queer shi'a islam

Why I Just Can’t Quit Islam: A Queer, Shi’a American’s Tale

Written by J. White.

I write pseudonymously for a whole host of reasons, not least of all the newfound desire to be sensitive to the wants and needs of my dear, Muslim parents. I also write pseudonymously so as not to incriminate myself, because God knows I’ve never held rules (read: laws) in high esteem. Rather than skirt around the more, uh, controversial details of my past, I’d rather be as forthcoming and earnest as possible, even if it means forgoing my name.

Thank you, sincerely, for reading.

My parents are devout, if not a touch fundamental, Shi’a Muslims. My sister is an adamant atheist, my brother used to grow his own pot in our backyard, and I’m very much homosexual. My sweet, sweet parents still value their faith above all else, despite being dealt the most ironic hand by the Universe itself.

Our family life is like one giant paradox. On our best days, we’re able to laugh at ourselves and to count our blessings and to remember the all-important adage: “هل الدِّين إلا الحبّ ؟” (what is religion, but love?) The rest of the time, it’s more like ramming our heads against five separate brick walls, repeatedly, every one of us finding it impossible to reconcile our disparate lives. Our disparate relationships with Islam have always been, and will continue to be, at the core of it all.

As a family, we’ve always had a flare for the melodramatic. We seem to thrive on grandiose announcements, e.g. my sister’s vitriolic plea to atheism and her subsequent moving out of the house; e.g. my declaration of bisexuality at age 16 (soon amended, more boldly still, with full-fledged homosexuality); e.g. my mother’s penchant for reaching for too many sleeping pills (read: lethal dosage) if only to prove to the rest of us how tired of it all she really is. For what it’s worth, she always hangs on meekly to life, confessing only to me: “because in our faith, you would not be allowed to visit my grave if I committed suicide.” I wonder, now, if she appreciates how rife with irony was her reasoning, but as it happened I was more distracted with keeping her hydrated, and alive.

I hear myself reciting the adage: هل الدِّين إلا الحبّ ؟ (what is religion, but love?)

We are a stubborn family, too. My parents’ stubbornness is their unwavering devotion to the Prophet Muhammad, his family, and their teachings; my sister’s stubbornness is her unwavering insistence that institutionalized religion is inherently damaging to the individual; my own stubbornness is my unwavering belief that I will find a way to reconcile their differences. In attempting to do so, I look for our lowest common denominator, and I hear myself reciting the adage: هل الدِّين إلا الحبّ ؟ (what is religion, but love?) Not even my sister would find fault with the principle here.

Our problem, then, is one of practice, not principle. When my father and mother moved to America in the late 70s and early 80s (from India and Pakistan, respectively), my father was not bearded and my mother was not veiled. As the decades progressed, the edicts of their faith became somehow more mandatory; their community of Ismaili Shi’as, to which they both belonged before emigrating, served as the cornerstone of their identities here in the States.

Now, either bearded or veiled, they no longer eat meat not provably halal (that is, butchered mercifully in the name of Allah (SWT)), and they regularly hear sermons reminding them to stay insular, that forming relationships with those outside of the faith will serve them more harm than good. As their children are decidedly, if not vocally outside of the faith, this poses for them an obvious conflict.

I remember my father pulled me aside one day, when I was still in high school, to talk to me about Americans and alcohol. He said, “if you happen to be at a party, and if someone asks you to hand him a beer he left on a table, do not pick it up. Even grasping the beer is haram (forbidden), and it is unforgivable, and those that grasp the beer go to hell.” In all his wisdom, he hadn’t even considered that the beer on the table would be mine. The irony intensifies: my latent alcoholism was beginning to show itself long before he gave me that speech.

I am 27 and unmarried. How do I tell her that I’m in a committed gay relationship, and that I’ve already picked out the rings?

More recently, my parents declined to attend my sister’s wedding, knowing that alcohol would be served at the event. My mother said only to me: “do you even know how painful it would be for us, to see our own children drinking alcohol? Do you even think about that?” My sister, who had fully expected her parents to be there for her on one of the most important days of her life, said to me: “Fuck them. I don’t have parents anymore. You’re my only family, and that’s enough for me.” The path to reconciliation becomes even more complicated, yet.

My beloved, blessed grandmother tells me regularly how much she worries for me. I am 27 and unmarried. How do I tell her that I’m in a committed gay relationship, and that I’ve already picked out the rings?

My relationship with my brother — once a confidante, once a partner-on-the-fringe — grew infinitely more strained the day he stopped smoking weed and decided on Islam as his only calling. As I became less involved with the mosque, and ultimately stopped attending, he found it harder to reconcile my lifestyle choices with his understanding of right and wrong. He, being the only level-headed one in the family, had no melodramatic declaration for his gay sibling; rather, we simply stopped talking to each other. This started as a cordial avoidance of any subject too serious, personal, or controversial. Unsurprisingly, we ceased to have a meaningful relationship at all. I know it cannot be easy for him, at the mosque, to deal with questions regarding his siblings; I know, too, that the community at large has stopped asking.

Herein lies another paradox: Despite knowing, at my core, that the practice of Islam will not (and does not) benefit me as a queer individual who is gratefully, madly in love, not only with my partner, but also with the broader world outside of the mosque — I can see how it benefits those who adhere to it.

As the decades progressed, the edicts of their faith became somehow more mandatory; their community of Ismaili Shi’as, to which they both belonged before emigrating, served as the cornerstone of their identities here in the States.

I see my grandmother, a widow for more than 20 years, clutch her faith against her breast and use it as a shield against the many unknowns of this unpredictable, progressive country. I see my brother turn down every drink passed his way and I see him pray regularly and fast yearly and I see how this commitment allows him to prosper professionally.

Unlike so many of my peers, and my friends, who have likewise “defected” from the faith, I refuse to call out this religion as inherently “damaging.” I know only that I have the God-given agency not to participate. I fell in love with my non-Muslim peers at an early age, and I refused to see myself as any different from them, despite the sermons that taught me I was born to a higher class. “You are the jewels among the rocks,” I remember hearing, as long as I can remember. I am grateful for my (intense, often overwhelming) Islamic upbringing, but I am also proud to be critical.

I met my mother for lunch, recently. I told her I intend to marry my partner. She said, “on one hand, I wish that… it wasn’t like this. At the same time, I am so glad to see how obviously happy you are, recently, especially when you compare it to… before. So in a way, I’m happy, too.”

When I returned home, I found myself reading a full juz’ (1/30th) of the Quran, aloud, knowing full well that there is profound blessing in the act of its recitation. The final paradox: My faith has stayed with me despite it all. I know that having found my partner is a blessing, from God, for which I cannot adequately express my gratitude.

The sermons throughout the years have felt, to me, like fear-mongering and hate-mongering: My parents are guided by a constant fear of eternal punishment. I’ve listened to the sermons, but rather than be intimidated, I’ve let my personal experience guide me. In my experience, the Universe has always been kind, and the more faith I’ve put in this line, the more I’ve benefited. The more I trust in the benevolent, the merciful, the omnipotent, the less I have to fear. My parents introduced me to the concept of the benevolent, the merciful, the omnipotent, and so I owe my whole life to their Islam.

However, the way they’re taught to practice puts conditions on their love for themselves, each other, their children, and their neighbors. They, at least, possess a remarkable sense of humor (and are willing to embrace the irony), and are able to remember that non-Muslims, such as myself, are still worthy of love. As my community’s local sermons have been waxing towards fundamentalism over the years, largely in order to preserve a distinct Shi’a Muslim identity in the United States, I hope only that these words play again and again over my tongue: وهل الدِّين إلا الحبّ ؟ (and what is religion, but love?)