Written by Irtefa Binte-Farid
Growing up, I took a lot of comfort in the idea of “community” in Islam.
I was taught that Islam is not just a personal faith; rather, it is a faith that should be practiced collectively. Our daily prayers are our individual connections to God, but we get more barakah (blessings) if we pray together in congregation. We fast solely for the sake of Allah, but the Muslim ummah (global brotherhood, though not as exclusively gendered in Arabic) fasts as a collective during Ramadan. We give zakat, not a voluntary sacrifice of wealth but rather a required act of faith: a redistribution of wealth to remind us where our rizq (sustenance) comes from (hint: it’s not self-made) and that duty is to care for those in need. We travel en masse to the site of the first house of worship on earth to perform the hajj (annual pilgrimage).
There is an implicit critique of rampant individualism within these practices. As a child, I was told that during the course of our day we are supposed to recite the verses, “You alone we worship, You alone we ask for help,” 17 times—if we succeeded in performing all five daily prayers. This is meant as a constant reminder that we ask for Allah’s help and guidance not merely as individuals, but as a community of believers standing up for and with each other.
In other words, the sense of community is built into the very structure of our worship, and we foster this sense of togetherness every time we pray—whether in a congregation or alone.
As an immigrant teen, I loved this idea! It made me feel like I belonged to a global community—even when I didn’t know the particulars of the American cultural context. I was one of those kids who enjoyed going to Sunday school because I was so clearly valued in that space. As I understood more about what it meant to be Muslim in post-9/11 U.S., I quickly learned the right things to say and the right way to dress: I started wearing the hijab—of my own volition—when I was only 14. Even without me realizing it, I was further folded into the loving embrace of “the community” and privileged as the poster child, the “empowered” Muslim woman who speaks her mind and follows her faith.
I was so busy fighting Islamophobic stereotypes about Muslims prevalent in American media that I never asked some obvious questions about how the boundaries of the “community” were drawn.
Although I grew up with platitudes about how Muslims are the most diverse religious group in the U.S., it is only recently that American Muslims have finally started to address the multiplicity within our community and the tensions our differences often generate. We now know stories of how women are sidelined in many mosques—how we are often forced to occupy spaces along the margins in order to center the bodies and souls of male worshippers. We have finally started to have conversations about the intersectional struggles of being both Black and Muslim and the deeply entrenched anti-Blackness present in many of our mosques.
The attempted Muslim Ban and the #NoBanNoWallNoRaid campaign has engendered difficult conversations about immigration and Muslim communities, highlighting the voices of Latin-x Muslims who are targeted by xenophobic and Islamophobic state policies. Sacred resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline has showcased the fight that Indigenous peoples, including the Indigenous Muslims, are engaged in against a capitalist state that values profit over people. Muslim youth are slowly beginning to recognize the necessity of intersectional solidarity in our collective struggle for liberation.
And yet, many American Muslims in leadership positions have been so busy putting on a good face to the rest of the world that they have inadvertently narrowed the definition of what it means to be Muslim. Nowhere is the dissonance between the Islamic discourse of tolerance and the reality of lived experience more prominent than when it comes to queer Muslims. Many Muslims barely acknowledge the existence of our queer co-religionists; instead, we often use divine law to justify our homophobia.
But here’s the thing: even if you believe that homosexuality is a sin—an assumption that is being contested by many scholars—where does Allah tell us to shut the door of the mosque to ANY believer? When is it ever alright to refuse to pray the funeral prayer for a trans-Muslim? When is it ever alright to question another person’s faith?
As a cis straight woman, discrimination against queer Muslim has never affected me personally. Nevertheless, I struggle with both the overt homophobia and transphobia in Muslim spaces, as well as the more insidious rhetoric of “hate the sin, not the sinner.” Both are equally alienating and force queer Muslims to see their identity as either/or—either they are queer or they are Muslim; they cannot be both. If it is so easy for “the community” to turn its back on people who do not fit within its narrow boundaries, what’s the guarantee that they won’t shut their doors to me in the years to come? That if I waver from the normative standard, I won’t be similarly ostracized?
Because trust me, I am no saint: I have my doubts, I make plenty of mistakes, and I commit sins. But I am still proudly Muslim.
Let me make it very clear: I am not saying that being a queer Muslim is a sin; nor am I even trying to make a “radical” argument. Rather, I am merely saying that EVEN if you believe that homosexuality is a sin, denying a believer’s Muslim-ness and barring them from joining the community of believers based on this is wrong. Because lets face it, we all commit sins; since when does that erase our Islam?
Whenever I am hurt by the way the global community that embraced me so easily continues to exclude those not deemed worthy, I turn to this verse from the Qur’an:
“O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” (Q39:53)
For me, this is God’s most powerful promise to us. It is not only a statement of the fact that we are only human—filled with all the contradictions that our humanity entails—and therefore we will fail, but it is also a reminder that we must return to God over and over because of our failures. It is a much-needed reminder for me to place my faith not in “community,” but in God. He is Greater than anything we can comprehend, His message spans across time for all of humanity, and His mercy extends to all—not just the select few.
Seventeen times a day, we are supposed to recite “You alone we worship, You alone we ask for help,” to ask for Allah’s help and guidance as we attempt to create a community of flawed believers who struggle to stand up for and with each other.
We still have a long way to go to make that community a reality.