By Samra Habib
Friday 3 June 2016
Friday, 27 December 2013, at 2.45pm. That’s when my life transformed.
I was emotionally and physically exhausted after being the primary caregiver of my ex-partner, who was in chemo and working long hours as an editor at a magazine. I was desperately seeking comfort, support, spiritual guidance and community.
This perfect storm brought me to Unity mosque in downtown Toronto, one of a handful of prayer spaces in the world open to queer Muslims like myself.
Growing up in Pakistan, faith was a huge part of my upbringing. Some of my most treasured childhood memories are of Islamic traditions that brought me closer to my family, such as breaking a light fast with cousins in Lahore – fasting for just part of the day so you feel a sense of camaraderie with the grownups who fast until after sunset during Ramadan. Even now, nothing makes me feel more centred than listening to a beautiful recitation of the Adhaan (the call to prayer) whether I’m in my Toronto apartment or the crowded streets of Cihangir.
But for most of my 20s, Islam felt like a parent dishing out conditional love: I had no right to call myself Muslim because I’m queer and didn’t wear the Hijab. There was no denying that the sense of shame I carried deeply impacted my relationship with my faith.
After over a decade of not stepping inside a mosque, I was spiritually hungry. Although I maintained a private relationship with Allah, I longed for a nonjudgmental spiritual community where I could meet others like myself.
Prayer spaces that welcome queer Muslims are often not advertised to protect people’s safety. If you don’t have a queer Muslim friend who attends an inclusive mosque or know of a queer imam who organizes prayers, it’s impossible to know that they exist. I had heard about Unity mosque from activist friends who ran in the same social circles as one of the co-founders, El-Farouk Khaki. The human rights lawyer founded the mosque in 2014 with his partner Troy Jackson and academic Laurie Silvers.
“What’s really significant is the fact that we have triggered people’s imagination with the notion of an inclusive mosque space that’s gender-equal and queer-affirming. It’s a place that doesn’t ask you if you’re a Muslim or what kind of Muslim you are. Everybody is welcome. People are embraced in the fullness of their authenticity,” Khaki explains.
During my first visit, I was struck by how Unity mosque isn’t segregated by gender. Growing up, I was made to feel like women should not be seen at the mosque by men. We all prayed in the basement while the men took over the entire mosque. We even had a separate entryway to avoid any male interaction.
During my first visit, I was struck by how Unity mosque isn’t segregated by gender
Later on, I tried to hold back tears as I witnessed a transgender person recite the same Adhaan that’s so tied to my relationship with Islam. I finally felt like I had found my people.
After being served hot chai, we shared what we wanted to pray for that day. I wished my ex a speedy recovery, a refugee wanted his immigration trial to go smoothly, and someone else wanted to pray for an ailing partner. Queer folks prayed side-by-side with straight-identified Muslims, reinforcing the idea that Islam is not a monolithic religion. Every Muslim’s relationship with Islam is shaped by class, geography and cultural context, resulting in different interpretation of the religion by its 1.6 billion followers. Yet, the complexities and the nuanced experiences are often overlooked.
The following visits felt like a group therapy session combined with familiar religious rituals – except this time, I wasn’t trying to hide a freshly shaved head under my Hijab or covering up my tattoos to avoid being judged by mosque aunties. I felt like being myself wasn’t just accepted, it was encouraged.
Re-imaging what a mosque could look like for someone who is queer was something that took a lot of getting used to for Wazina (last name withheld for privacy), a Brooklyn-based activist.
“My first experience with inclusive prayer was in 2011 during an LGBTQIA Muslim retreat. It wasn’t just welcoming of queer people, but it was also gender-equal with women leading the prayer. It was simultaneously uncomfortable and heart-bursting and liberating,” she explained.
‘After being served hot Chai, we shared what we wanted to pray for that day’.
She initially hesitated and waited for a few days to join everyone else.
“It literally took me all weekend to feel like I could and that this was OK with God. Affirming that queer Muslims are whole the way they are can sound absurd, particularly as someone who actively works with queer people of faith … But the truth is, internalized homophobia runs deep for me and for many of us.”
Jamila Tharp, an imam who has been organizing queer-friendly prayer spaces since 2011, says that “all religions can be used as a tool for oppression and to harm people and the creation. LGBTQI Muslims deserve to feel and to know that Allah is not the excuse for their oppression. It’s up to us as people to reclaim our faith in Islam as a loving faith and live into our faith.”
It’s an experience shared with Biser Akolav, who had written off Islam until he saw Imam Ludovic Mohamed Zahed, one of the first openly gay imams in Europe, speak in Brussels. Although his parents urged him to keep his sexuality a secret, he decided to embrace himself after seeing Ludovic speaks.
“It was an inspiring moment for me. It gave me the power to stand up and to claim that I can be gay and at the same time be a good Muslim,” Biser says.
With every mosque visit, my personal relationship with Islam is restored and my experiences feel validated. We’re all questioning and re-imagining what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century and how to apply Islamic teachings to our present-day lives.
As Wazina shared why she feels the need to attend queer Muslim mosques, her sentiment resonated with me.
“So much of my faith experiences are connected to cultural traditions and interpretations. Now as an adult, I can actively choose my own traditions, which feels powerful.”
In a way, I’ve never felt more Muslim than I do now.