Finding the Freedom to Love Through Faith
While faith is not often considered a hallmark of progressive values, you can be a person of faith and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. As historian Blair Imani noted in her TED Talk, these identities are neither mutually exclusive nor do they need to be reconciled. However, hardline readings of religious texts – be it the Bible, the Torah, or the Quran – focus on the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah. They argue that same-gender loving relationships led to the towns’ destruction, ignoring the texts’ mention of acts of sexual violence and child sexual abuse. Such interpretations have filtered out from religious spaces and into society writ large, providing a religious justification for broad discrimination against LGBT communities. When you’ve been told that your life is “theologically indefensible” where does a person of faith find community and affirmation?
For Lamya H, author of the memoir Hijab Butch Blues, the answer was the text. Their Islamic faith, study of the Quran, and intense interrogation of the multiple identities they inhabit at once have provided a framework for living a purposeful, ethical life. This framework counters the arguments made by religious conservatives, who believe teaching students about LGBTQ+ relationships as part of their health and sex education is akin to grooming. While white, evangelicals cling to these bigoted stances, and protest the teaching of inclusivity, studies show that Muslims in the United States are more accepting of the queer community and believe they should be accepted by society.
Lamya’s memoir is a call to dismantle heteronormativity and patriarchy in favor of compassion and liberation. In studying the journeys of prophets Musa and Yunus to figures like Maryam, Lamya reveals how faith can sharpen the spirit to fight against the world’s injustices and lead with love.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Narrative Initiative: So, I have your book, loved your book, finished your book. First question, why this book and why now?
Lamya H: This book came together in the last couple of years. And, in some ways, it feels like it’s a book that I’ve been writing my whole life because it’s a memoir. Not only in terms of the stories that I tell, but also in terms of some of the ways in which I’ve always thought about the figures in the Quran and prophets as these beautiful, complicated, flawed, messy figures. And so, in some ways, I wrote this book recently, but in other ways I’ve been writing this book and thinking about these themes my entire life.
And, to me, this book feels especially timely in terms of the violence going on towards queer people, towards trans and non binary folks, towards queer books in particular and the ways that those are being banned or maligned, and then the ongoing violence and hate crimes against Muslims – and against people who are queer and Muslim. So, to me, the book feels both like a product of many, many years, but also a particular product of its time right now.
Narrative Initiative: In interrogating and excavating all the different parts of you, the structure [of this book] riffs on Islamic interpretation of religious texts: the Quran, specifically. What was it about the prophets and their story, married to your own story, that you thought brought a different reading on what has been a traditionally male, patriarchal interpretation of such texts?
Lamya H: I think the power of texts, and not just up the Quran, but all books that we read, is the ability to really interrogate them and to think through the characters that are depicted. And sort of like their trajectories, their internal narrations, their decisions. . .whether you agree with their decisions or not. And just thinking through characters as holistic beings. For me, I’ve been doing that with books my whole life because I read a lot of books as a kid and it felt really natural to do that with the Quran.
It was important to me to interpret it both for myself and just really put a personal lens on it . . . that felt anti-oppressive in various ways. . . . It was important to break down some of that hetero-patriarchy by really thinking about the Quran as a text and how it related to me and my life. Because it’s something that I tried to do in my life to really think about the ways that folks are marginalized and oppressed and discriminated against. What are the ways that we can start to break those down, both in terms of organizing and sort of larger movements and also on a personal level.
Narrative Initiative: So then how do you use the Quran, not only as a text but as a tool, for your own life and spiritual practice, and as a way to organize?
Lamya H: Some of the ways that I’ve been doing this in my life is just really building community of other people who are interested in reading the Quran through these lenses and other people who grew up Muslim or Muslim-ish [or] who want that sort of lens on life. So to me, it’s a tool for community building, but also for thinking about justice. What are some of the principles in the Quran that can be extended to dismantling patriarchy or capitalism or abolishing prisons? What are the lessons and the themes that can be extended to the important fights in our life right now?
Narrative Initiative: Do you see the Quran, Islam, and religion in general, as a unifying tool for which people can fight for their own liberation?
Lamya H: For me, it is those things. But not all tools work for everyone. And so I think it’s also important to think about the ends as opposed to the means. I know that it works for me, and I know that it works for some people, but it doesn’t work for other people. And that’s totally real and understandable.
Narrative Initiative: What do you think makes you so devout in your faith?
Lamya H: Whoa! Wow! I have not been asked that in a really long time. Devout is such an interesting word. And in some ways, it feels kind of aspirational. Like, I’m a Trier. I’m someone who wants to put effort into how they live their life, and to me, the devoutness feels aspirational because . . . Religion is so interesting. How do you know that you’re doing it right? So to me, what’s important is living a life that feels rooted in kindness and justice, and am I moving towards those things and am I putting effort into my life? The devoutness feels like a side effect of striving and effort and intentionality in your faith.
Narrative Initiative: I don’t want to be insensitive by asking this—and I know you touched on it a bit in the book— but in trying to live your life a certain way, and using the Quran and your spirituality, and your faith as a way to not only understand yourself, but to free yourself, you are publishing behind a pseudonym, and being very particular about not identifying yourself. Is that purely for the safety of your family, because of where they still happen to live? And do you feel like you’re hiding?
Lamya H: I write under a pseudonym for many different reasons, including safety and privacy and just not being Googleable. The world is a hard place for people who are queer and Muslim, and/or both. And to me, it felt like writing under a pseudonym meant that I could be really, really honest and really vulnerable in my critiques. And so it felt really important for me to write like that. I know the concepts I’ve talked about are all
sort of loaded.
But to me, it really felt like an exercise in boundaries. And just thinking through what I want to direct my effort towards. Do I want to direct my effort towards writing or do I want to direct it towards fighting people who take offense at some of the things that I write about? And, yeah, one of the chapters in my memoir is actually dedicated to figuring out this question and it’s centered around the story of Yunus, who is also known as Jonah, who was one of the prophets who was swallowed by a whale.
I’ve always thought of that whale as punishment. He [Yunus/Jonah] leaves his people and so he’s punished by God by this whale that swallows him, but to me . . . through conversations with a friend, I learned to reframe that: is it protection instead? And, so to me, writing under a pseudonym feels a lot like being in that whale. It might be a temporary thing. It might be something that I do for a while. But to me, it feels sort of like exercising control over what I’m putting out into the world and it feels more like protection rather than like hiding or punishment.
Narrative Initiative: I was going to ask you about Yunus, known in the Bible as Jonah, about whether he was your favorite prophet in the book because you go so hard on him in the beginning like, “I can’t stand him,” then it becomes, “Okay. Maybe he wasn’t abandoning his people.”
Lamya H: I feel like I go pretty hard for a lot of prophets. But you know, actually, interestingly, writing this book, made me have a lot of empathy for them. So for example, Musa/Moses is someone that I’ve always rolled my eyes at a little bit. There are all these stories in the Quran when he comes off not great. So, for example, there’s the story in which he asks God if he can see them and God is like, “No! You can’t see me.” And Musa’s insisting and I’ve always just been like, “What is with this dude?” But as I wrote about him, and I researched more, I found all of these things.
For example, I didn’t realize this, but Musa had a speech impediment. And so I found myself thinking about that a lot and just like being like, “Oh, it must have been so hard for him.” He must have been so anxious around so many things. And so I just had so much more empathy for him and I found myself with so much more empathy for Yunus, and for Yusuf, who I’ve also questioned. The part in which he almost teases his siblings I’ve just always found really unnecessary, because he’s teasing them while they’re not doing well. And while they’re hungry . . . but writing this gave me a lot of empathy for all these prophets, a lot more empathy than I had. And interestingly, that empathy is expansive, it led me to have more empathy for myself and for other people who may be in difficult situations.
Narrative Initiative: Have you looked into cross referencing all of the different stories from the Quran that you have laid out in the book with other religious texts just to see how they can further inform what you’re doing and also help build community?
Lamya H: So actually, interestingly, a lot of Islamic interpretations do that. They cross reference a lot of Christian and Jewish tradition. It’s interesting because I think some of those cross references are actually like canon in a lot of Islamic interpretations, or tafsir – longer explanations of the Quran that take every verse and cross reference to things that Prophet Muhammad said, or things that are in the Bible. So I think it’s really interesting that classical interpreters of the Quran specifically do that.
Narrative Initiative: Thank you. What is it that you want readers to take from your book?
Lamya H: The importance of community. For me, community is something that has played a huge part in terms of embracing my identities, being intentional in how I live, and also just [learning how] expansive love is. Not just romantic love, but also love in terms of community, love in terms of friendship, platonic love, the ways that we show up for each other. And then also love in terms of sort of justice and fighting for things that you believe in.
Narrative Initiative: How do you see yourself, hopefully, building community with other brown immigrant Muslim, queer people in the world?
Lamya H: So that’s been one of the things that’s really hard to do by writing under a pseudonym. I still think it was a really good life decision to write under a pseudonym, but it also comes with some griefs. That is my biggest one. It’s hard to live events, it’s hard to do book clubs. It’s hard to really build community through the book, but I hope that other people are building community through the book.
I know that several people have written to me and mentioned that they’re reading it in a book club or reading it with other people who share various identities or faiths. So, I really hope that is a thing that people are able to do. It’s been really lovely hearing from people about the book. So that’s been a way that I felt like really connected to folks. People will randomly write me and just talk about how the book resonated with them. It’s so lovely to see so many different intersections between my life and the people and the lives of the people who write me. And it’s just really lovely to see how the book has touched folks. That’s been one of the best parts about writing – just feeling connected to strangers who I have so much in common with.