A Very Queer Ramadan

Dec 2014

With permission from the artist, McKayla Reilly

With permission from the artist, McKayla Reilly

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About us

I come back from the bathroom, and she’s leafing through my Quran.

We’re doing iftar in my tiny New York apartment, just the two of us. The difficult parts – the last minute prep, the stressing about the taste of food I cooked while fasting, the cleaning up – are over and we’re lounging on my couch, a bowl of berries between us.

I nip into the bathroom for all of two minutes and when I come back, she’s leafing through my Quran. The Quran I’ve had since high school, with all its worn pages and dog-ears and highlights and penciled-in comments. Looking through this Quran is a little like looking at who I’ve been: that time I was obsessed with the idea of talking to God and went through and highlighted all the duaas in yellow; the more crinkled, more used pages near the end with the surahs I’ve memorized; the underlined words that that I consistently mess up. A complicated progression of my faith.

I must be visibly nervous, because she pauses in the middle of turning over a page.

“Is it okay that I’m looking through this?”

“Yes, of course,” I find myself saying, because. Well, because I have a crush on her. This beautiful, brilliant woman who is in my apartment and is, of all things, leafing through my Quran.

She stops at one of the pages. “What are the blue highlights?”

I hesitate. Islam is incredibly personal to me and talking about it with people who know I’m queer, with people who don’t have similar ties to religion, has always felt difficult.

“Those are the ayahs that spoke to me this year.”

She settles further into the couch, reads the blue-highlighted verse she’s on while I chew on my nail in wait. Looks up when she is done, and a simple question escapes her: “Why?”

Well. That is a story.

A story of a group of queer Muslims who refused to let their identities be mutually exclusive this Ramadan. A group of queer Muslims who were tired of feeling out of place in the mosques in their city, but who were also tired of being tired — of waiting for something to change.

It starts off as an ambitious idea: let’s create our own space, let’s read Quran and break fast together every day. The technicalities, though, prove difficult: Where do we do this so that it feels intimate but is also accessible in this city of large distances and small apartments? How do we fit this into our already busy schedules? What will we do for food?

But the hardest question, of course, is how. How should we approach the Quran? How do we hold space for the varied relationships we have with faith, with the trauma that some of us associate with more classical interpretations? How do we grapple with this text and the voluminous amounts of tafsir that none of us have training in, the centuries of exegesis that don’t always speak to us? How do we read this text that we’ve been taught to read through the readings of others?

We end up drawing inspiration from a workshop called “Queering the Quran” at the LGBTQ Muslim Retreat that a few of us have attended, where the workshop facilitator, a dear friend, points out that we perhaps fetishize the original context of the Quran. Could not the original context of the Quran be in the now? What would it be like to read the Quran through a personal lens? One that assumes the immediacy of God speaking to us. That doesn’t discount our lived experiences or the interplay of culture and context with the interpretation of text, that acknowledges the way certain verses are used in oppressive ways but isn’t defined by it.

And so we read. Not more than a verse or two a day, usually. We read our various English translations aloud, sometimes listen to the Arabic recitation, and then pause, stop to collect our thoughts for a few minutes, write down our reflections before discussing. We marvel. Close-read and analyze and tell stories. Voice our discomforts, sometimes anger. Admire the aesthetics. Eat food afterwards, ask about each others’ days, Skype people in when they can’t physically make it. Play mafia, accompany each other to the hospital. Become friends; make ourselves into family.

With the building of intimacy and trust comes a refusal to gloss over the difficult verses. At an iftar towards the end of Ramadan, the question of what verse to read floats around the room, and there is a longer silence than usual. So I bring up an ayah that has always caused me problems.

Your wives are a place of sowing of seed for you, so come to your place of cultivation however you wish and put forth [righteousness] for yourselves. And fear Allah and know that you will meet Him. And give good tidings to the believers. [2:223]

Someone reads another translation, even more misogynistic.

Your wives are as fields for you. You may enter your fields from any place you want. Reserve something good for your souls (for the life hereafter). Have fear of God and know that you are going to meet Him. (Muhammad) give the glad news to the believers. [2:223]

We’re stunned into a somber silence. It sits heavy with us, this verse.

The responses trickle in. Historical context, a friend offers gingerly. She eloquently describes the way in which we have a tendency to center the way we experience the world, that the verse could have meant something different in the particular time and context that this verse was revealed in, could have been revolutionary in terms of how women were treated otherwise.

“But,” someone counters. “The Quran tells us that it is spatially and temporally universal. How does this fit into that?”

“And what about the material ways that this verse is used to justify violence against women?”

“Not every verse has to speak to everyone at all times. We pick and choose what speaks to us with regard to everything we come across, why not extend that filter to religion?”

And then, a quiet voice. “What about the days when these justifications don’t feel enough?”

Silences us. Stills us.

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For a few minutes and then someone adds, wait. Why are we sexualizing this verse? Are we projecting the “sowing the seed” cliché onto the metaphor of the field? What if this field, this “place of cultivation” is meant to be a place of emotional cultivation instead? What if God is telling us to think of our relationships as fields, as something that we must put effort into to derive emotional nourishment and growth?

The sound of the adhaan seeps out of someone’s phone. It is a comforting explanation to sit with, a good place to end.

Which I tell her about, this woman who is in my apartment leafing through my Quran. This is the context in which I came across the blue highlighted ayah she has just read.

I tell her how, the very next day, I turn on my iPod while I worked to shut out the world, to avoid the exhaustion that interacting with people brings while fasting. I put on Quran to fill the resulting emptiness, and come across this verse by chance. This verse that stuns me, leaves me breathless. Acknowledges the uncertainty inherent in interpretation, argues against literalism, a reminder to use our judgment. An answer.

It is He who has sent down to you the Book; in it are verses precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah. But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.” And no one will be reminded except those of understanding. [3:7]

I tell her all this, this woman who is listening raptly and asking me nuanced questions and making my cliché heart beat faster.

It is an immense leap of faith. The most intimate thing I’ve ever done.

Lamya H’s work has appeared in the Black Girl Dangerous blog. Writing bios fuel her existential crises. @lamyaisangry; hijabandboijeans.tumblr.com  

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50 Responses to A Very Queer Ramadan

  1. Petra on Dec 2014 at 2:57 PM

    Beautiful, very beautiful! I am a christian transgender, mtf, and we often have similar questions reading the Bible.. 🙂

  2. Weekly news | southasiabookblog on Dec 2014 at 6:29 PM

    […] ‘A very queer Ramadan’, by Lamya H, in Tanqeed. […]

  3. h on Jun 2015 at 1:49 PM

    I’m not gay, but this piece bought tears to my eyes,the fragile honesty and accords with my own experiences of literalism and the harshness of others. I wish we had this humility, I’m fasting 19 hours and can’t think straight.. all I can say is this is beautiful

  4. Farah on Jun 2016 at 3:57 PM

    This is so on beautiful. I, too, am looking for a community of people who believe, and yet struggle. I’m glad you’ve found yours. Ramadan kareem.

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