There is a tension between those Muslims who see Islam as an historically fixed religion and those Muslims who recognize the long process of historical transformation that is a feature of Islam’s movement through time and space from its origins in 7th century Arabia. Muslim religious doctrine and practices change based on context and interpretation. Religious faith clearly is more than a list of do’s and don’t’s derived from a holy text, but is based in part on reconciling age-old traditions and contemporary values.
Recently, there have been growing debates about Islam’s capacity for acceptance of gay Muslims. The question of reconciling faith and sexual orientation is not unique to Islam. As with Catholics and other Chrisitians, for example, many Muslims have positioned Muslim and gay identities as incompatible. In contrast, a growing number of Muslims and others are asserting Islam’s openness to sexual diversity. Because of this, Muslims, like other faith-based groups across the nation, are wrestling with the fact that gay rights are an issue for members of their family and their Mosque. It is not a simple theological question applying to an “other.”
In her account of the experiences of a lesbian Muslim friend, Nazly Siadate articulates a plea for Muslims to “modify their interpretation of their faith to be more inclusive.” Specifically, Siadate asks gay Muslims to stop “self-segregating” themselves. She suggests that gay Muslims can and should maintain their religious identity alongside their sexual identity. Then, Muslim communities will consider sexual difference from a position of a shared relationship and religious identity, thus making acceptance easier.
Siadate is not alone in her call for embracing gay and Muslim identities. Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed researches homosexuality in Islam from an anthropological perspective, and Imam Daayiee Abdullah, gay himself, leads a progressive prayer center in Washington D.C., counseling gay Muslims. Additionally, Muslims for Progressive Values advocates for LGBTQ rights from an Islam-inspired perspective. These examples show that gay Muslims exist (and there is a new documentary about it), they have Muslim allies, and they will continue to embrace both identities regardless of official doctrine.
Muslims in America are targets of prejudice and bigotry. The same bigots attack LGBTQ people. These attacks on Muslims and gays draw distinctions between Americans by highlighting a difference (religion and sexuality) that challenges sexual and religious conservative definitions of what it means to be American. Today’s progressive Muslim voices argue that their co-religionists ought to approach LGBTQ issues from a place of empathy, both within and beyond their community.
Like other religions, Islam must contend with the tension between normative practices and the reality of sexual diversity among believers. As is evident by the growing public discussion, Muslims today are exploring ways to address social issues, like sexual orientation, with the knowledge that how they respond plays a significant role in defining their own faith, especially for gay Muslims, and sets the tone for how they define the social values associated with their religious beliefs.