Something changed, however, toward the end of El Safi’s bachelor of fine arts degree at Western University in London, Ont. Her final project focused on how the introduction of Islam hundreds of years ago influenced art. She began studying Islam on her own terms, which initiated a period of self-discovery that eventually led her to start sometimes wearing the hijab, seeing it as a form of resistance against rampant Islamophobia and a way to reclaim something that once seemed oppressive. El Safi came to Toronto in April 2016 and, shortly after, was invited to Unity Mosque’s Peace Iftar by a friend. It was a transformative experience, and she was especially impressed by Khaki. “He can be the thing that I didn’t think could even be conceived in the same body.” El Safi has gone to every Jummah prayer at Unity Mosque since then. She has even given the call to prayer, and is planning to lead prayer eventually, and give a khutbah. One of the most crucial takeaways for her is finding people well versed in Islam who can offer a different interpretation than the one she grew up with. “Meeting El-Farouk, who has read the Qur’an, and other people who have read the Qur’an and understand the verses in different ways, has propelled my knowledge,” El Safi says.
Khaki has a tendency to ensure traditional mosque norms are subverted, as he feels they can be harmful. “A lot of people are traumatized by religion, but women and queer people especially,” Khaki says. He believes unity comes through embracing differences rather than stamping them out, but he also wants to bypass debates, such as whether to wear the hijab or not, in order to pursue the deeper messages in Islam. He tells me this is something he has sought his whole life. This idea of digging deep is what informed Khaki’s decision to set up Unity Mosque. “When Allah in the Qur’an says, ‘I’m closer to you than your own jugular vein,’ he’s not saying if you’re Muslim, or if you’re male, or if you’re heterosexual, or if you’re this skin colour as opposed to that skin colour,” Khaki says. “God has that relationship with every human being.”
Unity Mosque isn’t the only organization serving and advocating for queer Muslims. Similar movements have emerged over the last two decades. Al-Fatiha Foundation was an organization that began in 1997 out of an Internet group set up for queer or questioning Muslims. The organization was one of the earliest dedicated to providing a space for queer Muslims, and quickly grew to 14 chapters throughout the United States, as well as in South Africa, England and Canada. Al-Fatiha also helped create an international community by hosting annual retreats and conferences for members around the world to discuss Islam through a queer lens. Al-Fatiha dissolved in 2011 after its New York City-based founder, Faisal Alam, stepped down in 2004, but the momentum has continued with splinter groups under new names continuing in other countries.
The theology motivating these movements is similar to Khaki’s: derived from a mix of Sufi practices; personal readings of the Qur’an and Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad’s recorded sayings and actions; and supported by some scholars. These academics provide alternate readings of the Qur’an and Hadith, which they claim more accurately represent the spirit of the faith. For example, scholar Scott Kugle, who wrote the 2010 book Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims, claims the Qur’an does not prohibit homosexuality. The story of Lot found in the Qur’an and in the Bible’s Old Testament — wherein the prophet goes to Sodom and Gomorrah to preach against lust — is interpreted by many Muslims (and many Christians) as outlawing homosexuality. Yet Kugle claims the only prohibition that can be taken from this story refers to lustful non-consensual sexual activity, not homosexuality.
The version of Islam practised at Unity Mosque appears to be at odds with the versions practised in the overwhelming majority of Muslim communities. Syed Soharwardy, founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, finds Unity Mosque far too unorthodox. “Nobody agrees with the way they pray,” he says. “The basic fundamental laws of Islam are described in the Holy Qur’an, and by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.” Yet Khaki says he’s not interested in publicly arguing theology or religious practice. “There are definitely conversations Muslims need to have, and injustices that need to be addressed, but public shaming and creating this good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy in the broader Canadian society is not actually going to resolve those issues.”
Under former prime minister Stephen Harper, many Muslims felt as though they were under siege from the government and fellow Canadians, due in part to measures like Bill C-51 to extend anti-terror laws, the temporary niqab ban during citizenship oaths and the crackdown on “Barbaric Cultural Practices.” Harper did little to dispel these concerns. In fact, he raised a few of them himself, claiming the niqab comes from a “culture that is anti-women,” suggesting mosques are breeding grounds for terrorism and failing to condemn several Islamophobic hate crimes that took place in the aftermath of the October 2014 shooting on Parliament Hill. As such, many Muslims felt abandoned, and strove for unity among themselves in order to get the support they need. Calls challenging racism, sexism and homophobia within the Muslim community, then, can be portrayed as threats to this goal of unity.
Khaki says it’s difficult, but necessary, to navigate this balance between pushing for inclusivity and not selling anyone out. Still, Unity Mosque is not looked at fondly by many more traditional Canadian Muslims. Soharwardy sees it as creating internal division. “They do not fit in with the broader Muslim community. They are an isolated bunch of people who just want to get media attention,” he says. He also believes there isn’t even a need for Unity Mosque. “Any homosexual Muslim can come to our mosque and pray without being harassed or discriminated against,” Soharwardy says. “They are all God’s creation, and they can come and pray.”
A study of Muslims in Canada, released in April 2016 by the Environics Institute, paints a different picture. The results note that 43 percent of Muslims surveyed don’t think homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to just 14 percent of all Canadians. Moreover, 57 percent of Muslims surveyed said it’s impossible to be an observant Muslim while living openly in a queer relationship. This highlights one of Unity Mosque’s shortcomings: a lack of engagement with broader Muslim communities to attempt to shift attitudes that prevail not only in Canada, but in very many Muslims communities around the world. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, gay sex can be punished by death, while fines, prison time and public floggings are punishments handed out in some other Muslim-majority states.
Cheri DiNovo has a long-standing relationship with Unity Mosque and believes it is “nothing short of revolutionary.” Still, she wishes that Unity Mosque members would take their message to a broader audience. She recalls an incident at a Grade 10 civics class where she spoke to Christian and Muslim students about the proposed sex-ed curriculum in Ontario. She says the first words out of the kids’ mouths were, “We don’t want anything that tells us that homosexuality is okay.” Because she is well acquainted with the Bible and its context, DiNovo was able to reason with most of the Christian kids; she felt she had less luck with the Muslim students. “It really struck me that there was such a huge need for someone to go into schools and speak at assemblies where there are high numbers of Muslim kids,” DiNovo says, “so that they can see that there’s a different way of being Muslim than the way they were raised.”
Five days after the Orlando nightclub massacre, members of Unity Mosque and allies of Toronto’s Muslim LGBT community gather together at the mosque to pray for the victims. The June massacre is especially heartbreaking for Unity Mosque — the majority of the victims were LGBT, and the shooter was a Muslim proclaiming allegiance to ISIS. Emotions are running high. An Afghan woman, fighting tears, says she’s worried her whole community will be targeted because of the killer’s ethnic background. Khaki describes making his way through the gay village recently, when he passed a man wearing a shirt that read: “It’s not Islamophobia if they’re really trying to kill us.”
As the prayers proceed, and the woman leading them recites a passage from the Qur’an in Spanish to acknowledge that most who were killed were Latino, I think back to a day in April when I sat with Khaki at a coffee bar. He told me of his plans for Unity Mosque’s future. The mosque has expanded to cities across North America, yet Khaki wants more. “I’m constantly hearing, ‘What a relief it is to find this place,’” he says, and compares Unity Mosque to a well in a dry and inhospitable landscape — “you can dip into it and take a sip or a gulp.”
The tide of congregants at Unity Mosque ebbs and flows, and on this grim Friday the necessity of the space is more apparent than ever. It’s exactly for this reason that Khaki, who in one way or another has been working on Unity Mosque his whole life, is patient. “It took us a millennia to get to the mess we’re in; it’s not going to be undone in a year or in a decade.”
Davide Mastracci is a freelance journalist in Toronto.
This story first appeared in the September 2016 issue of The Observer with the title "Rainbow Muslims."
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