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‘Muslim-ish’: For less observant Muslims, Ramadan remains a cherished ritual

In Philadelphia, Maham Rizvi breaks the Ramadan fast at an iftar with Queer Mā'ida, bringing people of many genders, races, and religious traditions to celebrate together.

A crowded room at an iftar dinner during Ramadan on March 22. Kaamila Mohamed (front left) and Maham Rizvi (front right) were among those attending the event hosted by hosted by Queer Māʾida.
A crowded room at an iftar dinner during Ramadan on March 22. Kaamila Mohamed (front left) and Maham Rizvi (front right) were among those attending the event hosted by hosted by Queer Māʾida.Read moreCharles Fox / Staff Photographer

Candlelight flickered across Maham Rizvi’s face as she adorned a chestnut-brown coffee table with different mementos: A River Dies of Thirst, the collection of writings by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; Moon and Sun, a poetry book by the Sufi Muslim poet Rumi; a bowl of colorful Turkish soft candies surrounded by tasbih, Islamic prayer beads; a vase holding a dried floral bouquet; a Quran propped open on a book stand.

It was a recent Friday evening in Philadelphia, and a community iftar was being hosted by Queer Māʾida for predominantly queer and trans Muslims to break their 13-hour fast together during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Rizvi, who uses the pronouns she/they, had just completed putting together what she calls an Islamic altar, a communal ceremony Rizvi enjoys practicing to honor emotions, memories and connection to faith. As the dozen or so attendees settled into their seats while breaking their fast with steaming bowls of layla corbasi, a Turkish yogurt-based soup, Rizvi stood in the center of the living and dining areas.

“Hi, everyone,” she smiled at the crowd, her voice soft and welcoming. “I wanted to bring an element of communal Islamic practice to our evening. So I set up a little altar that is Islamic. If there’s anything that you have with you that you want to contribute to it, I encourage you to set it down and we can find a moment to acknowledge it and story tell.”

“I love making ceremony out of things. So if it’s uncomfortable, and too much structure, please tell me to bow out, calm down, fall back. My intention is well-intentioned, but not intending to force spirituality or faithfulness,” Rizvi said. “I have lots of complicated feelings about religion myself.”

Stories about Muslims, and stories about Ramadan, often feature the stereotypical, practicing Muslim. The one who prays five times a day, dresses modestly, is straight, follows the rules that are associated with Islam.

But those stories fail to represent the majority of Muslims. The ones who may miss prayers and don’t go to mosque. The ones who may drink or eat pork or have sex before marriage. The ones who, in Rizvi’s words, are “Muslim-ish.” And who struggle with finding their place in a Muslim community, and within the Islamic faith, because of that.

While religious observance among U.S.-born Muslims has declined over the last 15 years, 65% of the community still says that religion is a very important part of their lives, according to the Pew Research Center. Their practice of the religion manifests in different ways: 39% say they pray five times a day, 40% of Muslim women say they wear the hijab all or most of the time, 47% say eating halal food is essential to being Muslim, according to Pew.

Those numbers, according to Jamal Elias, a University of Pennsylvania professor of religious studies, are “huge.”

But when it comes to practicing Ramadan, those numbers double to 79%, according to Pew.

Year after year, billions of Muslims across the globe observe Ramadan in community, practicing self-discipline, patience, and charity throughout the month. And that often includes Muslims like Rizvi — who may not observe other tenets of the faith, yet still, for whatever reason, hold on to the ritual of Ramadan.

“Religion is a form of emotional fulfillment,” Elias said. “Ramadan,in particular, more than anything else, is very embodied. It’s a very deeply bodily, spiritually, satisfying, fulfilling ritual. And I think that’s why people like to do it.”

‘Life-crushing policing’

When describing her childhood, Rizvi often says that she and her mother grew up together.

Raised by a single mother in West Philadelphia, Rizvi grew up witnessing her mother’s evolution with faith. Rizvi’s mother had grown up in a practicing Shia family in Karachi, Pakistan, which excommunicated her after her divorce from Rizvi’s biological father. But she still incorporated Shia practices into their home life throughout Rizvi’s childhood; she enrolled Rizvi in Islamic school, and they worshiped regularly together in prayer.

It’s clear where Rizvi’s love of ceremony stemmed from: When she was young, her mother would regularly take her to an Indian grocery store at 42nd and Chestnut Streets, where Rizvi would pick out fudge-like mithai from the display case of sweets. Rizvi’s mother would call the sweets “Allah Allah candy” because she would place them on their janamaaz, prayer rug, before prayer, and eat them when they completed their prayer together.

When Rizvi was 7, her mother began her own religious explorations. She would bring Rizvi with her to visit Sufi mosques, and regularly attended Bahai meetings.

The exposure to different religions influenced Rizvi, she said. But it was 9/11 that changed everything.

“I became aware of my Muslim-ness post-9/11,” Rizvi said. “My relationship to Islam completely changed after age 10.”

In an attempt to fit in and avoid bullying, Rizvi assimilated, distancing herself from Islam — and she watched her mother do the same. Simultaneously, Rizvi found herself questioning the existence of God amid difficult life experiences she and her mother faced.

At the same time, Rizvi began to spend more time with her mother’s family. Visits to family members showered Rizvi with love and affection — but also judgment about how Muslim they were.

Once, while visiting her mother’s family in Pakistan, Rizvi began dancing to a song playing on the television, only to be shut down by her grandmother with an indignant face. Confused, Rizvi tried to understand what was wrong with dancing. Each question was simply met with a vigorous headshake.

“I started to associate our religion with life-crushing policing,” she said.

Her adulthood has allowed her to view her maternal family, whom she loves, with grace and understanding of what informs their religious expression. But it was challenging throughout her youth.

“It felt oppressive in a bunch of micro-ways,” she said. “And it all added up to, ‘Y’all, they tricked us! There’s no God.’”

A tender heart

One community changed everything.

Rizvi had spent her teens and young adulthood distanced from Islam, espousing an adamant atheism that eventually softened into agnosticism. But in 2018, she moved to Boston and was introduced to a group called Queer Muslims of Boston.

It was the first time she had heard of an explicit convening of queer Muslims, and an inclusive Muslim space that aligned with her principles. This was a space where they could relax. For the first time, Rizvi’s curiosity about Islam was ignited.

Over the next few years, Rizvi began regularly attending events with two different queer and queer-friendly Muslim groups in Boston. And it was the first time in life experiencing having any community during Ramadan, Rizvi said.

“My relationship to Islam deepened through these two groups,” Rizvi said. “I learned a lot more, and got a framework for investigating this theological model more deeply. I started to feel magnetized to [Islam] for the first time.”

Now, nearly two years after moving back to Philadelphia, Rizvi found a similar space in Queer Mā'ida.

The group was created by Indigo Jordán, a queer and trans person who converted to Islam last year. Jordán was curious how many other queer Muslims were out there, and, most important, wanted to create a space for those queer Muslims, free of any “haram police.”

People of many genders, races, and religious backgrounds attended a recent iftar. There were people wearing hijabs or crop tops, sporting tattoos, or clothed in long robes. What everyone had in common was a love for, or curiosity toward, faith; a universal acceptance of peers in the come-as-you-are space; and, in the case of the Muslims in attendance, unapologetic ownership of their religion.

Going to traditional mosques can be stressful or ostracizing experiences for non-stereotypical, nonmainstream Muslims — especially queer Muslims, who are subject to homophobia within the larger Muslim community. But that’s not the case at Queer Mā'ida. There was no pressure or posturing, no self-consciousness or judgment around being “Muslim enough,” which allowed for space to grow into one’s spirituality.

Jordán, for example, parties, drinks alcohol, smokes weed, and does sex work — things that would be widely disapproved of in mainstream Muslim communities. But they don’t let those things shame them away from deepening their relationship with God and Islam.

“Those are things that are still inherently formed by the relationship I have with my spiritual practice, with God, with my practice of ancestral veneration,” said Jordán, who is Cuban. “I’m not naive to the taboos that exist within this community I have entered, however I do think that I have a different way of interacting with them.”

“I truly believe down to my core that Allah is not punitive.”

Then there’s Fatih Han, a trained imam who grew up in a traditional Muslim community in Germany, renounced Islam as a young teenager, but was later drawn back to his connection with God through powerful experiences with ecstasy.

Han dedicated his adulthood to reading an immense amount of Islamic literature excluded from mainstream schools of thought.

“That was really helpful in reformulating my identity and realizing that I didn’t have to formulate something new within the religion of Islam, but was able to just use what had been written in scholarship to understand myself,” he explained. “A lot of queer people think queerness is not part of Islam. But I personally disagree with that. I think it is part of the religion. It’s part of what I read.”

For Solomon Furious Worlds, who converted to Islam in 2019, Queer Mā'ida has been a critical space for their spiritual journey, particularly during Ramadan.

“Ramadan is a different feeling right now because I’m doing it with a group of people who are liberated,” they said. “That, to me, is such an important point.”

‘God in my community’

The role Ramadan played in Rizvi’s life over the years has evolved. As a child, it was fun. As a teen, oppressive. In her early 20s, she disassociated from it. Today, it’s a time of year she sincerely dedicates herself to spiritual engagement.

She anticipates Ramadan the way others may anticipate Christmas, eager for the communal joys it brings — especially after she found her community.

“Saving grace” is how Rizvi describes the community of Queer Mā'ida.

And the other “Muslim-ish” people that make up this community, particularly queer Muslims, firmly stake their place within the Islamic faith.

“I see God in my community,” Jordán said. “There’s no way you can divorce me from that. And [attempts otherwise] only reaffirm my commitment to the truth that I walk in.”