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Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques In Attempt To Reform American Islam

Posted:   |  Updated: 01/30/2013 1:25 pm EST

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Zonneveld grew up in Germany, Egypt and India as her father moved between stations as a Malaysian ambassador. Her stay-at-home mom taught Zonneveld and her five siblings the basics of Islam. The family read the Quran together in Arabic and fasted from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. Mosques were scarce in Germany, so her parents invited other Muslims to pray in their home.

After attending college in Illinois, Zonneveld moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a musician. That's where she met her husband, a Dutch-born agnostic who now runs a grocery delivery company. They are raising their daughter Jasmine, 14, as a Muslim.

For 20 years, Zonneveld worked behind the scenes in the music industry, writing and composing songs. She kept her faith hidden at work, though, out of fear that it would hurt her career. But everything changed after Sept. 11.

The attacks by terrorists invoking Islam for a war against the West had nothing to do with the religion Zonneveld knew. Imams appeared on television with politicians to condemn violence. They echoed her views, but she was put off. She had little in common with the bearded middle-aged men on screen.

"The vast majority of American Muslims believe in an Islam that is so different from the people that represent us," Zonneveld says. "It's like if you had an Orthodox Jewish rabbi representing all American Jews."

For the first time, Zonneveld put religion at the forefront of her music. Two years after the attacks, she released an album, "Ummah, Wake Up!" The word ummah means "community" in Arabic. In the opening track, she called for a new jihad. To her, that meant striving to be more merciful, not taking up arms. Another track, "Bury Me," lamented what she saw as the marginalized state of women in Islamic communities.

Her album didn't go over well. When Zonneveld applied to perform at an Islamic music festival in Toronto, the event's organizers told her that men are forbidden to hear women sing. Islamic retailers banned the album. Prominent Muslims said Zonneveld was focusing too much on the bad in Islam and not enough on the good.

Frustrated with the lack of outlets for her critiques, Zonneveld helped found a group called the Progressive Muslim Union of North America. The broad alliance of dozens of activists and academics struggled and bickered over political beliefs and whether members wanted to reform Islamic doctrine or simply alter social practices. The two-year effort, largely academic, collapsed by 2006, never having founded a mosque.

A year later, Zonneveld cofounded Muslims for Progressive Values, which has enjoyed more tangible success. Its spiritual work has drawn endorsements from well-known Muslim activists, scholars and politicians.


Most scholars agree that the Quran, which Muslims believe is the written word of God, does not explicitly prohibit women from leading prayers or gay people from taking leadership roles in Islam. The holy book also does not forbid men and women to pray together. Yet, centuries of scholarship on the Quran and the sunnah (the way the prophet lived his life) have resulted in the prevailing view among Muslims worldwide that prayer leaders should be male and that homosexual activity is a sin.

To answer the question of whether women should lead prayers, records of the prophet's life -- whose authenticity remains under dispute -- are seized upon by people on all sides of the debate. Progressive scholars say the prophet permitted women to lead prayers at any time.

In three-quarters of American mosques, women gather in separate rooms or behind partitions or curtains, according to the most recent mosque study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The practice stems from Quran, which says that men and women should maintain modest relations. The Quran does not explicitly say the sexes must keep separate.

People like Zonneveld say they take their cue from the early years of Islam, when it was common for men and women to pray together. They point to Mecca, the holy Islamic city where Muslims go on pilgrimage every year and where men and women pray side by side.

There are parts of the Quran that condemn homosexual acts but their interpretation is debated. Today, in at least seven majority-Muslim countries, gay sex is punishable by death. Most opposition to homosexuality in Islam stems from the Quran's story of Lot, which follows the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Conservative clerics say Allah destroyed these cities because men were having sex with men. Like liberal Christians, progressive Muslims interpret this story to be one about condemnation of rape, not homosexuality.

The idea of welcoming gay and lesbian Muslims as part of the Islamic community is more recent, says Kecia Ali, an Islamic studies professor at Boston University who researches sexuality and gender in the Quran.

"We have always had gay people in prayer [groups], but they have been closeted," Ali says. "What's new is this idea that we are now thinking why we are praying the way we are praying, why we are Muslim and who is considered Muslim."


On a recent Saturday afternoon, Zonneveld and other spiritual activists gathered for one of Muslims for Progressive Values' biweekly salons in Los Angeles around a living room table strewn with pamphlets and books on Islamic law. Among those present were a Shiite from Iran, a Sunni originally from Iowa who dabbles in Sufism, a Muslim convert and an agnostic Palestinian. They were united by a question and a cause.

"What is Shariah?" asked Zonneveld, referring to the Islamic code that has been used to guide everything from rules for prayer and marriage to deadly punishments for minor crimes in majority-Muslim countries. As Muslims trying to establish a radically different Islam, they asked, How could Shariah be used to their benefit?

The answer did not come easily.

"Shariah is how we live according to God's will for us," said Jamila Ezzani, 28, an autism specialist who has been in the group for almost two years. "It's an ideal to reach for."

"But it's good to know scripture and verse," chimed in Vanessa Karam, a general education professor at University of the West. "No Muslim cannot say that's the foundation for everything, right?"

"I think Shariah [law] is totally made up," shot back Zonneveld. "It's not like there's a page in the Quran that says, 'For you to be Muslim, you have to live by these set of rules.'"

Their differing takes were emblematic of that often unspoken conflict within this community: Are the progressives practicing religion? Or do they resemble secular, cultural Muslims?

Yasir Qadhi, a popular conservative cleric and dean of academic affairs at Houston-based AlMaghrib Institute, holds the latter view. A lecture on progressives that he has given at Islamic conferences has garnered thousands of views on YouTube.

"The very fact that the movement is so small or marginal speaks volumes about their sway and influence," says Qadhi, who lives in Memphis, Tenn., and whose institute trains 6,000 students annually. "It's pretty clear the mainstream of Muslims of North America, who are under no pressure or threat of physical violence, have clearly identified with traditional voices."

"'Let's look at the text of the Quran and see what Allah and his messenger want us to do rather than to project our ideas onto the text," Qadhi says. "We traditionalists firmly believe the Quran is the book of Allah and the speech of Allah."

Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, also takes a critical view of the progressives.

Muslims for Progressive Values "are little more than a footnote or a special interest," she writes in an email. "Their actual influence in the [Muslim American] community is virtually non-existent," adds Mogahed, who spent six years collecting 50,000 interviews for the book "Who Speaks For Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think."

Mohamed Magid, the president of the Islamic Society of North America, takes a softer approach. As the imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a 5,000-member cluster of mosques in Northern Virginia, he welcomes a "marketplace of ideas" competing within Islam. "I have no right to strip anyone from Islam who wants to be Muslim," he says. Men, however, always lead prayers at his mosque, and Magid doesn't believe Islam condones homosexuality.