Can i be queer and
written by an anonymous contributor
Me and my childhood best friend had this very argument very publicly and vocally at my local Sainsbury’s once. We were both 13, both identify as Muslim and I had recently come out. Her opinion is one that is still shared by a large population of the Muslim faith; that homosexuality is condemned in the Quran, it is seen as an immoral and perverse lifestyle in contradiction with Islamic teaching. My argument was that the one intrinsically necessary condition to being a Muslim is the recital of the shahada, that is;
‘Allah is the one true god, and Muhammad is his prophet’.
Once you take this oath and truly believe it in your heart, you are allowed to call yourself a Muslim, every other aspect of how you practice, just gives you a relative position of being a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ muslim. Being a ‘bad’ muslim is not the same as not being a muslim. I pointed out that many muslims don’t observe the 5 basic pillars of Islam, they drink and they gamble. In fact she herself did not practice many aspects of the religion which the Quran prioritizes as more important than your sexuality. At this point she became heated and kept reiterating that “you just can’t be Muslim and gay”.
I realised years later that this was not an argument fought on the interpretation of scripture, or religious practice. This was an argument about the ownership of identity. Just like any other identify group, what being Muslim means to a Muslim person, depends in part on who else is allowed to be in that group. All identity labels are built on the simple “them-us” dichotomy, you define what you are, by identifying what you are not in the ‘outsiders’. The interpretation of religious doctrine is then a mere tool used by the dominant group to define who’s allowed in.
This can be illustrated in other identity quarrels within Islam. The Shia and Sunni divide has manifested into wars over one simple disagreement: whether the Prophet Mohammed’s successor should be Abu Bakr and Omar or Ali. This is the surface level reason after all, but multiple scholars agree that people don’t kill over a simple discrepancy of scripture, afterall the Islamic empire has a long history of multicultural diversity and people living within the same borders with diametrically opposing beliefs.
In similar fashion, I’ve often found that when people tell me that I can’t be muslim and gay, they aren’t making a theological point, they’re just saying ‘you can’t sit with us’. Much like in mean girls, they’re worried about what me sitting at their table, would say about their social status. That is, my queerness threatens their own identification and validation as a Muslim. The irony is, the more Islamic rules the person usually breaks, the more adamant they are that queer sexuality is the cut-off point. I think this is because if you drink, eat pork, gamble and have sex with strangers, your straightness is the only perceived cultural norm that you have left to cling to, when calling yourself a Muslim.
One of the caveats that anti-LGBT Muslims always throw towards me is that unlike other religions, the Quran is the literal word of God. No metaphors like the bible. So when the Quran says that God burned the ‘People of Lot’ with his wrath because men were fornicating with men, there is no way around this through metaphorical interpretation. This stumped me for many years.
Once you notice, however, that Islam is one of the most ethnically, spiritually and morally diverse religions, you begin to realise that scripture is not the basis of religion. It’s meant to be, but actually scripture is just used to echo the moral and social sentiment of the ruling elite in every nation. If the Quran is the literal word of Allah without question or interpretation, then the Islamic world would be a lot more homogeneous than it is. Instead you have the fundamentalist Sharia Islam of the Saudis, to the ‘Democratic Islam’ of central Asian countries.
Furthermore, Islam has a strong history of Gay literature; essays, poetry, short stories. One of the most notable was the Encyclopedia of Pleasure which combined the medical, philosophical and spiritual prose of the Islamic golden age and contained stories about all forms of queerism. One of the most hilarious is a physician giving a medical explanation for lesbianism as "due to 'an itch between the labia majora and minora' that could be soothed only by rubbing them against another woman's labia". Ironically, many medieval western historians wrote about the moral inferiority of Islamic culture because of it’s apparent tolerance and even promotion of Homosexuality. Homosexuality isn’t alone in the cultural u-turn that Islam seems to have done since it’s golden age; the Quran gave women the right to education, the right to vote, the right to own property, and promoted female religious leaders 14,000 years before the Christio-Jedeu world. Fatima, Muhammed’s first wife, taught him how to read and write and was the first Imam of Islam. This is not reflective of the institutions of most modern Islamic states.
Of course as a gay muslim, I would focus on this version of Islam. And I would not deny that it’s a lot easier to introduce a perspective that presents a more problematic relationship between Islam and queerness. For example, Islam being a phallocratic culture, ‘tops’ as was often considered respectable, because as a man you should be dominant in sexual relations, and thus be the ‘penetrator’. Or the fact that female homosexuality is perceived as less serious of a sin than it’s male counterpart. But I want this to feed into my overarching point. The way that religion is expressed, the parts of scripture it puts weight on, the way it defines it’s identity, is determined by people. Scripture tells that the prophet Mohamed wrote the Quran in one go after divine intervention in a dream. But this book and faith have been used by people to conquer lands, create societies, enact laws. And like most other societies, straight, cis people are usually the dominant class that decide who’s allowed in.
It is unsurprising then that the patriarchal structure of most Arab societies meant that gay literature was mostly erased and women's rights reversed. It’s easier to now find gay Arab poetry in the west, and it is Western Liberal Universities that put research into this area.
This does not mean however, that as a queer person you do not belong in Muslim spaces. I love Islam because it is a humbling religion. It gave birth to what we call a welfare state through the pillar of Zhakat - one of the five pillars of Islam which states that everyone in society must give 7.5% of their earnings, to be distributed to the most vulnerable. It constantly puts weight on equality of all humans. You’re not even allowed to have a gravestone because no one should be celebrated more than anyone else in death. It actively frowns on decadence, and anyone in society being a lot richer than the majority. Modern cultural Islam, under the guide of the patriarchy and capitalist economics, has strayed far from this. But at least it means that two opposite polarities can be represented by the same brand. Therefore being queer and part of a religion that has modern anti-gay history should not be the paradox it’s often presented to be.
And you can see the cultural shift occurring in favour of queer people. Turkey has had pride marches since 2003 and celebrates an annual pride week, with up to 100,000 attendees despite police attacking with tear gas and attempting to disperse the protests. I remember attending last year's pride and being brought to tears at the presence of muslim and other ethnic/religious minority floats. April 2020 was meant to see the first Muslim pride. This is why it is not only important for people to accept that queerness and Islam are not mutually exclusive, but for Muslims to feel comfortable in queer spaces. Because as well as Islamic spaces often being exclusionary of queer people, modern queer spaces are dominated by white American-European culture. A great recent representation of this, was on Drag Race season 12, where Jackie Cox was questioned for wearing garments belonging to a religion that is ‘anti-homosexuality’. The response was so articulate. Jackie Cox did not try and provide a Rainbow version of modern Islam, because this does not represent the majority of modern Islamic culture. Instead she confronted the fact that Islam is problematic about homosexuality, but how can we ever expect this to change if we keep a rigid divide between Gay culture and Islamic culture?
This is why, in conclusion, I believe that not only can I be queer and Muslim, but it is important that I am openly both. No identity is set in stone, it is a constant cultural shift of what the people that claim it, want it to be. As queer people we need to find our parts of Islam that have been erased, and as Muslims, we need to come into queer spaces and make ourselves known. This is the only way that a question like ‘Can I be queer and Muslim?’ will be less controversial in the future.