As a teenager growing up in a conservative Muslim family in Southern California, Naveed Merchant “glommed onto” books that featured any hint of same-sex attraction. He was able to see a greater openness toward LGBT relationships in noir novels and mystical poetry by Islamic theologians than he found around him.
“As long as I had my nose in a book, they were ok with it,” Merchant said of his parents. Literature became one of the only ways in which he could connect with discussions on sexuality.
Merchant avoided initiating a conversation about his own sexuality until the day before an article about his involvement in a university LGBT advocacy organization threatened to out him at 19.
“I took my mother out on a picnic and I started to stumble because I didn’t have anything scripted to tell her,” Merchant recounted. “And she said, ‘If you’re trying to tell me that you’re gay, I already know.’”
“‘I don’t understand why you’re making this choice,’” he remembers his father saying after he came out to him in a separate conversation later that day. Merchant feared being ousted from his family, but his father said unequivocally that that would never happen.
“Even though they accepted it, they didn’t want to talk about it,” Merchant said of his parents. “They didn’t want me to tell their friends.”
The silence made him feel like “a second class citizen” within his family. That sense of isolation contributed to a deep depression that was only further fueled by professional challenges later in life.
“I can’t sit here and continue to live a life that brings shame on my family,” Merchant remembered thinking at the age of 25 when he swallowed nearly 300 Tylenol pills in an effort to kill himself.
20 years and many difficult conversations later, most of Merchant’s family has come to accept his sexuality, though he says some of his relatives still struggle to fully embrace him as a gay man.
Many LGBT Muslim Americans have not gotten nearly the kind of support Merchant has worked so hard to enjoy, and instead remain closeted for fear of social stigma and familial pressure.
That seems to have been the case with Omar Mateen, a Muslim man, who killed 49 people when he opened fire on a gay nightclub in Orlando last month. The attack may have been motivated by inner turmoil, according to Mateen’s ex-wife who said that he had “gay tendencies.” In the wake of the devastating shooting—the nation’s most deadly—one Orlando man told reporters that he and Mateen became "friends with benefits" after they met on Grindr.
Merchant never felt that his faith was at odds with his sexuality, in part because of a long tradition of accounting for homosexual and homoerotic relationships by the 13th and 14th century Islamic mystical poets Rumi and Hafiz, whose work he was exposed to from an early age.
“Rumi was always lurking in the background,” Merchant said.
Though his father was particularly enthralled by the Persian poet, it took a Christian boyfriend for Merchant to become infatuated with works by Rumi and other Islamic mystical poets.
Merchant has returned again and again to one poem in particular by Hafiz that that his first boyfriend read aloud to him over a decade ago. That relationship has since ended, but Merchant’s connection to the poem—which he hopes will someday be read at his wedding—continues.
“It expresses so beautifully, so simply, so eternally what I feel about Islam and homosexuality,” Merchant said. “And not just Islam and homosexuality, but Islam and sexuality. Islam and love. Islam and partnership.”
A translation of the poem by Daniel Ladinsky, reads:
It happens all the time in heaven,
And some day
It will begin to happen
Again on earth —
That men and women who are married,
And men and men who are
And women and women
Who give each other
Often will get down on their knees
And while so tenderly
Holding their lover's hand,
With tears in their eyes,
Will sincerely speak, saying,
How can I be more loving to you;
How can I be more kind?
A week after the Orlando shooting, Merchant read that poem at a board meeting for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a civil rights organization, after talking about his own experiences as a gay Muslim.
For him, the attack was a call to redouble his mission “to convince gay people that Muslims are not the enemy and to convince Muslims that gay people are not the enemy.”
Merchant learned of the bloodshed at Pulse when he opened Facebook at at 3:00 AM in order to eat before fasting for the day as many Muslims do during the month of Ramadan.
His reaction included an overwhelming mix of “horror, fear, disbelief, incredible sadness, and incredible cognitive dissonance” for how a Muslim could wreak such havoc, especially during a time that Islamic teachings call most fully for the peaceful submission to God’s will that’s at the core of the faith.
For Merchant, that means submitting to his sexuality as a part of God’s plan for him. Despite fears that his sexual orientation might cause his loved ones to feel shame, Merchant said he has never felt that being gay was at odds with being a Muslim.
“I did not have an identity crises as the result of Orlando or ever,” he said. “I had a community crises.”
Nabeela Rasheed, a Chicago-based attorney, who calls herself “an old Muslim and a new lesbian” didn’t have nearly as hard a time coming out as Merchant did.
Rasheed said that Persian poets like Rumi as well as South Asian poets like Bulleh Shah, who famously learned how to dance from an erotic dancer, donned anklets and danced in order to win back the affection of his lover and teacher Inayat Shah.
Their writing, as well as the qawwali tradition of performing Islamic mystical poetry in South Asia, has made her feel “1000 percent” more at ease about her sexuality as a Muslim after she began her first relationship with a woman at the age of 47.
“I find [their work] supportive of my outlook on life and I find solace in it,” Rasheed said. “I do find myself looking both to the poetry and the music.”
To her, the open-hearted embrace of sexuality across the spectrum “threads right through” mystical poetry and music.
References to same-sex love are “very, very common” in the Islamic poetic tradition according to Hamza Zafer, a professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington.
That tradition, which is still widely revered in the Muslim world, is not just one of artistic expression but of religious devotion—one in which same-sex relationships are believed to have uniquely mirrored the love between God and humankind.
According to Zafer, Rumi and Hafiz are not just poets. They’re Islamic theologians.
“Poetry is the form through which theology in Islam is often written,” he said. For Islamic mystical poets, same-sex romance “tends to be a way of marking ishq haqiqi or ‘true love’ which is a very central concept within mysticism,” because it’s considered “less profane” than heterosexual love.
When they did write about love between a man and a woman, Islamic mystical poets often wrote from the vantage point of the woman. As with the poetic retelling of a folk Punjabi love story between a woman named Heer and a hermetic man named Ranja, mystical poets like the much-revered Bulleh Shah do so through the woman’s voice.
He isn’t just “taking on another gender,” Zafer said of Bulleh Shah’s writing as Heer. “It’s not just in the background. It’s very, very, very embodied, talking about wearing bangles or being dressed up. It’s very queer if you read it.”
Given the prevalence of such queer perspectives and homosexual references by poets like Bulleh Shah and Rumi who are often revered as saints, it’s hugely ironic that LGBTQ Muslims around the world struggle to live out their sexual and gender identities.
On some level, many Muslims accept that there was a deep love expressed from one man to another—few women wrote this sort of poetry—in Islamic mysticism. Many, including some in Rumi’s order, however, claim that the love between he and Shams Tabrizi was merely a “spiritual love.” Similar arguments have been made about other Islamic mystical poets, even though homosexual relationships and all male brothels were common across Central and South Asia.
The long history of same-sex love among Islamic mystics, is, according to Zafer, “definitely being effaced.” And surprisingly, he added, “It’s not being effaced by the orthodox, right-wing, mullahs.”
Zafer and other historians attribute much of the vitriolic homophobia in the Middle East and South Asia to the colonial encounter, which forced European notions of gender and sexuality onto people who accepted that such identities and relationships were far more fluid. The fact that more than half of all anti-sodomy laws can be traced back to British colonialism attests to an authoritative push to denounce homosexuality in formalized ways.
“The progressive, middle class, English-speaking, and urban communities” are often the least accepting of homosexuality in the Muslim world, Zafer said, “because they’ve adopted a totally different set of norms.”
The denial of a rich history of homosexual relationships has given rise to extreme homophobia within many Muslim communities. Even though it’s not uncommon to see men walking arm-in-arm in Amman or canoodling in Karachi, outright same-sex relationships are often rigidly policed.
The only openly gay imam in the United States says he refers Muslims struggling with reconciling their sexuality and their faith not just to the Quran—where he finds no outright prohibitions on homosexuality—but also to Islam’s poetic traditions.
“I, you, he, she, we,” Imam Daayiee Abdullah quoted from a poem by Rumi, “‘In the garden of mystic lovers, these are not true distinctions.’”
“That’s a very simple, easy-to-understand concept,” he said. “When it comes to love, it’s not based on binaries.”
That’s something he’s found more and more Muslims are starting to accept.
“Not only are they shifting, the edges are crumbling,” Abdullah said.
The attack in Orlando brought that shift to the forefront, according to Naveed Merchant, and elevated the voices of LGBT Muslims who have been silenced by their communities or silenced themselves for fear of ostracism.
“At this point,” he said, “The gay and lesbian Muslim community is just saying to [other] Muslims, ‘Please let’s just talk about this. The silence is killing us.’”
That conversation can begin with books, as it did for Merchant.
“If we’re talking about [homosexuality in Islam]...let’s not reinvent the wheel,” he said. “Let’s go back into our literature and see that this conversation has been had many, many, many times before. [It’s] something that people have talked about in Islam and as Muslims—as ardent Muslims—for a long time.”
Beenish Ahmed is a reporter and writer. She's the founder of THE ALIGNIST, a new media platform that connects literary works to current events.