Different Routes: The queer gaze sees love and compassion in the Quran

Muslim minority activists and researchers are clearing space for alternative interpretations of Islam. The symbol adopted by queer Muslims is the mythical creature known as Burāq, which is said to have transported Muhammad to heaven. Our series of long reads called Different Routes takes you from one research topic to another, every month throughout the winter.

Text: Anna Tommola
Illustrations: Juliana Hyrri

 

The creature has the head of a human: a beautiful face, feminine features, long hair. It is half mule, half horse. It has multicoloured wings and wears an ornate, glittery blanket.

This is how Burāq, the mythical steed which is said to have transported the Prophet Muhammad to heaven, is usually described.

Familiar from Islamic tradition and paintings, Burāq is a sacred figure for Muslims. It has now been adopted by Muslims who belong to sexual and gender minorities.

A more symbolically charged character is difficult to find. The creature is a combination of animal and human characteristics and its gender can be understood as multifaceted: it is assumed to have the head of a female but is often referred to as masculine in Islamic texts. It can also travel between worlds.

This is exactly what it does in the experimental short film Journey to the CharBagh (2019) by artist, cultural producer and researcher Abdullah Qureshi. From a typical Finnish stable, the winged creature travels to the Lahore Fort in Pakistan, which symbolises the paradise garden. On the way, the creature encounters both earthly and heavenly characters, and the journey ends with dance and celebration.

“Burāq is a kind of alternative unicorn,” Qureshi explains during a video call from France, where they are collecting material for their doctoral thesis at Aalto University, Mythological Migrations: Imagining Queer Muslim Utopias, which they are currently working on.

In their research funded by Kone Foundation, Pakistan-born Qureshi reflects on the reconciling of queer and Muslim identities, especially in the context of immigration. Through historical sources, myths and art, they seek to conceive a “queer utopia,” an ideal space that has not yet been achieved. The work will consist of articles and art projects and their documentation. The short film was part of the artistic portion of the research project, as was an event called The Nightclub, held at Club Kaiku in Helsinki in the autumn of 2019, where the film was shown. The second artistic part of the project, The Darkroom, took place as a multidisciplinary virtual art and discussion event at the end of October 2020.

In this symbolic film, the journey of the mythical Burāq can be seen as describing a crossing of boundaries and definitions, as well as freedom and an open space for all. As yet, for many Muslims who identify as queer, this is still a utopia, a dream of something better.

 

Strict laws are often rooted in colonial times

Islam is generally perceived as a patriarchal religion that has a severe approach to sexual minorities.

Both outsiders and many Muslims themselves often have the impression that homosexuality and Islam do not go together. From the point of view of fundamentalists, the queer way of life is simply western propaganda from which Islam must be dissociated.

Accordingly, traditional Islamic law condemns homosexuality. In countries where the majority of the population are Muslims, homosexuality is widely defined as a crime punishable by fines, imprisonment or in some cases, such as Iran and Yemen, even death. Even if the law does not prohibit homosexual relationships, such minorities are often targets of hatred and persecution in many countries.

The social status of transgender persons varies, but is also often exposed to vulnerability. In some countries, transgender persons have rights, provided that they undergo a sex reassignment surgery.

However, the big picture of the relationship between Islam and these minorities is not as black and white as this, neither historically nor for present-day people. In Muslim communities, in the same way as anywhere else, there are and have always been gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and non-binary people.

According to many researchers, attitudes towards these minorities at different times have varied much more than is generally thought.

According to many sources, for centuries, homosexual relations were quite normal in the Muslim world. It wasn’t until the modern period that a tougher stance was adopted, and fundamentalist interpretations gained strength.

In some Muslim countries, in fact, the strict legislation is rooted in colonial times and has been partly influenced by the western ideas of the time that saw homosexuality as a perversion.

For example, Kecia Ali, scholar of Islam at Boston University has pointed out that there is, in fact, no unified “Muslim view ” on anything. Scholars, for example, disagree on whether the Quran takes a direct stand on homosexuality at all.

 

The Quran is open to a wide range of interpretations

Previously hidden, people belonging to the LHBTIQ community are now seeking to become more visible and audible in Muslim communities. In recent decades, many organisations and communities have been established in different countries to fight the cause of queer Muslims. For example, the Imaan organisation, which has been in operation for some 20 years, was reportedly making arrangements for the world’s first Muslim Pride event in London last spring. Due to the coronavirus, it had to be postponed.

Alternative Muslim views have also been voiced in Finland recently.

In addition to Qureshi’s research, Kone Foundation is also currently supporting the project Islamia queeristi (Islam in a queer way), which is challenging traditional interpretations of Islam in Finland. Behind the project is the Wasla Collective, which was founded by Muslim queer activists Wisam Elfadl and Mire Mroué.

Its aim is to increase people’s knowledge of the diversity of Islam and interpretations that include LHBTIQ points of view by collecting books and studies for anyone to access. At the same time, the project gives queer people themselves a voice by publishing interviews, writings, illustrations and photographs on the subject.

The interpretation of Islam predominant both in Finland and other parts of the world is very community and ritual-oriented, note Mire Mroué and Wisam Elfadl. It emphasises rules and the authorities that interpret the religion.

However, the Quran itself, the writings of the mystics of the past centuries and, for example, the art, paintings and poetry of the Islamic world also provide material for alternative interpretations.

The essential part is to distinguish between faith and the traditions accumulated over the centuries, as well as the interpretations of the scholars, which in themselves are products of their time.

“One of the things at the heart of queer interpretations is to give up the middlemen in power who determine the religion,” says Mroué.

Above all, Mroué and Elfadl want to change who is allowed to speak about Islam and who represents it. For them, it’s important that the people who are affected by the diversity of Islam are allowed to talk about it; that is, Muslim queer, trans and non-binary people themselves.

“Thanks to our project, this is the first time that this issue has even been discussed in Finland at this level,” Elfadl says.

Diversity and different views exist even among Finnish Muslims, Mroué and Elfadl explain. Often people don’t have the courage to come out for fear of being ostracised by their community.

Mroué and Elfadl criticise the media, too, for contributing to a homogeneous image of Islam by allowing only conservative representatives of a community to speak out. That, in turn, adds fuel to Islamophobic people’s fire.

 

Read for yourself, interpret for yourself

According to Mroué, many Muslims have learned from a young age that “ordinary” people cannot interpret sacred texts, let alone criticise prevailing interpretations. This makes it difficult to question them.

“Our idea is for people to take this power upon themselves and free the religion from oppressive structures.”

The team behind the Islamia Queeristi project want to provide people with tools for their own interpretations. In addition to collecting information, they would also like to influence the selections of public libraries so that diverse Islam-related material would be available across the board, from poetry to history – not providing alternative material that can only be found on separate “rainbow” shelves.

Instead of condemnation, researchers who interpret the Quran from a queer perspective have found in it descriptions of the diversity of creation – although the book does not, of course, deal with gender identity or sexual orientation using present-day concepts. Defenders of equality highlight the Ayahs, i.e. verses, that describe how Allah made people different in terms of their faith, language, skin colour and other characteristics, or those that urge people to protect life and defend those who are weaker than them.

At the heart of Quran, Mroué sees clear values that speak for justice, love, equality and compassion. But equally, someone might find ways to use the same book to incite hatred towards themselves or others.

“Both the Bible and the Quran are full of major contradictions you can only try to understand. The way we interpret a sacred text says more about us as people than about anything else.”

Mroué and Elfadl are aware that these are very sensitive issues to talk about and think a lot about the way they express things to other people. However, they are not afraid of making conservative rulers feel uneasy.

Listeners usually get very disconcerted simply by the way Mroué refers to Allah in the feminine form – the word itself is neither masculine nor feminine, which in their mind reflects Allah’s indeterminacy and infinity.

Traditional thinkers often react to queer perspectives in an intolerant way: this is wrong, this is no longer about Islam at all.

“Yet, the Quran itself encourages you to read for yourself, interpret for yourself,” says Mroué.

Unfortunately, that particular message has been lost along the way. Where would we be if everyone started to think critically? Power structures might be broken and those in power might get angry.

“Throughout history, the need to control the masses has always been behind every organised religion,” Elfadl points out.

 

Is it OK to be a believer and gay?

What at least the major monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – have in common is that the debate on religion and sexual and gender minorities often revolves around the same basic question.

In order to deny or defend it, they even cite the same case of Sodom and Gomorrah, which again is something the Middle Eastern religions all have in common. Both the Quran and the Bible describe how Allah/God  sent angels disguised as men to the house of Lot (who to Muslims is a prophet) in Sodom to observe the debauched behaviour of the town dwellers. Lot showed the men hospitality, but the local residents arrived en masse and demanded to have sexual intercourse with the strangers. Allah and God destroyed the towns, but saved Lot’s family.

Conservative scholars find evidence in this story that homosexuality is a sin. In alternative interpretations, it was not homosexuality that was punishable, but deceitfulness and rape. In other words, not sex between men, but sexual violence. Sex has not only been linked to sexual desire and orientation, but also to power setups.

This debate rarely leads anywhere.

“It’s frustrating,” Elfadl sighs.

“Our starting points are so different. Our premise is that it’s OK to be queer and Muslim. That’s where we start the conversation.”

Getting stuck in individual points of text and pieces of oral tradition is problematic in Mroué and Elfadl’s opinion also because the chains of narrators are often deficient and unreliable.

Islamic law, for example, relies heavily on Hadiths, which are a collection of Prophet Muhammad’s instructions and explanations from outside the Quran. They were recorded a couple of hundred years after Muhammad, and their origin and reliability vary. The ones considered the strongest are usually those corroborated by more than one narrator, or those where there are indisputable facts showing the person through whom the oral information travelled to the person who recorded it.

 

“I’m accountable directly to God”

It is clear that many people are personally wrestling with the basic question asked above: is it OK to be who I am? There are people who may have to justify their identity to themselves and others on a daily basis.

Abdullah Qureshi explains that while growing up in Pakistan, they learned to think that homosexuality and being a Muslim were incompatible: to be one you had to give up another. They were an artistic adolescent who was bullied at school and who started dreaming about travelling abroad early on.

Once they had moved to London to study, Qureshi was able to explore their own sexuality more openly. Over the years, it has become clear to them that their relationship with their religion is ultimately a personal issue.

“In my life as a Muslim, it is crucial that I have to give an account of my life directly to God. Whether others accept me or not doesn’t matter. The question is whether I’m doing something ‘wrong’ in relation to God. This has been a journey.”

To accept their own identity, however, they have needed the support of others from similar backgrounds and discussions with their peers.

“Living in different places and getting to know different kinds of people has been a healing process for me,” Qureshi explains.

 

Muslim identity is difficult for others

Reconciling the elements of one’s identity may not be easy for Muslims born or raised in Finland either, even though the status of minorities is officially more secure than in many other countries.

The more ways there are that your identity doesn’t fit into the existing pigeonholes, the more complicated your life is.

“These are questions you have to face in your life from the moment you begin to realise that you may not be completely heterosexual or that you may not fit the mould of a Muslim or the mould of a Finn or a black person or a woman. There are so many pigeonholes,” Wisam Elfadl says.

Finnish-Sudanese Elfadl’s both parents are Muslims. Mire Mroué grew up in a multi-religious family: their mother is a Christian and their Lebanese father is a Muslim, although not very religious.

Mroué has identified as queer from a very young age. Combining a Muslim identity with a queer one, on the other hand, has sometimes been difficult – for others.

“They look at me and see that I look a certain way and are surprised when I suddenly start talking about Islam. Being a Muslim doesn’t match their image of a queer person.”

The difficulties faced by queer Muslims are not only connected to finding their place in the religious community or, on the other hand, in rainbow groups. They may encounter lack of understanding and discrimination for many reasons, in many everyday contexts: in the media, in their own family, in the school community or in a hobby group.

“It’s not just feeling like ‘I can’t take these Muslims anymore’ and deciding to go to the queer community instead, where it’s lovely and pink and there’s glitter. Being discriminated against also means that wherever you go, whether dealing with a local government official, a teacher or even a public health nurse, who you are will likely be called into question. So many people would prefer you to have just the one identity that is easier for them to understand,” Elfadl says.

 

Dismantling oppressive structures

An approach that takes into account many of the intersecting factors affecting a person’s situation is called intersectionality. The approach of the Islamia Queeristi project is intersectional and decolonising and one that dismantles old power structures. The key is to identify and dismantle various oppressive structures that may be in play at the same time.

For example, even if a dissenting scholar of religion talks about the acceptability of relationships between men in the light of sacred scriptures, they may not be able to look at the subject from the perspective of a woman, trans person or non-binary person. Research on feminist Islam, on the other hand, may focus only on the position of cisgender women in heterosexual marriages.

Nor can the rights of sexual and gender minorities be defended without discussing racism, Elfadl and Mroué remind us. In Finland, people talk about accepting rainbow people in the Christian church, but they may still be blind to the effects of skin colour. Being religious, black and queer is a different experience altogether than being religious and queer.

Furthermore, it’s not enough to find examples of transgender or non-binary people in old scriptures without recognising, at the same time, that they may have been oppressed slaves in their own time. The analysis remains superficial if “empowering” materials are picked out from history without dismantling the burden related to them.

 

Somehow wrong wherever you go

When a person experiences discrimination for many different reasons, it is called multiple discrimination. In 2018, the Ministry of Justice published a report on the subject. It involved interviews of people belonging to sexual and gender minorities, who were also members of an ethnic or religious minority or had a disability.

For them, experiences of exclusion and unequal treatment were often multiplied.

According to a report written by Senior Researcher Outi Lepola from the Migration Institute of Finland, life can be particularly hard for individuals who belong to two minority groups that have tensions between each other.

“Certain ethnic and religious communities may have negative attitudes towards sexual and gender minorities. At the same time, there are negative attitudes within the LGBTIQ community towards ethnic minorities and religious minorities. This leads to a situation where safe social and physical spaces become nearly non-existent,” the study finds.

The report is aptly named: Tensions All the Time.

The interviewees reported having to restrict their expression of their identity and being careful of the information they share about themselves. They were afraid to attend events where they expected to be discriminated against. Many of them remained in the closet to their families.

 

Support does not always reach those who need it

So far, there has been little support and information available in Finland for people who identify both as queer and Muslim.

One of the providers of peer support and training is the project Taakasta voimavaraksi (From Burden to Resource). Its goal is to help more and more rainbow people to better accept themselves as they are and to make the activities of spiritual communities safer for them. Behind this project is the Malkus Association, which is often perceived as Christian, although the association and the project seek to support rainbow people regardless of their religion.

The project has involved a translation of the American guidebook for young LGBTQ+ Muslims called I’m Muslim and I Might Not Be Straight (in Finnish, Olen muslimi enkä ehkä hetero) and applied it to Finnish conditions.

This information package has been well received, according to Peik Ingman, a religious scholar and mediator who specialises in issues related to sexual and gender minorities.

On the other hand, the service’s helpline and chat hardly reach Muslims at all. All in all, people contact the service for help infrequently.

“Maybe it’s not clear to people what kind of support they can get from it,” Ingman says.

They may also think that only those sharing the same religious framework would be able to understand them.

People may also find it confusing that the support is offered both to rainbow people who want to remain members of their spiritual communities and to those who want to break away from them.

“The range of religions in Finland is very diverse, as are the challenges people face.”

Ingman explains that the parties involved are carefully considering whether it is important to get people to call the helpline if there is only limited help available for people struggling with spiritual issues. Or would it be more useful, for example, to focus on training health and social services professionals in the specific spiritual challenges that rainbow people face?

This might, at least in part, address the lack of understanding and multiple discrimination queer Muslims encounter.

 

The invisible norm of whiteness

The lack of safe spaces was clearly evident when Abdullah Qureshi came to Finland and met and interviewed refugees and asylum seekers belonging to sexual minorities in a queer café.

Repeated traumatic experiences emerged in these discussions. Many of the people Qureshi interviewed had experienced discrimination or persecution in their countries of origin because of their identity, in addition to which their escape and journey from their country had often been highly dangerous.

Now they had to face completely new situations: they had to prove their homosexuality to the authorities time and time again and to justify their victimhood.

Although homosexuality is not punishable in Finland, they felt they were seen as being somehow wrong in other ways. Some of them also experienced racist exclusion within the rainbow community; for example, in some gay bars in Helsinki.

“There are cases where foreigner-looking people have been perceived as a threat if they didn’t know how or didn’t feel comfortable with performing queerness in a certain way,” Qureshi explains.

In Qureshi’s opinion, these cases of discrimination reveal a deeply hidden Islamophobia: the Muslim body was not perceived to belong in a liberal environment.

Qureshi studied and completed their basic degree in London and has also lived in Canada and traveled extensively in Europe. They see certain peculiarities in Finland compared to countries that have had more immigrants since before the refugee crisis of 2015 and where they more often have a common language with others on arrival.

In addition to the high language barrier, another of these Nordic features is the “invisible norm of whiteness.” Situated remotely in the North of Europe, people in Finland have been able to postpone a serious dialogue on immigration, racism and Islamophobia for much longer, Qureshi says. We are just making a start now.

 

Being Muslim is more than just articles of faith

Qureshi never directly used the stories of the immigrants they had encountered in the café because it didn’t feel ethical. Many of them were deeply traumatised and found it difficult to talk about their experiences.

Instead, the discussions helped Qureshi outline the themes they wanted to address in their research: memories, traumatic personal histories, the freedom of movement and the potential for queer resistance in the Islamic context.

On the other hand, Qureshi also challenges the thinking of some minority circles, such as the narrow-minded image of the ideal gay body or the exoticisation of coloured bodies. In one of their articles, they take a critical look at Tom of Finland’s muscular gay figures, which in Finland have been elevated to a position of almost national property alongside the Moomins, and are displayed on sheets, oven gloves and mugs.

For ingredients to building a queer Muslim identity, Qureshi turns to early art and religious interpretations that emphasise equality and love, especially Sufism. Sufism is a mystical Islamic belief and practice that emphasises a personal relationship with Allah and the search for spiritual truth. Supporters of fundamentalist interpretations of Islam have dismissed it as heresy, and Sufi Muslims have been persecuted at various times.

Qureshi doesn’t feel the need to analyse the holy texts very deeply. For them, being a Muslim means more than just theology – it means the culture and community.

“This is more of an artistic than a theological project.”

 

A mosque doesn’t have to be a building

Mire Mroué takes a thick book out of their bag and places it on the café table. It is a compilation of the life stories of 82 early Sufi women.

Its manuscript dates back a thousand years and was lost for a long time, but was finally found in a university library in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. It was first published in Arabic and translated into English in 1999.

The stories are a great source of inspiration for anyone who wants to break the black-and-white image of patriarchal Islam. It proves that there have been significant female thinkers, although they are not always remembered.

For example, Rābi’a al-Adawiyya, a mystic and saint who lived in the 8th century, didn’t give in to norms and didn’t consent to marriage, but lived independently and taught both men and women. At the heart of al-Adawiyya’s thinking were love and a very direct connection to Allah.

It is the personal relationship with Allah that provides fertile ground for queer interpretations: authority figures, leaders or mosques are not always needed to find a connection to Allah. This idea brings comfort to those for whom their religious community does not provide a safe space.

Wisam Elfadl explains that they have discussed what a mosque actually is with other Muslims. It doesn’t have to be a physical building; instead, you can find a safe space inside yourself.

However, many still long for a community and a place to practice their spirituality as the people they are. They should have the choice.

“I have had a strong relationship with Islam, but it has always been outside the official traditional bodies – unfortunately. I never felt that organised religion was for me, because there weren’t places or organisations that were in any way inclusive,” Mire Mroué says.

Mosques that are open to all have begun to emerge elsewhere in the world. There are now mosques that have declared themselves inclusive, i.e. ones that accept all kinds of people, at least in Paris, Berlin and Toronto.

There are also some imams, i.e. spiritual leaders, out there who belong to a gender and sexual minority. One of the first to come out in public in the late 1990s is South African Muhsin Hendricks, who recently spoke at the Pride event’s virtual LHBTIQ People of Faith seminar, which the project Islamia Queeristi helped to organise.

 

Burāq flies again

At the beginning of 2020, LHBTIQ Muslims in Finland established a nationwide association to support the well-being and status of queer Muslims. The Wasla Collective was also involved in founding it.

The name of the new association is – surprise, surprise – Burāq.

This brings us back to the mythical figure that breaks boundaries and that was presented at the beginning of this article.

There are different versions and interpretations of the nocturnal excursion of the Prophet Muhammad and Burāq, some more concrete and others more metaphorical. On the way to heaven, The Prophet is said to have met Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and to have received instructions directly from Allah. Mystics, on the other hand, have interpreted the story as describing a spiritual journey towards wisdom and truth.

In addition to its visual diversity, Burāq also has a linguistic dimension. In Arabic, one word root often has many meanings. The word al-burāq can mean, for example, shining, a ray of light or enlightenment. In modern Arabic, one of its meanings is glitter.

“That’s what our project does too: increases knowledge and enlightenment,” Wisam Elfadl says, although ‘enlightenment’ may sound like a lofty idea to some.

“I understand Burāq also like this: When you find enlightenment, you reach new levels of understanding and existence.”

 


 

Abdullah Qureshi

Artist, event producer and researcher.

With funding from Kone Foundation, they are working on their doctoral thesis for the Aalto University’s Department of Art. The thesis examines Muslim and queer identities in the context of immigration.

 

Wisam Elfadl

Queer activist and a member of the Wasla Collective.

Together with Mire Mroué, they run the Islamia queeristi project funded by Kone Foundation. The project aims to raise awareness about the diversity of Islam.

 

Mire Mroué

Queer activist and a member of the Wasla Collective.

Together with Wisam Elfadl, they run the Islamia Queeristi project funded by Kone Foundation. The project aims to raise awareness about the diversity of Islam.

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