Bismillahir rahmanir rahim.
In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Kind.
This simple phrase is found at the beginning of all but one chapters of the Qur’an, and is one a Muslim is advised to recite prior to virtually any activity, including writing on religious subjects. It also has to be said prior to ritual ablution before prayer. Mercy and kindness are the values central to understanding Islam, and God as understood by Islam. Commandments or advice in the Qur’an are also immediately followed by mentions of forgiveness, mercy and kindness. Yes, God is mighty, powerful, terrifying, and the ultimate Judge of mankind. But His mercy is infinite.
The God of Islam is understanding. He knows us intimately and asserts this throughout the sacred text. We cannot hide one thought or feeling from Him. This carries with it a responsibility for our actions but also echoes that familiar kindness. Islamic tradition holds that God has 99 names through which He describes Himself, most of which can be found in the Qur’an. These can be recited or memorised in order. The first two names are those soft and loving ones: ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim. I will let you look up the nuances of their translations but suffice it to say for the purposes of this post: exceeding compassion is the general gist.
The importance of that mercy or compassion is also central to my personal experience of God, of Islam and of my own humanity.
I am in a somewhat unusual situation. It’s as if my identity consists of a small collection of minorities that may seem “not so bad” to those not in them, yet form a veritable labyrinth once some kind of navigation is required in the real world.
I was once told I subconsciously enjoy making my life complicated. I think I just enjoy honesty about who I am. While I am attempting to anonymise this entry somewhat, the fact remains that I am a bi trans man from Poland (Catholic guilt included as lifelong baggage at no extra charge), with Jewish ethnic ancestry, living in a Western European country that notoriously and systemically resents Polish people, and a recent revert to Islam – revert because Islam teaches that we are all born Muslim and where we go from there depends on the faith and values of our parents. It should be noted that a newborn baby isn’t going to be praying five times a day, travelling to Mecca or giving a fixed percentage of their income to charity; a Muslim simply means “follower of God”. I enjoy this take on life far more than the Catholic notion that we’ve all inherited a terrible sin and are born burdened with such. This, to me, seems quite unfair.
I’m also mentally ill and live below the poverty line, which is fun. However, this mosaic of experiences does allow me a perspective I hope to make good use of.
I first encountered Islam as a footnote in my Bible. It simply stated that “Muhammad claimed the Archangel Gabriel had told him to start the religion of Islam”. I now take issue with that footnote, but at the time it was enough to plant in me the idea that there were other answers to my questions, of which there were already many, and this was prior to any sexuality or gender conflicts really emerging. I was the annoying kid that deconstructed explanations on the spot and found faults. Fortunately for me, I believe Islam really does have the answers.
Over the years, I tried out different faiths and nothing seemed to fit. At the back of my mind sat Islam, just resting there quietly, waiting for me to get around to it. First I had to get over my disillusion with Abrahamic religions as a whole and my rebellion against any institution that even hinted at homophobia or transphobia. Once a devout Catholic, I was then an atheist, a Wiccan, an Anglican, an agnostic… I tried religions on for size and ultimately discarded them. It seemed to me that where there wasn’t patriarchal damage, there was little substance, and vice versa.
In 2014, after a fairly dramatic mental breakdown and a series of traumatic events, I began to look for a meaning again. Eventually, I conceded that I wasn’t sure if there was a god, but if there was, would he please point me in the general direction of the truth? That would be great, thanks.
And that’s when I remembered, hey, Islam. I downloaded a free copy of the Qur’an and I started to read. It was like no other experience, really. I did look into Judaism to appease my sense of duty to my ancestors, most of whom had had the misfortune of being in Poland during the Holocaust, but I was already starting to fall too deeply in love with Islam. It was intoxicatingly beautiful. It is.
Of course, the question of sexuality and gender presented itself almost immediately. What did Islam say about all this? Well, as it turns out, not a lot. The beauty of Islam as I interpret it is that it is designed to provide us with a moral guideline and the easiest route to happiness, fulfilment, goodness. The rest are details that begin to come naturally as those wrinkles of our human weakness slowly get ironed out through submission to God – the Most Merciful, the Most Kind, indeed. This kind God mentions diversity multiple times throughout the holy text. It is tempting for those influenced by patriarchal history to exclude sexuality or gender from this and I have often witnessed it: imams skilfully mentioning every form of human diversity like race, class, gender, nationality, etc., yet remaining silent on sexual minorities. Unfortunately, that is the current climate of most Muslim communities; but the truth is, in the Qur’an itself, there are several subtle mentions of people not attracted to those of the opposite gender and hints at those who combine male and female – which can be interpreted widely (to include gender non-conforming, trans, or intersex individuals) but that is one of the beautiful things about the Qur’an. It is succinct and ever-growing as our knowledge of God’s creation grows. It is a book for all times and as such, it can be applied to what we know now. Far from condemning scientific research, the Qur’an encourages us to look for God’s design and will in His creation. Knowing what we know now about the nature of sexuality and gender, I don’t see a reason to remain ignorant and rigid when Muslims have historically engaged so actively and progressively in the sciences.
Sexual immorality is condemned in the Qur’an in no uncertain terms. However, this generally refers to rape, adultery, promiscuity. The condemnation of homosexual behaviour is in the context of it being used as a tool of power, control and humiliation, through assault. To my reasoning (may God forgive me if I am wrong here) there is a cognitive dissonance and incredible disrespect in claiming that two people – in a monogamous, committed marriage, who want nothing but to love each other for the sake of God – in any way resemble the violent men who attacked the Prophet Lot and threatened sexual assault.
I got on my soapbox for a moment there. I’m sorry. I am simply frustrated. Islam to me, is beautiful. Simple but all-encompassing. Working with our nature, not against it. Allowing the human race to utilise our best qualities of justice, kindness, intellect and charity. That’s the Islam I want to show people. That’s the Islam that deserves to be seen especially by those of my Muslim brothers, sisters and other-gendered-siblings who have not lost their faith in the Most Merciful but have lost faith in the mercy of His followers.
(All praise is due to Allah and all mistakes are mine alone).
If you want to learn more about work being done to build a thriving LGBTQI+ community within the Muslim community, please visit Imaan.