don’t want to be Gay Muslim

Dear DwtbGM,

Welcome, I hear you and recognize your pain. I commend you for having the courage it takes to reach out for help. You are not alone in this at all. I, too, know what it’s like to be a 19-year-old Muslim girl attracted to other women.

I want to emphasize, from the beginning, that you are fully human, normal, worthy of love, respect, connection, dignity, and that you have every right to your faith. It’s not easy to be in communities, religious or otherwise, that force us to hide who we are and our struggles. It is incredibly taxing, painful, and sometimes humiliating to be on constant alert, guarding yourself against even the slightest form of self-disclosure amongst your family, friends, and peers. It can feel like you have no one to talk to about these issues and sometimes we don’t have or know anyone who is safe for us. I have reached out to clergy – imams and teachers, mostly anonymously. Unfortunately, I did not find most of these men, some of whom have expressed what can only be considered homophobic and crude statements and jokes, to be helpful in this situation. But I haven’t given up on them and some have made remarkable strides toward listening with more openness and have made better language choices in public.

I was in a Friday prayer service, when a well-known and respected local imam also made the Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve joke before encouraging the congregation to sign an petition against marriage equality. Many people laughed while I remained still and silent, cringing internally, always careful not to give any visible signs that might alert someone to my own orientation. The sad reality is that for all the lip service our community gives to following prophetic ideals including good manners, loving for someone what you love for yourself and embodying safety in words and actions for all people, we often fall short.

It is not a surprise that many people who are disgusted by the idea of being attracted to the same gender cannot really hide their disgust when speaking to or about lgbt folks. It’s easy enough for us to perceive the disdain in their words often couched in terms of sincere religious advice or concern. This uncovers the lie in the love the person not the action statement. Even without any action there is no love there. I’ve found that if you say you are lgbt, rather than having by default a good opinion of you, many of these people automatically assume you are doing something sinful.

As for support, there are some resources out there. If you have the means and the ability, I would encourage you to attend the annual LGBT Muslim Retreat held over Memorial Day weekend. I had heard about the retreat from its inception but was afraid to attend because I felt that I, as a conservative-ish Muslim, might not be fully welcomed. I attended the retreat this year and was overwhelmed by the intentionally welcoming and safe nature of the retreat cultivated by the organizers. I also met and befriended a large number of LGBT Muslims, who are diverse and lovely.

There are some regional resources including the El-Tawhid Unity Mosques in several locations, Queer Muslims of Boston or QMOB, the Queer Muslim Book Club in NYC, Queer Muslims of Seattle. Some of these groups are active on fb, so you can join their groups and find out about their activities. There are also informal groups where queer Muslims get together to just hang out and support each other. This past Ramadan, a large group of queer Muslims got together in DC for a potluck iftar. So try to join one of these groups, and hopefully you will meet a few people and not feel so alone. Because you are not alone, there are so many of us, often hidden in plain sight. I’ve known a number of queer Muslims over the years, who were equally closeted like me, and we had no idea about each other.

As for fearing for the loss of your religion and faith, hold on to it, in whatever way possible. I’ve written about this before, just scroll down a bit to previous posts. One tragedy of the harmful discourse around lgbt issues in our community is that queerness is often placed in opposition to faith. I believe this is a unfortunate aiding of the sower of disbelief against a believer. I am queer and Muslim. How that plays out in my life may be different from how it will work for you or for someone else. If Islam is universal, as is often claimed, then it must be for everyone including you and me.

I think our faith community still has a lot of work to do in articulating a viable life plan that includes queer Muslims beyond the deception marriage or lifelong celibacy options. In my own experience, I have benefitted from reading some works by Jewish and Christian writers, as those communities in the West seem to have started this work much earlier, but also from Muslim scholars. I find great comfort in the overarching principles of shariah and how these principles work to affirm my life in so many ways.

Yes, I Am

Rachel Maddow: “I think the responsibility that we have as gay Americans to the extent that we can — and we ought to be really ambitious about the extent to which we can — we have to be out. That’s the thing that we owe the people who came before us who are the pioneers, and that’s the thing we owe the next generation of gay people in terms of clearing the way and making life easier for them. I think that there is a moral imperative to be out, and I think that if you’re not out, you have to come to an ethical understanding with yourself why you are not. And it shouldn’t be something that is excused lightly. I don’t think that people should be forced out of the closet, but I think that every gay person, sort of, ought to push themselves in that regard. Because it’s not just you. It’s for the community and it’s for the country.”

My name is Ify and this is a part of my story. There is much more to me than this but it’s here none the less. I’ve been asked, “How do you know?” Really, just as you know yourself, it’s the same. You don’t need to try everything else to know what feels most real and authentic to you. No, I was not abused as a child and I feel very blessed and fortunate to have had such a loving and nourishing upbringing.

I lived in fear for many years, afraid of what my family, friends, fiancés, and social circle would say as I tried mightily to discern what God intended for me. I don’t claim to have any answers but what I do have is my faith in God, a loving family, and some sincere friends. I’ve come to understand that these connections are more dear to me than anything else.

Perpetually living in a state of anxiety and fear is an awfully heavy burden to carry alone and a diminished way of experiencing the world. I’ve learned that hiding the truth about an integral part of  myself leads to dishonesty. And dishonesty is a poor foundation for building one’s faith or meaningful relationships. It is a quicksand-like foundation for beginning a marriage.

Anger and sadness became my close companions even as I turned to God seeking and hoping for a way out, struggling to maintain my faith. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, as I joyfully immersed myself in strengthening my relationship with God and with my community through learning and volunteering. I found a fullness and contentment of faith while cultivating my defense mechanisms. It takes a lot of effort to consistently maintain a neutral facade as those around you confidently express the most ridiculous or hurtful opinions. Over the years, deep fissures appeared in this facade and I unconsciously used anger and sarcasm in an attempt to keep my anxiety at bay.

At one of the last Friday prayers I attended, the imam made an impassioned plea exhorting the congregation to sign their names to a  petition to have a referendum ballot this year on the issue of gay marriage in the state. As a joke at the end of the sermon, the imam said, “We all know that God made Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve,” which received some chuckles from the audience. But I’d like to offer as a correction that God not only made Adam and Eve but he also made Steve and me. That some in our communities readily display an attitude of willful ignorance and harshness rather than gentleness and compassion on a wide array of issues can and does alienate the most vulnerable from their faith.

I try to listen attentively with all of my being to hear the whispers of the divine message in my life. I’ve been deeply inspired by people across faith traditions who in their negotiation of faith have found it within themselves to recognize and respect each person’s inherent dignity and to love for others what they love for themselves. Slowly, I’ve gained the courage to allow my family and some friends in to get to know me and have been surprised to find their hearts soft and open enough to continue to love and embrace me even if it’s not always easy.

I am not giving up on my faith.

Photography | A Muslim’s Dilemma

When I was younger, I dreamed of being a photojournalist. In high school, I took a photography class and loved it and one Christmas, I was able to convince my dad to buy me my first SLR camera. I paid for my subscription to Life magazine out of my own money earned from delivering newspapers or babysitting. I spent long hours pouring over old copies of National Geographic magazine interested as much in the stories and people behind the photos as in the actual photos.

I knew the names, photos, and life stories of Bourke-White, Cartier-Bresson, Parks, Adams, Eisenstaedt, Leibovitz, Lange, Avedon, Ritts, Meisel, Demarchelier, Lindbergh, Nachtwey, Newton, and Testino.

As an introvert, I like the solitary nature of photography. While in a crowd, I can focus on searching for and composing a shot but can also be apart from them without anyone noticing, alone with my thoughts. Being from Rochester, NY, the home of Kodak, I, like the company, resisted the digital age.

After I converted to Islam, I moved to solidify my Muslim identity, and gravitated towards a very conservative form of Islam. Certain online fatwa websites became our bible and the opinions of a few overseas scholars the final word on any issue of dispute. Anything western or American was looked at with suspicion and disdain. Strange as it may seem, there were benefits to this ultraconservatism. I read a lot of books and articles and listened to many lectures. I formed an attachment to learning and seeking out authentic religious knowledge, and forged real bonds of brotherhood and community with other like-minded Muslims.

As I read online fatawa and listened to lectures, I learned of the difference of opinion about photography and my heart sank. I was so afraid of doing something wrong that I put my SLR camera away. I left rolls of film undeveloped and may have thrown some away. I resolved to follow the hadith about avoiding gray matters, so I stopped taking pictures and stopped allowing myself to be photographed. I was quite the buzzkill, always standing off to the side, neither taking pictures nor joining in group photos with friends and family.

I lowered my gaze from people but also from the dunya (worldly life) because it was painful to still see with the eyes of a photographer, noticing details, and composing the next shot in my mind without the aid of camera. Eventually, I stopped seeing those details, and when I went for my driving test, I discovered that my eyes had in fact deteriorated and that I needed glasses. I hadn’t realized that objects in the distance had become blurred.

Even as I learned more about the iktilaf (difference of opinion) over photography and no longer viewed it as prohibited or disliked, I still kept my distance from it. I relented in allowing myself to take photos if asked but would not consent to having my photo taken. I purchased a digital camera but never used it and sold it soon afterward to a friend.

© Mustafa Davis Photography

Several years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Yusuf Islam where he described his return to making music with instruments after nearly 30 years. His son, inclined toward music, brought a guitar into the house. And one night, Yusuf Islam picked up that guitar and his fingers immediately and instinctively fell into place as he strummed a few chords. That experience led him to create his album, An Other Cup.

I was overwhelmed with emotion as I listened to that story. Some time later, in the darkness of the night, alone in my room, I gently unpacked my SLR that I had put away so many years earlier. I rediscovered some old pictures and rolls of film and with it my longing for photography was renewed.

I purchased my first camera phone, and then a second one and slowly began to take pictures. At first only nature shots, no people, but eventually even shots of people. I try to be sensitive to requests from Muslims who do not want to be photographed. More recently, I’ve allowed myself to be photographed. I find posing awkward and my friends know that the best way to get a shot of me is quickly, when I’m unaware, and before I can say no.

Since joining Facebook, I’ve allowed myself to enjoy the photography of others, and to begin to create photo stories of my own, usually taken quite informally with my camera phone. From time to time, I pour over reviews of digital cameras, point-and-shoot, mega-zooms, ILRs, and DSLRs. I’m still carefully wading into the digital era.

Last week, I spoke to a photojournalist and told him that I didn’t think my photos were much good and that I might not have an eye for photography. He said like any skill, part of it is natural talent and part of it is determination and hard work. He advised focusing on a niche, studying technique, and working hard at it.

Today, I purchased a camera and took my first shots with it.

I love this quote by James Balog:

Photography is thus an antidote to the disorientation of our time; it replaces fragmentation with focus, forgetting with memory, indifference with affection.

Car Trouble Amidst The Poor Man’s Book of Assistance

Years ago, soon after my conversion to Islam, I attended my first and perhaps only MSA East Zone Conference in Rochester, NY. I had not yet integrated into the Muslim community and being amongst so many other Muslims was a revelation, comforting, and fun. While shopping in the bazaar, I purchased some lectures including Hamza Yusuf’s 16 CD translation and commentary of the ninth century Moroccan scholar Sidi Ahmed Zarruq’s penetrating work The Poor Man’s Book of Assistance.

My much-loved and worn copy

I’ve listened to the complete set at least 3-4 times, maybe more, and the CD case is beginning to show the wear and tear. The top half of the CD case has completely separated from the rest of the case. A few weeks ago, I started re-listening to the CD set while commuting back and forth to work and school. Sidi Ahmed Zarruq’s keen insight into the reality of the human condition allowed him to tailor his book into practical advice and steps for anyone seeking nearness to God and to improve one’s own spiritual condition. I’ve resolved to listen to the set again, while not driving, so that I can take notes on it.

Last year I purchased a used car, and on one of my first trips after the sale, I went to a fundraising dinner for a local Muslim newspaper. That night, while driving home on the highway, my car began to lose power. I was just barely able to cruise towards and reach my exit. And as I reached the end of the exit ramp, my car died at a red light. Thankfully, a lot of other Muslims live in the area and were also on their way home from the dinner so there was no shortage of offers of help and assistance. It was a little embarrassing but the warm expressions of support were deeply appreciated. We tried to jumpstart my car but it wouldn’t start. Turned out to be a problem with the alternator.

My car being towed after the Muslim Link dinner.

A couple of police cars showed up because my car and the cars of the Muslims who stopped to help me were blocking the left turn lane of the exit ramp. The police wanted us to move the cars but of course my car wouldn’t budge. And just then, a tow truck driver on his way to a different job pulled up in the lane beside me and asked if I needed a tow. I said, “Yes,” and within a few minutes, he hooked up my car and towed it to a gas station near my home. Everything worked out perfectly, I was humbled and thankful for what I saw as providential care and for the social support of my local Muslim community. Throughout, the situation I felt a sense of calm and inner peace, which I attribute to being focused on the larger picture of this life.

Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children – like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion. [Al-Hadid 57.20]

When we get angry or argumentative or bogged down in the stressors of life, we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. Life’s too precious and too short to waste on matters that bring no benefit. The only real and lasting joys are in knowing God and in the higher purpose of life to worship him through our actions. Everything else is so fleeting and won’t benefit us in the hereafter. And besides, if you believe in the divine decree, then you know that’s what God has written for you.

Coming up on my car parked on the shoulder

Recently, my car has needed quite a bit of work. I had to fix the heater, the left turn signal and tag lights had an electrical wiring issue, changed the brake pads and rotor, and got an oil change. The tread on my left front tire is worryingly worn and needs to be replaced, and I’ve been working with the mechanic who sold me the car to repair my air conditioner.

Tonight, on my way to work, I experienced a bit of déjà vu, as my car once again began to lose power on the highway and eventually ground to a halt. Mercifully, this time, on the shoulder of the highway. Not sure why, will have the car towed in the morning, insha’Allah. But as I waited for a friend to arrive to pick me up, I finished listening to the last of the sixteen CDs in The Poor Man’s Book of Assistance set. Once again, I felt an inner sense of calm and peace and was thankful reflecting on the many blessings in my life.

Among the greatest gifts I’ve received in my life is the gift of Islam and with that an understanding of who Allah is and who the Messenger of Allah is and of the book and guidance found within this religion. Without that, I’d be lost and something small like my car stopping on the road would throw me for a loop. We’re not perfect, we make mistakes, and this life is a journey through constant taubah (repentance) and istiqama (firm uprightness).

Dr. Sulayman Nyang | The History of Muslims in America

My father is a professor of African and African American history and I can vaguely remember seeing on his bookshelves at home a book authored by Sulayman Nyang in my childhood. Many years later, when I was in the process of thinking about Islam, long before, well, at least a few months, before I converted, I ordered a large number of books about Islam online. And one of the books I purchased was Dr. Sulayman Nyang’s Islam in the United States. These books formed my first in-depth introduction to and study of Islam, which eventually culminated in my conversion.

So I was quite interested to have the opportunity to attend a day-long lecture on the history of Muslims in America given by Dr. Sulayman Nyang, the head of the African Studies department at Howard University. He reminded us that even though popular American history often begins with the arrival of Columbus that the history of Islam in America began during the Pre-Colombian period and that events that transpired at the same time in Africa and Europe are also a part of this story. Nyang emphasized that Muslims should learn this history and not see the history of Europe or sub-saharan Africa as separate from our story as American Muslims but to integrate it into our understanding.

According to Dr. Nyang, the most conservative estimates indicate that up to ten percent of the Africans brought to the Americas as slaves were Muslim. More than the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the story of Muslims and America includes the war-like encounters with the Barbary pirates in North Africa. Interesting that more than two hundred years later, the U.S. is once again engaged in armed conflict in Tripoli.

Around the turn of the 20th century former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt as the police chief in New York City was dubbed Harun al-Roosevelt after the Muslim caliph Harun al-Rashid. Both are said have wandered the streets at night to gain a better perspective on the everyday lives and happenings of the people whom they served. Many Yemenis were employed in the automobile industry in and around Michigan, which is now one of the largest centers of Arab Americans and Muslims. These early Arab immigrants tended to marry white or black women if they did not return home to marry an Arab woman.

Muslims from Southern Europe and of Slavic descent tended to settle in northern cities and in the Midwest. Some Muslims arrived from South Asia and the Asian Pacific islands like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines and settled in the Western part of the United States and Canada. Among the Muslims settling on the West Coast were a large number of Muslims and Sikhs from the Punjab. Some of these young Punjabi men worked in the rice fields in California and married Mexican immigrant women, which led to the formation of the Punjabi-Mexican ethnic group, and some of their descendants can still be found today.

Important to the story of Islam in America particularly among Muslim immigrants was the construction the Suez Canal, which allowed more direct travel between Western countries and Asia, the Cold War, and the influx of young Muslim students in the latter half of the 20th century. Prior to Cold War, ninety percent of Arab immigrants in America were Christian. Today, the numbers of Arab Christians and Muslims have almost equalized. As the Cold War progressed, more and more Muslims began to immigrate to the United States and would begin to lay the foundation for the creation of the influential Muslim Student Association and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The MSA began on college campuses and propagated a conservative form of Islam, which sought to correct what they believed were misguided or deviant interpretations.

More well-known is the story of African American journeys and encounters with Islam. However, there are two distinct narratives of Islam in the African American experience, which include a more traditional form of Islam and the formation of proto-Islamic groups. The story of traditional Islam is often mentioned in reference to Muslim immigrants or about Americans who traveled overseas to Muslim lands like Alexander Russell Webb and the remnants of Islam maintained by the descendants of African slaves as in the example of the Gullah people of the coast of South Carolina. A number of the proto-Islamic groups like the Nation of Islam or the Moorish Science Temple held beliefs deemed heretical to many of the more traditional Muslims.

Among the important legacies of the African American Muslim experience is that of institution building from mosques to schools to businesses, both on a local and national level and of interfaith work and dialogue. A legacy, which other American Muslims have only recently begun to recognize and emulate.

One stumbling block in the development and maturation of Muslim communities and institutions was the “Myth of Return.” Many Muslims immigrated to America believing that they would earn their education and living here and someday return to their home country. For these Muslims, their identity and roots were firmly moored in old world realities. But their children, often born here in America, do not share that same nostalgia for their parents’ home country and may not even be able to speak the language.

Dr. Nyang posits that this mythology of return pre-9/11 helped create a confused discourse about whether or not Muslims here could fully participate or identify as Americans or if migration to a Muslim land was preferable or even required. This also led to the “imported imam syndrome” where adults believing they might return to their home countries enjoyed having an imam who shared their cultural framework but this turned out to be a “disaster” for their children who grew up here and could not identify with this type of imam. According to Dr. Nyang, the events of September 11th, helped “explode the myth of return” for many Muslims, and while some did indeed return home, the vast majority who stayed have acknowledged that America is their home country. As for the growing pains experienced by the Muslim community, Nyang says “every group [in America] has negotiated for identity, security, and acceptance in the host society.”

According to Dr. Nyang, there are three types of Muslims, grasshoppers who wish to be fully assimilated into the dominant host culture and often change their names or are not outwardly recognizable as Muslim, oyster Muslims who are isolationist who tend to cling to more orthodox understandings of religion. These Muslims are somewhat like the Amish or orthodox Jews in being apart from society even while being in it to the limited extent necessary. The third group of Muslims are the owls, which seek a path to reconcile between the grasshoppers and the oysters.

Throughout his talk, Dr. Nyang encouraged the audience to take a proactive role in learning and researching this history to share with others. He also encouraged us as American Muslims today to effect positive change and participate in society through building institutions and also by writing in our campus newspapers to leave traces of a Muslim footprint so that those who come after us will know that we were once here.

It’s a thought-provoking question, at your school or workplace or in your community, if you left today, would anyone know a Muslim had been there?