Gay Muslims Find Hope in New England

Islamic Society Of Boston Cultural Center in Boston photo by Eric Hess

Local gay and lesbian Islamic faithful are challenging traditional views of homosexuality both here and abroad

In the fall of 1997, 19-year-old Faisal Alam entered a Connecticut hospital suffering from a nervous breakdown. He stayed for two weeks. Doctors prescribed meds and ongoing care and compelled the Northeastern University sophomore to withdraw from studies for the rest of the term. But Alam knew he would need more than antidepressants and bed rest to overcome his malady. He was Muslim, he was gay, and he was torn.

With images of executions in Iran and incarceration in Egypt for those engaging in homosexual behavior, gay people in Islamic countries can face a harsh reality. For devout Muslims who find themselves grappling with gay identities and are unwilling to relinquish their faith, the struggles can seem insuperable. And yet some Muslims in the New England area are demonstrating that amid the hateful rhetoric, change is not only possible, it is happening—albeit slowly.

’Brother Faisal Alam’

I met Faisal Alam at a Back Bay coffee shop on a visit from his current home of Atlanta. He was born of Pakistani parents in Germany and raised in Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan before moving with his family to the United States when he was 10.

In 1997 he came out to himself—in a big way. “I exploded out of the closet,” he told me, almost knocking over his coffee cup, talking of nights spent at Campus, Manray, Buzz, and Club Café.

But he was still very much a part of the Muslim community.

He was secretary for his university Islamic Society as well as the Northeastern region student representative to the Muslim Students Association (MSA) National. As he saw it, he risked losing a fundamental part of his identity if he came out to his parents, close friends, and his doctors. So he led what amounted to a double life.

“I was brother Faisal Alam during the day, and club dude at night,” he said.

A fter six months, the effort it took to keep Brother Alam separate from the club-hopper wore him down, and he entered the hospital.

As he recuperated at home, Alam realized he needed to meld his Muslim self with his gay self.

He began conducting web searches for anything having to do with “gay” and “Islam,” finding “virtually nothing.” He discovered a Malaysian gay group in San Francisco, the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society of New York City, and Massachusetts’ own MASALA (Massachusetts Area South Asian Lambda Association), but these were all organizations united around national or ethnic heritage, not religion. “There was nothing for those who identified as Muslim first and foremost,” he said.

He met a few people from MASALA, but they’d tell him they “don’t really identify as Muslim.” To his great disappointment, he discovered that every gay person he met who was raised Muslim abandoned the faith. “I just naturally thought everyone would feel the way I did,” he said. “They didn’t.” A few months after being released from the hospital, Alam created a listserv called Gay Muslims. But he wasn’t sure how to get people to join. Contacting some of the Middle Eastern and Asian groups, he found, wasn’t an option. “MASALA avoided [Islamic] issues. It was a point of contention in the community,” he said, adding that he received a cold shoulder from similar organizations.

As a prominent young Islamic leader, Alam mined his access to all the student Muslim groups in North America—approximately 200 of them. He subscribed to their Internet sites, and drafted and posted a note: “Dear Brothers and Sisters in Islam,” it began. “Can you believe someone has started an e-mail list for queer Muslims?” He wrote as if he were in shock, describing the listserv and including information on how to join, as if cutting and pasting from an illicit source.

Within minutes, the first members signed up. Within six months, there were fifty subscribers, but no one posted a single message. “That’s how much fear there is out there,” he said.

So he began posting items. “I’d post all my interpretations of what the Quran says. All these nonacademic analyses,” he saidv.

But queer Muslims weren’t the only ones who joined the forum. Some of those who were truly shocked by the listserv’s contents discovered Alam’s connection to the site, and he was forced to resign from all his positions in Islamic organizations. “I wasn’t questioned about whether I was gay or not—I never said. It was the fact that I was questioning a fundamental principle.

Whether I was gay or not wasn’t the issue. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t want to ask. I was a public figure, and I couldn’t be saying these things. I lost all my support within four or five months.”

At about the same time, the forum sprang to life with others posting comments sympathetic to Alam’s cause. They came from all over the world. “It was rich, amazing,” he said. “For many, it was the first time ever they found a safe place.” The members decided to meet. The fear was so great that Alam interviewed each potential attendee by phone—often long-distance international— for an hour before he agreed to invite them. “I sent directions to where we were gathering by snail mail. We didn’t post anything electronic about it,” he said.

The forty attendees ran the gamut, arriving from six different countries—United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Belgium, South Africa, and The Netherlands—and represented diverse ethnic backgrounds, including Middle Eastern, South Asian, North American, and European. They included 18-to-60-year-olds, gay men, lesbian women, transgender faithful, partners, and Islamic converts. They met in Boston for three days. “There was a lot of laughing and crying. It was the first time many had met other gay Muslims.” The group decided to continue working together and formed an organization. They called their retreat “Al-Fatiha,” which means “the beginning” in Arabic. It comes from the first chapter of the Quran and is recited during regular prayers. The words became the official name of their new group. This October, Al-Fatiha marks ten years. And a lot has changed.

‘This is a phase’

Mention meeting Alam to Mohammad El-Khatib and you get the kind of response normally reserved for a rock star. “Wow!” the 27-year-old yelped across the table from me at a recent meeting at Boston’s Club Café.

Sporting short, black hair, and wearing a form-fitting shirt and designer jeans over a gym-sculpted body, El-Khatib looks perfectly at home in this South End gay hangout. But his road here was a long one. El-Khatib was born in Lebanon, but without Lebanese citizenship. In the eyes of the world, he’s a Palestinian refugee without a homeland. The United States granted him and his family green-card status in 1997. He described his parents as “fervent Arab nationalists,” leery of religious extremism. When his father’s work took the family to Qatar, his mom and dad displayed great displeasure at the local laws requiring an Islamic education for youth. But El-Khatib found it freeing. “I loved everything related to Islam. I still love it,” he said. El-Khatib tried to get his dad to join him at some of the many father-son events the local mosque offered, but his father dismissively declined.

When El-Khatib began to understand that his feelings for men were different from what many other little boys were experiencing, he turned to his local imam for advice. “Do I deserve to die?” he asked.

“No. No,” replied the spiritual leader.

“You are young. This is a phase. We all go through it.” The imam suggested religious remedies such as prayer. It was a better response than he figured he would get from his father, who referred to homosexuals using only derogatory language.

El-Khatib tried to pray the gay away, but it didn’t work. He had sexual relationships with men, but remained a devout Muslim.

When he arrived in the United States, he decided to date women, but that didn’t work either. While he was at UMass- Boston, he fell in with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and the Queer Student Union (QSU). The two groups’ offices existed in close proximity along the same hallway, and El-Khatib constantly worried about what would happen if the Muslims discovered he was gay.

He soon realized that the MSA imam and the QSU faculty adviser were good friends. El-Khatib never explicitly came out, but he stopped fretting about it. In 2003, he began searching the Internet for information about reconciling his homosexuality with his Islamic faith. That’s when he discovered Al-Fatiha.

‘Nothing trumps the Quran’

In the ten years since Alam’s nervous breakdown, a marked growth in positive scholary discourse has pervaded the controversy concerning homosexuality and Islam. The past decade has seen the publication of articles and books such as Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature, by Stephen Murray in 1997, Sexuality, Diversity, and Ethics in the Agenda of Progressive Muslims, by Scott Kugle in 2003, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Same-Sex Intimacy in Muslim Thought, by Kecia Ali in 2006.

Tariq al-Jamil, assistant professor of religion and Islamic studies at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, said during a phone interview that when it comes to homosexuality, a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy seems to be the norm in Muslim communities.” In Islam, “sexuality, both heterosexuality and otherwise, is a private matter,” al-Jamil said. “For instance, to prove under Islamic law that someone had been guilty of fornication—whether that be same-sex or otherwise—one needs to have the presence of four male witnesses watching the event occur in real time simultaneously.” T his severe standard, al-Jamil maintained, underpins a strong bias toward privacy in Islam. “That tells you that it’s such a high burden of proof,” he said, “that it reflects a certain social emphasis on minding your own business, or at least a reluctance on the part of the social fear to deal with people’s private sexuality.” O ne of the obstacles to acceptance of homosexuality in Muslim communities, al-Jamil said, is that “the legal discourse is replete with examples of same-sex sexuality, but never is it talked about in terms of what would be reconcilable with our notions of modern gay identity.” Consider Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks at Columbia University last year: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

That’s why Rizwana Jafri, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, could declare support for same-sex marriage legislation in 2005. “It is incumbent upon us, as a minority, to stand up in solidarity with Canada’s gays and lesbians despite the fact that many in our community believe our religion does not condone homosexuality,” she stated at the time

In her book Sexual Ethics and Islam, Boston University professor of Islamic Studies Kecia Ali analyzed Jafri’s endorsement comments. “Her remarks implicitly distinguish between Muslims, on the one hand, and gays and lesbians, on the other: although both are minorities, she does not acknowledge any potential overlap between the categories.”

Another significant barrier for gay Islamic faithful seeking to be out are the commonly held assumptions about homosexuality, mostly derived from a handful of verses in the Quran as well as from some traditions from Hadith, a collection of sayings by Islamic legal authorities

While there is much disagreement over how much authority various parts of Hadith have, “nothing trumps the Quran in terms of importance,” said al-Jamil

Al-Jamil, Ali, and others find a lot of room for disagreement over whether the Quran condemns homosexuality. There is “a great deal of sloppy reasoning and a number of really pressing moral concerns in the debate surrounding Islamic homosexuality,” Ali said in a telephone interview

While there is no term for homosexuality in the Quran, there are several verses— primarily regarding the story of the prophet Lut—that form the foundation for Islamic views on same-sex sexuality

The story of Lut in the Quran parallels the story of Lot and his visit to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

When Lut arrives to tell citizens of these cities to repent, the stubborn townsfolk not only reject his call, they also allow local men to forcibly sodomize some of the male members of Lut’s company. “You come with lust to men instead of women.

You are indeed a depraved tribe,” says Lut in the Quran. “I am, indeed, of those who disapprove with severe anger and fury your action.”

Scott Kugle, a former professor of Islamic Studies at Swarthmore who now lives in India, argues in his essay Sexuality, Diversity, and Ethics in the Agenda of Progressive Muslims that “when we use methods of analysis and interpretation that are more complex and ethically alert, it becomes clear that the story of Lut is not about homosexuality or homosexuals in a general sense. … This context focuses not on sex acts as expressions of sexuality that might be called ‘homosexuality’ or could be judged as ‘unnatural.’ Rather the context of the narrative focuses on acts of greed, selfishness, and inhospitality, which are taken to the extreme of violence against strangers,” Kugle wrote. This is just one example of how scholars are opening up doors to new ways of challenging traditional Islamic views of homosexuality.

While homosexual men confront a host of Islamic laws legislating against same-sex activity, Islamic law and the Quran are virtually silent on woman-to-woman sexual behavior, in large part due to the subordinated role of women in some Islamic societies.

An example Ali cited are the Islamic laws preventing Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men (it’s fine for Muslim men to marry non-Muslim women). Like homosexuality, these marriages occur but are ignored or penalized depending on the culture.

“If we still are talking about interfaith marriage on the down low, same-sex marriage is really not on people’s conversational horizons at this point,” Ali said.

Wear that scarf with some killer high heels’

Wearing a vivid, dark blue hijab (head scarf), with smooth skin and a face made up like a Chanel cover model, Raquel Evita Saraswati cuts a striking figure.

Saraswati identifies as a reform-minded Muslim. She was formerly on the board of MASALA and currently works as the coordinator of Project Ijtihad, an international organization calling for reform in Islam. She is also the executive assistant to Irshad Manji, an author and filmmaker who founded Project Ijtihad and made a splash with her New York Times bestseller, The Trouble With Islam Today.

Saraswati, who is out, may be based in New England, but her schedule is so hectic that I had to interview her in person and by e-mail. When asked if she’s in a relationship, she responded, “I am committed—to my work. I hear bringing a BlackBerry on a date is tacky, so I’m utterly out of the game.” Saraswati’s work goes beyond a call for a change in attitudes toward homosexuality. She envisions a new blossoming of Islamic culture, and she’s working hard for it.

Project Ijtihad calls for a return to what Saraswati calls the “golden age of Islam.” Several centuries ago, she said, “Muslims brought the world incredible developments in philosophy, sciences, the arts, etc.— scholars and clerics encouraged the students to use ijtihad to reconcile Islam with their changing lives. The spirit of ijtihad,” she wrote, “is open dialogue, critical thinking.”

Saraswati said her religious observances include praying more than the requisite five times a day. “I need to,” she said. “I find the practice grounds me.” Although she doesn’t currently belong to a mosque—“I have yet to find a mosque in the area that is easily accessible and is tolerant of diversity within its congregation”—she said she fasts during the holy month of Ramadan as health allows, and she gives zakat, the offering of charity. But, she said, “perhaps my greatest religious practice is that of ijtihad.”

Saraswati cited a verse of the Quran when speaking of how she reconciles her faith, her sexuality, and her views: “True believers are those whose hearts are filled with awe at the mention of God, and whose faith becomes stronger as they listen to His revelations.” She noted: “Knowing that and living in a part of the world where I’m free to speak my mind openly, that makes life blessed beyond compare.”

Indeed, Saraswati appears to revel in the possibilities provided to her by being an Islamic progressive.

“I understand that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a young Muslim woman who doesn’t hesitate to rebel when needed, but who still often feels at home in her hijab,” she said. “I just might wear that scarf with some killer high heels, is all!”

‘No tolerance at all’

While there has been some movement in progressive Islamic scholarship and among reform-minded Muslims, change does not appear to have filtered down to the mainstream Islamic community. Of all the gay Muslims I talked to, Yusuf Nasrullah observes his Islamic rituals most rigidly.

He prays five times a day, fasts during Ramadan, attends mosque every Friday for services, and abstains from alcohol and pork. “My faith in Allah is supreme. I am not amenable to conversion to any other faith,” he said. But he refuses to describe himself as a devout Muslim.

“I’m old enough to admit that I’m gay,” he said. He frequents gay nightclubs, is active with MASALA, and is in a relatively new relationship—long distance—with a man. “And I attend Cher concerts,” he said with a smile. “By the standards of a good Muslim, I would have denied my homosexuality.” Plus, he joked, “I don’t sit around and pass fatwahs on people.”

When I met Nasrullah in the Islamic section of a Back Bay bookstore, he wore a long, black leather overcoat. I could barely keep up with his fast pace as we walked to a local coffee shop. His wide eyes and animated gestures reveal a discernible zeal for life, especially when espousing his love for Islam.

He was born in Pakistan to a Sunni father and Shiite mother and attended college in Manchester, England. A job offer in 2000 brought him to Cambridge, where he works as a biochemist.

Nasrullah has never come out to any members of the mosques where he attends services. He believes he would be expelled if he did. “There would be no tolerance for that,” he said. “I’m sure the imam would say, ‘You are not coming in it at all.’ There is no tolerance at all—by and large—in the community at all.”

When I mentioned that I was contacting the Islamic Society of Boston to get a statement from the imam, Nasrullah expressed great interest in his response. “They will probably tone it down,” he speculated.

“There is this perception that Islam is homophobic.” That perception is widespread among Muslims in New England.

“So many people will say such heartbreaking things,” said Nasrullah. “I know some Muslims who have discovered accidentally about my sexuality who have been very, very brutal in the sense that they’ll mock me for observing the prayers, saying that nothing I do will save me from hellfire, so all these little observances are immaterial. So it really shakes your foundation, unless you say, ‘Well, I’m not going to be bothered by what you say. I mean, if every man is going to be judged for his own deeds, then who are you to pronounce judgment?’” So how does Nasrullah reconcile his Muslim faith with his homosexuality? “Like most people of Abrahamic faiths, I believe Allah is merciful. Every verse of the Quran begins with saying ‘Allah is merciful and compassionate.’ I was not conditioned to be [gay]. This is the way I have always been. I feel that I’m devout in many ways, but at the same time, this is something that comes very natural to me. So I don’t buy into this whole argument of it being unnatural.”

Nasrullah has his own theories about why Islam is traditionally anti-gay. “If you ask me,” he said, “I blame the Christian and Jewish faiths for this. Because whatever is homophobic in the Quran is almost a literal translation of Leviticus, and those are the Christian-Judeo texts. It has been granted to us as a legacy. If Christians hadn’t been so homophobic, maybe Islam wouldn’t have bothered so much.”

Among his gay Muslim friends, he finds a great deal of sadness and confusion. “The ones who are more observant are very troubled,” he said. “Because they constantly have this nagging that this is wrong. They have become celibate to an extent. They aspire to be asexual and say, ‘I’ll never marry a woman, but I wish I could control this.’ They’re all in various stages of struggle.”

When asked about the prospects for Islamic leaders eventually becoming welcoming and open to gay people in the way that many Christian leaders have, he stated baldly: “That’s never going to happen.”

An important location for conversation

One thing that El-Khatib, Nasrullah, and Saraswati have in common is that they have all, at one time or another, worshipped at the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB).

The ISB is in the process of completing construction on the largest Islamic center in New England—a large brick building in Roxbury with a dome and minaret already gracing the Boston skyline, which will eventually include a school, a library, exhibition space, and a mosque. But the congregational heart of ISB resides at a small mosque near Central Square in Cambridge. Here, approximately 700 faithful gather for Friday prayers, and over a thousand worship at large Ramadan gatherings, said Imam Basyouny Nehela, the ISB’s spiritual leader.

Imam Nehela agreed to answer e-mailed questions sent through ISB’s press representative, Bilal Kaleem, executive director of the Boston chapter of the Muslim American Society.

Imam Nehela sought to assuage the concerns of worshippers like Nasrullah, who feared being cast out of the mosque. “An imam who is seeking to help bring others closer to God should never ban anyone from a place of worship (unless an individual is doing something that physically disrupts others who are worshipping). The role of the imam is to be a counselor and to help in seeking spiritual guidance,” wrote Nehela. Nehela adhered to the conventional Islamic understanding of homosexuality: “If someone were to tell me they are in a same-sex relationship, I would continue to play a role of loving guidance, counseling, and pastoring. I would also advise him or her that Islamic teachings strictly prohibit any sexual relationships (whether heterosexual or homosexual) outside of marriage, where marriage is a union between a man and a woman with one of the main purposes being procreation and raising a family.”

None of the people I interviewed for this article could recall any public statements about homosexuality or gay issues by any local imams or Islamic organizations. And Nehela himself admitted that the ISB has not weighed in publicly on any gay rights issues, even during the debates over civil marriage for same-sex couples. “It has not been something that the members of my congregation have been asking about, nor something of active concern in the broader Muslim community.” Indeed, everyone I spoke with agreed that American Muslims— and Muslims around the world—have more urgent matters on their hands than to pick fights over homosexuality, particularly dealing with fundamentalism and Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11.

Kaleem said that he’s not aware of any local or Islamic organizations engaging in any anti- or pro-gay pronouncements. “The things that we’ve been focusing on are a lot of issues like civil engagement, civil liberties, immigration issues, political involvement, and youth work,” he said. Imam Nehela echoed Kaleem’s remarks.

“Islam prohibits persecution, vilification, or slander of individuals and upholds equality, privacy, and rule by just law. Thus, Islamic teachings would be against persecution of gays, discrimination against them, and against inquiries into people’s private lives.”

I found one local Islamic community that appears to welcome gay faithful. Imityaz Hussein is a gay Muslim who worships with a small group of Ismaili Muslims, which represent a very small sect within the Shiite branch of Islam. Hussein, 39, came to the United States for college and now works in the consulting industry. Although born and raised in Canada, he traces his family roots to India. We met in a small café in the Boston Public Library.

Ismailis have a pope-like leader in the Aga Khan, whose word on matters of faith is supreme. The Aga Khan has never spoken on the topic of homosexuality, and therefore most Ismailis regard it as an open matter. Hussein is not as devout in his religious practices as most of the others interviewed for this article, but he has brought his partner to several functions sponsored by his Islamic faith community, and, he said, there is general acceptance. No others I spoke with felt such a strong degree of comfort with their gay identity in an Islamic setting.

While gay people are prone to point out homophobia in Islam, Al-Fatiha founder Alam said he finds a great deal of Islamophobia in the gay community. Alam cited instances of Islamophobia in Boston area LGBT newspapers. In 2001 Bay Windows attacked Surina Khan, the director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, for speaking out against the U.S. war on Afghanistan, saying, “She should go back where she came from,” Alam recalled. “Of course, she can’t, because she would be killed as a lesbian.” And in 2005, In Newsweekly (now The New England Blade), published an opinion piece by gay writer James Kirchick highly critical of Palestine, which elicited a response from Alam. (Note: I was the editor of In Newsweekly at the time.) With so much change happening in Islam and gay rights, many see cause for hope that broader reconciliation between Islam and homosexuality will occur, and that New England will be at the forefront.

“Massachusetts, because marriage for everyone is part of the law here, part of the practice, will be an important location for conversation about Islam same-sex marriage,” said Professor Ali.

Saraswati agreed. “We’re located in a part of the world where there is boundless opportunity for intellectual growth.

While New England has its challenges, it’s also a place where freedom means opportunity. In that sense, being a reformminded Muslim in the area is wrought with possibility.” [x]