On the cusp of progress

In 2005, surrounded by reporters, television cameras and photographers, a woman led Friday prayers in New York. In 2012, an Imam established the first “inclusive mosque” on the outskirts of Paris for gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims. And in 2013, the spotlight was on the first gay Imam in the U.S., Daayiee Abdullah, who, despite condemnation, performed funeral rites for a gay Muslim who had died of AIDS. All these examples show that winds of change are sweeping over Islam. Of course, not everybody agrees with these actions. For some these show signs of a revolution, for some it is ‘biddat’, an unapologetic innovation, and for others it is just sheer blasphemy.

The “inclusive” mosque was established by Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, an Algerian-French Imam. The mosque, Zahed says, was a project that stemmed from “a long personal journey” — he grew up tolerating many snide remarks before coming out to his parents at the age of 21. Zahed said in an article in The Guardian that he set it up so that there could be “a place of worship where people will always be welcomed as brothers and sisters, whatever their sexual orientation or ethnicity.” It all started when a Muslim transgender died and nobody was ready to lead prayers for burial. Zahed stepped in and created history, and this immediately led to the integration of the marginalised. Says Zahed: “Thanks to both the media’s interest and to academic work, we sought to organise inclusive Jumu’a prayers despite the risks. Nobody generally wants to pray for a transgender’s death or for gay weddings. Today this is no longer the case.”

Keeping Zahed company in the U.S. is Imam Daaiyee Abdullah, believed to be the only openly gay Imam in the U.S., who came out to his supportive family many years ago. Born to Christian parents, Abdullah acknowledged his sexuality before embracing Islam. His story is similar to Zahed’s: he also led the funeral prayers for a gay Muslim when other Imams refused to step in. Such has been the impact of Abdullah’s work that when I speak to Zahed, he recalls Abdullah’s words to substantiate his point. Says Abdullah: “Islam is a living religion, it must breathe.” Zahed adds, “Diversity as sacred, unified yet differentiated human nature — that is the ‘social contract’ that the Quran has offered for 14 centuries. And the Arab-Islamic civilisation, known until recently for its tolerance, was to some extent its vivid illustration.”

The media’s interest in the works of gay Imams is palpable but Abdullah feels that it is more of an attempt at “sensationalising” a serious issue. But is not Islam clearly against the union of two men? The Quran, through verses centred around the time of Prophet Lot, talks about homosexual relations. As said through verses 7:80-81: Lot said to his people, “You commit such an abomination; no one in the world has done it before! You practice sex with the men, instead of the women. Indeed, you are a transgressing people.”

But the Imams interpret this differently. Abdullah is reported to have told those who pointed out the verses that the actions the Quran talks of are violent and non-consensual in nature and that the holy book is otherwise silent on the subject. When asked by the media about the same, Abdullah made a clear distinction between the actions talked of in Islamic scriptures and people’s orientation. “Sexual acts are not the same as sexuality,” he said.

Zahed too recalls a verse, “Lo! Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is inside of them”. These verses illustrate clearly a theology based on the love of God and of humanity, rather than on fear and intellectual dogmatism. The Quran teaches us, as the books that preceded it, that it’s up to us to free ourselves from our fears — including fear of ‘the Other’ — to transcend this difference respectfully.

Then there others: Imam Muhsin-Hendricks, a Pakistani-born priest based in South Africa who works towards the integration of sexual minorities; El-Farouk Khaki, an immigration lawyer and Canadian refugee who founded Salaam, a support group for gay Muslims; and Rahal Eks from Germany who swears by Sufi acceptance of homosexuality.

The Imams get support from Asra Nomani, American Muslim journalist and author, who helped organise the first mixed gender prayers led by a woman since the 7th Century.

Mumbai-born Nomani says, “I do not believe the Quran forbids homosexuality, and I do not believe in the interpretation of any faith that condemns, punishes and persecutes a human being for the most intimate expressions of their humanity. It is important that gay Muslims lead prayers. It is important that Shia leaders lead Sunnis in prayer and Sunnis lead Shias. And women lead men. And blacks lead Arabs. There are so many prejudices in our communities. In the most sacred of places — the place of prayers — we should indeed prostrate with complete and total humility.”

Such changes are far from smooth, however. This fundamental difference in approach to faith has resulted in social boycott and public criticism of these Imams , whether men or women. “Yes, we did receive threats and insults. But we received more encouragement from Muslims as well as non-Muslims who told us how happy they are that we are able to give another face to Islam,” says Zahed.

There was some stiff opposition to Amina Wadud acting as an Imam for a congregation of women and men seated together, yet another practice frowned upon, in 2005. But videos of her leading mixed prayers went viral, with believers in India even now sharing them on WhatsApp groups. Wadud, despite condemnation from many quarters, continues to lead prayers regularly.

Her Imamat was made possible due to the organisational skill of Nomani, author of Standing Alone in Mecca where she recounts her experience of trying to perform the Hajj as a single mother. Today she, along with some others, is trying to bring about change in the ways of the faith in the U.S. She is also very excited that change is taking place in India, and women are beginning to claim their place inside mosques and even leading Taraweeh prayers (special prayers in the month of Ramadan) in middle-class colonies. That is, of course, besides the hundreds of women who turn up for Eid congregational prayers in specified gendered sections at Jamat-e-Islami’s Markaz in Delhi, Jama Masjid, New Delhi, and mosques in Srinagar.

Says Nomani, “A decade after Wadud led women and men in prayer, we have seen a growth in the struggle for women’s rights. There are open conversations about women’s rights in mosques, whereas a decade ago, notions of honour and shame silenced such conversations. Not that these notions don’t exist today, but we are dedicated to a new reality where women aren’t treated like second class citizens in Muslim communities — or anywhere for that matter.”

Even as peripheral sections of society begin to express themselves, the votaries of traditional Islamic practices are unstinted in their criticism. When Wadud first led the prayers, noted author Kamla Das had said, “The best prayer for a woman is at home. If women stand in prayer alongside men, it might deter men from devotion to God and a mosque is no place for enjoying the beauty of a woman. When a woman kneels behind an Imam, she is unlikely to yield to temptation but if a woman is leading the prayers, men kneeling behind might look at her haunches, at her curves. Why give them such a chance?”

Says Imam Muhibullah Nadwi, who completed his doctoral degree from the much-respected Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama, “Gay Imams or women and men praying shoulder to shoulder are nothing but innovations. These are the actions of people looking for conformity with Western principles as opposed to what the Quran and Hadith stand for. They are trying to adapt the Quran to the West rather than the other way round.” He believes that forces inimical to the growth of true Islam are behind the new interpretations. “These people are not interpreting things in a new light; rather they are trying to demolish the ideology. Intermingling of genders is prohibited in Islam. And to have sex with your gender is a big sin.”

Yasir Qadhi echoes his views. In a recent talk in Seattle, Qadhi said that a lot of hype surrounded women leading men in prayers but that it is not backed by substance. Similarly, the chief Imam of Jama Masjid, Brussels, brushed aside the hullabaloo around the inclusive mosque in France, stating that mosques are always open to all people anyway.

Disapproval and condemnation may come but Zahed and the others are unruffled. They know that they have triggered a debate and that the faithful and now looking within for answers. And that itself for them is a tremendous beginning.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 12:34:31 AM |

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