Being a Muslim, to me, is much more than just belonging to a particular faith. It is a way of life, it is being part of a larger culture, and it is also, yes, being part of a particular faith.
When I was born, my parents invited a local wadaad, or religious scholar, and he recited verses of the Qur’an over me. That was after he had sung the adhan, or call to prayer, into my ears.
A few days later, another man was invited. This one belonged to the Yibir tribe, which collects samaanyo, a gift paid to their tribe in exchange for their blessing newborns.
I guess, in that case, you could say I was born into a mix of culture and faith—neither being more or less important than the other. After all, my people say Caada lagooyo cara Alleey leedahay or “Broken tradition brings God’s wrath.”
In terms of religious beliefs, I grew up in a very uniform system. I grew up in a family, in a neighborhood, in a city that was pre-dominantly Sunni Muslim. I left Mogadishu in my early teens, but I had met very few non-Sunnis by that time. We had Sufism, but we had largely what I would call Sunni Sufism. That is, we had Sunni beliefs infused with Sufi practices. We had non-Somalis, but we had mostly Sunni non-Somalis. We had religious classes at school, but they mostly taught the Sunni version of events.
Within Sunnism, we followed the Shafi’i branch or madhab. As such, we had cultural connections to other Shafi’is that I didn’t even realize were the case until much, much later. For example, men in my culture wore macawis, a sarong, and many years later I would visit Indonesia and see that we actually got that from there. Indonesia is pre-dominantly Shafi’i and I understood how their sarong goyor became our macawis.
It wasn’t the only thing we had in common. Both our women suffered female circumcision because, of course, it is something considered obligatory under Shafi’ism, although most other Muslims do not. But Shafi’is are not a small minority, they compromise about thirty percent of the Muslims around the world.
In other words, I understood that there was a global culture going on, with the faith playing out as a nice bridge. We, as Muslims of Africa, introduced an African practice like female circumcision to our Asian brothers and sisters by getting the practice sanctioned in the Hadiths. They, as Muslims of Asia, introduced us to the Asian way of life, too, through our collaborations.
As a queer Muslim I was also interested in the way culture looked at sexuality. It was interesting to realize that the relaxed atmosphere for queers in both Somali and Indonesian cultures also perhaps had its roots in our brand of faith. Shafi’ism does not call for the execution of same-sex people who have sex if the partners are unmarried. Instead, flogging and temporary banishment is preferred—in the rare case that all requirements for such a punishment are met.
In the case of married individuals who do engage in same-sex relationship, execution is the solution.
However, Sha’ifism requires self-confession or the testimony of four male witnesses, who swear on the Qur’an that they have indeed witnessed the act.
In other words, very difficult to prosecute.
But, of course, being a Muslim is much more than faith. Let’s talk about Malaysia. Malaysia is also another pre-dominantly Shafi’i country, and yet the atmosphere there is very different from Indonesia.
Malaysia was a subject of the British Empire.
Now, let’s go back to Somali culture for a little bit. In 1888, the people in the northern Somali regions ended up with the British colonial laws as subjects of the British Empire. British Somaliland was the first time we ever had a law against homosexuality in any Somali region.
In 1960, Somali people united and the northern and southern parts, as well as the coastal parts, became a unified and independent country called Somalia. Because southern Somalia was where the majority of the deals were made, says Hadiyo Jim’ale of the Somali LGBT organization Queer Somalis, and because southern Somalia was a former Italian colony, the country became a more Italo-friendly country and therefore the new country did not have laws against homosexuality, as homosexuality had been legal in Italy since 1890.
On the other hand, Hamdi Sultan, a trans activist from Hargeisa, which is the capital of the area the British colonized, says the general constitution might not have had laws against homosexuality but it did not stop the local laws from importing its former sodomy laws into the local ordinance. As a teenager when she moved to Mogadishu, which is the capital of the area the Italians colonized, Sultan recalls being shocked at the different atmosphere there. She saw neighborhoods in which LGBT persons thrived.
Remember, that is all happening in the same country about the size of Texas.
However, in 1973 the entire country adopted an Arab League friendly constitution, which included a law against homosexuality, as part of our preparation for the official induction into the Arab World. But even then, it was imprisonment of up to 3 years, and not execution.
“In the 1970s and 1980s LGBT people in the south, therefore, had different experience than the people in the north,” says Sultan. “In the south, corrupt police officers would come and black mail those of us who were clearly LGBT, like trans women like myself, but we knew we were not going to be killed by the law. So, they got what they wanted, often our bodies, but we were generally safe.”
From 1991 to 2006 there wasn’t a central government in Somalia. As such, LGBT people didn’t face any legal measures. However, in 2006 the Islamic Courts Union came to power. This immediately began a different course because the Islamic Courts Union was based on a salafi system, imported from Saudi Arabia, which meant it didn’t adhere to usual branches or madhab.
“Suddenly, you could be executed for being gay or lesbian,” says Jim’ale. “The strict interpretation of the Arabian Gulf, which did not interact with our culture for so long, brought a new culture. Whereas we never heard much about homosexuality during Friday prayers before, things changed fast and suddenly the ‘evil’ homosexuality was a subject of many sermons on Fridays across the country.”
In the new Somali central government, in the laws of the internationally recognized government of the Federal Republic of Somalia that has been operating since 2012, we are back to confusion. At the moment, there aren’t any clear laws against homosexuality.
In other words, a gay Somali from the south, who happens to be Muslim, would encounter distinctly different legal experiences under the Italian, Arab World-friendly penal code, Salafi system imported from Saudi Arabia and the new central government.
Did you see how the life of that Muslim changed so drastically?
That is what it means to be a Muslim. Being a Muslim is a personal experience through faith, but otherwise highly influenced by the general society, depending on what kinds of rulings end up affecting your life, first and foremost as the citizen of that country.
My life in the United States as a Muslim is a very different life than my life would have been in Somalia. It would also be different if I was an Iranian immigrant, and I came from a country where the death penalty currently applies to people like myself. But it would also be very different if I were a Turkish immigrant, as Turkey hasn’t had any anti-homosexuality laws since the mid 1800s.
Afdhere Jama is the author of Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the Faith. He lives in the United States.