The Muslim world should embrace homosexual and female imams

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, it is important that gay rights be accepted and gays seen as individuals with rights

Having been a teacher since 1994 I can sufficiently speak about the transformation that has occurred in the teacher-student dynamic from authoritarian and the coercion of corporate punishment to one of rapport and bonding with the students. These days we do not call ourselves as teachers but facilitators, the principal is known as the head teacher and never fails to take the opportunity to do what every teacher first started to do - teach in a classroom.

Contrary to what many opinionators think of me as an insignificant teacher, I have been able to make a difference in the lives of many - for the sheer fact that we are surrogate mothers and fathers in a way.

In a subcontinent which believes the teacher/guru is divine and heaven lies at the feet of the guru (male or female), it is actually an ancient tradition that teachers are the progressive movers and shakers of civilisation. So is the same with Imams, priests or rabbis or 'pujaris' of various monotheistic or polytheistic religions. I am excluding 'godmen' and 'pirs' from this because of the statistical evidence of their con jobs and exploitation of people's fears.

Imams are more than prayer leading figures, they become marriage counsellors, confidants, friends, and activists over their lifetimes much like the priests and rabbis in other Abrahamic religions. Though the meaning of an imam is most commonly in the context of a worship leader of a mosque and Muslim community by Sunni Muslims, yet the growing number of believers has expanded their role much more than that especially in the wake of radical Islam and its spread through mosques and seminaries (madrassas).

An imam is selected at the community level. Members of the community choose someone who is considered knowledgeable and wise. The imam should know and understand the Quran, and be able to recite it correctly and beautifully. The imam is a respected member of the community. In some communities, an imam may be specifically recruited and hired, and may have undergone some special training. In other (smaller) cities, imams are often chosen from among the existing members of the Muslim community. There is no universal governing body to supervise imams; this is done at the community level.

The primary responsibility of an imam is to lead Islamic worship services. In fact, the word imam itself means to stand in front of in Arabic, referring to the placement of the imam in front of the worshippers during prayer. The imam recites the verses and words of prayer, either aloud or silently depending on the prayer, and the people follow his movements. During the service, he stands to face away from the worshipers, toward the direction of Makkah.

For each of the five daily prayers, the imam is present at the mosque to lead the prayers. On Friday, the imam also usually delivers the khutba (sermon). The imam may also lead the taraweeh (nightly prayers during Ramadan), either alone or with a partner to share the duty. The imam also leads all other special prayers, such as for funerals, prayers for rain, prayers during an eclipse, and more. In addition to being a prayer leader, the imam may also serve as a member of the larger leadership team in a Muslim community. As a respected member of the community, the imam's counseling may be sought in personal or religious matters. One may ask him for spiritual advice, help with a family issue, or in other times of need. The imam may be involved in visiting the sick, engaging in inter-faith service programs, officiating marriages, and organizing educational gatherings in the mosque.

In modern times, the imam is increasingly in a position to educate and reform youth away from radical or extremist viewpoints. Imams reach out to youth, inspire them in peaceful pursuits, and teach them the correct understanding of Islam - in the hopes that they will not fall prey to misguided teachings and resort to violence. In the home, a member of a family will serve as the imam if they pray together. This honor is usually given to an older family member but sometimes is given to younger children to encourage them in their spiritual growth. Among Shia Muslims, the concept of an imam takes on a more central clerical position. They believe that their specific imams were chosen by God to be perfect examples for the faithful. They must be followed since they were appointed by God and are free from sin. This belief is rejected by the majority of Muslims (Sunni).

There are openly gay imams today. In the United States, there is Daiyee Abdullah, Muhsin Hendricks in South Africa, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed in France, El-Farouk Khaki in Canada, Rahal Eks in Germany, Nur Warsame, in Australia. We now have women imams too - Raheel Raza, a rights activist, and Toronto - based author, became the first Muslim-born woman to lead a mixed-gender British congregation through Friday prayers at a small prayer session in Oxford in 2010.

Scandinavia’s first female-led mosque has opened in Copenhagen in a bid to challenge “patriarchal structures” and create debate and dialogue. Sherin Khankan, the founder, born in Denmark to a Syrian father and a Finnish mother, said that while all activities at the Mariam mosque except Friday prayers would be open to both men and women, all imams would be female. In China, Wangjia Alley mosque is said to be the oldest surviving women's mosque in Kaifeng, built in 1820. The BBC News Service in its February 2016 article documented the tradition.

As to how the tradition of women's mosques started, we have to go back to the founding of the Ming Dynasty in the late 1300s, when the Muslim community - previously favoured guests - suddenly became an anxious and oppressed minority. Responding to the shock of the alien Mongol occupation, the early Ming rulers waged a chauvinistic war against non-Han peoples. Minorities now aroused hostility and suspicion and were subject to a brutal policy of assimilation - the Muslims were told they must marry Han people and not among themselves.

So the 15th Century was almost catastrophic for Chinese Islam. But in the late 16th Century things improved and among the Muslims a new cultural movement began, a revival of Islamic culture and education. A century later Chinese Muslim philosophers were able to write erudite books showing how you could be a loyal Muslim and also loyal to the Chinese state. And at this point, at the grassroots, men realised how important women could be in preserving and transmitting the faith. So women's mosques grew out of a double movement in the Chinese Muslim world – the need to preserve the community and the desire for women's education.

Guo Jingfang and her friends in Kaifeng think that the schools came first, and then became full mosques in the 18th Century. Education still has a big role today, from basic teaching to copying texts.

‘When our mothers were girls it was the only place where poor Muslim women could receive an education: the women did it together, women supporting women, said one of the women chatting in the mosque's courtyard. "In some places in the Muslim world it is not allowed, but here we think it a good thing. Women have had a better status here since 1949 and this is part of it.’

One of the women mentioned the progressive ideas of the Islamic Association of Kaifeng, which gets men and women to work together on new education projects. "China is changing and these are good things for the future," she said. Later, in the main women's mosque, everyone joined in the prayers, and the men in our crew were invited too, visitors from afar.

So coming back to the acceptance of homosexual and female imams. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, it is important that gay rights be accepted and gays seen as individuals with rights. Like Faisal Saed Al Mutar, activist and founder of Global Secular Humanist Movement says, "If religions don't modernize to accept LGBT & women's rights, then religions need to die, not people.

It is time for religion to modernize. As Irshad Manji, author, speaker, founder of Moral Courage TV on YouTube and practitioner of ijtihad, in her 2011 book Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom, says: “Some things are more important than fear!”

Arshia Malik is a Srinagar-based writer and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflict in Kashmir. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. She is currently writing a book about her life as a female in Kashmiri Muslim society

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