why islam is inherently queer
In an extract from their book ‘Unicorn’, Amrou Al-Kadhi (aka Glamrou) explains how they discovered the queerness in their faith
Queerness and religion don’t often go hand-in-hand. In fact, religious rhetoric is the bedrock of queerphobia and the reason why many LGBTQ people around the world are persecuted. While all religions are guilty of this, in the media it’s Islam that is often criticised for it’s anti-LGBTQ stance.
The recent debate about compulsory LGBTQ relationship and sex education in schools has become, thanks to certain corners of the media, an “Islam hates gays” debate. Indeed, anti-Muslim rhetoric is so pervasive that even icons of gay liberation have been accused of Islamaphobia. Peter Tatchell, the LGBTQ rights campaigner and activist, recently appeared that the Conservative Party Conference and was accused of attacking Muslims (he later denied this on Twitter and in a letter to The Guardian). Tatchell also appeared on a podcast with Spiked’s Brendan O'Neill, in which he discussed the left’s apparent “double standards on Islam”. The podcast is led with the quote: “It’s not racist to call out Muslim homophobia.”
Of course, as with all religions, there are extremists, but these individuals don’t represent everyone who practices that religion. The same can be said for the beliefs of individuals. Nevertheless, growing up queer within any conservative and religious household is hard. And as a Muslim, with increasing outside pressures, it might feel impossible. However, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, there is a way to align your queerness with your religion, you just need to know where to look. It’s something that writer, performer and drag artist Amrou Al-Kadhi (aka Glamrou) learned when they did their own reading of the Quran. Below, in an an extract from their upcoming memoir Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen in which Amrou explores how Islam is inherent queer.
Prophet Muhammed once said, “Islam began as something strange and will return to being something strange, so give blessings to those who are strange.” Amen Muhammed! If you replace the world Islam with “people”, the sentence could feasibly be the slogan for a queer sex-positive disco in Berlin. As I had learnt from first-hand experience, the West has limited most people’s perceptions of what a Muslim looks like – we’re either terrorists, terrifying, or terrified. Cultural representation has a lot to answer for here; pretty much every Arab actor will tell you that since 9/11, they’ve been in business, but for the wrong reason. American networks, in particular, are hooked on narratives where white male soldiers gun down Arabs like we’re vermin. So it’s unsurprising that most people would find the idea of the Quran having pockets of queerness as ludicrous as Katy Perry’s claims to cultural authenticity (the right-wing media has made a particular meal out of positioning Islam as a complete threat to Western civil rights) – but ideas about Islam are limited, and mask the subatomic complexities hidden deep inside the faith.
On my rereadings of the Quran, I came across this passage about Allah. It says that Allah is the “One who shapes you in the womb as He Pleases.” (Quran 3:6), and that “of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the differences of your tongues and colours” (Quran 30:22). When I came across this, it was the first time in my life that I felt connected to the Quran without an urge to repel it. I could just hold the book as though it was meant to be in my hands, like a calm, sleeping kitten. There it was, in this ancient “evil” text, the idea that variance and difference among human bodies was all part of Allah’s plan. Perhaps Allah views human beings in the same way I used to think about marine aquatics – as a collection of ever-changing, different bodies, all coexisting as a formless mass unified by light and love. I had only ever pictured Allah as a fascistic punisher who built the world on strict rigid lines – but the more I discovered about Islam, the less this seemed to be the case.
I reached out to a queer Muslim group I had heard about, a community set up for those wanting to merge their faith with their queer identity, and who find Quranic justification for queer identities. I was invited to one of their events, and eventually plucked up the courage to go along. The meeting took place on a mellow autumnal Sunday, and as I got on the bus to the café where it was being held, I smiled at the idea that I was willingly heading towards an Islamic event, when for so long in my life I had been running away from them. I was actively seeking out Islam, no longer attempting to eradicate it from my system. The event was one of the most welcoming spaces I had ever been in – so free from judgement, so free from fear, instead offering an environment rooted in Islamic concepts of love and togetherness. We sat around three little tables that were brought together to make one clunky big one, and I looked around, taking in the diversity of identities around me. There were Muslim men in female Islamic robes and a trans woman wearing a hijab, and I thought about little Amrou in Islam class, and how I wished I could tell them that one day they’d be sitting in a room full of other queer Muslims, and that love, not eternal fire, awaited them.
The three-hour meeting was centred on the Islamic concept of Wilayah. Wilayah translates as “spiritual advisor”, and more conservative readings of the Quran interpret it as the practice whereby Muslim men ensure women are marrying appropriate Muslims. But the various Quranic passages, on further reading, reveal a different meaning to the one patriarchal Islam has reduced it to. Here’s the one I found most comforting:
“And the masculine people of faith and the feminine people of faith are spiritual protectors of one another: they encourage what is right and discourage what is wrong.” (Quran 9:71)
We set off in different working groups to discuss how these readings might apply to us as queer people. The more I read, and the more I discussed, the more I realised that I practised Wilayah with my queer drag family, Denim. For me, part of identifying as queer is about forming a community with other queer people, one in which we ensure each other’s safety, constantly check each other’s politics, and make sure that we don’t become poisoned by the pressures of heteronormativity. My queer family is as much celebratory of me as it is challenging of me – in the queer circles I belong to, my attitudes are constantly checked and improved, so that I might practise the most pure and inclusive kind of queer religion possible. Wilayah is the same among Muslims – it’s not about controlling each other, but instead about protecting each other, and ensuring our sisters and brothers are not maligned by forces that try to harm and corrupt us. As in the above quotation, it’s striking too that the Quran believes masculinity and femininity to be free from actual biology, and more like forces capable of existing within all people – a very queer picture!
During the session, I learnt of an ancient concept in Islam called ijtihad. This essentially refers to the circles of critical thinking and independent discussion that for centuries addressed questions in Islam. Until the tenth century, Muslims were encouraged to exercise autonomy of thinking and to contest the Quran, so that each and every Muslim had their own, independent relationship with the text, with the collective readings of Islam generated from many different perspectives. The entire point was to allow a multiplicity of experiences and perspectives to inform the practice of Islam. The Quran, in fact, is much more like a collection of poems than a literal series of commandments; its purposeful ambiguity is intended to encourage a diverse range of interpretations. But, as with everything else in the world, cisgender heterosexual men soon dominated the practice, and ijtihad was prohibited in the tenth century, meaning that Islam became more autocratic and restrictive in the way that people understand it to this day. And the passages like The Story of Lot, which textually seem far more likely to be warnings against rape and inhospitality, could be co-opted by conservative Islamic practitioners into an unequivocal condemnation of homosexuality, leading to the kind of religious institutional homophobia that has scarred my life. It’s not Allah who forbade my queer identity, but the people who ignored the well of alternative potentials in the Quran.
Since that meeting, I have spent hours and hours trawling through all the information collated by the queer Muslim group, and their work has been invaluable in helping me to find peace in my Islamic heritage. Sufism is a rich and spiritual sect of Islam that has many affinities with queer identity. As a queer person, I believe almost dogmatically in difference, in the idea that every single person is unique, with their own innate sense of self, and that it is this difference which brings all of us together as one. Sufism, in many ways, is based on a similar belief. It’s a branch of Islam in search of a metaphysical and profound personal dialogue with Allah. In Sufism, every single Muslim has their own individual relationship with Allah; Allah is not a singular hegemonic force that controls us all, but something we can each find individually and on our own terms. Whilst I had grown up to perceive Islam as ascetic and austere, I completely missed an entire genealogy of the faith that directly resonated with me. I had deified the Western literary greats like Oscar Wilde for their queer magic, and completely skipped over the writings of Sufists, like thirteenth-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi, whose dazzlingly spiritual poems are burning with homoerotic desire. It was all there the whole time. Just waiting for me.
Prayer methods in Sufism can be wonderfully poetic, and also intrinsically queer. There is a glorious Sufi sect in which men dress in skirts and spin around and dance as a way to fuse their souls with Allah (the infamous whirling dervishes). YES, THAT’S CORRECT. MALE MUSLIMS WEARING SKIRTS. So while I’d gone about believing that Allah and every relative of mine was prepared to have me shot for my gender identity, there were actually male Muslims wearing dresses and dancing with Allah – and they actually got rewarded for being pious! I mean, I’m basically doing that every time I perform in drag – maybe it’s not so transgressive after all! I’d spent a lot of my teenage years searching for representations on TV and in film that reflected me, and, although I discovered some beautiful queer characters to connect with, the only thing I found that somewhat resonated with my experience as a queer person of Muslim heritage was Bend it Like Beckham (where the queerness in this instance came from a sodding football).
When I learnt about Sufist whirling dervishes, YouTube of all places provided the place where I could more directly see myself. I couldn’t believe the footage I was seeing – men, wearing billowing white skirts that would outdo Kim Kardashian on her wedding day, being celebrated by Muslim people in the audience, as they limped their wrists and twirled to the sound of an Imam singing the Quran. Here was a version of drag in the most Islamic context; for the first time ever, I actually identified with Muslims on the screen in front of me, each of whom was searching for meaning through costume, music, and ritual.
I realised that each time I perform in drag, I’m also searching for a transcendental connection with a higher power, channelled through the collective queer energy that comes from the audience. Whenever I get into drag – the quiet ritual of meticulously applying make-up and building a new self – I feel like I did as a young child praying. Islamic prayer is a very charged experience, in which you quietly allow your body to find Allah through movements and mantras. Every time I block out my brows and tell myself in the mirror “You’re fierce”, I feel an affinity with these Islamic practices.
Recently, to calm myself before a show, I have been using Muslim prayer poses in my stretches, and it helps me to feel connected and grounded before getting onstage. When I am in my full Arabian get-up in front of an audience, I sometimes like to sing in Arabic, acting as a vessel for the beautiful queer feminine energies in Islam, feeling the spiritual power of what it means to be queer and to have a room of many different people celebrating this. It is a kind of religious experience, a room united in the celebration of difference; when a show goes really well, it gives me a kind of faith. A faith that Allah’s plan was for me to twirl onstage in a skirt so that I could eventually find not only myself, but Allah, like many Sufist Muslims had been doing centuries before me.
UNICORN. The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen by Amrou Al-Kadhi will be published by 4th Estate Books 3 October.
Photography Holly Falconer