Imtiaz Popat was over the moon when his boyfriend popped the question last fall. They had been together a while and Popat was madly in love. He rushed to change his status on Facebook.
It didn’t take long before he received a call from his niece. “Uncle, are you getting married to a man?”
Popat knew it was time to come out to his family.
“It was hard at first but now my family accepts him and they accept me for who I am.”
Imtiaz Popat is a gay man and a devout Muslim. While he always accepted his sexual and gender identity, it was hard to reconcile it with his religious beliefs.
Popular and majority interpretations of Islam do not allow for homosexuality, says Yahya Momla, an imam at the B.C. Muslim Association, the largest Sunni organization in the province. An imam is the title given to a Muslim leader.
“However, we make a distinction between a person with homosexual urges and someone living a homosexual lifestyle,” adds Momla.
Knowing that acceptance is a challenge within the traditional Muslim community, Popat walked away from his religion. He came back only when he realized that he wasn’t the only one.
“I was watching Vision TV and I’m seeing a queer Muslim being interviewed on television and I was like, ‘If he can do it, why can’t I?’”
Popat decided to start Salaamat, a support group for LGBTQ members who identify as Muslims, practicing or non-practicing. He wanted others like him to know that they weren’t alone. Salaamat then joined Salaam Canada, a nation-wide group started by El-Farouk Khaki in Toronto, to become Salaam Vancouver in 2003.
Reconciliation of two identities
Popat says the Quran has always been open to interpretation according to time and context. According to him, the mainstream interpretation of Islam has been influenced by patriarchal culture. Members of Salaam Vancouver follow a different interpretation of the Quran.
“Quran recognizes transgender people. It says that there are those whose gender is not clear and even says that those whose gender is not clear should pray between men and women folk,” says Popat.
Popat says recognizing that there is a way to be both Muslim and yourself is the first step to opening yourself up to Allah, or God.
“How can you be close to Allah when you hate yourself and who you are? You cannot be close to Allah until you open to yourself. You cannot be spiritual and hide who you are. It’s not possible.”
Opening their doors to refugees
When he first began the group in 2001, Popat envisioned a safe space for LGBTQ Muslims in Vancouver to come together. Little did he know that they were opening their doors to another persecuted community.
“We didn’t realize but a large portion of our membership became refugees who are coming out and who seek asylum.”
These are refugees from countries where they wouldn’t be able to come out without risking persecution, adds Popat. Now, a significant portion of Salaam Vancouver’s work is supporting and assisting these refugees settle in Vancouver.
“A lot of people, even the refugees we help, they put away either their sexuality or their religion. They don’t think they can go together. I say, ‘No, no, you can be both.’”
A mosque for everyone
In Vancouver, Popat visits one particular mosque that doesn’t require people to choose between sexuality and religion either. El-Tawhid Juma Circle: Vancouver Unity Mosque practices a different perspective of Islam.
Nasser, 44, and Ati, 36, are both long-time members of the mosque.
“This is a safe space for anybody who wishes to come. We welcome everybody,” Nasser says in his warm and soothing voice. Nasser and Ati are being identified by their first names only to protect their identities.
Listen: Nasser’s story
Following an egalitarian and inclusive approach, the mosque doesn’t segregate men and women. Everyone prays together and, often, women lead the men in prayer.
“We all stand in one line to pray. We don’t separate between female or male or transgender, LGBTQ or non-LGBTQ, Muslim or non-Muslim. Whoever you are, you will be accepted. There is no judgment,” says Nasser.
The mosque was started in Toronto by El-Farouk Khaki with several chapters across Canada. In Vancouver, the circle meets on Saturdays on Davie Street.
“Our group is small. We normally have between six to 12 people coming every week but we are all close to each other. We love each other,” says Nasser.
Nasser, who is from Lebanon and Syria, says that his own journey hasn’t been easy. “It took me a long time. I rejected myself because of fear of the community. I imprisoned myself saying I can’t love myself and I’m not worthy of god’s love but then I think, ‘He created me.’ It takes time. It takes time to accept it.”
Even for the mosque, the challenges come from within the community. Men come to join in prayers but, when they see a woman leading the prayer, they leave and never come back.
“We never call those people back,” says Nasser. Nasser believes that spaces like this are important both for members within the community and beyond.
Ati has lead the prayers a few times, a drastic difference from her past.
“I never went to mosque before. One of the reasons is that I had fear, but since I found this place, I feel like I belong. To me, this is my family.”