Observant Gay Muslim Balances Faith And Sexuality
Yesterday we introduced you to a young woman who is lesbian and Muslim. Rehana Faruqi (not her real name because she feared retribution for this story) loves the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began on July 8th. "It’s literally my favorite month," explained the 18-year-old. "You get up early in the morning with your family and pray. There’s something about getting up before the sun rises."
The first person Faruqi came out to in her family was her cousin Salman, who goes by Sal. As a gay man with a longtime partner, he was supportive, if not a little overly protective. "I just reminded her that she’s still a young lady, and still a young Muslim and she needs to act accordingly."
Sal understood exactly what Faruqi would face - both in their large extended family and in the greater Muslim community. Sal knew he was gay at age 6. He was out in his high school but in the closet at home for many years. He’s now in his late 30s and has only been out to his parents for three years.
One is not supposed to break family ties in Islam. Sal says because of this, his parents tolerate him. But they never talk about the fact that he’s gay or has a partner. "They’ve reiterated that they love me and accept me, but they don’t accept my relationship and they don’t accept what they think is my behavior," Sal said.
Sal is an observant Muslim. He strictly follows Islamic practices. "I pray five times a day. Start each day with scripture. Fast during Ramadan. And I’ve been to hajj already once (referring to one of the Five Pillars of Islam involving a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia). And I give the limited charity I’m able to give," Sal explained. "Being gay and being Muslim are both part of my identity."
But that means walking a tightrope – one where Sal must balance two of the most meaningful aspects of his identity: his faith and who he loves.
"I think my parents think I should be celibate and live alone. Just live for the next life and know that this is my test," he said.
Munir Shaikh says this is a common response to homosexuality within Islam. Shaikh is a professor of Muslim Studies at Bayan Claremont, a graduate program at Claremont Lincoln University that trains Islamic leaders and scholars.
In Islam, homosexuality is considered sinful. But Shaikh says within a lot of mainstream mosques, the message from the pulpit is softened. "It’s mostly the 'hate the sin, love the sinner' kind of message," he noted.
Shaikh says if an imam counsels a Muslim struggling with sexual identity, they’ll generally focus on traditional, heterosexual family values. "Things will always be framed in that family is important and marriage is an institution and provides the proper context for raising families," Shaikh said.
Going to mosque can be an isolating experience for gay men and women. Sal goes to pray and listen to the sermon, he doesn’t socialize. His cousin Faruqi says she's sometimes uncomfortable at the mosque. "You think... What would they think of me if they knew?" she revealed, with a sigh. "It’s a big burden. You want to go to this place to be spiritual. You want to worship God and all you’re thinking about is will God ever forgive me for this?"
There are only a few gathering places in large cities were gay and lesbian Muslims can be out and worship. Huma Ahmed-Ghosh is a professor at San Diego State University. "If someone is a Muslim lesbian she can go to mosque on her own, but the mosque isn’t going to be out there welcoming her," she explained.
Ahmed-Ghosh says there are small but significant changes happening, where progressive Muslims are looking closely at Islamic scripture. "Young Muslims are forming groups to discuss the Quran and define it in different ways, to understand it in more liberal ways," she said.
In the meantime, gay Muslims like Sal continue to worship their own way. Sal is in an interfaith relationship; his partner is a Christian. He says they support each other. "He’ll even fast during Ramadan with me. He’s done it six years in a row," Sal said. "Gets up early, eats his meal, drinks his water for the day, then we start the day in prayer together and he goes through it all day long."
Sal’s partner isn’t welcome at his family's gatherings. But they share other things, like belief in a God. "I couldn’t be with someone who didn’t [believe]. Our whole connection is religion and faith," he explained.
Experts say it will take a couple of decades before Muslims like Sal can comfortably go to mosque and worship as openly gay men and women.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In a previous version of this story, the real name of Rehana Faruqi was published. Out of fear of retribution, it has since been changed.