At first, the devout Muslims who gathered in a Washington, D.C., conference center seemed like they could have come from any mosque. There were women in headscarves and bearded men who quoted the Quran.
But something was different. While mingling over hors d’oeuvres, they discussed how to change Islam’s future. A woman spoke about fighting terrorism; she had married outside the Islamic faith, which is forbidden for a Muslim woman. A Pakistani man mentioned his plans to meet friends for drinks, despite the faith’s ban on alcohol.
In a corner of the room, an imam in a long gray tunic counseled a young Muslim with a vexing spiritual conflict: being gay and Muslim. The imam, also gay and in a relationship, could easily sympathize with the youth’s difficulties.
On this brisk Monday night in late October, members of Muslims for Progressive Values, a nascent American reformist organization, had gathered from around the country to celebrate a milestone: In four years, the group had grown from a few friends to a thousand members and spawned a string of small mosques and spiritual groups that stretched from Atlanta to Los Angeles.
Today, as America’s Muslim leaders debate controversial topics like political radicalism inside mosques and states’ attempts to ban Shariah law, this growing network of alternative mosques and Islamic groups is quietly forging a new spiritual movement.
They’re taking bold steps, reinterpreting Islamic norms and re-examining taboos. While far from accepted by mainstream clerics, these worshippers feel that the future of the religion lies not solely with tradition but with them. Women are leading congregations in prayer, gay imams are performing Islamic marriages, and men and women are praying side by side.
This is not the norm for most of the 2.6 million-strong American Islamic community, accustomed to centuries-old traditions of gender relations and houses of worship that tend to draw primarily from a single ethnic group.
“We can’t move forward as a society, as a faith system, if we subscribe to these old draconian ways of practicing Islam,” says Ani Zonneveld, who is the president of Muslims for Progressive Values. A 49-year-old singer-songwriter who lives in Los Angeles, she leads prayers for men and women together and tells gay Muslims, often shunned in other mosques, that their religion welcomes them.
This soft-spoken Malaysian-American who sports a crop cut with blond streaks is one of a small but burgeoning cadre of Islamic reformers in the United States, both within her group and outside it. Their causes range from fighting radicalization and educating young people to building interfaith bridges and protecting women’s rights. Over the years, leaders in the Muslim community have addressed changing needs, from building new mosques to defending civil rights when unfamiliar spiritual practices resulted in discrimination. But this new movement is a radical departure.
“What’s taking place in Islam in America right now is what happened before in other religions,” says John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.
A few denominations within Judaism and Christianity have openly welcomed gay people and women, Esposito points out. Some Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish communities are led by gay and women rabbis. The Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church allow gay and women clergy. The United Methodist Church ordains women.
Mosques in America, however, usually are Sunni or Shiite; they differ in how they interpret Islamic law. Still other mosques combine Sunnis and Shiites under one roof. But as far as the open participation of gay people or leadership by women imams, most mosques are much the same: It doesn’t happen. Some Sufi mosques, which follow mystical traditions, welcome gay Muslims, though their numbers are sparse in the United States.
Most Muslims rarely attend mosques outside of major holidays although the Quran commands men to pray in a group every week. In a Pew survey last year of 1,033 American Muslims, just under one-half said they attend a mosque once a week. Many said they worship on their own or seldom. A majority of Muslims surveyed think the religion is flexible, with only about a third saying there is but one true way to interpret it.
That kind of view is becoming common among Muslims, according to Esposito, as more people try to separate what’s in the Quran from cultural traditions. “They say if we don’t see anything clear in our scripture, then that trumps tradition. And people are applying that to women’s issues and gay issues.”
It’s among this segment of believers that the progressives are trying to make their mark. With regular prayer meetings in several cities, salons on theology, a children’s Islamic educational camp and a series of printed adaptations of Quranic scholarship on issues such as homosexuality, Muslims for Progressive Values aims to fashion a new version of the ancient faith, one that members assert is truer to Islam’s origins.
There’s a long road ahead. While the total number of mosques in America has climbed 74 percent over the past decade, to more than 2,100, Muslims for Progressive Values has a significant presence in only a dozen cities, including Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The progressives’ mosques are borrowed spaces: community centers, homes and churches. There’s a mosque in Toronto and a prayer group in Ottawa. The group keeps a directory of unaffiliated like-minded worship centers in smaller cities.
But the progressive Muslims feel they have found momentum, Zonneveld says.
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