A professor of African cultural studies discussed their new book “Muslims on the Margins: Creating Queer Religious Communities in North America” in a hybrid format book talk Nov. 14.
Katrina Daly Thompson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke with Georgetown professor of Muslim Societies Shenila Khoja-Moolji at the event, hosted by the School of Foreign Service Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. In their book, Thompson studies various belief systems within Islam, including nonconformists who have interpreted their religion and created space for queer, trans and nonbinary identities.
According to Thompson, multiple identity groups exist on the margins of the Muslim faith, including African Americans, women and LGBTQ+ individuals. Thompson said their use of the word “queer” is meant to represent all Muslims who are on the margins of the faith.
“Queer does not necessarily mean LGBTQ, but can also mean anti-normative, nonconformist, heterogeneous, different and celebrating difference,” Thompson said at the event. “To be queer is to have allowed oneself to be the unique person one is meant to be. Being queer is not just about sexuality.”
Thompson’s research aims to develop the scholarly evidence of queer communities, which differs from past research regarding queer Islam. Thompson said previous research focused on individual identities, not religious communities, for all queer Muslims.
“Very little research has examined their involvement in religious communities,” Thompson said. “In part because communities that welcome them are rare and in part because of assumptions that it is impossible to be both Muslim and LGBTQ.”
Thompson, who converted to Islam in 2009, is a linguistic anthropologist who studies the role of language and culture. Thompson has traveled to East Africa and around North America to speak with Muslims globally. In North America, Thompson traveled to seven cities, including Washington, D.C., and Toronto.
Thompson said speaking to various Muslims across the world allowed them to feel connected in the greater global community of Muslims.
“I got to know a lot of other Muslims throughout North America who were involved in either groups that were affiliated with Muslims for progressive values or kind of running in parallel that had similar politics and religious interpretation,” Thompson said. “So, when I started this project in 2016, I was able to use those connections that I had made to folks in these other groups to set up visits to various groups throughout North America.”
Thompson said their book was originally titled “Misfits, Rebels, and Queers” because LGBTQ+ Muslims are not often included in the mainstream practices of Islam. Thompson said they drew inspiration from Michael Muhammad Knight and his 2013 book “Tripping with Allah,” an account of a man’s reconciliation with Islam after drinking ayahuasca.
“I think you’ll see why I see a lot of the folks that participated in my research and why they see themselves often as misfits, rebels and queers within Islam,” Thompson said.
Thompson said the el-Tawhid Circle Unity Mosque in Toronto is a queer Muslim community that works to include diverse relationships with all Muslims and people with diverse relationships with Islam. Thompson said their research in this community gave insight into how queer Muslims exist in faith communities.
“By examining the ways the individual nonconformists talked about their lives and beliefs and how they use language and conversation and in religious ritual, we gain insight into their lived experiences as Muslims on the margins,” Thompson said. “And also what role religious and other texts played in their lives and the future forms of Muslim collectivity they imagined.”
Thompson said the relationships between all people and the Islamic faith represent the diversity of faith and faith communities for the future of Islam.
“The folks in these different groups share identities, interpretations or practices of Islam that are different from those of more widely understood Muslim communities in various ways,” Thompson said. “They also share a social justice orientation focused on valuing and incorporating others who exhibit such differences, including queers.”
“For many of those in the nonconformist groups I studied, their envisaged Islamic futures were theologically diverse, inclusive of gender and sexual diversity, and often counter to dominant Islamic and other normatives that push them to the margins,” Thompson said. “They did not abandon the Islamic discursive tradition, but their use of it was future-oriented.”