Black, Queer, And Muslim: On Faith, Self-Care, And Identity

Can you say intersectionality?

by Najma Sharif

To be black, queer, and Muslim means to be constantly erased while simultaneously being hyper-visible. Unlike non-black Muslims, black Muslims can't whitewash themselves with the hopes of assimilating. The history of black Muslims in America in this country is vast and complicated, starting hundreds of years ago when the first black Muslims arrived in the United States as slaves, and their religion was stripped from them by white, Christian slave owners.

Now, black Muslims make up more than 30 percent of the Muslim population in the United States, yet media narratives about Muslims—including those of queer Muslims—focus almost solely on non-black Muslims, thus making black, queer Muslims among the most marginalized people in the country, those whose voices are rarely heard.

The following six people are black, queer, and Muslim; they include black Americans and black diasporans alike. They're writers, models, students, and artists. Their identity isn't easy to define or understand, but perhaps that's fine; perhaps it's not worth trying to dissect. After all, when I think of my identity, I remember what Toni Morrison said about “there always being one more thing" to explain; being black, queer, and Muslim means that you're always explaining your existence, and have less time to just exist.

Read on to see what these individuals think about things like spirituality, Islam, blackness and what it means to survive in a world that tries to make it seem like you don't exist.

Devyn Springer, 22, Atlanta, Georgia, writer/artist/activist

My friends say I'm really religious, or sometimes they say “spiritual." I keep my relationship with Allah and my relationship to spirituality in general extremely personal and inspired by the Sufi idea of "creating a revolution of the self." The struggle of existing as black, queer, and Muslim is much less about existing unapologetically, rather than joyfully. I can—and often do—exist unapologetically, loudly, boldly, confidently as a synthesis of all of my identities, but at what cost? I am constantly examining the cost of living this “unapologetic" way—the stress, the disapproval from my communities, the often violent rhetoric I receive—and see it as hurtful to my own mental health and self-image at times. So it is less about explaining why or how I can live unapologetically at the center of many conflicting axes of identity, and more about examining the effects that this society puts on an individual for doing so.

It is always somewhat difficult navigating between the intersections of queerness and Islam because I have never for a second felt that my queerness negates or even conflicts with me being Muslim. That disregard and disapproval have always been projected onto me, never formed from my own introspection, so navigating that intersection simply means keeping that in perspective at all times. I find it interesting that, because of our queerness, our spirituality and Muslim “validity" is attacked, because for me that spirituality is how I preserve myself and cope with the racist, homophobic, exploitative ways of this world. Prayer, reading Sufi poetry, making Dhikr, reading the Quran, all of those things bring me peace and help me cope, while simultaneously are the very things that my existence seems to contest for some. To the black, queer Muslims reading this, I'd tell them to be patient and be strong, whether moving in silence and shadows or moving boldly.

Vanessa Taylor, 21, Minneapolis, Minnesota, community organizer and co-founder of the Black Liberation Project

Being a black woman makes it easier for me to dismiss ideas that my queer identity negates my Muslim one because I've had to struggle with the same mindset in regard to black womanhood. It's given me the ability to not tolerate bullshit by knowing I don't have to argue with it anymore. I could outline why my existence isn't haram and I can bring up counterpoints to shut down every damn argument, but what's the point? I'm not here to debate my humanity or the validity of my identity and religion. There's also, on one hand, difference in my experiences as a revert and being able to simply dodge the conversation with no additional stress. I don't have Muslim family; I'm black American, so my spirituality is already put into question, and no one takes me seriously enough as a Muslim to comment on my queerness.

However, my relationship with God had been put into question when I was in the church on the basis of my race, gender, and sexuality. Because of that, I taught myself to understand where religion aligns with cultural bias and socialization and acts as an institution of oppression, and to understand that people who try to invalidate my identity now are caught up in the same systemic and societal issues I critique in my activism. I carry that same framework into Islam. I reverted to cope with attacks on my body because of being a queer, black woman. And so in coping with new attacks, I still turn to Islam. Specifically, I look at where it aligns with my other interests: black American history, black theology, activism, etc. People often pretend you can only learn religion through X, Y, and Z sources—holy books, "scholars," hella old and culturally specific texts, etc.—but I'm not gonna lie and say some sources and texts conceived outside my reality can hold my attention. Additionally, a lot of the attacks I face comes from organizing, and so diving into spirituality and specifically taking time to understand black American and liberation theology has given my protests a spiritual weight that makes it easier to carry.

I turn to prayer often, too; it helps me deal with depression and mental illnesses at their worst by forcing me to acknowledge the day as it passes, by forcing me to keep myself clean, by forcing me into a routine healthier than clicking "yes, I'm still here" on Netflix. I've been trying to dedicate myself to more introspective work and sorting through whatever is going on inside me. Sometimes it seems counteractive because we think of self-care as easy and cute, but some things I stumble upon are so rotted inside that I can't leave my room for days. But it allows me to start viewing myself truthfully. Before, I spent most of my time outside my own body. I saw myself as a character, as fiction. I still indulge in other things, like face masks and mini "spa" days. I have long skin-care routines. I write, tweet. But those are distractions, at best, so self-care, for me, had to become something that was harder, that involved sewing my spirit back into my body.

I'm a lot more religious than people think I am. A lot of people separate being religious from being spiritual, which is sometimes okay. However, it gets messy when we reduce being religious, or religion as a whole, to tradition and a series of thoughtless behaviors. Because of that understanding, people see that "oh, I don't pray five times a day, I struggle, I don't wear hijab how they think I should, I have tattoos," and they assume I'm not religious. I understand being religious as a combination of, yes, ascribing to a certain tradition and trying to embody it, but also spirituality existing at the same time. I'm religious because I see God in everything I do, because I tie God back to my work. I'm religious because I struggle. Unless I'm being paid or really care about you, I've stopped giving so many explanations. People who demand them usually see you as segmented or not real, anyway, and I can't explain myself into existence. Plus, I honestly don't care.

I think my saving grace in all of this is my general disinterest. I don't get upset or excited easily; I'm fairly aloof and laid-back. That also allows me to be unapologetic in the ways I inhabit spaces. It doesn't mean I don't sometimes struggle or internalize things, because every defense has its cracks, but it makes it easier to shrug off the worse. When it comes to being carefree, though, I can't. I think the concept is dope, if that's how you approach life. But, like I said, I'm unbothered at the most. I'm not necessarily carefree, and I don't see how I could ever be. To me, carefree is an attempt to articulate or capture joy that I don't have and wouldn't know what to do with if it was caught. So, is it possible? Absolutely. But it isn't me.

Arfie, 19, Washington D.C., Editor of Clementine Zine/ Writer

I've never thought about my identities negating one another because they both exist simultaneously within me; one doesn't overshadow the other. I think that people already don't see Muslim women as complex human beings, especially black Muslim women, so identifying as more than one thing is a difficult concept for people to grasp, but, for us, it's not that deep.

I do sometimes feel a really deep, inexplicable sadness thinking about the violence that people like myself face and the violence the Earth faces, and surrounding myself with other women who I feel safe around helps with that. I also retreat into myself and try to escape through media or getting outside in nature. But, most importantly, finding your people, finding women with similar experiences to lean on is a huge part of coping.

For self-care, I let myself feel everything, even the bad stuff. I allow myself to have days where I don't get out of bed and where I don't shower or speak to anyone and I remind myself that whatever existential dread I feel in regards to my identity is temporary. My relationship with Allah is complicated, but none of that has to do with the fact that I'm bisexual. I definitely feel a really deep connection to Allah, and I know that because of how beautiful the Earth and universe is, and how beautiful I and my friends and family are. I exist for Allah, and he will always steer me in the right direction and will always remind me that there is work to be done.

I often have conversations with my friends about how we're exhausted with being expected to create art solely about our identity. Like with writing especially, I always feel this expectation to write about being the black bisexual Muslim girl or the mentally ill black girl or what have you when that's not necessarily the story I always want to tell. I think it's also harmful because that expectation means people view my narrative as only one of suffering when there's so much joy, more joy than anything else, that I feel when I think about who I am and the other women in my life who are like me. I want to write about aliens and dinosaurs and string theory, and all of that will tie into my black Muslim queerness just by virtue of it being created by me. It's not my responsibility, or any black queer Muslim femme's responsibility, to explain ourselves and our humanity is not contingent upon our ability to explain our circumstances to the oppressor, especially since our oppressors don't really care to listen anyways.

Abdi, 18, Student, Seattle, WA

I tend to stay away from intolerant people, and I surround myself with more open-minded Muslims and other LGBT Muslims. Basically, I avoid intolerant people and stick with Muslims who accept me, so I don't feel the need to navigate anything, and I try not to let others' negativity bother me. I keep to myself and accept myself which is enough. It's pretty difficult being a queer Muslim. I feel like I've been distancing myself from Islam because of that. Everywhere I look, there's hate and negativity, and it's hard to be a part of a community that doesn't accept you. I don't feel the need to want to be a part of a community that hates me, so I just distance myself. I surround myself with people like me and avoid the rest. I feel like a lot of other queer, black Muslims tend to do the same. To the queer, black Muslims out there, I'd say that there are more of us out there than you think. You're not alone. I have a nice support system of other queer, black Muslims who I can vent to and hang out with, which is great.

Aamina “Amo" Mohamed, Saint Paul, Minnesota, public speaker, organizer, and freelance consultant, occasional babysitter and broke person

Although cultural and communal relationships with Islam can be nice, I encourage individual relationships and self-interpretation. Thinking of my personal relationship with Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, helps me a lot. I also reaffirm myself and think things like, What does Islam mean to YOU and how does it align with YOUR truths? I try to center myself and what's best for me when it comes to my relationship with Islam. I also think since we all know nothing is free from the grasp of white supremacy via socialization, I take things with a grain of salt, including interpretations. You'll learn a lot from historical context and why certain things that might have been once viewed as necessary no longer are.

I haven't been coping well, but I do go on a nice Facebook rant every now and then to air my frustrations because I'm angry as fuck and have every right to be. To other black queer femmes, I say it's okay not to know how to feel or perform any emotions in a certain way to prove to anyone you're human too, and if you want to be angry as fuck, be angry as fuck. More often than not you're being bombarded because of all of your identities, so don't take shit from anyone—including black people, Muslim people, queer people, and trash femmephobic people. I always say, “Self-preservation can look like keeping the things you love to yourself." So I tend to crave being left the alone and not the kind that's like nonhuman and let me treat you as invisible and nonexistent but for people to just leave me the fuck alone and I try doing this by shielding parts of my life. By using access reduction, I control whether or not people can react with parts of me violently, and this helps me survive.

I think what people often see as religious is highly performative and not as individualistic and personal as it should be. I do feel strongly connected to my religion, which is why I identify as Muslim. I don't know if I do all the traditional things I am supposed to that can be seen as more religious and there's always room for improvement. I'll say my relationship is highly personal and religious to me. I've changed a lot in the sense that I no longer spend much time giving explanations, but despite this, I still suffer from severe anxiety because if it was as simple as people not liking me, cool. It's harder to ignore mostly because people are violent and try to make living life hell merely for existing without permission. I also think we all have our doubts and being completely unapologetic 24/7 100 percent is hard. When you're pushed out from your communities and families and everyone treats you like you've done something wrong and you've been indoctrinated into thinking of what you are and feel as wrong, it's hard. Being queer, Muslim, and black makes you guarded, cautious, and induces anxiety.

Blair Imani, 23, activist, model, press officer for Planned Parenthood, writer, founder of Equality for Her

Allah is all knowing and most forgiving. Regardless of our sexual orientation, we must live our lives with the intention of doing good and alleviating the suffering of others. I try my hardest to live up to this. I follow the five pillars as continue to learn how to be a better person and a better Muslim. Only Allah can judge us and know our true intentions. I completely reject the idea that my identity negates my faith especially since the majority of these phobias come from manipulated texts and social projections—not the word of Allah. Islam gave me the peace of mind, body, and soul to fight the systems of oppression build against me and people like me. The internal peace I feel and the happiness I have achieved within myself came from my decision to be true to myself and that meant converting to Islam, being open about my queer identity, standing up for oppressed and marginalized bodies, and being proud of my blackness, unapologetically. I have experienced more blessings and more good the more I am true to myself and the more I reevaluate my intentions toward doing good in the world. I cannot know if I am the perfect Muslim, but I do know that I am constantly learning; and, most of all, I am happy with who I am.