Lately I’ve been reading about the life of Prophet Muhammad, and his extraordinary charisma has captured my imagination. Day after day, people he had only just met pledged their loyalty to him and his faith. Some were his enemies, and had even plotted to kill him. Yet after just a few moments in his powerful presence they were transformed, and abandoned their entire lives in exchange for his guidance. This was no small feat: to be Muslim in Mecca at that time was to be mocked, harassed, abducted, tortured and even murdered. Try to imagine a presence so incomparably healing that becoming a Muslim was worth all that risk. Only the tenderest of hearts could have had that effect.
In the name of God, the Qur’an begins. Everlasting mercy, Infinite compassion. In their response to the Orlando tragedy, I wish our faith leaders would also have led with mercy. Instead, they claimed Islam was a victim and insisted on a singular interpretation of the Quran. They warned against holding a simple-minded view of humanity – entirely good people vs. entirely evil ones. Yet they demonstrated a similar line of thinking when some suggested Omar Mateen was not a “real” Muslim because he allegedly drank alcohol and visited gay bars. His brutal murder of 49 innocent people is all the evidence we need that he was not a person of faith. As for his other personal choices: what can we possibly know of anyone’s standing with God, including our own?
The Joint Muslim Statement on the Carnage in Orlando – a document signed by more than 200 Muslim scholars, imams, and community leaders the day after the tragedy — states that most American Muslims abide by a strict Abrahamic morality. But our religious community, like any other, is infinitely complex. Perhaps because they are surrounded by people on their best behavior, they forget that there are as many expressions of Islam as there are Muslims.
This community includes my Libyan-American husband Ismail who, as a graduate student, was struck with a major illness. He was alone and far from family, with a colostomy and open wounds that made it painful for him to sit down. What saved him from depression while he was on medical leave from school was a friend’s offer to employ him part-time at a bar. It was a strange fit for a Muslim – and also, in some ways, just what he needed. The gig allowed him to work while standing and to engage with people when he was struggling with pain and loneliness. He would rely on people he met at that bar to clean and dress his wounds, and decades later we still run into people whose faces light up at the sight of him, who feel compelled to tell me what a bright presence he was at that bar so long ago. They recall his kindness or recount something wise he said that they have never forgotten. Ismail speaks about this time of his life with wonder and gratitude, as evidence that wherever we turn – even when we think we are turning away from Him – we encounter God’s mercy.
Our community also includes a friend who left her Islamic marriage to a so-called devout Muslim who often made a weekend pilgrimage to Mecca – and who berated or beat their son for missing prayers at the mosque. Because he gave her nothing in the divorce, she is raising their son on her own, living on the edge financially and still bravely challenging Islamophobia through her writing and her activism. In which direction do the scales tip when we weigh her occasional glass of wine against her ex-husband’s actions? Our Prophet was the only perfect Muslim. Drinking alcohol is one of countless ways the rest of us might fail to follow his teaching. Is your Islam too rigid to include those of us who live messy, complicated lives – or is it merciful enough to include us all?
The Quran tells us it is God’s job to defend Islam; our duty as Muslims is to defend the marginalized and oppressed. Before our leaders claim Islam is a victim of the tragedy in Orlando, they should honor the crime’s actual victims. Let’s shower the LGBTQ community with the heartfelt expressions we reserve for the ones we cherish. I would like to hear our eloquent leaders pray for the victims and their families, and express compassion and respect to this community that is still denied basic freedom and security – just like the Prophet and his companions once were. I want to hear a strong statement of solidarity on the basis of a shared belief in human dignity and resistance to oppression. In a time when the darkest distortions of Islam are regularly on display, we need our Muslim leaders to shine brighter than ever before. More than we need to hear our leaders’ insistence on Islamic law, we need to see their tender hearts.
Our Muslim leaders have dismissed the LGBTQ community for so long that they do not know how to speak to them. Let’s allow this uncertainty to increase our humility. The day after the Orlando tragedy, I moderated a community forum on Islam in my hometown. Some people wore hijabs; others wore gay-pride flags. There were high-school students, elderly people and all ages in between. After a moment of silence and a prayer for the victims, our panelists described what Islam meant to them, answered challenging questions about homophobia, and explained the social contract all Muslims are required to uphold.
Muslims and gay people are among the most vulnerable groups in America, one panelist said. We need to support one another. Speaking in the muted voice of someone who was fasting on a sweltering Ramadan afternoon, a young African-American man said: Why do we continue to speak as if the Muslim and gay communities are separate – as if queer Muslims do not exist?
It’s time for our faith leaders to address this young man and others like him as well as their families, friends, and allies – and to remember that when they do, they are speaking to their own brothers and sisters. Each of us contains multitudes. We go by many other names besides Muslim. Let’s have the courage to name homophobia, to deeply reflect on where personal beliefs end and prejudice begins, and to focus on our own piety.
Let’s follow the example of Muhammad Ali. At his eulogy, no one recalled his claims about Islamic law. They only remembered his kindness. His funeral showed the world what true religion looks like: equalizing, all-embracing, bound by the unifying power of love. As Ambassador Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, said: Ali showed us that to love God requires us to love all of his children – not just some of them.