Gay Muslim scholar shunned by own community
EDMONTON — Junaid Bin Jahangir was such a devout Muslim that when he arrived in Canada he ate only yogurt for two days until he was sure which food followed halal dietary rules.
The university student prayed five times a day, and joined a local mosque.
Then one day, at age 27, he started to wonder why he had never been with a girl. “Why don’t I like women that way?” he asked, and it led him to a counselling office, where he sat, sobbing, with the realization that he was gay — a pariah to his community.
Mainstream Islamic leaders say gay men should be shunned and some around the world are killed each year.
Mr. Jahangir’s world imploded; work on his PhD ground to a halt.
But out of that despair, Mr. Jahangir began to work on another project: Understanding the teachings of Islam on homosexuality. From his office at the University of Alberta, he contacted experts, read everything he could on the subject and studied the scriptures intensely for two years, rebuilding his own identity in the process. His work is starting to be recognized internationally.
Now he argues Muslims misinterpret the Qur’an if they consider the ban on homosexuality to be as firm as bans on alcohol or pork. The common story from which most Muslims draw their teaching is about violent homosexual rape, he says, and it’s time to rethink the possibility of consensual, supportive relationships.
Although his PhD in economics is still incomplete, Mr. Jahangir was asked to contribute a chapter to a new anthology on homosexuality compiled by a noted Australian academic. The book, Islam and Homosexuality, edited by Samar Habib and published by Praeger Publishers, appeared recently in bookstores.
But he remains fearful of talking about the subject. He doesn’t want his face shown in photographs, and when he agreed to do a presentation at the University of Alberta in the run-up to the book launch, organizers asked campus security and a local newspaper to attend in case someone wanted to cause trouble.
The meeting went well, and it appeared that some Muslim students attended, judging by the half-dozen head scarves among the crowd. But he still complains no Imams or professors with the university Islamic Studies department will speak with him or about the topic. The silence is so deep it’s frustrating, he says.
“The apathy is unbelievable. How many more marriages do we want to fail as we pretend this doesn’t exist?
“Gay youth are committing suicide,” he says. “The 13- or 14-year-old girls, they are the ones who need this. [If they believe they are lesbian], what do they do? Get married and follow through the motions? What joy do they have in their lives?
“Let’s at least talk about the issue because it affects us all.”
Mr. Jahangir wrote his views in an opinion piece published in the Gateway, the University of Alberta student newspaper. But the local Muslim student association simply sent an e-mail to its members recommending they avoid him. Now he avoids the Muslim community, and any local mosque, too, he says. “I’m a pariah.”
Mr. Jahangir grew up in Dubai and studied to earn a bachelor’s degree in Pakistan. He came to the university in Edmonton for his master’s and PhD.
He was goal-oriented, and totally focused on his studies until about four years ago, when he finished the field exams for his commerce degree.
He still had a thesis to write, but that’s when he first seriously asked himself the question: “Why don’t I like women that way?”
“Does this mean I’m gay?” he asked the student counsellor.
“‘That’s for you to decide,’” the counsellor answered. Mr. Jahangir broke down crying.
From then on, he couldn’t focus on his thesis.
He went to see a local Imam and told him his fears. “‘You’re effeminate,’ ” the Imam told him. “‘I want you to go to the gym and keep a diary.’”
Mr. Jahangir discarded the advice. “I said this is no solution.”
He sought help from an Islamic counsellor on the Internet. “All she said was, ‘You seem like a good person. I’ll pray for you.’ ”
He went to a doctor to get hormonal tests, but they came back normal.
Finally, he went to a professional local counsellor, who turned out to be Jewish, and she taught him that holy scriptures have been interpreted by people differently over the years. The common interpretation is not always the truest, he says. He kept visiting her regularly for five months.
“They are as conservative as we are,” he says. “I really learned a lot from her. That boosted my confidence to study on my own.”
It has now been four years since he first took on the motto — “knowledge is your shield” — and started searching for books and articles on the subject. He’s still working on his economics degree, but being included in the anthology for his work on homosexuality feels like having published a second thesis.
In the book, Mr. Jahangir examines the story of Lut, or Lot, a nephew of Ibrahim (or Abraham), who is often remembered from Christian Sunday school lessons as the man whose wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom and Gomorrah burning in fire and brimstone.
In the Qur’an, Lut was a prophet sent to warn the people of the city to turn away from evil practices. Angels in the form of young male travellers came to warn him to flee because the city was about to be destroyed.
Lut persuaded the strangers to stay at his house for protection and, during the night, the men of the city threaten to break into his house demanding the strangers be given to them for sex.
Lut and his family fled during the night.
Mainstream Islamic thought interprets the sin of Lut’s people primarily as homosexuality.
But Mr. Jahangir argues the sin discussed here should be recognized as rape, not loving same-sex unions. “This is rape as a violent tool. That’s how you humiliate your enemies,” Mr. Jahangir says.
Most major sins in the Qur’an are spelled out, says Mr. Jahangir, such as the prohibition against incest, “forbidden to you are your mothers and daughters, your sisters.”
But why draw such a firm prohibition against homosexuality from a story, he asks. “A story can be interpreted in so many different ways. Why does it have to be this?”
“Even sympathetic people will say it’s a test for you from God,” he says. “Where does that leave you? You can’t expect them to be robots. If it is a test, the majority will fail.”
Instead, Mr. Jahangir argues, Muslims should apply the principle from the Qur’an that states anything not expressly forbidden is permissible.
Marriage is a basic need for a healthy life and Islamic law is mindful of genuine private and public need, he says. Since science has demonstrated homosexuality is not a choice, he argues, Islamic principles should support loving same-sex unions.
“It’s not about sex. It’s about being alone in old age,” he says. “It’s about living the full civil life of responsibility.”
The community has ostracized Mr. Jahangir because of his views, he says. But he’s not worried for himself anymore; he has the support of his family back in Pakistan.
He spends his time teaching and in advocacy work, and has a new circle of supportive friends.
Loneliness comes when he sees couples walking together and friends with children. “But I have an amazing group of close friends here. [Being alone] doesn’t bother me that much,” he says. “This is where my adopted family is.”
Mr. Jahangir says he knows girls who have run away from homes in Edmonton rather than get married and who are still hiding from their parents. A young male relative was suicidal, but seems to have found a measure of peace through reading his work, he says.
Mainstream Canadian culture is much more supportive of homosexual youth than it once was, he says. “It’s really the task of the day to work in the Islamic context as well. These books, hopefully, will ignite the conversation.”