Monday, August 26, 2013

Prof. Anver Emon (centre) leads participants in Summer Institute on Islamic Studies
Prof. Anver Emon (centre, blue shirt) leads participants in Summer Institute on Islamic Studies on one of their visits.

By Vito Cupoli

Most visitors to Toronto are not taken on a surprise trip to the city’s only Islamic mosque for gays and lesbians.

Two weeks ago when a group of international Islamic scholars arrived for the Faculty of Law’s Summer Institute on Islamic Studies in collaboration with Emmanuel College, they saw their agenda for the first time.

As part of their nine-day institute, the graduate Fellows were set to visit five mosques representing diverse approaches to the practice of Islam. Toronto’s gay-friendly mosque, one of the very few in the world to minister openly to gay and lesbian Muslims, would be their second field trip.

This group was almost as diverse as they city they’d landed in. Though all study Islam, not all are Muslim or observant. Whether from Bulgaria, Pakistan, South Africa, Germany, Canada, USA, Serbia and Indonesia, each brought an individual perspective about Islamic study and practise.

The personal diversity within the group would speak directly to the Institute’s purpose, according to Professor Anver Emon of the Faculty of Law, who obtained a grant from U of T’s Connaught Fund to run the program. “The theme of the Institute is, belonging and difference,” he explains. “In a sense, the pedagogy introduces the Fellows to their ‘other’.” In being directly confronted with Islam’s diversity, the scholars were to recognize their reactions and break though their own “situatedness.”

Toronto offered them a laboratory to explore Muslim diversity unlike any other in the world. Most Muslim countries don’t have much internal diversity when it comes to religious traditions, which can vary widely from place to place, not always peacefully. For instance, a Sunni Muslim might never meet a worshiper from the Shia tradition. But Toronto’s cultural masala attracts Muslims from all over the world, adding context to any study of Islamic diversity and its intersection with legal plurality, politics and the academic method.

On a sunny and humid August morning, while the group strolled through downtown Toronto to its appointment at the El-Tawhid Juma Circle mosque, Professor Mark Toulouse, principal of Emmanuel College at Victoria University and co-designer of the institute with Professor Emon, says the the theme of belonging and difference is being reinforced with a “unique pedagogy.” 

“These techniques, the visits, the exchange of readings and analysis, further the concept of facilitation which attempts to bring the head, critical reflection, and the experience together so that it forces the graduate Fellows to reflect on their own perspectives and experiences when they approach the field of Islamic studies. How does your own situatedness affect perspective on your truth or the justifications you offer as a description of this religion.”

As the travelling institute arrived outside the nondescript office building where the mosque is located, several of the graduate Fellows talked about their open minds and seemed ready to challenge their own assumptions.

Ayat Agah, a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, says she encounters more and more Muslims who are struggling with the reality of “queers” in their community. “They have this very human response: Someone is being harmed, denied their rights and they view that as a negative thing that needs to be addressed. But I think they run into this obstacle of, all my life I’ve learned that this is something that is sinful so then there is this pause of how do I deal with that and especially when I do recognize what’s going on as an injustice, how do I reconcile that with what I’ve just always been told growing up.”

Entering the mosque space itself, these Islamic Fellows, who the day before had visited with a Shia community at its richly appointed place of worship just north of the city, step into a room which seems more generic than religious, Islamic or gay.

The co-Imams, Dr. Laury Silvers and El-Farouk Khaki, are busy adding some Islamic touches such as prayer mats and a few hangings to the room, which is used for other purposes except on Friday afternoon when the community meets.

El-Tawhid Juma Circle is challenged when it comes to finding a permanent full-time home because any space must meet all of its requirements for security and discretion. However, their plain classroom-style space serves their equal need to provide a denominationally neutral atmosphere which can embrace members from any Islamic background.

Nevertheless, the community’s non-traditional elements, which are described as “gender-equal, queer-friendly, and religiously non-discriminatory,” are too much for some potential members.

Dr. Laury Silvers, herself an Islamic Scholar at U of T, says sometimes visitors take one look and leave.

“When people come in here, some with short-shorts on or tank tops, our attitude is we want people to pray. And we’re not really concerned at all with what they’re wearing. There’s one person who wears a thong you can see when she bends over. Instead of telling her to dress differently, we told people who are uncomfortable not to pray behind her.”

In spite of practicing gender equality and tolerance for all communities, Imam El-Farouk Khaki insists the space is not a reform mosque. “We’re not reforming anything. We’re trying to recapture what we believe is the essence and core of Islam. None of it is merely looking at Islam with a different lens.”

When the worship begins, the Fellows are asked to join with the dozen or so members who arrived for Friday prayers.

Afterward, none of them seemed in shock but there was disquiet.

“Yes, I was surprised. They break all the traditions that I have in my mind,” says Mustaghfiroh Rahaya, a scholar from Indonesia’s Centre for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies. She has gay friends at home and led prayers in a mosque but never prayed beside a man before.

First she wondered if she would even join the prayer. At another point she thought about the need to repeat her devotions once she’d left the mosque. But in the end she decided that her participation, “would not bother my relationship with God. It won’t distract me from God.”

After the build-up, Mohammed Waqas Sajjad from Pakistan says the trip to a gay mosque wasn’t as surprising as anticipated.  Currently a PhD student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, California, Waqas found the visit, “enjoyable in an academic sort of way.” But he will have to “reflect” on his feelings about prayers led by a woman, something he had never experienced before.

And he says he was able to practice the Institute’s ideal of confronting academic situatedness and subjectivity in real-time.

“As a scholar I need to be able to meet those people on their own terms and not come across as somebody who is studying them for the sake of criticising them. Being mindful of my own situatedness as an academic, as a Pakistani, allowed me to frame things as a different way.  It would have been different if I had been an American Muslim. We want our own subjectivity to come into focus and hopefully allow us to become better scholars of Islam.”

Professor Emon said the visit was “eye-opening”, particularly in the community’s broad invitation to pray, regardless of Islamic tradition.  Mosques have different rules about the prayer and who may participate. At El-Tawhid Juma Circle, “the prayer reflected a strong communal aspect of Islamic history but how they organized their sacred space speaks volumes about how they imagine themselves as a distinct community.”

A few days later, as the Institute is drawing to a close and the Fellows are about to pack up and leave, Professor Emon says that in the visit to the gay mosque and the others, the participants met his challenge to be “honest, upfront and engaged.”

See also the story in the Toronto Star about this program.

Summer Institute on Islamic Studies
The Summer Institute on Islamic Studies in session