“Saw u at Taraweeh bro, ain’t you gay lol” – Anonymous
The above is quoted from a recent Twitter meme that typifies the kind of responses many queer Muslims face during Ramadan. It represents the absurd assumption that going to mosque to engage in the nightly communal prayer of Taraweeh makes no sense if you’re LGBTQ+.
As a Black, queer, Muslim I often find myself pondering questions around race, sexuality and religious belonging, (whether faith is rooted more in lineage or belief); Ultimately, I’m left with just one question- What does it mean to be Muslim?
Though my circadian rhythm has been thrown off, I am grateful that this year is the first in a long time that Ramadan has brought me back to a prayer mat. Once again, I remember the calm state that regular prayer and fasting puts me in, so peaceful that all these new age-y meditations seem inadequate in comparison. I find anew, a much longed-for quiet state that defines for me my spiritual practice. Unfortunately, almost all of this is done in isolation. I feel my way through the religion’s pillars like a beggar in a palace, touching the walls to check if they’re real, wondering if I truly belong.
In my home country, Sudan, as in many African nations, our engagement with Abrahamic faiths is enmeshed in a long history of spiritual and cultural practice. Ramadan is a time that symbolises oneness: with both God and community. Those who grew up in Muslim households can recall childhood memories of Iftar gatherings and days spent in the kitchen labouring with our mothers. Iftar is typically a big meal, where family and guests gather to break the day-long fast. The dishes that are specially reserved for the holy month are set on the Iftar table as the sun begins to set. Dishes synonymous with Iftar for me are the Sudanese asidas, gurasas and numerous stews I would eat growing up (special mention to my personal holy trinity: hibiscus, gongolez and hillumur drinks).
As I grew into an adult and began to notice the ways that my religious community rejects me, Ramadan, morphed into a silent, yearly reminder of the pains of estrangement. It hadn’t occurred to me until very recently, how much my queerness contributed to my sense of otherness within Islam and how much the rejection of my identity had affected both my practice and my belief. Queer Muslims are made to feel like we must choose either our identities or our faith. The experience of being ostracized from mainstream Islam is spectral, from marginalized intra-religious sects, to marginalized sexualities and ethnicities. The result is the modern collective image of the quintessential Muslim as a (straight, cis) Arab in a headscarf. The feeling of not being “the right kind of Muslim” can be enough to deter us from engaging in Ramadan’s rituals: whether it’s fasting or communal prayer.
Personally, I had always been stuck between wanting to walk away from Islam in protest and the immovable urge to honour my faith. So powerful and calming were the fruits of Ramadan for me this year that they reminded me of the spirituality I always carried in my heart, proving that Ramadan is a perfect time to further cultivate this part of myself. This sense of sudden connection is not random, I’m inspired so greatly by the safe spaces queer Muslims are carving out for us to thrive. I’ve begun to appreciate the most those events made just for us, like Masjid al-Rabia’s Black LGBTQ+ Ramadan Prayers and Imaan LGBTQ+ Iftars in East London. Identity might not be everything, but we must all be able to find a sense of belonging, before we can talk about personal and collective liberation.
I understand now that the lack of connection I’ve felt in previous Ramadan months was not mine alone. Spiritual well-being, practice and engagement is for all. The mere fact of not being represented (or worse, being harshly othered) in our places of worship, does not mean that we don’t deserve the same spiritual freedoms afforded to other. Within our shared safe spaces, we must continue to touch those pillars we know form the basis of a good life and by doing so, defy all those who deny us the right to exist. People like me have always existed. People like you have always been here. Queer Muslims dwelled and thrived in those same lands that they might be prosecuted within and forced out of, today. We too deserve blessings. We too deserve the good life.