By Aqilah Allaudeen
To some imams, a mosque that promotes LGBTQ-affirming beliefs is almost unfathomable. Homosexuality is shunned by many conservative Muslim communities in the United States and abroad.
Kifah Mustapha, the imam and director of The Prayer Center at Orland Park, supports the conservative view. A mosque that accepts homosexuality and actively promotes acceptance of it, is not following the Islamic faith, Mustapha said.
“Homosexuality is a major sin in Islam,” he said. “To walk around and to tell everybody your sins and to ask them to accept these sins is not okay. We will not accept someone coming in and saying that this sinful act (homosexuality) has to be a part of the mosque, it doesn’t work like that.”
But a rising trend is welcoming LGBTQ members in Muslim communities.
Mahdia Lynn, a 30-year-old bisexual transgender Muslim activist, saw the need for a safe physical space for LGBTQ Muslims to practice their faith in Chicago. She founded Masjid al-Rabia, a women-centered and LGBTQ-affirming mosque in 2016. It is the first mosque in Chicago to openly welcome LGBTQ Muslims and part of a growing movement of progressive Muslim activists who are trying to open Islam to the LGBTQ community.
The mosque’s mission is to provide a space for anyone to practice Islam without fear of persecution or discrimination in any form.
“Islam is too important to leave anyone behind,” Lynn said. “We aim to foster an Islam that is inclusive of everyone.”
Lynn acknowledges that some people may disagree with her views, but to her, a person’s sexuality should not be the reason that they are barred from practicing a faith in which they believe. She added that while the mosque often gets a “bump in animosity” from the general public through letters and emails whenever she makes a media appearance, on an individual level, many are accepting of Masjid al-Rabia’s mission.
“There are a lot of people who don’t know what we do and what we are about, who will send hate or animosity toward us,” she said. “But on an individual level people are very willing and supportive because they agree with our mission of saying that Islam is too important to leave anyone behind. The problem is that people who are against us are a lot louder.”
Lynn sees no conflict between God and her mosque. She came out as transgender after graduating from a high school in Detroit, and had to deal with the hostile environment that followed. Drugs and alcohol became a coping mechanism for her, till she found Islam six years ago. She said that reading the Quran felt like she was reading something that she had always known.
“I tried to get better for a long time, but nothing worked,” she said. “It was just hanging out at rock bottom for years with a pick axe cutting in deeper. Islam is what ended up being the thing that gave me my life back.”
Her relationship with her family had been tenuous for years before she found Islam, but Lynn said it only motivated her to do better and to succeed in life.
“I made it such that even people who would disagree with my choices could see that I am a better person for those choices,” she added.
It was after she found Islam that Lynn vowed to create a space that wasn’t just a transgender space or a women’s space, but a space that was both LGBTQ affirming and women-centered. This meant moving away from identity-based organizing and towards issue-based organizing.
“To continue to organize only based on identity meant that we were leaving a lot of people behind,” she said. “But if we focused on the issues like not being a women’s mosque but being a women-centered mosque and to be LGBT(Q) affirming instead of being an LGBT(Q) space is recognizing that we need a broad coalition to work together in the future, not just specific types of people gathering.”
Malik Johnson, a community member and the prison outreach coordinator at Masjid al-Rabia, said that Lynn is an inspiration to the LGBTQ Muslim community.
“She is a beautiful woman with a clear goal for herself and Muslim women in the community,” he said. “She is very patient and understanding of people and their differences.”
Masjid al-Rabia is also breaking tradition by having community-led discussions instead of the conventional structure of an imam, usually male, leading the Khutbah, the sermon of a service. The congregation typically ranges from seven to 20 people on any given week.
Lynn grudgingly accepts the title of being an imam, because she doesn’t particularly like the top-down structure in place at most mosques, and doesn’t lead the Khutbah at Masjid al-Rabia. Instead, she welcomes the congregation into one of the rooms in the mosque, and asks everyone to sit in a circle. The members present then talk about a topic and learn from one another.
“We aim to disrupt the top down model of spiritual authority, and instead, entrust leadership from within,” Lynn said. “Rather than having a service where one person sits in front and says this is this and that is that, this is right and that is wrong… we have a community led Khutbah.”
Lynn emphasized that traditional avenues of leadership in a mosque have never been accessible to LGBTQ Muslims, and that Masjid al-Rabia aims to change that.
“We were never invited to lead prayer. We were never told that our opinions mattered. We never felt like we were important,” she said. “So everything that we do here (Masjid al-Rabia) is steeped in that mission to empower leadership in every one of our community members.”
In Chicago, Masjid al-Rabia has started to normalize the presence of marginalized Muslims in and across the city, and it hopes to create a model for other communities and cities to follow. Ani Zonneveld, the founder of Muslims for Progressive Values – a progressive Muslim nonprofit organization that advocates for women’s rights and LGBTQ inclusion in the U.S. and internationally – also holds similar goals, while Queer Ummah, an online platform, aims to foster an inclusive LGBTQ Muslim community online.
“Ultimately, our mission is to put ourselves out of business,” Lynn said. “We aim to foster an Islam that is inclusive for everyone. Not just a single mosque that is safe and inclusive, but to foster an entire community across the greater Muslim world.”