Magazine article New Internationalist

Love in a Grey Zone

Magazine article New Internationalist

Love in a Grey Zone

Article excerpt

Suleman1 has always known that he was attracted to men. He would wear his mother's saris when she was out of the house and put on his sister's make-up in the belief that this is what men found appealing. Suleman also knew that he wanted to be a religious leader, an imam. He joined a madrassa (an Islamic religious school) where he began rigorous training. Small in stature with an imposing black beard, he is dressed in a white kurta pyjama with a matching white mosque hat, the ubiquitous uniform for the men of Allah. He is predisposed to following everything up with religious references.

'Imams have a lot of responsibility. The Malik (Lord) has chosen me, even with all my flaws, to follow him. IfI can fulfil even the slightest one of his wishes, then Allah is pleased.'

At age 32, Suleman leads the five daily prayers and also the Friday jumma at one of the largest mosques in Dhaka. His dry, husky voice, a result of the fiery sermons he delivers, has a cheerful twinkle buried in it.

Suleman made the decision to become a religious leader partly in the hope that it would bring an end to the desires he had for men, something he thought at the time to be outside of the bounds of religious acceptability.

As with the other Abrahamic religions, the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom, used by some Muslims to condemn homosexuality, was something he was more than familiar with. Suleman tried controlling his feelings by praying and fasting obsessively, ironically in the process excelling in the eyes of the scholars at the madrassa. However, to his dismay he found that his urges did not diminish. If anything, as he grew older, they became worse.

'All night in the dormitory, my eyes would see no sleep. I wanted to be able to care for a man, marry him and give him physical pleasure,' he remembers.

One day Suleman reluctantly shared his feelings with a friend, a fellow student. They ended up having sex. Afterwards, he was meticulous about following the guidelines on fornication set out by Islamic scriptures. He had already recited a prayer before they slept with each other; afterwards he washed his entire body, his mouth, hands and only then did he go to sleep. In the morning he prayed for forgiveness and read the Qur'an.

This was a pivotal moment. For the first time in his life, it dawned on him that what he had done was not wrong. He remembers saying in his prayers that day, 'my friend and Lneeded and wanted to do this. It gave us peace of mind and body. Is this so wrong?'

Suleman is hardly the norm in the conservative world of Bangladeshi Islamic orthodoxy. I ask him whether he believes what he did wasgiwna (sin)? In Islam the sin is in the act and not at the level of the feelings or thinking.

He has given this much thought. 'Love between men, even in the days of the Prophet, has always existed and always will.' He asks me if I know the worst sin a person can commit. I don't. He replies that it is to give koshto (pain) to another. Giving koshto is the equivalent of destroying one of Allah s mosques.

'He has said that we should love one another, give each other joy and happiness. The shariah (part of the basic principles of Islamic law) even says this. When I am with the person I love, I am giving him pleasure, joy, affection, my body. He is doing the same in return. We are not giving each other koshto or anyone else. So where is the ghuna in this? It is for Allah to judge.'

Love and marriage

Despite this early moment of elucidation, the personal conflicts and anguish continued to haunt the young imam for many years. But today, after completing Hey, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Suleman has come to accept that his feelings for his lover do not contravene his understanding of the Qur'an. He is exasperated that for many in his congregation homosexuality is wrong because Allah has not explicitly granted it.

"They consider what should be ghuna to be permissible and what should be permissible to be ghuna. …

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