Open Crescents, Shining Stars

How women centered, LGBTQIA+ affirming prayers came to Chicago

Mahdia Lynn
Nov 30, 2016 · 11 min read

This December, an organization will open its doors to a new generation of women-led Islamic prayers. Masjid al-Rabia is a women centered, LGBTQIA+ affirming and sect diverse community hosting weekly Jummah services in Chicago. This is a conversation between two of the community’s board members and prolific organizers in their own right: Zaynab Shahar and Madison Mahdia Lynn.

MAHDIA LYNN:
Alright, let’s dive right in with the introductions:

My name is Madison Mahdia Lynn. I am a Muslim woman of trans experience, and professional chef, and a community organizer. I act as coordinator for the Transgender Muslim Support network, and I am a board member for the soon-to-open Masjid al-Rabia in Chicago.

Zaynab, can you talk a bit about who you are and what you do?

ZAYNAB SHAHAR:
I am an aspiring theologian and scholar of feminist comparative religion. I’m working on my doctorate in religious studies at Chicago theological seminary, with a focus on Judaism and Islam. In my spare time I co-run Third Coast Queer Muslims of Chicago and am also a board member for Masjid al-Rabia.

MAHDIA:
That’s bananas, we’re both on the same board and happen to be interviewing one another.

ZAYNAB:
What are the odds! LOL!

So, how did you come to create the Transgender Muslim Support Network?

Madison Mahdia Lynn, portrait by Sainatee Suarez

MAHDIA:
The Transgender Muslim Support Network pretty much began one night at the 2014 LGBTQ Muslim Retreat. Of the hundred-ish people there, there were maybe five trans people. Overall it was an amazing experience — my first Retreat — but there was still a lot of unchecked cis nonsense and various microaggressions the entire weekend. On the last night of the conference, three of us had a “Trans Caucus” in a library on campus. The gift that came out of it was it really united the trans people who were there, and two things happened. 1) we recognized a serious need for support and advocacy for trans & gender diverse Muslims, and 2) there was a lot of power and brilliance in this room, and we had everything we needed to create something new that could better serve our community.

We started small, online, making connections and sharing resources. We’ve been growing since. It’s worth noting that at the most recent LGBTQ Muslim Retreat, we had a Trans Caucus with nearly thirty people attending.

What about your work, Zaynab? Can you talk a bit about Third Coast Queer Muslims?

ZAYNAB:
Third Coast Queer Muslims is a group for LGBTQ Muslims of Chicago and the upper Midwest. When my co-founder and I started this group, we wanted to create a social group where members can create the kind of community they feel meets the needs of Chicago’s LGBTQ Muslims. We didn’t want to assume folks want a purely religious or secular social experience, so we work on trying to create a space where people have the freedom to bring folks together as they need and support each other.

TCQM was founded about 2 years ago in October. My co-founder and I put out a bird call all across the internet and hoped for the best. The first meeting, we had about 4 people. Now we have 60. I think, admittedly, with the political climate people are less active because so many of us have begun organizing other things. I also think now we’ve grown to a point where because we have people from all across the city and the suburbs we have to be more intentional and strategic about meeting so people don’t feel left out. It’s easy to call up four people and say “hey want to get some halal food”. But when you have more peoples schedules and feelings to consider things become more difficult. But it’s still happening

MAHDIA:
Are there other difficulties with leading an organization that’s grown so much so quickly?

ZAYNAB:
I think another issue we’re currently trying to figure out is the issue of non-Muslim engagement. When I took TCQM public post-Orlando our Facebook page got a lot of requests with people asking how they can help or volunteer. In my head I’m like, “well it’s really not that kind of party….” We’re not at the stage where we’re a formal organization in the sense of having 501c3 status, an office (other than my home office) and grant money rolling into town. So it bears the question: “what next?” Because I’m not a believer that queer Muslim organizing stops at providing people safe spaces to be queer and Muslim. I come from the black religious tradition where faith groups are supposed to provide for people’s most basic, common needs when it arises. If people are struggling with food, housing, health care, whatever; your faith community was the thing to back you up because structural anti-blackness often means you don’t have access to certain things. So i often ask myself: What are queer Muslims trying to access above and beyond safe and inclusive space? I try to look to what queer Muslim organizing needs to be in terms of survival as opposed to just leisure.

And really, when i figure that out, i can start to grow TCQM in a way that reflects that praxis and that notion of community.

MAHDIA:
I think maybe there are limitations to identity-based organizing that we’re starting to come across here in Chicago. Like, there’s a role Third Coast Queer Muslims plays in creating safer spaces, but what about trans people who don’t identify as queer? How do we serve cis/hetero Muslims who are invested in creating safer spaces for LGBTQIA+ Muslims?

ZAYNAB:
Or not even how do we serve cis/hetero Muslims, but how do we engage them in the process of building those spaces. How does those opportunities come about? I mean because I believe in cultural sanctuaries are necessary, but if people want to build with us who don’t fit into those identity categories what are they supposed to do? Go sulking back to the spaces where dominant ideologies remain unchanged? There has to be a way to engage one while preserving the other

This is where a project like Masjid al-Rabia comes in to the picture. I think it was really born out of this struggle: How do we create something that’s accessible to marginalized people, without limiting ourselves by identity politics? How to we engage with the broader community while preserving safer spaces for marginalized Muslims? Mahdia, can you talk a bit about how Masjid al-Rabia came to be?

MAHDIA:
There was a community dinner and prayers started by a gay Muslim on the north side. It was started specifically for LGBTQ Muslims, but ended up hosting straight people and non Muslims — parents and partners of LGBTQ Muslims — a part of the fabric of that community. It’s been an important part of our community, but it was so limited. It’s deep in the northwest, probably 90 minutes from the south side via transit. Most importantly, being in a private home meant we could never really be public about it. You can’t just give out your personal address to strangers. We started to feel a need for something that was public, and accessible to more of our community.

There is a growing tradition across the globe for spaces like this. The el Tawhid Juma Circle in Toronto has been our most direct predecessor and we have also been drawing a lot of inspiration from organizations like IMAAN in the United Kingdom, the Women’s Mosque of America in Los Angeles, and projects like the transgender-centered Qur’an school in Yogyakarta or the most recent trans-friendly mosque opening in Islamabad.

There has been a need for inclusive, accessible space for Muslims here in the Midwest for a long time. Why not Chicago?

ZAYNAB:
I think there are a lot of factors that have complicated the question of “why not Chicago?” Namely the issue of who gets to speak for Muslims in any official sense of the term and the possibility of bumping up against those leaders. When I started TCQM, we deliberately kept it on a need to know basis because we didn’t want to be harassed by larger umbrella organizations that weren’t taking on the issue of LGBTQ Muslims. At the same time we didn’t know how they would react either or if they would try to shut us down. But a lot has changed in two years.

LGBTQIA+ and hetero Muslims alike are really tired of the hegemonic nature of major Muslim organizations that claim to speak for everyone but literally speak for no one (or a select few). People are organizing and doing their own thing because they don’t care about being ostracized anymore from the communities and spaces they never felt safe in to begin with. A paradigm shift is taking place, which I think is what has finally allowed Masjid al-Rabia to come about without people trying to shut it down before the doors even open. But It’s been slow grinding. I remember reading about a gay Muslim group in the early 2000s that soon after disbanded and left little trace of themselves on the internet. So this struggle to have affirming communities and spaces in Chicago has been long fought.

MAHDIA:
And you think we’re breaking through to the other side of that struggle?

ZAYNAB:
I think we’re taking it a step farther than it has gone before. I can’t say what breaking through looks like because I know that’s looks different for different people. I know there are queer Muslims who believe once we’ve assimilated into mainstream mosques then we’ll have broken through. I also think there’s something to be said for the totality of liberation’s horizon not being assimilation into mainstream mosques, but really disrupting what is mainstream and what is written off as “fringe” or third space. If the Qur’an really says anywhere you lay you head to make sujood is a mosque, then people should not be able to delineate between what is a mainstream mosque and what doesn’t cut the mustard by oppressive standards. In my personal horizon, that delineation doesn’t exist at all.

MAHDIA:
So what does an ideal, achievable mosque look like? What should we, as people of faith working towards justice, be striving to create?

ZAYNAB:
I think the achievable mosque is one that empowers people to really become khalifahs, stewards of their faith and the world around them. I believe that can’t happen without safe spaces to explore ideas, engage with people and engage the lifelong process of learning that the Qur’an charges us to uphold. There needs to be a space for the person who doesn’t know Arabic but wants to learn how to pray, for the asylee seeking refuge, for the activist seeking to engage contemplative practice and community worship when the struggle of the streets is too much, for disabled folks in the vast spectrum of accessibility needs without being made to feel like a burden or being told their disability is just another form of jihad.

I tend to think of the achievable mosque as engendering a community that can live into the concept of Tawwakul. In Rumi’s Spiritual Verses he uses storytelling to define Tawwakul as knowing when to strive with all that God has given you, and knowing when engaged surrender is necessary, and when it’s time to be guided, whether by God or the community around you. All of that is achievable to me

Zaynab and Mahdia at the 2015 Chicago Dyke March

ZAYNAB:
This seems like a good point to talk about actually creating the space. Mahdia, what were some important considerations in creating the Masjid al-Rabia?

MAHDIA:
I think our biggest concern in finding a home and creating the space was accessibility, and that required expanding on what accessibility really looks like in an organizing context.

Like, when people consider “accessibility” it usually just translates to physical barriers — stairs without ramps or lifts, appropriately equipped washrooms, et cetera. We really wanted to interrogate what other barriers there might be to access. We considered other physical needs — the space itself may be accessible, but what about nearby public transit? Many CTA stations aren’t. Looking at economic accessibility, we had to makes sure the space was easily reached via public transit. Geographically, Chicago is so spread out and segregated we had to consider how to keep our community centrally located and available to people coming from different areas in the city.

Once we secured a space, other questions about what “accessibility” looks like come up. It really just boils down to: what can we do to better make this space safe, affirming and available to anyone who needs it?

What else do you think there is to consider in this kind of “radical accessibility”?

ZAYNAB:
I also think an important aspect of our notion of radical accessibility is making the tradition itself accessible to people. Our intention to start a library is important. To me it stands in the tradition from two fronts. On the one hand the Qur’an implores us to seek knowledge even unto China, which can mean both a physical journey and the expansion of the mind. But the other side of that coin is making the tradition accessible from a financial/class accessibility standpoint. People will hand out free Qur’ans all day long but very few places make the rest of the tradition truly accessible. Typically third spaces utilize a top-down model where a religious leader or scholar will lecture about a text, and that has it’s time and place but those spaces are not wholly accessible to LGBTQ Muslims or really anyone who wants to have dynamic conversations about the tradition with their peers instead of being lectured at. I think by having a library that includes the work of feminist scholars, of people on the edges of liberation theology, we’re taking a lot of it down from the academy and putting it where it really needs to be, on the ground.

A selection of the Masjid al-Rabia Library, thanks to donations from community members and Islamic Feminist scholars.

ZAYNAB:
So once the doors are open and this community begins to grow, what comes next in terms of programming? How you envision the space will be utilized?

MAHDIA:
I’m imagining a spiritual ground floor for marginalized Muslims.

As women, as LGBTQIA+ people, as Muslims who practice outside Sunni-normative traditions? We’re so often pushed to the side that our faith can only be defined by our struggle to make space and assert, “we exist”. The question is — what happens when that struggle no longer has to be the definitive nature of our relationship to Islam?

I think a lot of it comes down to the first question we’ll be asking at every Jummah — “Who would like to lead prayer?” I like looking at the khutbah as potential for conversation, rather than pontification. If we can remove faith practice from this hegemonic top-down model, if we place the power of leadership and pedagogy upon the community itself? What can we create together?

Honestly, I don’t think we’ll really have the answer to that question until we’ve been at it for a while. I can say what I’d like to see this opportunity transform into: a safer space for growth and healing from spiritual trauma; a community made up of dynamic and complex human beings who don’t have to hide any part of themselves to practice wholly within Islam; an opportunity to uplift leaders and creators; and a ground floor from which we can build a healthy and vibrant spiritual movement.

Masjid al-Rabia logo created by For the People Artists Collecive

Masjid al-Rabia will be opening its doors for women-led, affirming and pluralist Jummah prayers in Chicago on Friday, December 2nd at 1pm and will continue to host prayers every week.

For more information, you can e-mail info@masjidalrabia.org or find them on Facebook at http://facebook.com/masjidalrabia .

Mahdia Lynn

Written by

educator, advocate, abolitionist // Director, Masjid al-Rabia

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