After the Pulse massacre, a gay scholar finds inclusiveness in Islam
It started with the Pulse Massacre in Orlando, Florida.
Omar Mateen was obviously conflicted, and in multiple ways. The ‘roid-pumping, wife-beater killed 52 people at the LGBT nightclub Pulse on June 12, 2016, as they danced, drank and dished. He said he did it for the greater glory of ISIL, the Islamic State. However, that was merely an excuse: the chance to link his crime to even greater atrocities overseas, and to bury his physical attraction toward other men. The socially unacceptable reality of his same-sex desires became the muzzle from which he projected his own self-hatred outward in a spray of bullets.
Mateen’s crime was horrendous, but it was not unexpected. Given the level of access to weapons of war available to America's criminally insane, its sexually-repressed and its religiously-conflicted, bloodshed seems a logical conclusion. Less coherent were the actions of prominent conservatives in Congress during the immediate aftermath of the shooting when they used the tragedy to cudgel the American Muslim community, all the while erasing the fact that victims in the massacre were overwhelmingly queer. This was an attack on all of us, they intoned, a variation on the “All Lives Matter” rhetoric that renders Black victims of police brutality invisible.
The Muslim community has been suffering from bad press ever since 9/11, and the press got worse after the uproar in 2005 over Danish cartoons lampooning Muhammad. Not enough moderate Muslim voices were heard in the media and in public discourse to counter the ongoing, blanket accusations of extremism among the American Muslim community.
But gradually, a different media presence has emerged: one that presents inclusive Muslims who seek unity through appreciation of diversity, decoupling Islam and extremism. One of the earliest of these media reports came out of Egypt in 2011, when Muslims formed human shields to protect Christians during Christmas Eve services after a bomb had destroyed a church and killed more than 20 people. This inclusive voice grew loud as members of the Muslim community took opportunities to visibly demonstrate the best qualities that Islam has to offer the world. They appeared in the news for the right reasons, performing acts of generosity for the downtrodden, standing in solidarity with Jewish communities whose tombstones and synagogues were desecrated by White supremacists, and speaking out against violence committed in God’s name by extremist groups.
After 9/11, most Muslims did not seek the spotlight for fear of reprisal. But as the heat increased, Muslim communities decided to go public, to showcase acts of charity and to promote human solidarity with people of other faiths. Reputable media outlets paid attention to these newly empowered voices, and public opinion grew more favorable.
Never were the values this inclusive Islam represents more beautiful than after the Pulse massacre. American Muslims stood alongside Hispanic and LGBT mourners, who were themselves Muslim in some cases. This was the moment when a broader swath of America was able to see that not all Muslims come in various shades of al-Qaeda.
Of course, images of solidarity were not enough to quell the kind of paranoia that runs rampant among some sectors of the American populace. Conservative outlets pitted the LGBT community against the Muslim community whenever possible. They succeeded to a degree: conversations with normally reasonable people turned ugly when Islam came up, even here in Hawai‘i, and even among members of our LGBT community. When the possibility of Hawai‘i taking in Syrian refugees arose in 2015, a petition on change.org used anti-Muslim language as part of the argument against allowing them into the state:
I had heard the same sentiment expressed among people I knew, but with this added bonus: Islam teaches hate, and all Muslims are potential terrorists. Anyone who defends Muslims is helping terrorists, period.
Public Islamophobia began trending in earnest among the MAGA crowd after the 2016 presidential election, only five months after the Pulse massacre. They finally had a leader who spoke their language, and some of them celebrated by bullying anyone who appeared to be Muslim. Public abuse of Muslims has not been limited to the continent: women and girls in Hawai‘i have also been harassed for wearing the hijab. And, after the Hawai‘i Attorney General's Office blocked a blanket travel restriction on six Muslim-majority countries the White House tried to impose in early 2017, the local mosque in Manoa was subjected to multiple anonymous threats.
Hatred of Muslims is primarily based upon ignorance of Islam. The best way to counter that hatred is to educate, and the first thing to learn is that the Muslim world is not monolithic. Muslims do not march in lock-step with any one interpretation of the religion. There are progressive Muslims, conservative Muslims and everything in between.
The basics unifying most Muslims are relatively simple: in seventh century CE Arabia, the man the world knows as Muhammad spoke verses that came to him while in a state of trance. Those verses were written down and collected by his followers, then compiled into a single text, the Qur’an or Recitation, so named because Muhammad claimed that the angel Gabriel had commanded him to recite them.
Through these verses, we learn that God’s most important titles are Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim: The Compassionate, The Merciful. Muslims are to remember God as they reflect those same attributes, compassion and mercy, in their everyday lives. Besides these basics, Muslims have an astonishing array or beliefs and practices, some based upon interpretation of the Qur’an and the sayings of Muhammad (the hadith), some drawing upon the many cultures in which Islam became a premier source of religious inspiration and identity.
My education about inclusive Islam began 25 years before the Pulse massacre in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of East Africa, in a small resort village on the shores of the Indian Ocean. It was there that I met Khadija, a woman who described herself as “African Arabian.” She owned a boutique hotel with a lanai facing the sea, the perfect place to sit and enjoy the view, the breeze, and conversations about spiritual things.
“Every people in the world has received a messenger from God,” she told me. These messengers include the Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Laozi and pretty much any major figure found in world religions. Khadija led prayers for her local Muslim community and worked to advance women’s rights. She also described how she and others would recite verses from the Qur’an and channel important figures from Zanzibar’s past while in the grip of divine ecstasy. Before meeting her, I had no idea such acceptance of other religions or such diverse forms of worship existed in Islam, or even that women could lead communal prayers.
I never forgot Khadija’s good company nor the kindness of other Muslims. A group of men in Cairo, Egypt, prayed with me in their mosque when I could not find a church and showed up at their doorstep. A woman in Mombasa, Kenya, greeted me after a long night at sea as we waited for a customs agent to clear us. I was the only non-Muslim and non-African on the crowded boat. “Karibu.” Welcome, she said in Swahili as she smiled and handed me a fruit, then turned to converse with her husband. A Tibetan owner of a jewelry shop in Kathmandu, Nepal, offered me tea and sparkling conversation every day that I visited. He considered the Dalai Lama his spiritual leader (I’m Muslim,” he said, “but I’m Tibetan as well”). I befriended a Muslim lawyer in Bahia, Brazil, who was also a practitioner of Candomblé, the African Brazilian religion on which I was doing fieldwork. He invited me to the island of Itaparica to witness an Egungun ritual in which dead royalty in colorful garb danced and spoke to celebrants.
For none of these people did my ethnicity, nationality, race or religion render me a lesser person in their eyes. Positive experiences with inclusive Muslims increased my admiration for Islam, but I thought that erotic-romantic attraction to men precluded membership. I knew there were LGBT Muslims. I brought filmmaker Parvez Sharma to Columbus, Ohio, in 2005 for Qualia, an annual conference on LGBT folklife. Parvez was putting together A Jihad for Love, a documentary on LGBT people in Muslim-majority countries. Before an audience at Ohio State, he described that, although LGBT Muslims were frowned upon, if they were discreet, many Muslim societies tolerated them.
For my out-and-proud self, however, discretion had long since left the station. I felt there was no place for me among the ummah, the people of Allah, until 2016 when I spoke with Ani Zonneveld, founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV). The Mission Statement for MPV includes the following:
I interviewed Zonneveld soon after the Pulse massacre. Our first conversation was about threats to Muslims in America. The progressive values of MPV have drawn criticism and even insults from more conservative Muslims, including ad hominem attacks against Zonneveld herself. I asked her if less-inclusive Muslims were causing problems. “Yes, and the more our inclusive Islam resonates, the more resistance and threats there are,” she said. “But at the moment, I am more concerned with overzealous Trump supporters.”
In Saudi Arabia, Iran and other theocratic nations, progressive values can result in danger to one’s person—being openly Gay certainly would. But in the U.S., the bigger threat is not from Muslim fanatics lurking among us, but from non-Muslims who despise anyone associated with Islam.
Zonneveld’s Executive Assistant, Yasmin Kadir, was born in New York to two progressive Bangladeshi immigrants. Despite coming from conservative Muslim backgrounds, they insisted that their children learn about the similarities between Muslims, Jews and Christians around Christmas time so they would feel more included and also learn to be inclusive people.
“I learned about MPV at Politicon,” Kadir says. “I was amazed that there were other American Muslims who also fell on the intersections of being too Muslim for the Americans and too American for the Muslims ... I was astonished to learn that I was rejecting Islam based on the misunderstanding that it did not coincide with my core beliefs when it actually inherently does. I was instantly in love with MPV and felt right at home.”
She continues, “On one end, we have to deal with conservative Muslims who are not inclusive, period, especially not in any of their activism. They are, unfortunately, the face of American Muslims. They accuse us of being 'Western feminists/liberals' trying to turn Islam into something that it is not. They call for inclusion, social justice, and human rights when it involves Muslim rights, but not for all Muslims. What about LGBT Muslims? Black Muslims? Full equality for Muslim women?
“On the other end, we receive criticism from the conservative right just for being Muslim. They continue to enforce the negative media narrative of what Islam is and who Muslims are while pretending progressive Muslims don't exist," Kadir says. "They will even blame Muslim countries for 'being the way they are' without addressing how the politics, funding and arms-selling that they support also supports the radicalism in these countries. Both of these sides hate each other without recognizing they're equally intolerant and blinded—and they both hate us.”
Kadir also has a critique for liberals who blindly support anything that claims to be Muslim: “Too often the liberal left and Western feminists inhibit our progress without even knowing it. Their failure to be self-critical of the Muslim community and our obviously prevalent issues of radicalism, homophobia, colorism/racism, and even sexism is irresponsible,” she says. “Pretending it does not exist only makes it worse and provides the alt-right with support for their arguments.”
Then there are the practical aspects of Muslim identity in its oldest community on the continent: African Americans. I met Patti Kane at WMC (an electronic dance music/house music convention) in Miami in 2014. Kane grew up in the Nation of Islam, a denomination dedicated to the Black community, then converted to Sunni Islam. When I decided to convert, she was one of the first people I told. She refrains from judging other Muslims on the basis of gender, orientation or denomination, and she expects the same level of respect to be given to her.
Kane gives classes on Islam in a women’s incarceration facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and performs as a DJ specializing in deep house dance music—tunes that wed the beauty of jazz, Latin/African, soul and gospel with a precise electronic pulse.
“The dynamics between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Black community are different from those outside of the Black community,” she says, pointing out that she is considered Black first, then Muslim, and usually African Americans refrain from criticizing her for her faith. “Being Black bonds us. We do not feel the negativity that Muslims face from mainstream America. However, I’ve been told by other Muslims it’s inappropriate for me to DJ because I am a woman.”
A Beautiful God
Both my encounters with Muslims over the years and the Pulse Massacre were important factors in my decision to convert to Islam. The first nurtured a deep affection for the people of the faith, while the second triggered my sense of justice. But neither was sufficient for me to join the ummah. The turning point was the glimpse I had of a beautiful God.
While doing research on the influence of Sufism (Muslim mystic traditions) on Medieval Christian mysticism, I had contacted scholar Cyrus Ali Zargar, author of Sufi Aesthetics, for his thoughts on the subject. “One significant disagreement in Islamic intellectual history was whether the Real [God] was to be approached through the intellect or through the heart,” Zargar explained to me. “Philosophers, such as Avicenna, were advocates of the intellect and of the definitive role of reason in uncovering the mysteries of existence. Others, often Sufis such as Ibn 'Arabi and Rumi, saw the heart, the organ of direct vision, as the only human medium to reality.”
He further added, “The essential principle of creation for many such Sufi thinkers was love, which engendered lover, beloved and ‘belovedness,’ the state of being beloved. Beauty and belovedness are often synonymous.” A similar debate between the intellect and the heart in apprehending God is echoed in Medieval Christian discourse between the intellectual musings of Thomas Aquinas in contrast to the heartfelt desire for God-as-beloved found in the works of Catherine of Siena and Bernard of Clairvaux, which reached its height of scandal by describing Jesus in sensual terms.
A central and equally scandalous theme in Sufism is that God is beautiful. As I read about the Sufi obsession with God’s beauty, something clicked within me: I was smitten by the God of whom its representatives spoke. I then sought the means by which I, too, could further experience the irresistible deity they described. After intense study and soul searching, I sought guidance from Richard and Aisha Ingles, a Sunni Muslim couple I had known for years in Columbus, Ohio. I knew that Aisha and Richard would have no problem with my orientation. According to Aisha, they had, in fact, met in a Gay club.
Richard told me that Aisha had told him she would not marry a non-Muslim man, but that his employment as a DJ at a Gay bar was completely irrelevant. I trusted this beautiful couple completely (yes, they did marry), and their love for me gave me the nerve to convert. Five months after the Pulse massacre and eleven days after the election, I picked up the phone in Honolulu and recited in Arabic the Declaration (“There is no god but God, and Muhammed is his Messenger”) to them, some 4,500 miles away.
I had asked Zargar if beauty were God’s primary attribute in Sufism. With a tone of gentle admonishment, he responded without hesitation, “No. God’s primary attribute is love.” After contemplating what he had said, I came to the conclusion that God the Beloved is beautiful precisely because of His compassion and mercy, which courses through all of creation.
For the men in ISIL, Boko Haram, and other extremist organizations, however, appreciation of God’s beauty, compassion and mercy does not appear to carry much weight. Their god is toxically masculine—a deity poisoned by paranoia, Patriarchy and the thirst for vendetta; who expects male believers to be as grotesque as he is, and who encourages them to be sadistic, misogynist, homophobic, homicidal and intolerant of those who do not believe as they do.
That is why the hideous discourse of ISIL was a perfect smokescreen for Mateen. Barricaded in a Pulse bathroom and surrounded by dead bodies and traumatized hostages, Mateen called 911 and told the police that ISIL was his ummah and his inspiration for turning his assault weapons on innocent people, including men with whom he may have flirted only days before.
Some progressive Muslims are now revising what ummah, the religious community, means. Rabi’a Keeble, President and Founder of Qal’bu Maryam Women’s Mosque in Berkeley, California, has made inclusive Islam the basis for her house of prayer.
“Qal'bu Maryam, or Maryam's Heart, is a women's mosque designed to provide Muslim women, and those women who are new to Islam, a rich and open Islamic educational environment,” she says. “It is designed for women to get the truth of Islam minus the Patriarchy and male agendas that so often cloud it. This is also a place of inclusivity: everyone is welcome—new converts, reverts, born Muslims, immigrants, black, white, brown, all genders, all orientations. We welcome Muslims of all backgrounds: Shia, Sunni, Sufi, Nation of Islam, Ahmadi, Bohri, Ismaili, etc. We welcome people of all faiths who are curious about Islam and want to get to know us in a relaxed, no pressure environment of support.
“We are insulated in Berkeley,” continues Keeble, explaining that the MAGA crowd is not as much of a problem for her as it is for Ani and MPV because Berkeley is such a progressive place. But this does not mean that the mosque does not meet local resistance from less inclusive Muslims in nearby San Francisco.
When I ask Keeble why she founded Qal’bu Maryam, she cites her sense of equality for women and men.
“I fell in love with Islam and had a very intense relationship with the religion,” she says. “Like all relationships, there were rough patches. I began to not feel comfortable sitting behind men in the mosque, or in some cases being in closed-off rooms and not allowed to see or hear the imam [cleric] give the khutbah [sermon]. All this said to me, ‘You aren’t important.’”
She looked to the Qur’an for guidance on this issue. “I know the Qur’an says at least three times, if not more, that men and women are equal. If that were so, why then were women being treated in this way?” Since she could not find what she wanted in her local ummah, she decided to start a congregation of her own: “I set out to correct what I saw as the most glaring issue for Muslims in the 21st century in America, and that is inclusion… I saw Qal’bu Maryam Women’s Mosque as an answer.”
Keeble takes a strictly Quranic interpretation of Islam: if it’s not in the Holy Book, it does not have legitimacy. She is not alone. Many progressive Muslims also have a Qur’an-centered understanding that they apply to their own contemporary cultural and ethical context. Islamic scholar Aun Hasan Ali at University of Colorado-Boulder, however, finds that problems arise when progressives situate the Qur’an as common ground among differing denominations. He points out that the Quranic approach may actually hinder such dialogue.
“While many of these thinkers claim that upholding the primacy of the Qur’an is essential to any authentically Islamic framework, this claim misrepresents the diversity of Muslim approaches to the Qur’an,” he says.
Custom often plays a larger role in religious practice than the Qur’an does, and there may be other texts (such as compendia of hadith made up of proverbs from and anecdotes about Muhammad) that often carry equal weight. In addition to theological differences based upon texts, there may also be cultural factors: Shi’i Muslims in Iran, for example, have a literary tradition of mystical Persian poetry that is part of their religious fabric, and various forms of Islam associated with Sufi schools found all over the Muslim world may honor the words and the tombs of local saints, each school with its own variations of formal ritual and informal folklore. In addition, there are Muslim communities that blend with other religious traditions, such as the close cultural ties between Hindu Bhakti and Sufi ecstatic song and dance in Bengali-speaking India, or the link between Islam and trance states for mediums that are found in various African traditions.
Founded in 2017, Qal’bu Maryam Women’s Mosque is new and innovative, but it also follows an ancient pattern of Islam adapting itself to local conditions, in this case, a liberal enclave in the U.S. Qal’bu Maryam represents Islam that resonates with Berkeley’s progressive values and culture. Perhaps Keeble has found a way around the problem with progressive Islam that Ali describes through pure inclusion with no sectarian judgment whatsoever.
A verse from the Qur’an highlights human diversity as divinely ordained: “O People: We have created you from a man and a woman, and we have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”
This verse is a call for appreciation of difference and engagement with those unlike ourselves, not monolithic conformity. To limit that diversity, to stifle people’s self-expression or treat them as inferior—be they women (and men) of many denominations at prayer in Berkeley, a woman playing deep house music in Newark, or a man who loves men in Honolulu—is to withdraw compassion from one’s fellows and distort the beauty of Islam in its multihued splendor. I do not believe the beautiful God I seek would have us do that.
On April 12, there will be a symposium on inclusive Islam in America at the University of Hawai‘i (UH) Manoa, sponsored by the Department of English, the UH SEED Grant program, the Department of Ethnic Studies, and Soulgasm Hawai‘i. It will feature the aforementioned Aun Hasan Ali and Rabi’a Keeble as well as members of the UH faculty.
On April 16, Rabi’a Keeble and Patti Kane will be on campus for a second symposium on American Women in Inclusive Islam. For more information, please contact Mickey Weems at firstname.lastname@example.org.