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Q&A: Imam Muhsin Hendricks

God is not within the theology. God is not within a mosque. God is within our own personal experience, our own journey, our own inner reflections. God is within ourselves. So, if we are looking for God, we have to go inward. We have to be bold enough to face our shadow sides of who we are and try to overcome them. Because within that journey, within that space, you will find God.

Tell us about yourself.

I am imam Muhsin Hendricks. I was born and bred in Cape Town. My forefathers are a mixture of Indonesian and Indian background. They were brought to Cape Town as political prisoners and slaves by the Dutch colonialists. All of this played off more than 360 years ago, and this is also how Islam landed in Cape Town. I was born into an environment that was very orthodox Islamic but also had flavors of Sufism that was imported from Indonesia. I grew up in this very orthodox Muslim community, having known from a very young age that I was different from other boys in terms of my sexual orientation. So, I lived with that, as a youth in the closet, and then eventually around the age of 18 I applied for a scholarship to study Islam in Pakistan, and when I was 21 years old, I left to Pakistan to complete my studies over there. 

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

I always say that there is nothing in my life that I would want to change. Because I don’t think that if anything was different that I would be in this position that I am today. And I am very happy for and thankful for the experiences I have had so far and where those experiences have landed me in life. So, I am very grateful for that and I wouldn’t change it. But I would advise my younger self to really start early in looking at the information that is out there, alternative information on Islam, sexual orientation and gender identity etc. so that I can be able to come out of the closet at a much earlier age. It would have saved me a lot of agony and pain had I accepted myself much earlier in life. And I would have been able to do much more for others if I had come to that self-actualization at an earlier age. But as I said, I’m grateful for how things turned out in my life, so there’s nothing else I would want to change, but that one aspect, you know, seeking knowledge and getting to the point of self-actualization earlier. That advice I would give to my younger self. And the other piece of advice I would give myself is to always keep faith, it’s to always attach yourself to the values of Islam, which are the values of compassion, values of patience, striving towards inner peace, peace in our bodies, minds and souls, and to constantly fight against injustice despite how difficult the situations might be sometimes.   

What made you become an imam? 

I actually never wanted to become an imam to be honest. I just wanted to study Islam because I wanted to know what Islam says about homosexuality and why this most compassionate god would deny me for something that I haven’t chosen. But obviously after my studies the only kind of job that I could get was being a teacher in a madrasa and becoming an imam. But you know, that’s how we feel but the universe has got greater plans for us. So, I eventually came to accept that this is my role as an imam. You know, the universe probably wants me to use that in supporting other people who have gone through the same journey as I have. 

What are the key requirements to become an imam?

Well, an imam is basically just a leader. It’s a leader that is chosen by the people for the people to serve the people. You will see in my first few public interviews that I did, I don’t call myself an imam, because at that time I was just an activist. It’s only really when we started the mosque, the inclusive mosque in Cape Town in 2011, that I took up the role as an imam because I was asked to be an imam for the queer community in Cape Town. So, an imam is basically a person who has been elected by the people to lead them, and she/he/they leads based on the knowledge they have of Islam, and of the Qur’an. So, I would say that one of the first requirements for an imam is to have enough Islamic knowledge so that she/they/he can use that knowledge to guide other people. In fact, when I came back from my studies, my title was not imam, it was maulana, and maulana means protector. And sometimes, it depends on which institution you are studying in, people will call you an imam, sheikh, maulana or mufti or whatever. But just to cut it short, the requirements for becoming an imam is that you need to have some qualifications in Islamic studies, you are able to interpret the Qur’an and you can at least understand Arabic and translate it. So just the basics really. 

What are the most important qualities of a good imam?

I don’t know if you get a good imam or a bad imam. So, I would say just the qualities of an imam, because if you intend to become an imam or you intend to lead others, you would need to have good values, good qualities, good personality etc. So, the qualities of an imam…well, let me speak from my personal perspective, it’s tenacity and it’s being able to stand in the face of injustice despite how difficult it sometimes is. It is to be authentic (authentically you), despite how much of rejection you receive because of that. It’s being able to, or willing to put your life at risk for the sake of truth and for the sake of justice. So, these strong values make an imam. 

The other piece of advice I would give myself is to always keep faith, it’s to always attach yourself to the values of Islam, which are the values of compassion, values of patience, striving towards inner peace, peace in our bodies, mind and soul, and to constantly fight against injustice despite how difficult the situations might be sometimes.   

What do you love about your job? 

I think it’s the fulfillment that it gives, that sense of purpose that you feel when you have saved somebody’s life, or when you have been instrumental in somebody being able to live their life completely. The ability to help people to maintain faith in God – there’s a lot of satisfaction in that for me, and I think that is probably the only thing that still keeps me true to this position as an imam.

You are an advocate for an all-inclusive and compassion-centered Islam. What does compassion-centered and all-inclusive Islam look like? 

Yes, I am an advocate for an all-inclusive and compassion-centered Islam, and what that looks like is an Islam that is non-judgmental, an Islam that does not reject people, but rather accepts them, an Islam that recognizes that not all people are the same, that God is forgiving, to even the worst of sinners, that there is space for people to repent, there’s space for people to self-identify, there’s space for people in terms of leadership – despite their sexual orientations, gender identities, sex or race. It is an Islam that promotes female leadership, that anybody regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, who has the ability and the capacity to lead, should be allowed to lead. And for me, compassion-centered and all-inclusive Islam is an Islam that is focused much more on the values in the Qur’an rather than the rituals. I am not suggesting that rituals is a bad thing, but we need to define what are the rituals that speak to our values. For example, if we are talking about fasting as a ritual, then we shouldn’t just be doing it because we want rewards from Allah. But we fast because it’s connected to the value of patience. We fast because it provides inner peace. We fast because we become conscious of those who are not as privileged as we are. So, rituals have to always be connected to the values of Islam, and not necessarily doing it because we have to do it, and if we don’t, then God is going to punish us. So, for me that is compassion-centered Islam. 

© Palka Kumar

Who are the most significant people that have influenced your faith? 

I would say it’s my mother. I have been very close to her ever since I came into this world, more than my father or my teachers. I think the ability to be tenacious and to have the amount of patience that I do have for the work that I do, and alhamdulillah, it comes from my mother’s teachings and watching her how she raised nine children, and how she would ensure that everybody was equally provided for in the family. There’s a lot that I have learned from her, and you know, that’s the practical Islam that I like to attach myself to. And it was only later on in life when I learned about Islam, what Islam really means, that I could appreciate my mother for having lived Islam. So, she has really been my role model.  

Has your approach to Islam changed over the years, and if so how? 

I would say definitely. As I mentioned previously, I grew up in a very orthodox conservative Islamic environment that didn’t allow for much freedom of expression for independent thinking, for questioning. And when I gave myself a permission to do that as I was growing older, I came to discover an Islam that was working for me, and an Islam that was not promoted in my community, and it was an Islam that I largely extracted from my interaction with the Qur’an, allowing myself to interact with the Qur’an in a very personal way. 

As I also mentioned earlier, I am much more interested in the values that Islam promotes than just following mere rituals for the sake of being part of a Muslim identity. So today, I live Islam, or at least I try my best to live Islam within its values. And I find, when I study the examples of the prophets of Islam (Peace be upon all of them) that these values were exactly the same values by which they have lived their lives. And I think for me that is how we should live as Muslims in this day and age, really holding true to those values. Yes, so Islam definitely has changed for me from a much more communal Islam, having an Islamic identity, you know, when it comes to identifying with certain rituals and with certain practices. It has changed for me to a much more personal Islam, personal relationship with Allah. So, yes, it has definitely changed.

I am an advocate for an all-inclusive and compassion-centered Islam, and what that looks like is an Islam that is non-judgmental, an Islam that does not reject people, but rather accepts them, an Islam that recognizes that not all people are the same, that God is forgiving, to even the worst of sinners, that there is space for people to repent, there’s space for people to self-identify, there’s space for people in terms of leadership – despite their sexual orientations, gender identities, sex or race. It is an Islam that promotes female leadership, that anybody regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, who has the ability and the capacity to lead, should be allowed to lead.

”Being LGBTQIA+ and Muslim aren’t mutually exclusive”, how would you justify this statement in your own words? In other words, what makes God all- inclusive? 

Yes, absolutely. I don’t believe that LGBTQIA+ identities and being Muslim are mutually exclusive. Islam promotes fitra, that we have to connect with our nature, with our inner being, with who we are. Accepting our identities, our strengths and weaknesses, all of that is part of our fitra. And, so, to deny your sexual orientation or to wish it away is going against that fitra. I remember at the time when I came out, one of the most important things for me was being authentic with myself – even if it meant that I was going to be killed because of wanting to be authentic. And even if the community considered me as out of the fold of Islam, the authenticity and wanting to accept myself for the way Allah has created me was much more important.

There are many examples in our Islamic history that shows the all-inclusive nature of Allah. If you just look at bismillāh ar-raḥmān ar-raḥīm, it says that Allah is the indiscriminately compassionate, the all-compassionate, the all-merciful. If we look at the prophetic traditions, the Prophet Mohammad said that we are a sinful ummah, but we have a forgiving God. When we look in the Qur’an, Allah says: ”do not despair of the mercy of Allah, because Allah is to you the most compassionate, the most merciful.” So, definitely, and I mean I could go on about the inclusive nature of God. So, definitely, Allah is all-inclusive. It is our traditions that teach us to exclude.  

In your opinion, what are the roots of homophobia and transphobia in Muslim communities? 

I think the root is based in patriarchy and religion, and how patriarchy, or heteropatriarchy has influenced religion. So, really if we want to address homophobia and transphobia, we would have to unplug patriarchy from Islam and from the way we understand the Qur’an or the interpretations that are currently existing of the Qur’an. So, some people may say that, you know, it’s the conservative communities that promote homophobia and transphobia, but actually what lies beneath those conservative religious communities is the patriarchy that has influenced how that community understands their faith, and how that community operates. So, for me that’s the main reason.

Then also, if we specifically look at homosexuality, I often find that it’s much more difficult for straight men to accept homosexuality than for women, and that clearly also speaks to the patriarchy, and the male ego that feels threatened when it has to consider the possibility of one man having a sexual and a loving encounter with another man in the same way that a straight man would have with a woman. So, again, it speaks to patriarchy and male ego.     

There are many examples in our Islamic history that shows the all-inclusive nature of Allah. If you just look at bismillāh ar-raḥmān ar-raḥīm, it says that Allah is the indiscriminately compassionate, the all-compassionate, the all-merciful.

What advice do you have for someone who is trying to reconcile their faith and LGBTQIA+ identity? 

The most important thing is education, education, education. I can’t stress that enough because the reason why LGBTQIA+ people struggle with faith is because of the information that has been given to them as they were growing up. And it is information that is very emotionally based, it is, most of it, unfounded, and most of it just handed down without proper research and context. So, it is important for LGBTQIA+ people to educate themselves. There is enough alternative research and information on Islam and homosexuality etc. – on Sodom and Gomorrah and Gaumu Lut, which means the Prophet Lot’s People, that will help them to accept themselves and to understand that Allah is not rejecting them, neither does the Qur’an, neither does Islam, but it’s really the communities and their perceptions of homosexuality that are rejecting them.

Another piece of advice that I would give to LGBTQIA+ Muslims is to adhere to an Islam that is based on values, as I mentioned earlier. If we are going to try and carve for ourselves a space in orthodox Islam, we will never succeed because orthodox Islam is very much influenced by the patriarchy that we today have a problem with. And, as I also mentioned earlier, if we look that the lives of the prophets, they didn’t have a framework, a religious framework that they came and fitted into. But they have established religions. And how did they establish those traditions? It was based on their values, you know, their personal journeys, the ethics and the values by which they lived their lives, and by which they have overcome so many challenges. And that is exactly what we have to do as LGBTQIA+ Muslims. We have to engage with the Qur’an and extract those values and live by them, and that should speak louder. And our personal relationship with Allah should speak louder than the traditions that we are brought up with. 

How can we read the Qur’an queerly? 

That’s an interesting question. I think somehow the Qur’an is queer. It is when we read the Qur’an in alternative ways that so much of richness comes out of the Qur’an. If we read the Qur’an inside the box or the framework that we have been handed down in terms of how to read the Qur’an, it really limits us. Reading the Qur’an queerly doesn’t mean it has got anything to do with sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s reading the Qur’an outside of that handed down framework. Secondly, as I said earlier, that the interpretation of the Qur’an that we have been handed down, is very patriarchal. So, we need to undo that. Just as feminists have taken a stance against patriarchy and have engaged with the Qur’an from a feminist perspective, like what Leyla Bakhtiar, Dr. Amina Wadud and Fatima Mernissi and the likes have done, queer Muslims have to do the same. We have to read the Qur’an from a queer person’s perspective. And I can tell you, because I have done that personally, how much of richness and joy comes out of knowing that Allah does not discriminate against non-heterosexual or gender non-conforming people, but that there is so much of inclusivity and compassion for people that are not part of the mainstream. 

Some people may say that, you know, it’s the conservative communities that promote homophobia and transphobia, but actually what lies beneath those conservative religious communities is the patriarchy that has influenced how that community understands their faith, and how that community operates.

Was the Prophet Mohammed all-inclusive, and if so how?

Absolutely. If he was representing a God that is all-inclusive, then he also had to be. If the Qur’an is all-inclusive, then he had to be an example of that, and we do see in the life of Prophet Mohammad a lot of examples of inclusivity. If we can think specifically around sexual diversity or gender diversity, we’re looking at an example where the Prophet was going to banish a mukhannath, an effeminate man from the town because he was wearing henna patterns on his hands, and the Prophet didn’t necessarily have an issue with it, but the men who brought him to the Prophet for punishment had an issue with it because they were not ready to accept that kind of diversity within society. And the Prophet realized that this man was in danger, because he was also a very beautiful effeminate man, and to save him, the Prophet banished him just outside of Medina. And then later, apparently, the story goes that a friend of his was also banished for the same reason, that they needed to protect these effeminate men. And often we think that they are banished because the Prophet was excluding them, but in fact, the Prophet was including them by wanting to protect them from these men who were not ready yet to accept sexual and gender diversity. So that’s one example, but there’s a plethora of examples of how the Prophet has included women in spaces where they’ve not been included before, how the Prophet has been forgiving towards people who have harmed him, how the Prophet has even included people from different faiths. The whole concept of the People of the Book as our brothers is inclusive. So, too many examples of how the Prophet has been all-inclusive.

You mentioned that the Prophet Mohammed included women in spaces where they have not been included before. Can you give us some examples?      

I’m specifically thinking of one example of Umm Waraqa. Umm Waraqa was an elderly woman, who lived in her area as one of the only women who had memorized the whole Qur’an. So, she was then qualified to lead prayers, and she actually requested the Prophet to lead prayers in her area, and the Prophet has granted her permission. So, she was the first woman, actually, to lead prayers for a mixed congregation. So that is one example. Another example is the inclusion of women in their rights to marriage, to ask for marriage, you know, to give a marriage proposal and also to refuse a marriage. Prior to the advent of Islam, women didn’t have that right. Another way that he included women was in the inheritance. Women were not inheriting from the family when they die, but instead women were inherited. So that was changed. And the Qur’an states that women cannot be inherited against their will, and that women will also be given a share, by portion of inheritance according to the Qur’an. In the beginning women were allowed to go into public spaces, but then some women requested that they also wanted to go to the mosque, so the Prophet said to their husbands that if your women request to go to the mosque, they shouldn’t be prevented. So, these are some examples, but there are many others.   

I think somehow the Qur’an is queer. It is when we read the Qur’an in alternative ways that so much of richness comes out of the Qur’an. If we read the Qur’an inside the box or the framework that we have been handed down in terms of how to read the Qur’an, it really limits us. Reading the Qur’an queerly doesn’t mean it has something to do with sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s reading the Qur’an outside that handed down framework.

What has been the most difficult situation in your life which you finally overcame? How did you overcome it? 

I would say the most difficult part of my life was probably at the time when I came out, or just before that. In fact, I went into little bit of a depression just before I came out because it takes a lot of energy to uphold a double life, which I’ve done because I was married for six years and had three children by the time I got divorced. And I was very conflicted between being myself, accepting myself and also being faithful to Islam. So, that takes up a lot of energy and I was just no longer able to uphold that, which caused the depression. And what led up to me coming out was also very traumatic because I was conflicted with do I just continue this double life or do I actually come out, be authentic with who I am and face the backlash from the Muslim community. So, I chose the latter, and it was very anxiety provoking because the fear of the unknown, like what’s going to happen next, was very traumatic. And then I didn’t care so much about what people were going to think about me, but my fear was my mother. I didn’t want her to reject me for who I am, and I also didn’t want her to have to go through the pain of having to accept a gay son. So, I think that period, the last few years of my marriage, my coming out publicly, and then having to deal with my mother accepting or not accepting my sexuality, that was the most difficult time of my life. 

But I have to add, that it is through such difficulty that we receive blessings, because from the time I came out, my life has just completely changed. I was much clearer about my purpose in life, my activism has shaped the rest of my life. I’ve seen probably most of the countries in the world because of my activism. I have lost my family because of homophobia, but I have gained so much of family, so much of love and respect in the world for what I do and what I stand for. So, I am an advocate for difficulty, I am an advocate for accepting challenges in life, because I know that there are blessing attached to it. 

How did I overcome the difficulty? I think that going through something like that, it requires a lot of inner reflection. It requires a lot of going deep into yourself and finding the resources, the internal strength, the values that God gives us with. That can help you through a difficult time like this. And that needs prayer, it needs meditation, it needs quiet reflection. And I am grateful that I grew up in an Islamic environment where I could see my parents modelling those values that I have been talking about in my daily life. For example, my parents raised nine children. My mother was pregnant sixteen times, so she had a couple of miscarriages. Her life in poverty required a lot of faith, a lot of patience, a lot of tenacity for her to able to have gone through all of that. And I have observed these values in action, and those are the very same values that have supported me in my time, in my difficult time. So, I would say that it was those values, it was my quiet time on the farm for that three months, it was my faith in Allah. It was my conviction that who I am is not a sin. It was my conviction that my authenticity had to speak louder than my fears. So, those beliefs and those values that I lived by was what helped me to overcome that difficult period. 

© Palka Kumar

In Islam, we acknowledge that God has 99 names. One of those names is al- Wadūd (الودود), The Loving One. What does that name mean to you personally? 

If you can just imagine the difficulty that I went through, that I was trying to describe to you. I always felt that there was this presence this loving presence, this compassionate presence that was guiding me through that difficult time. And so, I was alone, but I was never lonely. I always felt the presence of al-Wadūd, lovingly guiding me through that difficult time. So, for me understanding the nature of Allah’s love is that Allah’s love is not always comfortable. It’s not always nice…Allah’s love is filled with challenges and forcing us to go through those challenges in order to experience Allah’s love when Allah gives us the blessings. So, for me, al-Wadūd was always present and visible in my times of difficulty.   

It is through such difficulty that we receive blessings, because from the time I came out, my life has just completely changed. I was much clearer about my purpose in life, my activism has shaped the rest of my life. I’ve seen probably most of the countries in the world because of my activism. I have lost my family because of homophobia, but I have gained so much of family, so much of love and respect in the world for what I do and what I stand for. So, I am an advocate for difficulty, I am an advocate for accepting challenges in life, because I know that there are blessing attached to it. 

If you could give God one more name, what would it be?

I think the 99 names of Allah is ample enough to describe Allah and to have a sense of who Allah is, so I wouldn’t add any names. But name that I would highlight of Allah is ar-raḥmān ar-raḥīm, the indiscriminately compassionate, the infinitely merciful, and I like to describe ar-raḥmān as indiscriminately compassionate because for me Allah’s raḥma, Allah’s mercy includes everything and everyone in creation. So, Allah does not discriminate against anything that Allah has created. And whatever Allah created, that seems to us as defect and imperfections, is perfection for Allah. So, for me ar-raḥmān is a very important name of Allah and attribute of Allah. And ar-raḥīm, the merciful, Allah’s mercy is also all-inclusive. When Allah creates something, then Allah’s mercy is attached to that creation. Angels are created to specifically to look after that creation. And, so, this presence that I was telling you about, the presence that I felt in my times of difficulty, is that raḥīm – that mercy that you experience in those moments when you feel like I can’t continue any further. Something happens that shows you that Allah’s mercy is ever-present and Allah’s raḥma (mercy) is ever-present.  

Who or what is God to you?

I think from what I’ve been sharing with you now in answering the other questions, I think you can get a sense of what I understand God to be. I don’t see God as genderized. I see God as beautiful, loving energy. I don’t see God sitting on a throne, but I understand the throne to mean Allah’s majesty, Allah’s ever-presence over Allah’s creation. And for me, it’s pretty much the Surat an-Nur, you know, where Allah speaks about that Allah is light. Allah is the light of heavens and the earth. For me, that light is a beautiful light, it’s a compassionate light. So, that is Allah for me. I struggle to connect to an Allah that is angry, to an Allah that punishes. I think the experience within ourselves, our own anger, our own feelings of disappointment, that is perhaps what we are trying to…how can I put this…We experience those emotions and then we say that Allah is angry. We create our own punishments by the choices that we make, and then we say Allah punishes. So, I struggle with an understanding of Allah as the punisher and the angry God. 

How to find God (if one wants to find God)?

Very interesting question. We can study theology for the rest of our lives and we might not find God. So, for me God is not in books. God is not within the theology. God is not within a mosque. God is within our own personal experience, our own journey, our own inner reflections. God is within ourselves. So, if we are looking for God, we have to go inward. We have to be bold enough to face our shadow sides of who we are and try to overcome them. Because within that journey, within that space, you will find God. God is not external to us, God is within us. 

Apart from the Qur’an, what are your key sources for spiritual wisdom?

For me the Qur’an was always my constitution. It is always the book that I take guidance from and come back to, to make sure that I’ve made the right decisions. So, I would read many other books as widely as including other faiths and other spiritual traditions, but then coming back to the Qur’an to verify almost whether those traditions, all those spiritual teachings from other traditions do not conflict with the Qur’an. And most often I would find that it only enhances what is really written in the Qur’an. So, to digress a little but from your question. At a very early age, I’ve opened myself up to engage with other traditions, with other spiritual spaces. I married a Hindu person, and I’ve learned a lot about Hinduism through him. And there is a lot about Hinduism that I can appreciate, that makes sense to me and actually have helped me to understand some of the things Allah is trying to explain to us in the Qur’an. So, other than the Qur’an, I think spiritual wisdom doesn’t necessarily come through the many books that I have read, but through the many experiences that I have allowed myself to experience. And then having taken that experience and coming back to the Qur’an and being able to understand the Qur’an much better because of those experiences. 

I’m not sure if this also fits into the question, but I often visit tombs of saints. We call it in Cape town Kramats. So, I often visit these places and I go sit there and I meditate and I try to feel the energy of the person who has been buried there because I believe what the Qur’an says about these people whom we call Awliya. They are referred to as friends of Allah. They have sacrificed so much and they have nurtured their spirituality so much to the extent that they have become friends of Allah. And Allah says “don’t assume that the friends of Allah are dead, know they are alive, constantly seeking sustenance of the creator”. So, I like to sit in their presence and experience them because they are alive, and the more inward you go, the more you get to experience them, that energy that is still present there. And it’s a guiding energy and it’s a loving energy. And there is a lot of wisdom that comes through being in those spaces.  So that’s my other source of spiritual wisdom.

God is not within the theology. God is not within a mosque. God is within our own personal experience, our own journey, our own inner reflections. God is within ourselves. So, if we are looking for God, we have to go inward. We have to be bold enough to face our shadow sides of who we are, and try to overcome them. Because within that journey, within that space, you will find God.

 What are you reading right now? 

I am reading a book that was recently published by Junaid Jahangir & Hussein Abdullatif. It is a book called Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions. I am specifically reading it because I’m writing an article for an organization on the topic. So yeah, I’m sort of half way through the book. 

What books would you recommend for LGBTQIA+ Muslims? 

There isn’t one particular book that I would recommend to the LGBTIQ+ community. I can only speak for my own personal experience, and as I mentioned before, I always come to the Qur’an as ”the book”, but I do read widely. So, I would suggest that queer Muslims read widely. I can suggest a few books or a few scholars that I do think does help to broaden the mind. Scholars like Siraj Kugle, who wrote about homosexuality in Islam, Samar Habib, she also wrote about homosexuality in Islam, Dr. Amina Wadud, who wrote the book Inside the Gender Jihad, Dr. Sa’diyya Shaikh, who wrote Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, drawing on the work of Ibn Arabi and his take on gender, and this book I mentioned about Junaid Jahangir on Islamic Law & Same-sex unions, the work of Dr. Everett K. Rowson, the research he has done on the Mukhannathūn of Early Medina. So, those are some of the books that I have read and that have helped me to understand sexuality and gender much better.

© Mire Mroué

What are some of your favorite verses of the Qur’an and why?

It’s a very difficult question, because different verses speak to me at different times of my journey, so I can’t really exclude or take favorite to any of the verses, they all are so important. That is why it is important to constantly engage with the Qur’an, because at different times different verses will speak to us. But I can highlight some verses that have really stood out for me during my journey, and the one verse is ”We shall certainly test you with fear and hunger, and loss of property, lives and crops, but give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity ’We belong to Allah and to Allah we shall return’.” (2:155)I think that verse has always stood out for me, and still stands out for me in my times of difficulty. Another verse that stands out for me is “Do not despair of the mercy of Allah because Allah is to you most merciful” (39:53). Then there are quite a few verses around sabr, patience and perseverance, so those speak to me quite often. There is one verse also that speaks to me, which, I think it’s surah 17:84“Say, that everyone acts according to their own disposition, their own nature, but Allah knows who is best guided on the way.” For me that verse speaks about accepting yourself for who you are, for how Allah has created you and not to fear the judgments of people because Allah is the only judge. And Allah knows best what is in our hearts, and Allah knows best who is guided and who is not guided, so that also gave me a lot of strength to be able to just be myself.   

In your opinion, what is the most beautiful thing about Islam? 

I think it’s the duality between this Islam that is very personal and sacred to oneself, and the Islam that is very communal. I like the interplay between those two. A lot of times I seek to be alone because I know that my relationship with Allah, or my closeness to Allah, grows in the spaces where I am with myself. And the values that the Qur’an teaches us, those values become enhanced when you are in your private moments, in your personal space nurturing those values. So, that personal journey, that personal relationship with Allah and with Islam, is an important part of Islam for me. And then the communal aspect of Islam that I love is the spirit that we find within Ramadān, the spirit that we find during Hajj, the spirit that we find when we help others, when we feed the poor, when we see to the needs of our communities or when we actively engage in social justice. Those are beautiful things about Islam that I really enjoy.   

Lastly, what does your utopia look like? 

That’s a difficult question. I think that for me success or happiness has always been outside of the material. Yes, a reliable car and a beautiful house and some beautiful things around me do make me happy, and they do enhance my life. But utopia for me is that state of contentment that we find when we are with Allah, when we are in the presence of Allah, and it’s difficult to explain that to someone who hasn’t experienced it. In Arabic it’s called ḥalāwat al-imān ( حلاوة الإيمان ), the sweetness of faith. And they say that once you have tasted the sweetness of faith, there is no turning back. So, for me that’s utopia, that sense that Allah is there, Allah is accessible, Allah is ever-loving even though life becomes challenging. And basking in that, for me, that’s utopia.

Text: Mire Mroué
Photos: Palka Kumar