Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques In Attempt To Reform American Islam

The New Radical Islam

At first, the devout Muslims who gathered in a Washington, D.C., conference center seemed like they could have come from any mosque. There were women in headscarves and bearded men who quoted the Quran.

But something was different. While mingling over hors d'oeuvres, they discussed how to change Islam's future. A woman spoke about fighting terrorism; she had married outside the Islamic faith, which is forbidden for a Muslim woman. A Pakistani man mentioned his plans to meet friends for drinks, despite the faith's ban on alcohol.

In a corner of the room, an imam in a long gray tunic counseled a young Muslim with a vexing spiritual conflict: being gay and Muslim. The imam, also gay and in a relationship, could easily sympathize with the youth's difficulties.

On this brisk Monday night in late October, members of Muslims for Progressive Values, a nascent American reformist organization, had gathered from around the country to celebrate a milestone: In four years, the group had grown from a few friends to a thousand members and spawned a string of small mosques and spiritual groups that stretched from Atlanta to Los Angeles.

Today, as America's Muslim leaders debate controversial topics like political radicalism inside mosques and states' attempts to ban Shariah law, this growing network of alternative mosques and Islamic groups is quietly forging a new spiritual movement.

They're taking bold steps, reinterpreting Islamic norms and re-examining taboos. While far from accepted by mainstream clerics, these worshippers feel that the future of the religion lies not solely with tradition but with them. Women are leading congregations in prayer, gay imams are performing Islamic marriages, and men and women are praying side by side.

This is not the norm for most of the 2.6 million-strong American Islamic community, accustomed to centuries-old traditions of gender relations and houses of worship that tend to draw primarily from a single ethnic group.

"We can't move forward as a society, as a faith system, if we subscribe to these old draconian ways of practicing Islam," says Ani Zonneveld, who is the president of Muslims for Progressive Values. A 49-year-old singer-songwriter who lives in Los Angeles, she leads prayers for men and women together and tells gay Muslims, often shunned in other mosques, that their religion welcomes them.

This soft-spoken Malaysian-American who sports a crop cut with blond streaks is one of a small but burgeoning cadre of Islamic reformers in the United States, both within her group and outside it. Their causes range from fighting radicalization and educating young people to building interfaith bridges and protecting women's rights. Over the years, leaders in the Muslim community have addressed changing needs, from building new mosques to defending civil rights when unfamiliar spiritual practices resulted in discrimination. But this new movement is a radical departure.

"What's taking place in Islam in America right now is what happened before in other religions," says John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.

A few denominations within Judaism and Christianity have openly welcomed gay people and women, Esposito points out. Some Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish communities are led by gay and women rabbis. The Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church allow gay and women clergy. The United Methodist Church ordains women.

Mosques in America, however, usually are Sunni or Shiite; they differ in how they interpret Islamic law. Still other mosques combine Sunnis and Shiites under one roof. But as far as the open participation of gay people or leadership by women imams, most mosques are much the same: It doesn't happen. Some Sufi mosques, which follow mystical traditions, welcome gay Muslims, though their numbers are sparse in the United States.

Most Muslims rarely attend mosques outside of major holidays although the Quran commands men to pray in a group every week. In a Pew survey last year of 1,033 American Muslims, just under one-half said they attend a mosque once a week. Many said they worship on their own or seldom. A majority of Muslims surveyed think the religion is flexible, with only about a third saying there is but one true way to interpret it.

That kind of view is becoming common among Muslims, according to Esposito, as more people try to separate what's in the Quran from cultural traditions. "They say if we don't see anything clear in our scripture, then that trumps tradition. And people are applying that to women's issues and gay issues."

It's among this segment of believers that the progressives are trying to make their mark. With regular prayer meetings in several cities, salons on theology, a children's Islamic educational camp and a series of printed adaptations of Quranic scholarship on issues such as homosexuality, Muslims for Progressive Values aims to fashion a new version of the ancient faith, one that members assert is truer to Islam's origins.

There's a long road ahead. While the total number of mosques in America has climbed 74 percent over the past decade, to more than 2,100, Muslims for Progressive Values has a significant presence in only a dozen cities, including Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The progressives' mosques are borrowed spaces: community centers, homes and churches. There's a mosque in Toronto and a prayer group in Ottawa. The group keeps a directory of unaffiliated like-minded worship centers in smaller cities.

But the progressive Muslims feel they have found momentum, Zonneveld says.

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Zonneveld grew up in Germany, Egypt and India as her father moved between stations as a Malaysian ambassador. Her stay-at-home mom taught Zonneveld and her five siblings the basics of Islam. The family read the Quran together in Arabic and fasted from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. Mosques were scarce in Germany, so her parents invited other Muslims to pray in their home.

After attending college in Illinois, Zonneveld moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a musician. That's where she met her husband, a Dutch-born agnostic who now runs a grocery delivery company. They are raising their daughter Jasmine, 14, as a Muslim.

For 20 years, Zonneveld worked behind the scenes in the music industry, writing and composing songs. She kept her faith hidden at work, though, out of fear that it would hurt her career. But everything changed after Sept. 11.

The attacks by terrorists invoking Islam for a war against the West had nothing to do with the religion Zonneveld knew. Imams appeared on television with politicians to condemn violence. They echoed her views, but she was put off. She had little in common with the bearded middle-aged men on screen.

"The vast majority of American Muslims believe in an Islam that is so different from the people that represent us," Zonneveld says. "It's like if you had an Orthodox Jewish rabbi representing all American Jews."

For the first time, Zonneveld put religion at the forefront of her music. Two years after the attacks, she released an album, "Ummah, Wake Up!" The word ummah means "community" in Arabic. In the opening track, she called for a new jihad. To her, that meant striving to be more merciful, not taking up arms. Another track, "Bury Me," lamented what she saw as the marginalized state of women in Islamic communities.

Her album didn't go over well. When Zonneveld applied to perform at an Islamic music festival in Toronto, the event's organizers told her that men are forbidden to hear women sing. Islamic retailers banned the album. Prominent Muslims said Zonneveld was focusing too much on the bad in Islam and not enough on the good.

Frustrated with the lack of outlets for her critiques, Zonneveld helped found a group called the Progressive Muslim Union of North America. The broad alliance of dozens of activists and academics struggled and bickered over political beliefs and whether members wanted to reform Islamic doctrine or simply alter social practices. The two-year effort, largely academic, collapsed by 2006, never having founded a mosque.

A year later, Zonneveld cofounded Muslims for Progressive Values, which has enjoyed more tangible success. Its spiritual work has drawn endorsements from well-known Muslim activists, scholars and politicians.


Most scholars agree that the Quran, which Muslims believe is the written word of God, does not explicitly prohibit women from leading prayers or gay people from taking leadership roles in Islam. The holy book also does not forbid men and women to pray together. Yet, centuries of scholarship on the Quran and the sunnah (the way the prophet lived his life) have resulted in the prevailing view among Muslims worldwide that prayer leaders should be male and that homosexual activity is a sin.

To answer the question of whether women should lead prayers, records of the prophet's life -- whose authenticity remains under dispute -- are seized upon by people on all sides of the debate. Progressive scholars say the prophet permitted women to lead prayers at any time.

In three-quarters of American mosques, women gather in separate rooms or behind partitions or curtains, according to the most recent mosque study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The practice stems from Quran, which says that men and women should maintain modest relations. The Quran does not explicitly say the sexes must keep separate.

People like Zonneveld say they take their cue from the early years of Islam, when it was common for men and women to pray together. They point to Mecca, the holy Islamic city where Muslims go on pilgrimage every year and where men and women pray side by side.

There are parts of the Quran that condemn homosexual acts but their interpretation is debated. Today, in at least seven majority-Muslim countries, gay sex is punishable by death. Most opposition to homosexuality in Islam stems from the Quran's story of Lot, which follows the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Conservative clerics say Allah destroyed these cities because men were having sex with men. Like liberal Christians, progressive Muslims interpret this story to be one about condemnation of rape, not homosexuality.

The idea of welcoming gay and lesbian Muslims as part of the Islamic community is more recent, says Kecia Ali, an Islamic studies professor at Boston University who researches sexuality and gender in the Quran.

"We have always had gay people in prayer [groups], but they have been closeted," Ali says. "What's new is this idea that we are now thinking why we are praying the way we are praying, why we are Muslim and who is considered Muslim."


On a recent Saturday afternoon, Zonneveld and other spiritual activists gathered for one of Muslims for Progressive Values' biweekly salons in Los Angeles around a living room table strewn with pamphlets and books on Islamic law. Among those present were a Shiite from Iran, a Sunni originally from Iowa who dabbles in Sufism, a Muslim convert and an agnostic Palestinian. They were united by a question and a cause.

"What is Shariah?" asked Zonneveld, referring to the Islamic code that has been used to guide everything from rules for prayer and marriage to deadly punishments for minor crimes in majority-Muslim countries. As Muslims trying to establish a radically different Islam, they asked, How could Shariah be used to their benefit?

The answer did not come easily.

"Shariah is how we live according to God's will for us," said Jamila Ezzani, 28, an autism specialist who has been in the group for almost two years. "It's an ideal to reach for."

"But it's good to know scripture and verse," chimed in Vanessa Karam, a general education professor at University of the West. "No Muslim cannot say that's the foundation for everything, right?"

"I think Shariah [law] is totally made up," shot back Zonneveld. "It's not like there's a page in the Quran that says, 'For you to be Muslim, you have to live by these set of rules.'"

Their differing takes were emblematic of that often unspoken conflict within this community: Are the progressives practicing religion? Or do they resemble secular, cultural Muslims?

Yasir Qadhi, a popular conservative cleric and dean of academic affairs at Houston-based AlMaghrib Institute, holds the latter view. A lecture on progressives that he has given at Islamic conferences has garnered thousands of views on YouTube.

"The very fact that the movement is so small or marginal speaks volumes about their sway and influence," says Qadhi, who lives in Memphis, Tenn., and whose institute trains 6,000 students annually. "It's pretty clear the mainstream of Muslims of North America, who are under no pressure or threat of physical violence, have clearly identified with traditional voices."

"'Let's look at the text of the Quran and see what Allah and his messenger want us to do rather than to project our ideas onto the text," Qadhi says. "We traditionalists firmly believe the Quran is the book of Allah and the speech of Allah."

Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, also takes a critical view of the progressives.

Muslims for Progressive Values "are little more than a footnote or a special interest," she writes in an email. "Their actual influence in the [Muslim American] community is virtually non-existent," adds Mogahed, who spent six years collecting 50,000 interviews for the book "Who Speaks For Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think."

Mohamed Magid, the president of the Islamic Society of North America, takes a softer approach. As the imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a 5,000-member cluster of mosques in Northern Virginia, he welcomes a "marketplace of ideas" competing within Islam. "I have no right to strip anyone from Islam who wants to be Muslim," he says. Men, however, always lead prayers at his mosque, and Magid doesn't believe Islam condones homosexuality.

Across the globe, the rise of the women's and gay rights movements has not left Islam untouched. For more than two decades, Muslims scattered around the world have been re-examining gender roles within Islam. In the Middle East and South Asia, Muslim activists have fought against female genital mutilation and honor killings, convincing clerics to issue fatwas declaring the practices un-Islamic.

In the United States, Amina Wadud, who taught Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been leading prayer sessions with men and women for years. One of her first, in South Africa in 1994, led conservative Muslims to call for her removal from the university's faculty.

A prayer session of men and women that she led in 2005 in New York, as part of the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour to several U.S. cities, resulted in her condemnation by prominent Middle East sheiks and anonymous death threats.

Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who organized the freedom tour, has held prayers at several American mosques, with women congregating in the men's section during Friday prayers and refusing to leave.

Such controversial events, though, have brought little change within most mosques.

The gay rights movement within Islam has been quieter. An organization for gay Muslims, Al-Fatiha, sprang up in the United States the late 1990s. The group organized annual retreats and its members marched in gay pride parades in San Francisco. Widely condemned by sheiks for promoting homosexuality in Islam, the organization disbanded by the mid-2000s.

Muslims for Progressive Values doesn't espouse the kind of public activism of prior movements. Members say their goal from the beginning was for Muslims to build spiritual communities around their own interests. Some attend local mosques, while others like Zonneveld don't care to join long-established mosques. They want their own.

"It's hard to tell how successful these progressive groups will be," Esposito says. "Often, these kinds of reforms, when they start to take place, usually consist of small groups that are a vanguard within the religion. You run the risk of alienating even people who see themselves as reform minded if they see one issue, such as gay imams, that they think goes too far."


Two weeks ago in Los Angeles, Zonneveld gathered with progressive Muslims at a Middle Eastern cultural center to inaugurate a new mosque. Sitting cross-legged in a circle with her companions, she sang the call to prayer, exulting the glory of God. She made a bold proclamation about the believers who were joining her that day. Muslims from San Francisco to Seattle tuned in via Skype.

"We are gender equal, queer-friendly and religiously nondiscriminatory," Zonneveld declared. "In other words, all are welcome. Allah tells us in the Quran that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a 'mercy to the worlds.'"

The group praised Allah in Arabic -- and English, a language rarely used for formal prayers. Women stood beside men. Among the ragtag group of Muslims were gay converts, feminist academics and lapsed believers seeking to rediscover their faith.

After prayers, the imam, a Shiite convert with Korean ancestry, read from a list of requests that others passed toward him. One congregant asked the group to pray for his friend's brother who was in the hospital. Another asked for a blessing for those caught in the violent upheaval in Syria. A few requested prayers for the pregnant women in their community.

In an Arabic nod to tradition, the congregation recited Surat Al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Quran. Observant Muslims say it before every prayer. The chapter praises the "master of all reckoning," asking him to "guide us along the road." In English, they chanted another prayer, based upon the dances of Sufi dervishes. "O Allah! Increase my light everywhere," they recited, asking God to open their hearts and minds. It expressed hope for the future.

This wasn't the first time the Los Angeles Muslims had met for prayers. In 2009, they had gathered at a Methodist church but never could draw steady crowd. And not all Muslims received them well. In one instance, a traditional Muslim stopped by to lecture them on their faults. Then the church, where they rented a meeting room, closed in April.

That mosque never had a name, but on their listserv, the progressives debated passionately last week about what to call their place of worship. "Light of Islam Mosque," suggested one person. "The Progressive Mosque," pitched another.

At last, the group came up with a simple solution, one reflecting its aims of openness and inclusion. The plaque outside their rented space, they agreed, would bear an inscription that started with "MPV" (Muslims for Progressive Values) and ended with "mosque."

And in the middle there would be one word: "Unity."

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