It’s a Friday afternoon in April, and I’m standing among eight other people in the lobby of an office building in downtown Toronto, waiting for an elevator. Finally, a chime, and we all make our way in. The doors close, and we start to climb. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the car who is moments away from entering a space LGBTQ Muslims around the world can only dream of.
El-Farouk Khaki, one of the co-founders of Unity Mosque, happens to be passing by as soon as the elevator stops and I step out. “You must be Davide,” he says. “You look exactly like your photos.” I realize Khaki has Googled me; strict safety concerns require a vetting of anyone who asks for the mosque’s location. We step into the boardroom where Unity Mosque holds its prayers, and Khaki is immediately swarmed by people jockeying for his attention. He’s been on vacation for three weeks with his husband and co-founder, Troy Jackson, and it’s clear he’s been missed. Khaki recognizes he can’t speak with me today, and after glancing in my direction to let me know he hasn’t forgotten, he invites me to his home for dinner.
It’s no surprise Khaki is adored by congregants at Unity Mosque. The space likely would not exist without him. Unity Mosque, part of an umbrella group known as the El-Tawhid Juma Circle, with Unity Mosques around North America, including Ottawa and Montreal, is Khaki’s attempt to show Islam’s beauty. Started by Khaki, Jackson and Laury Silvers, the egalitarian space seeks to provide a welcoming place of worship and community to all, particularly queer people, trans people and women. For many, this is the difference between abandoning Islam and finding spiritual fulfilment, and the first chance to be queer and Muslim in one space without giving anything up. Still, the mosque’s ability to reach queer Muslims outside the progressive hubs of major cities is unclear, and in the aftermath of the massacre perpetrated by a Muslim man at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the stakes of this outreach seem higher than ever. The difference between success and failure rests on reaching a demographic in need versus remaining physically and intellectually relegated to a minority within a minority.
I show up to Khaki’s house a few days after our first meeting, where he is sending emails relating to his work as a refugee and immigration lawyer. He tells me he believes the emphasis on beards and the hijab is a product of Bedouin culture, not a requirement of Islam. We have a back-and-forth, and eventually, smiling, he comes to a compromise: “If women want to keep beards, and men want to wear head scarves, it’s fine by me too.” This gender-bending line has deep implications for Khaki’s egalitarian view of Islam, and the principles that inform how and why Unity Mosque functions. Unity Mosque’s existence is Khaki’s most important accomplishment, but making it possible was an emotionally draining process that at times also put him in physical danger.
Khaki was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, but his family fled from political persecution when he was seven. After living in England, Khaki eventually came to Canada in 1974, at the age of 10, and settled in Vancouver. For him, coming out was a process of self-discovery beginning at 13. He regularly prayed at mosques at the time, but as the years went by, he felt he couldn’t fully express his identity. Vancouver didn’t have a large Muslim population, and he had no luck meeting other queer Muslims. This changed in 1989 when Khaki came to Toronto, and he began working as a political staffer for the Ontario New Democratic Party at Queen’s Park two years later. In Toronto, he met others who were both queer and Muslim. Khaki says, “Intellectually I knew I was not the only one, but my social reality before that was that I was the only one.”
It was reassuring for Khaki to know he wasn’t alone, yet meeting others with a similar religious and sexual orientation made evident the lack of a space that spoke directly to queer Muslims’ needs. “Putting those two words together has always been a challenge,” Khaki says, as people are, “Muslim in one place, and queer in another place. But rarely, if ever, combined.” So, in 1991, he decided to create that space. The initial outcome was a monthly group, Salaam Social/Support Group for Lesbians and Gay Muslims. In his spare time, Khaki printed fliers advertising the group. He also put out ads in Xtra!, then a gay and lesbian weekly paper, and the left-leaning news and entertainment tabloid Now, and quickly had a contact list of over 100 names. Members found the meetings to be useful, with some coming from as far as New York state. Salaam began to have internal issues, however, mostly revolving around privacy concerns. Many members weren’t out to their families yet, and some told Khaki, “If you phone me and my mom picks up the phone, don’t tell her your name. Don’t tell her why you’re calling. If she asks you if you’re gay, say you’re not.”
The group also began receiving disturbing threats. Khaki and another woman, whose identity he keeps private, were approached by an editor at The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s main student newspaper, and asked to write about being gay and Muslim. They did, but after the article was published the newspaper received a letter from Islamic Jihad, a militant group, calling for the writers’ deaths. “I was very traumatized by the threat,” Khaki says. The police hate crimes unit was called, but Khaki says they told him they could do little, telling him they’d have an easier time protecting him if he had a higher profile.
In 2002, Khaki publicly presented himself as a gay Muslim for the first time. Trembling Before G-d, a film about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, had come out the year before, and the publicist co-ordinating the film tour asked Khaki to sit on a post-screening panel as a queer Muslim. There Khaki met Rev. Cheri DiNovo, a United Church minister who is currently the NDP Member of Provincial Parliament for Parkdale-High Park. She asked him to speak at an interfaith vigil at her church on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. She also invited him to what became a formative event for Khaki: an LGBT-friendly Passover celebration held by two queer women, where Jews, Christians and Muslims came together to celebrate. “This is so incredibly subversive!” Khaki thought, and he decided to share a Muslim tradition in a similar way. The result was the annual Peace Iftar, where people of all faiths and gender identities are invited to join Muslims in breaking their fast on a night in Ramadan. The first Peace Iftar was held in October 2003 in the basement of Emmanuel-Howard Park United, DiNovo’s former pastoral charge in Toronto, and saw 140 people come together. Khaki also began to hold Jummah (Friday) prayer, a weekly congregational service Muslim men must attend, at his office.
The Noor Cultural Centre, a progressive Muslim space in Toronto, was also established that same year. Samira Kanji, its president, says her father created the centre out of a desire to see women treated in the same way as men in the mosque. Kanji notes that many of the people who now attend Unity Mosque also attend Noor Centre, and always feel welcome, something Khaki corroborates. Khaki has a deep respect for the centre, and continues to attend its Eid prayers. Still, he found the space wasn’t exactly equal because men and women are still segregated during prayer, women aren’t allowed to lead prayers and Kanji won’t perform same-sex marriages. Khaki wanted more.
In March 2009, Laury Silvers, a sessional instructor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, approached Khaki, eager to start a Jummahprayer space that would strive to be entirely equal. Khaki was excited to give this idea another shot, believing social media would eliminate past logistical and privacy issues. After a month of planning, including creating a Facebook group that now has over 1,000 members, Khaki held the first El-Tawhid Juma circle and Unity Mosque assembly at his office. Khaki, Jackson and Silvers sat waiting for people to show up on a hot afternoon in May, hoping this would be the start of a long-lasting institution.
Around 1 p.m. on Fridays, congregants at Unity Mosque file into the boardroom, take yoga mats out of a closet, form a large square and lay thin sheets on top of the mats. These act as replacements for the plush carpets found in a typical mosque. Participants make their way to the ground, sitting in a circle on the mats; a few congregants sit on chairs for more comfort. In the centre of the circle are a couple of pots of tea and several mugs. Once everyone is gathered, including some who join in online, Khaki invites someone from the circle to read the rules of etiquette established for the space. Sometimes that person is Renée Mercuri — a middle-aged bisexual convert to Islam with short dark hair who attends almost every Friday.
It feels more like the itinerary you’d find in an activist space than in a mosque. The khutbah (sermon) includes an Indigenous land claim; the rules incorporate a proclamation that any sort of dress will be allowed in the space, with a citation from the Qur’an calling congregants to lower their gaze if they feel someone is dressed immodestly, as opposed to confronting them; and an explicit reminder that women don’t need to cover their hair in the space. Mercuri says these rules help make Unity Mosque “a space that honours you for who you are, and where you are on your journey instead of saying where you are is problematic and doesn’t fit in with our rules.” At Unity Mosque, everyone can participate in the religious discussions following the khutbahs, which are more seminar than lecture.
Finally, a congregant’s voice recites a call to prayer, as men, women and trans people all find spots next to each other to pray — a stark difference from the gender segregation at the overwhelming majority of mosques. At Unity Mosque, the mixed congregation bows and prostrates in unison. The Jummah prayer wraps up, and the people move back into a circle to offer duas (communal supplications). Some want prayers for the Black Lives Matter movement, some the ongoing Attawapiskat suicide crisis and some for family members stuck in Syria.
Unity Mosque attracts a wide range of congregants who represent Toronto’s diverse population. There are several refugees on any given week, a diverse demographic of black people, more white converts than you’d find at a typical mosque, more women than men, more queer than straight. Congregants range in age from six to 70. Their histories are as diverse as they are: each has a unique story of how they made it to Unity Mosque.
It took Samra Habib nearly a decade to find her way there. Habib was born into a “super religious family.” She recalls being made to wear a hijab as a child, and by the age of 10, when they moved from Pakistan to Toronto, her parents had already selected someone for her to marry. At 16, Habib had her nikkah, which refers to the ceremony whereby the bride and groom become legally married, though the actual wedding usually occurs at a later date. After quickly realizing she didn’t love her spouse, Habib broke the marriage off, and, in the process, alienated herself from her mosque. By 18, she had run away from her family, living with friends for a couple of years, and then marrying her high school sweetheart. The marriage started off well, but it didn’t take long for Habib to realize she was a queer woman.
I sit across from her as she tells me her story, at a bar in Toronto’s west end with a rainbow flag outside its entrance. She pauses, sipping her gin and tonic, before continuing. Habib says she was unsure of what to do with her feelings. Eventually, she started to come out to people, but didn’t find what she was looking for in Toronto’s queer community. “It just felt like I wasn’t very welcome. They didn’t seem like my people,” Habib says, noting that most were white, and couldn’t relate to growing up Muslim. She eventually stumbled upon Unity Mosque after hearing about Khaki through activist friends. Her first time attending, in early 2013, was overwhelming. “I was crying throughout the whole thing. It was really emotional because I hadn’t prayed in almost a decade. I was emotional because there was a trans woman saying the adhan,” Habib says, referring to the call to prayer usually conducted by a man. “It felt like it was my homecoming.” Habib began attending Unity Mosque regularly. It inspired her to launch Just Me and Allah, a photography project featuring portraits and stories of queer Muslims around the world. It has since been exhibited in Toronto, Belgium, Germany and New York City. Unity Mosque is a rarity internationally, according to Habib, who says most of the people she’s spoken to for her project are more isolated, lacking any physical queer Muslim community. “When I tell people while I’m travelling that there’s a queer Muslim space, it blows their mind.”
Yara El Safi is one of many Unity Mosque members who have found an Islam they didn’t think was possible. El Safi came to Canada in 2001 from Lebanon and was a practising Muslim at the time. “My father was extreme in his interpretation of Islam,” El Safi says, and as a result, she eventually became alienated from the faith around 2007, feeling as though it put severe restrictions on women. El Safi came out as a queer woman in 2010, and at the time it seemed like she was crossing a point of no return, leaving Islam for good.
Something changed, however, toward the end of El Safi’s bachelor of fine arts degree at Western University in London, Ont. Her final project focused on how the introduction of Islam hundreds of years ago influenced art. She began studying Islam on her own terms, which initiated a period of self-discovery that eventually led her to start sometimes wearing the hijab, seeing it as a form of resistance against rampant Islamophobia and a way to reclaim something that once seemed oppressive. El Safi came to Toronto in April 2016 and, shortly after, was invited to Unity Mosque’s Peace Iftar by a friend. It was a transformative experience, and she was especially impressed by Khaki. “He can be the thing that I didn’t think could even be conceived in the same body.” El Safi has gone to every Jummah prayer at Unity Mosque since then. She has even given the call to prayer, and is planning to lead prayer eventually, and give akhutbah. One of the most crucial takeaways for her is finding people well versed in Islam who can offer a different interpretation than the one she grew up with. “Meeting El-Farouk, who has read the Qur’an, and other people who have read the Qur’an and understand the verses in different ways, has propelled my knowledge,” El Safi says.
Khaki has a tendency to ensure traditional mosque norms are subverted, as he feels they can be harmful. “A lot of people are traumatized by religion, but women and queer people especially,” Khaki says. He believes unity comes through embracing differences rather than stamping them out, but he also wants to bypass debates, such as whether to wear the hijab or not, in order to pursue the deeper messages in Islam. He tells me this is something he has sought his whole life. This idea of digging deep is what informed Khaki’s decision to set up Unity Mosque. “When Allah in the Qur’an says, ‘I’m closer to you than your own jugular vein,’ he’s not saying if you’re Muslim, or if you’re male, or if you’re heterosexual, or if you’re this skin colour as opposed to that skin colour,” Khaki says. “God has that relationship with every human being.”
Unity Mosque isn’t the only organization serving and advocating for queer Muslims. Similar movements have emerged over the last two decades. Al-Fatiha Foundation was an organization that began in 1997 out of an Internet group set up for queer or questioning Muslims. The organization was one of the earliest dedicated to providing a space for queer Muslims, and quickly grew to 14 chapters throughout the United States, as well as in South Africa, England and Canada. Al-Fatiha also helped create an international community by hosting annual retreats and conferences for members around the world to discuss Islam through a queer lens. Al-Fatiha dissolved in 2011 after its New York City-based founder, Faisal Alam, stepped down in 2004, but the momentum has continued with splinter groups under new names continuing in other countries.
The theology motivating these movements is similar to Khaki’s: derived from a mix of Sufi practices; personal readings of the Qur’an and Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad’s recorded sayings and actions; and supported by some scholars. These academics provide alternate readings of the Qur’an and Hadith, which they claim more accurately represent the spirit of the faith. For example, scholar Scott Kugle, who wrote the 2010 book Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims, claims the Qur’an does not prohibit homosexuality. The story of Lot found in the Qur’an and in the Bible’s Old Testament — wherein the prophet goes to Sodom and Gomorrah to preach against lust — is interpreted by many Muslims (and many Christians) as outlawing homosexuality. Yet Kugle claims the only prohibition that can be taken from this story refers to lustful non-consensual sexual activity, not homosexuality.
The version of Islam practised at Unity Mosque appears to be at odds with the versions practised in the overwhelming majority of Muslim communities. Syed Soharwardy, founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, finds Unity Mosque far too unorthodox. “Nobody agrees with the way they pray,” he says. “The basic fundamental laws of Islam are described in the Holy Qur’an, and by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.” Yet Khaki says he’s not interested in publicly arguing theology or religious practice. “There are definitely conversations Muslims need to have, and injustices that need to be addressed, but public shaming and creating this good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy in the broader Canadian society is not actually going to resolve those issues.”
Under former prime minister Stephen Harper, many Muslims felt as though they were under siege from the government and fellow Canadians, due in part to measures like Bill C-51 to extend anti-terror laws, the temporary niqab ban during citizenship oaths and the crackdown on “Barbaric Cultural Practices.” Harper did little to dispel these concerns. In fact, he raised a few of them himself, claiming the niqab comes from a “culture that is anti-women,” suggesting mosques are breeding grounds for terrorism and failing to condemn several Islamophobic hate crimes that took place in the aftermath of the October 2014 shooting on Parliament Hill. As such, many Muslims felt abandoned, and strove for unity among themselves in order to get the support they need. Calls challenging racism, sexism and homophobia within the Muslim community, then, can be portrayed as threats to this goal of unity.
Khaki says it’s difficult, but necessary, to navigate this balance between pushing for inclusivity and not selling anyone out. Still, Unity Mosque is not looked at fondly by many more traditional Canadian Muslims. Soharwardy sees it as creating internal division. “They do not fit in with the broader Muslim community. They are an isolated bunch of people who just want to get media attention,” he says. He also believes there isn’t even a need for Unity Mosque. “Any homosexual Muslim can come to our mosque and pray without being harassed or discriminated against,” Soharwardy says. “They are all God’s creation, and they can come and pray.”
A study of Muslims in Canada, released in April 2016 by the Environics Institute, paints a different picture. The results note that 43 percent of Muslims surveyed don’t think homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to just 14 percent of all Canadians. Moreover, 57 percent of Muslims surveyed said it’s impossible to be an observant Muslim while living openly in a queer relationship. This highlights one of Unity Mosque’s shortcomings: a lack of engagement with broader Muslim communities to attempt to shift attitudes that prevail not only in Canada, but in very many Muslims communities around the world. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, gay sex can be punished by death, while fines, prison time and public floggings are punishments handed out in some other Muslim-majority states.
Cheri DiNovo has a long-standing relationship with Unity Mosque and believes it is “nothing short of revolutionary.” Still, she wishes that Unity Mosque members would take their message to a broader audience. She recalls an incident at a Grade 10 civics class where she spoke to Christian and Muslim students about the proposed sex-ed curriculum in Ontario. She says the first words out of the kids’ mouths were, “We don’t want anything that tells us that homosexuality is okay.” Because she is well acquainted with the Bible and its context, DiNovo was able to reason with most of the Christian kids; she felt she had less luck with the Muslim students. “It really struck me that there was such a huge need for someone to go into schools and speak at assemblies where there are high numbers of Muslim kids,” DiNovo says, “so that they can see that there’s a different way of being Muslim than the way they were raised.”
Five days after the Orlando nightclub massacre, members of Unity Mosque and allies of Toronto’s Muslim LGBT community gather together at the mosque to pray for the victims. The June massacre is especially heartbreaking for Unity Mosque — the majority of the victims were LGBT, and the shooter was a Muslim proclaiming allegiance to ISIS. Emotions are running high. An Afghan woman, fighting tears, says she’s worried her whole community will be targeted because of the killer’s ethnic background. Khaki describes making his way through the gay village recently, when he passed a man wearing a shirt that read: “It’s not Islamophobia if they’re really trying to kill us.”
As the prayers proceed, and the woman leading them recites a passage from the Qur’an in Spanish to acknowledge that most who were killed were Latino, I think back to a day in April when I sat with Khaki at a coffee bar. He told me of his plans for Unity Mosque’s future. The mosque has expanded to cities across North America, yet Khaki wants more. “I’m constantly hearing, ‘What a relief it is to find this place,’” he says, and compares Unity Mosque to a well in a dry and inhospitable landscape — “you can dip into it and take a sip or a gulp.”
The tide of congregants at Unity Mosque ebbs and flows, and on this grim Friday the necessity of the space is more apparent than ever. It’s exactly for this reason that Khaki, who in one way or another has been working on Unity Mosque his whole life, is patient. “It took us a millennia to get to the mess we’re in; it’s not going to be undone in a year or in a decade.”
This story first appeared in the September 2016 issue of The Observer with the title “Rainbow Muslims.”