I come back from the bathroom, and she’s leafing through my Quran.
We’re doing iftar in my tiny New York apartment, just the two of us. The difficult parts are over—the last minute prep, my stressing over the taste of the food I cooked while fasting, the cleaning up—and we’re lounging on my couch, a bowl of berries between us.
In the two minutes that I’ve been gone, she has picked up my Quran. It’s a Quran I’ve had since high school, the pages worn and dog-eared and highlighted and decorated with penciled-in comments. Looking through this Quran now is like looking at who I’ve been: there’s the time I was obsessed with the idea of talking to God, and went through and highlighted all the duaas in yellow; the pages with the surahs I have memorized are crinkled with use; the underlined words are the ones that I consistently mess up while reading aloud. This particular Quran is a story of its own, a complicated progression of my faith.
I must be visibly nervous, because she pauses in the middle of turning over a page and looks at me.
“Is it okay that I’m looking through this?”
“Yes, of course,” I find myself saying because… well, because I have a crush on her. This beautiful, brilliant woman who is in my apartment and is, of all things, leafing through my Quran.
She stops at one of the pages. “What are the blue highlights?”
I hesitate. Islam is incredibly personal to me, and talking about the nuance of interpretation with people who don’t have similar ties to religion has always felt difficult.
“Those are the verses that spoke to me this year.”
She settles further into the couch, reads the dense, blue-highlighted verse on the page she has flipped to, while I chew on my nail in wait. She looks up when she is done, and a simple question escapes her: “Why?”
The highlighted verse comes with a story—it’s the story of a group of queer Muslims who refused to let their identities be mutually exclusive during Ramadan. A group of queer Muslims who were tired of feeling out of place in the mosques in their city, but who were also tired of being tired—of waiting for something to change.
It started off as an ambitious idea: we would create our own space, we would read the Quran and break our fast together every day. The technicalities, though, proved difficult: Where could we do this so that it felt intimate, but also accessible in a city of large distances and small apartments? How would we fit this into our already busy schedules? What would we do for food?
But the hardest questions, of course, were about how to approach the text itself. What interpretations of the Quran would we read? How would we grapple with this text and the voluminous amounts of tafsir that none of us have training in, or the centuries of exegesis that don’t always speak to us? How would we hold space for the varied relationships we have with faith, with the trauma that some of us associate with classical interpretations? How would we be able to read this text that we had only been taught to read through the interpretations of others?
We ended up drawing inspiration from a workshop called “Queering the Quran” at the LGBTQ Muslim Retreat that a few of us had attended, wherein the workshop facilitator, a dear friend, pointed out that Muslims have a tendency to fetishize the original context of the Quran. Instead, what if we decided to set the context of the Quran to be in the now? What would it be like to read the Quran assuming the immediacy of God speaking to us today? What would it be like to read the Quran through a personal lens? This would be a reading that doesn’t discount lived experiences or the interplay of culture and context, and acknowledges the way certain verses are used in oppressive ways without being defined by that oppression.
And so, together, we read. Not more than a verse or two a day, usually. We read our various English translations aloud, sometimes listen to the Arabic recitation, and then pause, stop to collect our thoughts for a few minutes, write down our reflections before discussing. We marvel. We close-read and analyze, tell stories, and voice our discomforts, sometimes anger. We admire the aesthetics, eat food afterwards, ask about each others’ days, and Skype people in when they can’t physically make it. We play mafia, and accompany each other to the hospital. We become friends, we become family.
Building this sort of intimacy and trust over time means a refusal to gloss over the difficult verses when they appear. At one iftar this Ramadan, the discussion of what to read resulted in a longer silence than usual. So I suggested an ayah that had always caused me problems.
Your wives are a place of sowing of seed for you, so come to your place of cultivation however you wish and put forth [righteousness] for yourselves. And fear Allah and know that you will meet Him. And give good tidings to the believers. [2:223]
Someone read another translation, even more misogynistic.
Your wives are as fields for you. You may enter your fields from any place you want. Reserve something good for your souls [for the life hereafter]. Have fear of God and know that you are going to meet Him. [Muhammad] give the glad news to the believers. [2:223]
We were stunned into somber silence. It sat heavy with us, this verse.
The responses slowly trickled in. Historical context, a friend offered gingerly, describing how we tend to center interpretation around the way we ourselves experience the world. Perhaps the verse could have meant something different in the particular time and context that this verse was revealed in, and could have been revolutionary in terms of how women were treated otherwise.
But others countered:
“The Quran tells us that it is spatially and temporally universal. How does this fit into that?”
“What about the material ways that this verse is used to justify violence against women?”
“Not every verse has to speak to everyone at all times. We pick and choose what speaks to us with regard to everything we come across. Why not extend that filter to religion?”
One quiet interjection brought the lively discussion to a halt.
“What about the days when these justifications don’t feel enough?”
The question silenced us, stilled us for a few minutes before another friend added, “Wait, why are we sexualizing this verse?” She went on to discuss further: Are we, perhaps, projecting the “sowing the seed” cliché onto the metaphor of the field? What if this field, this “place of cultivation,” is meant to be a place of emotional cultivation instead? What if God is telling us to think of our relationships as fields, as something that we must put effort into to derive emotional nourishment and growth?
The sound of the adhaan seeped out of someone’s phone. It was a comforting explanation for us to sit with, a good place to end.
I tell the woman this story, the woman who is in my apartment leafing through my Quran after I’ve broken fast. I tell her how, the day after that meeting with friends, I turned on my iPod while I worked—to shut out the world, and avoid the exhaustion comes with interacting with people while fasting—and put on the Quran to fill the emptiness. That’s when I came across the blue-highlighted verse she has just read and is questioning me about now.
It is He who has sent down to you the Book; in it are verses precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah. But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.” And no one will be reminded except those of understanding. [3:7]
Even now, the verse stuns me and leaves me breathless. It acknowledges the uncertainty inherent in interpretation, argues against literalism, and serves as a reminder to use our judgment. It is an answer.
I tell her all of this, this beautiful woman who listens raptly and asks thoughtful questions while making my heart beat faster. It is an immense leap of faith on my part; it is the most intimate thing I’ve ever done.
The original version of this essay was published at Tanqueed.
Lamya H is a queer Muslim writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared at Vox, Salon, Black Girl Dangerous, Autostraddle and The Islamic Monthly. She is a Lambda Literary Fellow 2015.