Letter from a reader to Sulayman X,
expressing her sorrow at his decision to leave Islam
It grieved me to hear that you no longer consider yourself Muslim. It is not my intention to ask you to reconsider your decision; I believe that your religion is between you and god, just as I believe it is entirely your decision to believe in god in the first place. But dear Sulayman, let me speak of why I feel such an immense amount of grief, even though I don't know you. You have received so many hateful letters in the past, from Muslims who have told you that you are not a Muslim and that the Muslim community does not need people like you in it. So I want to send you this letter, to say that it is people like you who the Muslim community needs, and that while it is not my place to ask you to be a Muslim, it is my place to say that your choosing not to be one is a loss to me, and to other Muslims who struggle every day with their queer identities. A part of me feels that those people who wrote you letters filled with hate have won, because their goal has been accomplished and yet another Muslim, who gave to the religion his honest inquiry and spirit, has chosen to renounce Islam altogether.
We need more people like you, in any religion, because the world is too full of extremists, be they extremists who call themselves secular and persecute religious people in the name of democracy, or be they extremists who belong to a religion and consequently feel entitled to play god. What moved me about your writings, particularly your confesssions was the sincerity in them, and what I read as a brave and heroic attempt to stay true to your religion even when people from within it said you had no right to claim Islam.
I am a practicing Muslim woman, and I fell in love with another woman a few years ago (she used to love your writings and made me read your confessions one day). When I met her, I doubted religion, and felt I had to give it up for the same reasons that you did. I was furious that Islam could allow the rape of female slaves, that it could allow polygamy, that it condoned a husband's hitting his wife, and that it prescribed corporal punishment for anyone who was guilty of a homosexual relationship or even a heterosexual relationship other than marriage. I struggle with this still. My girlfriend and I eventually separated, and it was religion that drove us apart; she was practicing and by her standards I wasn't, and she didn't feel she could be with me in the first place because religion forbade it. The loss of the woman I loved felt unbearable to me. My family did as much as they could, but I felt completely alone because their grief weighed heavily on me. I lost a lot of friends, and I had no intention of turning to a religion that caused all this pain in the first place.
I wish I could say that something miraculous happened. That I woke up one morning and the entire Quran made sense to me and my prayers brought me solace and comfort and I began to believe again. That I saw something rare and magical that struck belief into my heart. But it was none of those things. I began to pray, once a week sometimes, and at other times every day. Sometimes I felt that there was a higher power there who would take care of me, and other times I felt nothing. I went to mosques and was angry at how little space in mosques is given to women, and I felt the same thing when I went to Makkah. But belief did begin to happen, in moments. Some evenings in Makkah, I felt an indescribable peace, and a sense that time would pass and I would be whole again. Other evenings it all came undone and I doubted god all over again, especially when I saw how Arab men hit women whose heads weren't "properly" covered. I think I trained myself to ignore people and to just focus on god and what I felt about him. I started seeing Muslims as separate from Islam, and as seeing my relationship with god as consisting of only him and me. So religion came to me slowly, and the process is far from complete, if there is any such thing.
But as for the rules in the Quran. Yes, Sulayman, I too have studied Arabic and I have no real explanation for you. I think that the Quran is a historical document, and that it in part applies to a society that existed over a thousand years ago. Did women think of their bodies the same way then as they do now? Were there so many wars that there were far more women than men, and did that compel women to choose to be with men who had other wives? From what I've read, Islamic scholars no longer say slavery is permissable, and slavery in the Islamic context wasn't the same as slavery in plantations in America. In some cases, slaves could become kings. Of course, female slaves could only exercise power through their sons -- having a child meant you were freed -- so while the politics of gender and power behind that are troubling, it does suggest that the issue is more complicated than we realize. (And even today, women in many societies find that their main source of power is through their sons -- this is just the nature of patriarchy). Is beating wives allowed? Well, the prophet never did it. Should homosexuals be stoned to death? Well, the prophet never did that either. The Muslim fundamentalists who believe in a return to the ways of the Prophet never bother to take his basic humanity into consideration when they scream and yell about stoning and beating. Now obviously the tradition of Islamic empire that followed the prophet codified many laws and carried out punishments, but those, as far as I can see, had to do with particular rulers, and with mixtures of custom and religion that may or may not have been completely in accordance with the Quran.
Ultimately, I think the Quran is a complicated text, and that even a lifetime isn't enough to understand it fully. And I try not to get into debates with people about it because all I end up learning during those debates is how petty people can be. (And I know that already!) But I do miss your presence in the Muslim community, and I just wanted to tell you that, and to share some of my story with you, in the spirit of generosity and truth with which you shared yours with people like me.
May you be at peace,