Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

Queer and Muslim: Beyond the Normative Dilemma

Aaisha Salman

March 7, 2021

In 2018, The Queer Muslim Project (TQMP), an online collective initiated by gender and sexuality rights advocate, Rafiul Alom Rahman, held a workshop in Delhi entitled “DIY Islam” (Do-it-Yourself Islam). As a part of this workshop, TQMP invited queer Muslims in the city to reflect on their experiences of Muslimness and faith, “both good and bad.”[1] On their Instagram page, TQMP archived this project for their followers with the caption, “Long live the Queer Ijtema!” The ijtema, conventionally understood as an Islamic congregation, is a powerful image to invoke. It naturalizes the visibility of queer Muslims, one that is not always a given. Headlines in mainstream news publications demonstrate the tensions around a queer Muslim collectivity: in 2015, The New York Times published “What Does Islam Say About Being Gay?”;[2] in 2016, The Guardian published, “Everything you Need to Know about Being Gay in Muslim Countries”;[3] and in 2019, the BBC published, “It is Possible to be a Muslim and a Lesbian.”[4] The underlying question always seems to be: “Is a Muslim queer subjectivity possible/permissible?” 

As academics, treating Muslim queerness as a site of normativety means paying attention to how re-readings of scripture, such as the Qur’anic story of the Prophet Lūṭ (AS), offer sufficient justification for being queer and Muslim.[5]Dervla Sarah Shannahan, “Some queer questions from a Muslim perspective,” Sexualities 13, no.6 (2010): 671-684. But instead of dismantling the notion that Muslimness and queerness cannot be inhabited simultaneously, I am interested in how projects such as TQMP help us think about queer Muslim collectivities beyond the ‘dilemma’ of being. Through the archives, stories, and narratives documented by TQMP, we can ask: what is the queer ijtema? What does it look like? Who participates and who is excluded? These questions can help us move beyond normative debates that question the basis of queer Muslim subjectivity and expand our analytical frameworks as we think about what it means to ‘queer’ a text.  

TQMP’s commitment to the life of the queer ijtema helps us consider the work that ‘queering’ performs as a verb. It can be understood not just as a hermeneutic strategy where texts are re-read in queer-positive ways, but also as a move towards the formation of collectivity, publicness, and organization for Muslims who ‘queer’ the faith they embody. While a discussion on how queerness and Muslimness do belong together is central to the project, it is not the entire story of TQMP.  

I read the act of queering as the construction of a poetics of belonging, a curatorial practice that is intent on shaping and bringing to light a public queerness that is already there (taking for granted that “we are/were here”). Such an understanding helps us move beyond a framing of ‘queer Muslimness’ as something that must always be justified. Understanding the act of queering as a form of togetherness helps us consider what workshops such as “DIY Islam” and online spaces such as TQMP make space for: community and world-building through which iterations of queer Muslimness come together.  

One example from TQMP’s Instagram feed demonstrates what queering as world-building can mean: entitled “A Queer Muslim Guide to Radical Loving and Self-Care,” the post uses the concept of sadaqah (charity) to encourage queer Muslims to extend love to themselves and their loved ones, especially during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.[6] The guide states, “The Islamic concept of sadaqah is an act of kindness that emerges from the goodness of one’s heart. It may be as small as a polite smile at a stranger. How does one exchange this kind of joy with a mask on?” The guide references an oft-quoted ḥadīth from the Prophet Muhammad which states that even the act of smiling at another person can be considered charity. The guide borrows from Islamic references such as these to explicate a path to caring for oneself and one’s community. 

Such a deployment of sadaqah offers us new avenues of analysis in the study of Islamic ethics as it shifts our understanding of care and the cultivation of piety. It might be interesting, for example, to explore TQMP’s framing of sadaqah through Michel Foucault’s discussion of the care of the self as a practice of freedom. TQMP’s guide to self-care states, “There’s no one way to be queer, Muslim and proud.” Drawing on Foucault’s discussion of care as the shaping of one’s subjectivity,[7]Edward Demenchonok, “Michel Foucault’s Theory of Practices of the Self and the Quest for a New Philosophical Anthropology,” in Peace, Culture, and Violence, … Continue reading it is possible to understand sadaqah as part of an ethical framework for the cultivation of the queer-Muslim self. TQMP’s discussion on sadaqah might, therefore, help us to view a neglected form of Islamic ethics aimed at a project of queer liberation.  

The guide goes on to state that sadaqah can take many forms: retaining hope, honouring your truth, recognising intersectionality within queer activism, daring to dream of liberated futures, reclaiming one’s heritage, reading queer-affirmative Islamic literature. The guide instructs its readers to partake in sadaqah through innovation and play: “Create your own rituals: traditions are open to interpretation.” The guide further states that sadaqah also includes a focus on love for yourself: “Revise your concepts of sin and shame. Focus on love, for that is a form of devotion.” As these ‘instructions’ show, a queer reading of sadaqah does not necessarily mean making arguments and justifications for how sadaqah can be used in service of queer Muslimness. Taking that as a given, TQMP instead uses this reading of sadaqah to encourage community-building and ethical self-shaping for Muslim readers of the guide. 

A “queer-friendly hermeneutics” within Islamic studies, then, can move beyond an understanding of queering texts limited to a ‘recovery’ of queer Muslim subjectivity.[8]Samar Habib, “Queer-Friendly Islamic Hermeneutics”, ISIM Review 21, no.1 (2008), 32-33. As Anjali Arondekar has shown, the danger with recovery-based approaches is that they can assume marginality at the outset, and position scholarship as the agent of recovery[9]Anjali Arondekar, For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 7.. The approach I have suggested here might help us centre queer Muslimness in our methodology, and not reproduce marginality in our research. In other words, it might be fruitful to think about Muslim world-building through these subjectivities, rather than premise the discussion on ‘saving’ queer Muslims through scholarly justification of their existence. A queer-friendly hermeneutics can also start with forms of publicness and collectivity that bring together already existing interpretations of faith and queerness. Working with this understanding of ‘queering’ can help us shed light on how queer Muslims live Islam. 

Notes / References

5 Dervla Sarah Shannahan, “Some queer questions from a Muslim perspective,” Sexualities 13, no.6 (2010): 671-684.
7 Edward Demenchonok, “Michel Foucault’s Theory of Practices of the Self and the Quest for a New Philosophical Anthropology,” in Peace, Culture, and Violence, ed. Fuat Gursozlu (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 218-247.
8 Samar Habib, “Queer-Friendly Islamic Hermeneutics”, ISIM Review 21, no.1 (2008), 32-33.
9 Anjali Arondekar, For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 7.

Aaisha Salman

Aaisha Salman is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. Her research explores the intersection of Islam and media histories of South Asia, with a special focus on radio and television histories in the subcontinent.