For Salman Husainy, an autumn drive four years ago was the moment of truth. Sitting in the passenger seat of his sister Shaheen's car, he blurted out what he'd long known but kept hidden.
"I'm gay," Husainy said. Shocked, Shaheen bumped into the car in front of her. The minor accident didn't cause any damage, and Shaheen parked the car on the side of the road so they could talk. "Are you sure? We don't have any gay people in our community," Shaheen said.
Like most Muslims, Shaheen had never imagined that someone praying beside her at the mosque could be gay. Since Islam teaches that homosexuality is wrong, gay members often keep their sexual orientation in the closet.
Gay Muslims aren't the most visible group, but they also aren't insignificant: Of the one to three million Muslims living in the United States, an estimated 30 percent are gay. Some, like Husainy, have come to terms with their homosexuality. For others, confessing their sexual orientation remains a distant dream. They fear shaming their family and losing respect at their mosque.
"Honestly, I do feel that it's wrong," said Sheikh Mustafa during a web chat. Mustafa is a gay Muslim living in Singapore. "Islamic teaching prohibits gay activities. I'm trying to be straight to be close to Allah. I'm praying very hard."
Iftekhar Hai, Director of Interfaith Relations for the United Muslims of America, says that homosexuality is unnatural. He points to a verse in the Quoran where the prophet Lut says "For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing."
"According to the scripture, there's no doubt," Hai said. "It's not right and proper."
Gay Muslims look for alternative interpretations to Islam's view on homosexuality. One gay Muslim is training to be an imam, or religious scholar, in Washington D.C. He prefers to go by Abdala because other Muslim scholars don't know he's gay. Abdala hopes to use his education to help fellow gay Muslims come to terms with their sexuality.
"I'm training to be an imam so I can provide a better service of how to live in this society," Abdala said. Abdala does not believe that the Quoran condemns homosexuality. He explains that in the religious text, men are punished 'for raping and abusing other men' not for engaging in consensual sex.
"I've always challenged scholars because they're heterosexual and that's why they interpreted it that way," Abdala said. "I think I'm breaking new ground."
Still, Abdala acknowledges that he hasn't been open about his homosexuality in training. His instructors have said that being gay is going against good ethics and morals. He worries that coming out would impede the training process and hurt his chances of graduation. If Abdala doesn't graduate, he won't be able to offer religious services to other gay Muslims.
Abdala has good reason to worry. Traditional Muslim scholars don't accept alternative interpretations to the Quoran. Hamza Yusuf, a Muslim scholar at the Bay Area's Zaytuna Institute, condemns those who try to find new meaning in the holy text.
"If one considers it acceptable in Islam [to be gay], then he or she is not considered to be a Muslim by consensus of the scholars," Yusuf said. "On this I know no debate whatsoever."
Gay Muslims, unable to turn to religious leaders, look for alternative support networks. Messages posted on Al-fatija, a support group and web site for gay Muslims, reveal the complexities of being gay and Muslim.
"Looking for a Lesbian friend and maybe marriage," reads the heading on one personal from a gay man seeking a show marriage. "I'm in a four-year relationship with my partner whom I love dearly, but there is also my family who is on the other side pushing for marriage," the author writes. "I feel like a rag doll in the middle of a tug of war, and for all of you who are in the same boat, you know what a difficult position this puts us in...I've come to realize that I cannot be the only one in the world in this predicament. So if you are a lesbian Muslim in a similar situation, I'd love to talk to you, and maybe we could help each other out."
Muslims feel obligated to marry and produce children. The traditional family structure emphasizes extended family, and Islam advocates populating the world with more Muslims.
"The pressure builds because you're supposed to extend this family," said Ghalib Dhalla, a gay Muslim and author. "There's a lot of cherished hopes that I can't consummate."
Since many gay Muslims remain in the closet, they are an elusive group. When asked for a number, gay Muslims throw out ten percent (the estimate given to gays within the general population), but all admit that it's tough to pin down. At an Al-fatija conference in San Francisco last year, about 250 gay Muslims attended. Many spoke of Al-fatija communities in their own towns. The group can't be used as a measuring tool, however, since Al-fatija members are only one portion of the gay community. Joining requires a level of personal acceptance that some gay Muslims haven't achieved.
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