Ani Zonneveld – Challenging the mainstream narrative on Islam

By Aqilah Allaudeen
Medill Reports

Earlier this year, a Muslim woman donning a Shalwar Kameez, a traditional Indian outfit, walked down the aisle to marry a Christian man wearing a suit.

The celebration welcomed some 200 people from both the bride’s and groom’s families. It ended with the bride and groom saying “I do,” followed by the signing of their Nikkah certificate, an official Islamic marriage certificate. It was an interfaith wedding.

Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men under most interpretations of Islamic law, but Ani Zonneveld, the imam who officiated the wedding, said that such marriages are becoming increasingly common and that she believes they should continue to take place. In fact, from her understanding of the Quran, interfaith weddings are not prohibited.

“It doesn’t say anywhere in the Quran that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man,” she said. “Yet, in practice, we as Muslim women were taught and told that we can only marry Muslim men. It’s just hogwash, a total lie.”

Zonneveld, 55, is a Malaysian-American imam in Los Angeles, Calif. And yes, she is a woman.

The recognition of women as imams in the Muslim community remains a controversial issue, despite the fact that the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, does not say that only men can lead in prayer.

“It clearly states in the Quran that even Prophet Muhammad allowed women to lead in prayer,” said Zonneveld. “That’s why I identify as an imam with a small ‘i’… because I don’t care for the hierarchy. I do it for my community.”

Zonneveld is the founder and president of a progressive Muslim nonprofit organization – called Muslims for Progressive Values, or MPV. The organization advocates for women’s rights, LGBTQ inclusion, and freedom of religion. Since Zonneveld founded MPV’s first chapter in Los Angeles in 2007, it has expanded to 13 countries and 17 cities. Zonneveld decided to start a community of her own after she explored the Quran in both its cultural and historical context and realized the values she took away from it were not aligned with what was being taught in her local mosque.

“I decided there was no way I could go back to the mosque that I was a part of because it was just so patriarchal,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a part of that because if I did, I would just be perpetuating the same. That’s when I decided that I wanted to form my own community.”

While Zonneveld was raised by conservative parents in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, she never planned on making a career out of being an Islamic activist. In fact, she declared that she was a “closeted Muslim” for a large portion of her life.

She moved to the U.S. in 1981 to study economics and politics at Northern Illinois University. She planned to take after her diplomat father by moving back to Malaysia to join the foreign service as an ambassador after graduating from college.

However, upon graduation, she decided to move out of the Midwest to explore the music industry in Los Angeles, where she worked her way up as a songwriter and producer.

Zonneveld produced a number of pop songs for various Malaysian artists. And a collaboration with Keb’ Mo, an American blues musician and four-time Grammy Award winner, won a Grammy Award in 2001. She won another Grammy Award in 2004 for her contribution to Keb’ Mo’s Keep It Simple album.

Just as Zonneveld was making her mark in the music industry, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks led to an important tipping point in both her personal and professional life. The attacks made Zonneveld reflect on her faith and what it meant to her personally.

“When 9/11 happened, I concluded that I needed to decide if I was still going to be a Muslim or not,” she said. “I needed to decipher what my identity was independently.”

After reading the Quran to understand Islam better, Zonneveld concluded that it was a “liberating book” and that she wanted help people understand what the religion was really about.

“All of a sudden you have 9/11 and that is the only impression that people had of Muslims,” she said. “So of course they had a very prejudicial impression of what Islam or being a Muslim is.”

By this point in her career, Zonneveld was “basically writing songs in (her) sleep,” for a living. So her decision to write an Islamic pop CD that reflected egalitarian values, the role of women in Islam and the spiritual aspect of it came almost naturally.

However, trying to get stores to sell her CD posed a challenge to Zonneveld. After producing her CD, she reached out to just about every retailer in the U.S. – including both Islamic music stores and mainstream music stores online and offline – but none of the stores were willing to sell it. The stores more focused on Islamic music were unwilling to sell the CD because they disagreed with the progressive values associated with the songs and singer.

Zonneveld said that the stores refusing to sell her CD was a trigger point for her. It was another indicator that the Islam being practiced by many was not the same progressive faith that she understood from the Quran.

“I was really blown away. I thought to hell with this and so I started my own community that isn’t stuck in the seventh century,” she said. “Actually it’s not even the seventh century, it’s just a made-up Islam.”

Yasmin Kadir, Zonneveld’s executive assistant, said that it is Zonneveld’s tenacity and passion to create something new and meaningful for the Muslim community that makes her a successful activist.

“Her activism comes from a place of truly good human nature rather than an ‘I’m doing something good so something good comes back to me’ kind of attitude,” Kadir said.

Maliha Khan, the head of MPV in Washington D.C., said it is clear that Zonneveld is very invested in helping the Muslim community.

“Ani doesn’t work for accolades or fame, but rather, she is willing to work on very long- term projects that will return great investment in terms of their impact on human rights around the world,” Khan said.

While Zonneveld admits that her progressive values and take on Islam have led to a strained relationship with her family, she said that she will only stop her activism when “mosques adopt egalitarian values and offer prayer services that accommodate families, trans people and women imams.”

Zonneveld said that she doesn’t see herself as testing the limits of Islam, rather she is fighting for equality that she emphasizes is called for in the Quran.

“I am not pushing the Islamic boundaries,” she said. “I am pushing out the patriarchal boundaries that have been infused in Islam. So when that is fixed, we are done.”

Photo at top: Ani Zonneveld is the founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values, a progressive Muslim nonprofit organization.(Photo: Ani Zonneveld)