Progressive U.S. Muslim Movement Embraces Gay and Interfaith Marriages, Female Imams and Mixed Prayers
Omar Akersim prays regularly and observes the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast. He is also openly gay.
Akersim, 26, is part of a small but growing number of American Muslims challenging the long-standing interpretations of Islam that defined their parents’ world. They believe that one can be gay and Muslim; that the sexes can pray shoulder-to-shoulder; that females can preach and that Muslim women can marry outside the faith — and they point to Qur’an passages to back them up.
The shift comes as young American Muslims work to reshape the faith they grew up with so it fits better with their complex, dual identity, with one foot in the world of their parents’ immigrant beliefs and one foot in the ever-shifting cultural landscape of America. The result has been a growing internal dialogue about what it means to be Muslim, as well as a scholarly effort to re-examine the Qur’an for new interpretations that challenge rules that had seemed set in stone.
“Islam in America is being forced to kind of change and to reevaluate its positions on things like homosexuality because of how we’re moving forward culturally as a nation. It’s striving to make itself seen and known in the cultural fabric and to do that, it does have to evolve,” said Akersim, who leads a Los Angeles-based support group for gay Muslims. “Ten or 15 years ago, this would have been impossible.”
The shift doesn’t end with breaking obvious taboos, either. Young American Muslims are making forays into fashion, music and stirring things up with unorthodox takes on staples of American pop culture. A recent controversial YouTube video, for example, shows Muslim hipsters — or “Mipsterz” — skateboarding in head scarves and skinny jeans as Jay-Z’s “Somewhere in America” blasts in the background.
Advocates for a more tolerant Islam say the constraints on interfaith marriage and homosexuality aren’t in the Qur’an, but are based on conservative interpretations of Islamic law that have no place in the U.S. Historically, in many Muslim countries, there are instances of unsegregated prayers and interfaith marriage.
“I think it’s fair to say the traditional Islam that we experienced excluded a lot of Muslims that were on the margins. I always felt not very welcomed by the type of Islam my parents practiced,” said Tanzila Ahmed, 35, who published an anthology of love stories by Muslim American women in 2012 called “Love Inshallah.”
Many second-generation American Muslims still practice their faith in traditional ways, but others are starting to see the Islam of their parents as more of a cultural identity, said Dr. Yvonne Haddad, a Georgetown University professor who has written extensively about Islam’s integration into U.S. society.
As a result, there’s a new emphasis on meeting for prayer and socializing in neutral spaces, such as community centres, instead of mosques, and on universal inclusion.
“Some of them still want a mosque, they still want to belong and to pray and others are shifting and they are very comfortable being non-religious,” Haddad said. “These people feel that they can get rid of the hang-ups of what the culture has defined as Muslim and maintain the beliefs and values, the spiritual values, and feel very comfortable by shedding all the other restrictions that society has put on them.”
In Los Angeles, a religious group called Muslims for Progressive Values has been pushing the boundaries with a female imam who performs same-sex and interfaith marriages, support groups for gay Muslims and a worship style that includes women giving sermons and men and women praying together. The group has chapters in half a dozen major U.S. cities and at least six foreign countries and last year was recognized by the United Nations as an official non-governmental organization.
Kaneez Fatima has become Kashmir’s second female pilot, with the 24-year-old Muslim lady now hired in Air India after completing her training.
“Our family has struggled a lot to make this happen. With the active support of Fatima’s grandparents – Haji Fatima Banu and late Ghulam Rasool, their nurse mother worked hard to ensure Fatima’s pursue the career she chose for herself,” Abdul Majid, a relative of Fatima explained.
A resident of a Leh locality near the Polo Ground, Fatima’s parents got separated when she was very young. She was brought up by her mother, Shakeela Banoo, a nurse in the state-run Leh hospital.
“She lifted a huge amount of loan from a bank for the same,” Majid said. “The entire amount lifted from the bank as a loan was spent on Fatima and it will take her mother some more time to liquidate that.”
Fatima was enrolled in the local Imamia School at Leh. From the basics, she studied there till her middles. Later, her mother shifted Fatima to Srinagar where she was enrolled in the Government Higher Secondary School, Kothibagh.
Early 2013, the family got Fatima’s admission in Government Aviation Training Institute at Bhubaneswar (Orissa). Her mother spent a fortune to get her daughter trained as a pilot.
Fatima spent almost six years for training and getting equipped with the subsequent flying experience, mandatory for the job.
A group of Muslim charities have joined forces to support drought-affected Australian farmers.
The Brisbane-based charity Muslim Charitable Foundation (MCF), together with Muslim Aid Australia and the Islamic Council of Queensland, raised enough funds to deliver 33 tonnes of hay – 132 bales – to Goondiwindi on the NSW-Queensland border, where it will be distributed to farmers in need.
The group, assisted by a number of fuel and trucking companies, plans to make more deliveries if it continues to receive support.
Yusuf Khatree, from MCF, was in Goondiwindi as the trucks were being unloaded.
“Obviously it's not enough, but they try their best to distribute it on an even basis to all those farmers that are in need, who will be coming here over the next few days to collect the hay to take back to their farms so they can feed their animals,” he said in a video posted to Facebook.
“When we spoke with (a local farming representative) he did tell us that the greatest need is the provision of food for the animals which is the hay and this is going to help them in a long way to satisfy that need.
“We will be looking at other forms of other feed for the animals and possibly the supply of water if that is what is needed.”
As a teenager, Geoffrey Lyons left his small town in Nova Scotia to wander the Himalayas. He renunciated his former life and became enthralled with Sufism, a mystic school of Islam. Learning how to play the ancient music of India and Pakistan, Lyons was reborn as Tahir Hussain Faridi Qawwal.
"It was definitely a transitional time for finding a direction in my life," Qawwal said. "Sufi called to my heart. I was just drawn in by that divine spirit of devotion."
Studying to play the tabla (Indian drum) and the shruti box (Indian harmonium), Qawwal discovered, as his name implies, the devotional music genre of qawwali. For more than 500 years, Sufis have performed qawwali music to praise God, lament the dead or to tell love stories.
"I really appreciated how the poetry of qawwali was non-dualistic, in that it does not worship one particular deity," Qawwal said. "It's very profound and beautiful."
In 2001, Qawwal founded his band Fanna-Fi-Allah with fellow musician Aminah Chishty. They created the traditionally arranged qawwali ensemble to spread the music of the Sufis to the West. Over time the group grew into the seven-person band it is today, with Qawwal leading the outfit, performing lead vocals and harmonium.
A Fanna-Fi-Allah show is equal parts rambunctious and monastic, with wild drumming and handclaps laying the groundwork for evocative poetry depicting the wonders of creation. Often the crowd becomes part of the spectacle as well, dancing and clapping along with the band.
"It's a highly developed music," Qawwal said. "There's a lot of creativity and spirituality and wild abandonment."
Although the history of qawwali stretches back more than half a millennium, Qawwal still finds new ways to experiment in his music. Part of this stems from traditional songwriting progression and part comes from the inherent nature of the qawwali genre.
"It's full of improvisation and spontaneous expression," Qawwal said. "A lot of it you can't sing the same. It's more of a framework you play and sing within."
Fanna-Fi-Allah has released multiple albums throughout their career, on their own Tabaruq Records, but studio sessions cannot quite match the elegant bedlam of their live shows. Fortunately, there are also multiple live albums in their catalogue as well.
"It's a learning experience," Qawwal said. "I think we're especially appreciated for keeping classical arrangements."
In roughly two decades as a band, Qawwal estimates Fanna-Fi-Allah has played 2,000 shows across the world. They've performed across the U.S., Europe, Australia and have been welcomed by the countries of their inspiration: India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
According to Qawwal's website, "Fanna-Fi-Allah was certainly the first 'mostly' white-skinned qawwali ensemble to sing at such highly regarded Sufi centers. Also, Aminah Chishty was the first female qawwali tabla player ever given permission to perform at such places where qawwali is traditionally only performed by males."
When Alia Youssef was in Grade 10, for one of her first real art projects, she depicted a Muslim woman looking at herself in the mirror happily and another image showing a black and white image showing a silent Muslim woman with paint over her mouth. The first was titled The way I see me, the other titled The way you see me.
“Even when I was in my young teens, I felt like some sort of need to use my art to share a different reality,” she told VICE.
It wasn’t until years later that the Canadian portrait photographer would start The Sisters Project: her way of trying to change the way Muslim women are viewed.
Youssef traveled to 12 cities across the country and photographed 85 Muslim women to see them in their communities, their homes, or at their jobs, with the intention of showing the world how they see themselves.
We caught up with Youssef during her first exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre for The Sisters Project and to talk about her experience of immersing herself in the community.
VICE: How was the opening on Wednesday?
Alia Youssef: It was pretty good! We saw 400 people come through. I had a lot of positive responses from people I didn’t know who somehow found out about the project. I felt very supported and a lot of love.
When did you first start to think about the idea for this project?
It started a year and a half ago in the fourth year of my undergrad, I was taking a class called women in Islam. Being a Muslim woman, surrounded by a lot of Muslim women we were talking a lot about present day representation. One day one of the women said ‘I’m so tired of being painted with the same brush stroke, as every other Muslim woman’ and I think it was something that I’d been thinking about as well. Also, since I’m a portrait photographer I think it just kind of set a light bulb off.
How did it all lead to this?
So I did it as a thesis project for school and then while I was still in school it got popular. Somehow the parliament of Canada found out. So when I graduated I had already established that people were passionate about the project and I continued working on it. I realized I was showing a lot of women from Vancouver and Toronto, but my statement said that it was a project about Canadian muslim women, so I felt like it was time to get some other perspectives, other experiences from muslim women that weren't just in some of the “biggest cities” in Canada.
What is the false stereotype you’re hoping to addresses?
I feel like growing up mostly post 9/11, there were two images of how Muslim women specifically were depicted in the media. The first one was, well really is an invisibility of Muslim women. There weren’t ever really stories of how successful or exciting—really any positive stories coming out about Muslim women. So that left the only other depiction that you really ever saw, which was ones of trauma, ones of grief, from those from abroad, depicting war affected areas or were talking about clothing, the only real stories you see about muslim women are where she's’ the victim, she’s silent, she’s not in control, or we’re talking about her clothes. Not in Teen Vogue, not in television, not in movies. I think all of that really played a part in how I felt about myself growing up, how I felt about being Muslim myself because it definitely affected me in a bad way because I thought people would only assume the negative stereotypes on me.
A group of 70 young professionals from 17 countries split evenly between Muslims and Jews recently came together in Essaouira, Morocco for an inaugural conference on Muslim-Jewish relations.
The conference was organized by the Muslim Jewish Interfaith Coalition, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the Mimouna Association under the patronage of André Azoulay, senior advisor to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.
Rachel Delia Benaim, founder and director for the Muslim Jewish Interfaith Coalition, which has active staff members in New York, Miami, Washington, D.C., London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Milan, Tangier, Rabat, Tunis, Cape Town and Jerusalem, has South Florida ties. Benaim, 25, grew up in Boca Raton, where her parents currently live. She is Jewish and is an award-winning journalist and interfaith activist. Her family heritage lays in Gibraltar and Morocco.
For Benaim, one of her personal highlights from the forum in Morocco was an interfaith Friday night Shabbat prayer service in the synagogue where her great grandfather, her grandmother and their family prayed.
“To be there in an interfaith setting while re-sanctifying that space and that time was incredibly moving for me personally.”
Benaim felt the conference was a greater success than she could’ve imagined. Participants joined in discussions and seminars that were aimed to provide them with a more nuanced understanding of the theological, cultural and deeply personal underpinnings of Judaism and Islam. The goal was to have them go back to their communities with a deeper understanding of the complexity of the issues that often separate Muslims and Jews, as well as with a deeper appreciation for the values and experiences that bring us together.
“I'm grateful that people showed up, that they engaged, that they shared with each other and that they walked away with a deeper understand of one another, with personal relations and with goals for larger coalition building in their community,” Benaim said.
The Sahel region stretches like a wide belt across Africa’s northern midriff. It is a 3,860-km semi-arid belt of barren, sandy and rock-strewn land that marks a transition from the Sahara desert to the continent’s more fertile tropics. Culturally, too, it remains the bridge between the very different North Africa, with its mix of Arabic, Islamic and nomadic cultures, and the indigenous cultures of the south. Geographically, the Sahel (literally, the shore or edge) spreads from coast to coast—from Senegal on the Atlantic coast, through parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan to Eritrea on the Red Sea coast. Hot and sparse, it has been home to mainly nomadic tribes, and has a population of around 150 million. By 2050, the population could zoom to over 300 million (population growth has been above 3% since 1960). So would poverty, lack of education and unemployment.
Serge Michailof calls the region a powder keg. Caught amidst violent criminal and political movements across borders, including those connected to Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda, the region has been facing many complex and multi-dimensional conflicts, which makes them difficult to defeat. While the most important of these are the frequent droughts and drought-induced famines, migration and poverty, the other key problems are political instability, anti-state rebellions, trafficking and ethno-religious tensions or terrorism, which are fostered by the absence of the state, missing or inept local authorities, and loss of hope among young people. Michailof strongly feels the region’s time is up; if international development agencies don’t sit up and take notice, Sahel is on its way to become the next Afghanistan, or Africanistan—closer to Europe’s shores, far larger and definitely more dangerous.
In his book, Michailof focuses on the French-speaking heart of Sahel—the four landlocked countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Chad, and the northern hinterlands of Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon. “While Mali and Sahel,” writes Michailof, “may well have the potential to destabilize most of West Africa in about a decade, a misgoverned Democratic Republic of Congo as big as western Europe, with a population of about 80 million, and may be 150 million in 20 years, can destabilize all Central Africa.” Niger, which Michailof visited after 48 years in 2015, has seen its national income plummet by a third. Northern Sahel has become inaccessible to outsiders. Mali’s collapse, despite the long UN peacekeeping efforts, points to the inescapable fact that neither large aid nor outside intervention can be any substitute for real democracy and effective public institutions on the ground in Africa.
The book is meant as a wake-up call—a deep analysis into the root causes of a serious problem that cannot be allowed to fester for long so that the world is not faced with a re-enactment of Afghanistan and Syria. Michailof has extensive research and work experience in fragile and conflict-affected countries, and his work as a development specialist has been acclaimed in academic circles, especially in France and francophone Africa. Notwithstanding major differences in history, geography and culture, Michailof draws a neat and scary parallel in this book between Afghanistan since 2002, and the insecurity and progressive collapse of state control over much of the Sahel region, clearly the weakest part of Africa, since 2010.
There are striking similarities between Sahel and Afghanistan. Both regions have a demographic jump ahead, stagnating agriculture, large unemployment, acute ethnic and religious faultlines, lack of law and order, regional instability, drug trafficking and the spread of radical Islam. The role of the international community in both regions needs serious reassessment.
Michailof has blamed the disaster in Afghanistan on mistakes made by the western coalition, and disorganisation of international donor support between 2002 and 2010. When donors try to run or reconstruct fragile countries and “failed” states from thousands of miles away from the latter’s stark realities, mostly unvisited and definitely unexperienced, do they really know what they are doing? Should they even try to change countries they don’t understand? The growing US military presence in Niger has already rung the alarm bell, and even novices are now beginning to find worrying commonalities between the Taliban in Afghanistan and the spread of jihadists in Sahel. In both cases, the lack of domestic security and unemployment provide a ripe environment for the fostering of religious or other terrorism. Sahel is a dangerous example of the extremely worrying links between development from above going awry and the growth of extreme insecurity, leading to international terrorism.
A temple dedicated to Lord Shiva in Mirzapur village of Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh district is not an impressive one and does not follow any unique style of architecture.
What sets it apart is the fact that it was constructed by a Muslim — standing as an epitome of communal harmony in the state where the clamour for the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya at the disputed site where the Babri Masjid once stood is growing.
A Hindu mob demolished the 16th century Babri Masjid on December 2, 1992, demanding the construction of a temple for Lord Ram, who Hindus believe was born at the site in Ayodhya. The demolition of the mosque sparked some of the deadliest riots in India in which thousands were killed.
The temple in Muslim-dominated Mirzapur, around 12 kilometres from the district headquarters, also stands out because its main priest is also a Muslim.
Constructed in July 2013, it is perhaps the only temple in the state where right from its construction to its upkeep is entirely managed by Muslims.
Babu Khan, the husband of village pradhan Shama Parvin, constructed the temple near the CDF police post with the help of other community members. OP Rana, the then in charge of the police post, also played a vital role in building the temple.
Babu Khan’s role is not limited to its construction as he looks after the cleaning and upkeep of the temple and also spends almost 10 hours on the premises every day.
“The temple was constructed to keep alive the Hindu-Muslim unity and communal harmony,” Babu Khan insists.
“In our village, both Hindus and Muslims live like brothers. Since we keep helping each other, we thought that constructing a temple for our Hindu brothers would bind us further. Villagers like Aas Mohammad, Abdul Salam and Sher Mohammad have contributed much in its construction,” Babu, who despite being a devout Muslim offers water to the Shivling, adds.
“My family, including my wife Shama Parvin, five sons and three daughters, daily help in cleaning the temple and maintaining it,” he says.
Abrar Khan, the main priest of the temple, besides performing his duties at the temple also offers his namaaz daily.
“Like the famous Hindi poet Raskhan had faith and belief in Lord Krishna, I have faith in Lord Shiva,” Abrar says.
The coming episode of the CBC-documentary “14 and Muslim” will feature the journey of young Muslims to success, highlighting the challenges facing their transition to adulthood, CBC reported.
The new episode, which will be broadcasted on September 21, will feature eight young Muslims who have found meaningful ways to give back to their community and act as powerful spokespeople for Muslim youth.
Here follow some of the Muslim figures included in the new CBC POV episode.
Jae Deen and Karter Zaher (Deen Squad)
Deen Squad’s Ghanaian Canadian Jae Deen and Lebanese Canadian Karter Zaher are making a “halal” hip-hop. They hope their music will inspire Muslim youth to be proud of their religion and show another side of Islam.
“It’s Islamic hip-hop. Because mainstream hip-hop is associated with violence, drugs, sex, nudity … the fact that we take these songs and we’re giving it a Muslim vibe, like an Islamic twist, people are a little shocked about it,” Kater Zaher told the Middle East Eye.
“We want our brothers and sisters to coexist together. We want the Christians and the Jews and the Muslims to understand each other because the media portrays otherwise, and people think otherwise about our religion,” he added.
Danish Mahmood, a 15-year-old high school student from London, Ontario, is making big waves on the science fair circuit.
His invention, a wearable finger sensor that measures a patient’s vital signs, took home top prize at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in October 2017.
It could be an efficient way for responders, paramedics, and hospitals to monitor blood pressure, heart rate and temperature in waiting rooms where they’re not closely watched.
“I love looking at problems the world has and trying to find solutions to those as that’s what basically every scientist tries to do,” he told CBC News.
He’s already secured an entrance scholarship to Western University, where he plans to go into medicine
Seher Shafiq is passionate about politics and part of the team at The Canadian-Muslim Vote, an organization that educates the community about why it’s important to be involved in Canada’s political system.
She played a role in the Get-Out-The-Vote efforts during the last federal and Ontario provincial campaigns.
Reem Ahmed, who graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto as a biomedical engineer, moved to Canada from Egypt a decade ago.
But she only recently found her true passion: cooking. Ahmed was never passionate about engineering, and after her son was born in 2016, she suffered from postpartum depression and turned to cooking as a way out.
A long-time fan of MasterChef Canada, Ahmed was chosen as the first hijabi contestant in 2018. “It was amazing, but at the same time, there’s a lot of pressure. You’re representing Muslims, women who wear hijabs and that’s a huge responsibility,” she told Ryerson’s The Eyeopener.
Ahmed says that misconceptions surrounding Muslim women weren’t going to stop her from pursuing her dreams, “in order to clear these misconceptions, we have to fully integrate into our society and dispel those terrible misconceptions about Muslims in general, Muslim women specifically.”
Australian Muslim woman explains why she supports a burqa ban in government buildings - and is against the head covering being worn at all
An Australian Muslim woman has explained why she supports the idea of banning the burqa in government buildings.
Mina Zaki said security concerns outweighed the 'liberal ideal' of women being 'to wear whatever the hell they like'.
'At the same time, there's a time and a place for everything and government buildings, there are safety risks,' she told Sydney 2GB presenter Ben Fordham on Friday.
'Burqas essentially I'm personally against because I feel that in a Western society, the purpose of a burqa in a non-western society or in a Muslim country like Saudi Arabia, for example, is to detract unwanted attention,' she said.
'In a place like Australia, it does the exact opposite.
'If you see somebody wearing a full covering, you're going to look at them twice.'
The Canberra-based writer and mother-of-three said there was an inaccurate perception in the community of the Liberal Party being anti-Muslim.
'I'm not the only Muslim member of the Liberal Party. There are quite a few,' she said.
'Generally, when you tell people that you're a member of the Liberal Party, firstly their face changes and then you actually see them walking away, just slowly stepping back.
'Because the Liberal Party is seen, unfortunately, as intolerant towards Muslims and it's not the case at all.'
Ms Zaki, who this year featured on the SBS program Muslims Like Us, said she would like to run for public office with the Liberal Party.
'I will. Not anytime soon but, yes, soon enough,' she said.