His life has been since childhood a struggle to be accepted by family and society. French-Algerian Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, an expert on the Koran, found his place and peace in several associations that he founded, but mainly in the Inclusive Mosque of Oneness, in Paris. The prayer door is open to everyone, not only the LGBT community. His struggle is not yet complete: “The Islamic society is lost – and this is the real problem”, he says in this interview, published in the Portuguese news magazine VISÃO. (Read more…)
Born in Alger en 1978, the second boy of a three children’s family, Dr. Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed is, according to his official biography, “the only theologian in the world who interconnects Human Sciences and religious Sciences with Gender Studies”.
Since a teenager, he wanted to be an imam, or religious guide, dedicated to the “Koranic exegesis (tâsfir al-Qu’ran) and the pillars of the Islamic orthopraxy (usûl al-Fiqh)”.
He completed a master in Cognitive Psychology and two PhD – one in Religious Anthropology (his thesis’ central subject, Islam and Homosexuality, will soon be published as a book, as he told me during this interview); the other in Social Psychology of Religions.
Dr. Zahed was founder and spokesman of the HM2F (Homosexuals Muslims of France), described as “a collective of citizens for a totally wide-ranging Islam of France and a secularism that respects all the religions”.
He also founded the first organization of seropositive youngsters (Association Enfants du Sida – TDMES), the association of Progressive Muslims of France (MPF), the LGBT association of African and Caribbean origins in France and the MTE collective against the discrimination of Muslim Mothers using the hijab (veil).
In South Africa he was also founder and rector of the first Inclusive Muslim Center (CALEM’s Rumi Isiphephelo). Here, he met Qiyaammudeen Jantjies, his former husband. They got married in June 2011, in a civilian ceremony in Cape Town.
In February 18, 2012, following the French National Assembly’s approval of same-sex marriages, their union got a religious consecration, in Paris. In 2014 they began the divorce process.
Amongst Dr. Zahed’s books, the most popular, “a mixture of autobiography and essay”, is Le Coran et la Chair (literally, The Koran and the Flesh, Ed. Max Milo, published in English (only Kindle version) under the title Queer Muslim Marriage).
In 2012, Dr. Zahed became internationally famous when he opened, in Paris, the “Unity Mosque” – the first “gay-friendly” in Europe of a total 21 scattered in the U.S., Canada and South Africa. It is “a place of shelter and of worship, with common prayers practiced in an egalitarian setting and without any form of a gender-based discrimination, based on a progressive representation of Islam”, according to his own definition.
The initial space was a 10 square meters room in a Zen Temple offered by a monk, Federico Joko Procopio, whom the French-Algerian scholar met in Tibet when he tried to convert to Buddhism in search for the “real Islam”.
The original venue was kept secret due to “security and safety concerns”. It was required a “special registration through the HM2F association” (Federico is also a member). Meanwhile, the “Inclusive Mosque of Oneness” has got new and broad premises in downtown Paris in order to accommodate more than 300 hundred faithful.
The same contingencies still apply to the new one, in Marseille, where Dr. Zahed lives close to his parents’ home. Both centers “honor Islamic traditions like Friday prayers (Jumu’ah), Muslim marriage contracts (Nikah) – blessing also those of same-sex – and funeral rites (Janazah) for those who have been denied a traditional burial service based on Sharia Law due to their sexual orientation”.
Dr. Zahed is no longer the religious leader in Paris and Marseille. He has already trained his successors, but remains a respected scholar, nicknamed “The imam without borders”, so much that he was invited, in 2014, to celebrate in Stockholm (Sweden) the marriage of two Iranian Lesbians. Myriam Iranfar and Sahr Mosleh were met through social networks and are expecting their first child. In Iran, they would be probably condemned to death.
You moved from your native Algeria to France when you were a child. Would you, please, tell me more about your family background, and how was the transition from North Africa to Europe?
My family in Algeria is conservative but my parents, who are Muslims, are somehow liberal [his father didn’t even obey one of Islam’s pillars: fasting during the sacred month of Ramadan.]. They taught me that Islam is more of spirituality than religious dogma.
I was one-year old when we moved. Then, we would go to Algeria and France, back and forth. After the civil war [in 1991] I left Algeria for good. It was 1997. I was 17-years ago.
In some of your interviews and in your book Le Coran et la Chair, you remember being a “very shy and effeminate” child, your family making nasty comments [father would often call him “crybaby” and “chick”] and acting with cruelty. Would you mind to talk about this hurtful past?
My father told me that my Almighty masculinity was not good. But it was more difficult especially in what concerns my paternal grandfather. He even tried to be physically abusive. That is why I decided to come out when I was 21-years old.
Was your coming out prompted by the family’s hostility?
Yes. I could not stand so much pressure.
Usually it is the other way around: more pressure force people to remain in the closet…
But, in my case, when I began to be violently attacked it was the time for me to come out. And from my experience I know that other people do the same when they are physically attacked.
At home, I was attacked, and outside the house I had to endure homophobia and Islamophobia. It was too much. At home, I was discriminated because I was gay; outside, I was discriminated because I was Muslim and Arab. I came out because I wanted to find my place in society.
Have you already found that place?
Yes. Five years ago, when I founded the organization of Homosexual Muslims of France (HM2F). I did not want to reject my homosexuality and didn’t want to reject my Islam. When I discovered that I could be both, I found peace.
Let’s go back to your affiliation with the Salafi Brotherhood in Algeria. Why did you become a member?
The Salafi Brotherhood was very important in Algeria in the 1990’s. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated about Islam, so I’ve joined the young Salafi Brothers in the mosques. As such, I also became a salafi.
It was the only ‘Islam’ present there back then. I’ve learnt the Arabic language to read the Koran by heart. Unfortunately, all the beautiful philosophy of life contained in Islam was tainted by an ideology that is the contrary of religious spirituality.
Among the Salafi you’ve noticed that the love for your “brothers” was not only spiritual (or “platonic”) but physical as well. How did the brotherhood react when you came out?
It was rejection! They didn’t want to talk to me or shake my hand. Some of them didn’t even want to look in the eyes anymore. They considered me a temptation.
This was Algeria 1995. [One of the events that compelled Dr. Zahed to run away from those who ostracized him was an attack, in January 30, when a truck full of explosives blown up, in the capital center, killing more than 40 people. The Islamic Group GIA claimed responsibility. He found himself “dangerously close to that people”, and it was a wake-up call.]
You moved then to Marseille…
… Yes, when I came back to France, I came for good. Now, I live in Marseille since 20 years, close to my parent’s house, in the same street.
It is interesting that you all live now in the same neighborhood, but initially your family did not accept your homosexuality with open arms. Your mother cried a lot, in shock, you said.
She did not believe that I am gay. It took her ten years to understand that homosexuality is not a disease or a temporary phase in my life. When I got married to a man and not to a woman, she finally accepted. It was important for me, because I found my space in society, and did not have to fight at home anymore, and to explain who I am. It was a very important point to me feeling in peace.
How important was your father’s blessing [“I will stand by you until the end”]?
His blessing was mandatory. If my family did not accept me, I wouldn’t be what I am today. I would be lost. I am sure. Some young people are still being thrown from their family homes because they are gay. Some are beaten and even killed because of their homosexuality. It is like as our life is not ours. It is like hell.
My mother probably had different expectations, but she understands now that I have been always a good and decent person who tries to help everybody. I finished my PhD, I am a doctor, an engaged citizen and a good practicing Muslim.
She accepts me with no reservations. Before that, she was full of prejudices, thinking that all homosexuals are bad people, like leprous or criminals. She was enclosed in some of Koran’s interpretations of Sodom and Gomorrah. But Sodom and Gomorrah is not about homosexuals. It is about a sin city.
In Marseille, you’ve faced a crisis of faith. You “shaved your beard, ceased to pray and turned instead into partying and drugs”. At the same time, you became romantically involved with an “unfaithful man” who infected you with HIV, adding to your torment one more lifelong problem: being a seropositive. Can you explain the doubts and why did you rebel against religion?
When I was a teenager the Islam that I knew was Salafism, political Islam. It was a representation of Islam used as an ideology no to spiritual growth. I need almost a decade to understand that I had in me an Islam that is a spiritual path, not an ideology anymore but the spirituality needed in my life.
At that time, I even tried to covert to Buddhism and to Christianity, but I found homophobia everywhere – even amongst people who did no believe in God. So, I understood that the problem is not religion, is not Islam, but what we make out of Islam.
How do you look back at your past?
I do not regret anything. Even when I was infected with HIV, it happened when I was in a long-term relationship. I did not have to hide it. And I can say that, after twenty years, I feel very healthy. And also very happy, even if sometimes it is very hard, because while finishing my PhD I had been threatened, people wanted to kill me, and so on…
My life as an adult is, in spite of everything, very happy. I achieved what I wanted: I am an intellectual with a spiritual background. I live in peace and have my family around me.
Why did you receive death threats?
Because some people wanted to impose a fascist ideology through Islam, like the Nazis when they tried to control other’s identities. Unfortunately this happens again and again in several cultures and religions. Those people try to show a façade of goodness and happiness, but they only think about themselves. They are focused on their own fears and phobias.
They need to find scapegoats and, usually, it is religious or/and ethnic minorities, to change them, and make examples out of them. The Islamic society is lost – and this is the real problem. One day, maybe, we will find a way [of solving it]. Insh’Allah, or ‘Oxalá’, as you say in Portuguese.
What does Islam say about homosexuality? “We don’t blame the homosexuals but we cannot offer a place to that practice so that it turns out to be a part of the society”, said Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris – where you used to pray. The chairman of the Islamophobic Actions Observatory in France, Abadllah Zekry, was even more critical: “There are Homosexual Muslims but to open a mosque is an aberration, because that’s not religion”…
…It is not true. Those people are pointing to Sodom and Gomorrah, in former Mesopotamia, actual Syria and Iraq. According to historian Herodotus, the people of those places worshiped a goddess of love and war, which was a very violent representation of their religion. They offered their sons and daughters’ virginity and sexuality to fertilize the crops: vegetables, fruits…
In those times, priests already used their power to control people’s identities. The real people of Sodom and Gomorrah were not homosexuals. Men, women and children were sacrificed interests.
There is an important verse in the Koran: God is speaking to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah through the mouth of angels. There is no reference to homosexuality in the Koran; it only mentions the rape of men, women and children in the name of an ideology. That is what vicious and fascists Muslim leaders are doing today in the name of Islam. The true sodomites are them; not homosexuals.
[A “good sum up”, recommended by Dr. Zahed, on Islam’s stance on homosexuality, based on Sodom and Gomorrah, is here. An excerpt:
Despite the pronouncements of many Muslim scholars, Islam’s stance on homosexuality is extremely complicated. Allah clearly has a preference for believers to engage in heterosexual marriage based on his praise of it, yet neither Allah nor the Prophet ever overtly banned homosexual relationships for Muslims, nor did Allah condemn alternative sexual identities. Some Muslim scholars universally ban homosexuality based on their interpretation of verses 4:15-16 of the Quran and their reading of the story of Lot. These scholars are using a minority interpretation of 4:15-16, and misinterpret the story of Lot. The Quran and Hadith’s stance on homosexuality is much more complex than most Muslims realize. The companions of the Prophet included the ‘mukhannathun‘, a group of homosexual transvestites that are sometimes mis-translated as eunuchs, hermaphrodites or effeminate men. Although it is clear that many of the companions had a severe dislike of the ‘mukhannathun’, the Prophet protected at least one from a lynch mob. The Prophet not only tolerated them, but based on a verse from the Quran, he employed one in his household.After the Prophet died, several mukhannathun played prominent roles in Medinan life and culture. ‘Mukhannaths’, which the Prophet refused to eliminate despite the companions’ urging, still survive in Muslim countries today.]
The interpretation of sacred texts is still predominantly male and misogynist. A great number of scholars and theologians do not accept Ijtihād [or “Effort”, in Arabic], the search for a consensus…
… Ijtihād is the responsibility that God gave us to understand the Koran and the Hadith [Traditions] – this meaning what the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be up on him) said and did. [For more information, read here).
There is a hadith where we find that the Prophet protected equally men dressed as women who were gays and transsexuals, because, for him, “they are equals” in prayer. There is nothing in the Koran and in the Hadith that justifies homophobia.
The Prophet did not marginalize women or required them to wear scarves, but after Muhammad’s death others excluded the women. Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist, unveiled that homophobia appeared only after the death of the Prophet. We have to deal with these problems.
And so you decided to open the Unity Mosque to serve as an “inclusive place of prayer”, where people of diverse sexual orientations can join and pray without fear of being looked like “abnormal” …
…We are following the true tradition of the Prophet, including women and men, straight, gay or transgender, without prejudice, any exclusion. This is Islam – not ideology.
Was the opening of this mosque a difficult process?
I opened the mosque in 2012, thanks to the great support of the HM2F association. I felt motivated after I read in the newspapers that some Imams were refusing to bury a French citizen, because he was a transsexual Muslim.
In the beginning our mosque worked in a Buddhist temple, but now we have our own space in downtown Paris, and also in Marseille, where I am living. I am no longer in charge or leading the prayers. This task ha been performed by good friends, whom I trained to be Imams.
Soon, there will be a third mosque in another city in France – I don’t know exactly where at the moment. That is another chapter of our organization; it is up to them to decide.
Do you have plans to open inclusive mosques in other European countries?
I don’t know, but our plan is to be present all over Europe.
In these mosques, are women allowed to lead the prayers and mix with men, without segregation?
In 2014, you were invited to celebrate the marriage of a couple of Iranian lesbians in Sweden when your own marriage was in deep crisis. What happened?
We are divorcing. Marriage is not forever – just like life. When I shared with my father the sadness, he told me: Son, not all marriages are eternal. This does not happen only in homosexuality.
I think it was the first time he mentioned the word “homosexuality”.
This interview, edited for clarification, was published in the Portuguese news magazine VISÃO, on June 1o, 2015