Every year during Ramadan, 22-year-old Nour and her family, who are Canadian Shia Muslims living in the Greater Toronto Area, send trays of Iftar to their Muslim neighbours and engage in communal food sharing.
As over one million Muslims across Canada celebrate their second Ramadan in self-isolation during the pandemic, circumstances have forced people like Nour to revise their traditions, including Iftar. This year, limited by COVID-19 restrictions, Nour’s family will be dropping off trays of food to the entire neighbourhood—non-Muslims included—with a note explaining the holy month, their tradition, and the classic meals.
The holy month of Ramadan is ushered in by the new moon, which introduces the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. It was during this month that the Islamic religion was born in 7th-century Saudi Arabia.
As the most spiritual month of the year begins, many Muslims honour its significance by participating in a dry fast every day from dawn to dusk. Fasting plays a role in teaching patience, compassion, and gratitude. It also reminds people about those experiencing poverty and hunger.
When the sun sets during Ramadan, Muslims typically congregate to break fast together and eat Iftar. For many Muslims, in addition to a glorious feast, Iftar includes praying, recalling memories, and connecting with their community.
Hours are spent around dinner tables, on couches, in Masjids, or even outdoors, as communities talk and pray over food while growing closer to those around them and Allah. The community aspect of Iftar is a crucial part of Ramadan for many Muslims.
Connecting to her Muslim neighbours and community members wasn’t the only difficulty Nour faced during a Ramadan in quarantine. For Toronto Muslims with intersectional identities like Nour, who is bisexual, it can be especially challenging to feel a sense of community.
In 2016, Imam El-Farouk Khaki and his husband, Troy Jackson, co-founded Toronto’s first LGBTQ-friendly masjid, Unity Mosque. The masjid was the first to allow queer and trans Muslims to attend prayers without hiding their sexual or gender identities.
Five years after its opening, this queer-inclusive masjid nestled in the heart of downtown Toronto is still an anomaly in the city.
For queer Muslims hoping to connect with their faith and community this Ramadan, the options for safe spaces are limited, an issue exacerbated by the pandemic. With these limited options, queer Muslims often need to create their own safe spaces.
This Ramadan, community members and grassroots organizations are dedicating their efforts to creating inclusive celebrations for queer Muslims. From veganizing traditional meals to hosting virtual community meditation circles, here’s how queer Muslims are finding joy and celebration during their second Ramadan indoors.
Organizing Iftar drop-offs
The Queer Muslim Network Toronto is a grassroots organization that shares lived experiences and art from queer Muslims in the GTA. Summeiya Yehya Khamissa, a fourth-year York University student, founded the organization in Oct. 2020.
Khamissa is a Muslim genderfluid lesbian. They’re currently completing an undergraduate degree in Children, Childhood and Youth Studies at York and hope to achieve a Master’s degree in research on queer Muslim youth in Toronto.
In an interview with The Pigeon, Khamissa described The Queer Muslim Network Toronto as their “heart and soul.”
Growing up in a community that often rejected people because of their identities taught Khamissa how crucial community support is.
“I think a lot of that love [comes from] our collective experience of conditional love within our families and the mainstream Muslim community,” they said. “This has taught us what rejection and isolation feels like and has built the basis for unconditional community support and love.”
Khamissa said their sadness at the thought of spending another Ramadan alone inspired them to start the community-based collective—to show other queer Muslims in Toronto that there are people nearby who understand their struggles and experiences.
For most Muslims, collective food sharing and community gatherings are integral to the month’s festivities. Members of the community who have strained connections to their culture and family, like many LGBTQ2S+ Muslims, often don’t have access to traditional meals or social Iftars.
This year, Khamissa’s organization collaborated with Queering Ramadan to host a queer Iftar for Ramadan on April 25. The groups set up an Iftar drop-off program to help the community feel connected for their second Ramadan in quarantine. Individuals identifying as LGBTQ2S+ and Muslim—regardless of whether they’re fasting, are “out,” or have a fixed address—were invited.
Together, the organizations raised over $1,000 to provide meals for queer Muslims in the GTA. The money will service queer and trans Muslims who may be fasting alone, missing home-cooked meals, or living with unsupportive families, as well as new Muslims who have yet to experience the communal nature of Ramadan because of COVID-19.
The Queer Muslim Network Toronto’s Instagram page will also be highlighting queer individuals throughout the month of Ramadan, showing how community members are making Ramadan their own.
“I really hope that will inspire other people to realize that there are so many other ways to do Ramadan, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the ways that we were taught as kids,” Khamissa said.
Khamissa shared some ways they plan to celebrate Ramadan this year.
They’re vegan and have recently been learning to veganize the classic Ramadan dishes that belonged to their family for generations. Khamissa said this helps them redefine what Ramadan means to them.
“Although I want to keep aspects of my identity, I understand that I need to alter some things for the life that I live,” they said. “This has been a really beautiful way to connect to my roots and figure out how I’m going to pass down my identity to those who come after me—as the radical queer brown aunty I’m destined to be.”
Celebrating family traditions—with a twist
In addition to family traditions, Nour shared how she’s staying connected to her community and faith this month with The Pigeon.
“For me, Ramadan and Muharram are the two times I feel intensely related and wanting to be a part of my community,” she said. “Those are the two months of the year that I go to Mosque and am around my community, so not having that for the past two years has been interesting.”
She said she wants to spend this Ramadan figuring out her spirituality and doing things that make her feel closer to God and faith again.
“Something I’m doing this year is making care packages to give out to people who are experiencing houselessness,” Nour said. “I feel like Ramadan is a great time to do that [because] it’s a month for kindness and giving back.”
She’ll fill the care packages with various essentials like meals, toiletries, menstrual products, and protective face masks. Nour added she’s privileged enough to have access to these items, and the act of donating them helps her be mindful.
For the last year and a half, Nour said she’s also developed a virtual community made up of other queer Muslims. She’s attended queer Muslim virtual events hosted by Faizan Imaan’s LGBTQI Muslim Organization and Reconstructed Magazine and plans to continue tuning in during Ramadan.
Nour explained meeting like-minded people through these virtual spaces was comforting.
“There are so many times that you feel unwelcome in your communities. You just need someone who really understands it,” she said.
“We’re all in isolation, given the pandemic, so it’s really nice to know that there is a place for me, there are people I can turn to, and this community will always welcome me no matter what.”
Learning to be appreciated and hold space
Leya Precious Thunder Warrior is a non-binary Sufi Muslim whose roots are in Mesopotamian Syria and Iraq, and Old Norse and Slavic pagan traditions. They were gifted the medicine name Precious Thunder Warrior by their curandero, a traditional native healer.
“I grew up in a mixed-race household. My mother was American, and I was never really invited to fast as a child,” they told The Pigeon. “As I learned more about spirituality, I learned that [what] felt most important to me was to celebrate Ramadan, to be fasting and to use that as time to profoundly listen to my body.”
This Ramadan, they are fasting and working on incorporating more prayers into their celebrations. They plan on spending time with family and having COVID-friendly Iftars.
“I make sure that I call my uncle every single Iftar and we break the fast together,” Leya said.
For their community, Leya wants to provide coached meditation circles and whirling meditation this month. Sufi Muslims often whirl as a form of prayer requiring a faithful spin until someone reaches religious ecstasy.
This year, Leya’s meditation and whirling events are accessible through Zoom and Eventbrite. The events will include a moment for attendees to break fast and have a virtual Iftar before continuing the meditation.
“I am inviting anyone who comes to a safe space to share what they need to,” Leya said. “[You can] be as queer, or as Black, or as brown, or as disabled as you are and just exist and be appreciated and hold space.”
Finding your way back to faith
Ali Khan, a 23-year-old University of Toronto student and journalist, is spending his first Ramadan with his family in four years. While at school, Khan got used to praying and making dua before Iftar alone. Now, he’s adapting to celebrating with his family again.
“I’m in a different place with my faith than my family is,” Khan said. “I’m relatively new to my own queerness—I only realized I was bi a year ago. Since then, it has caused me to rethink my relationship with Islam.”
Khan said coming into his sexuality and identity urged him to look into more progressive forms of Islam. He searched for this type of faith after growing up in an “old-fashioned” household where he rarely saw progression in the community around him.
“What makes this Ramadan different is that I don’t actually know what progressive Islam really looks like,” he explained. “What I’ve planned is to do some more reading, do some more learning into what progressive Islam looks like, and try to bring this year’s spiritual connection to a place of self-acceptance.”
He explained that after connecting with his queerness, he lost his connection to God. Now, he wants to spend Ramadan rebuilding and strengthening that connection once again.
“Queer Muslims are Muslim too,” he said. “The only difference is that Muslims who are openly queer or trans […] may have fewer opportunities to be welcomed into Muslim communities.”
Khan believes people should internalize the notion of self-acceptance to help the overall community.
“Unapologetically being yourself and setting an example for other people who might still be in the closet or worried about the reprisals of coming out […] are deeply meaningful celebrations of the self.”
When asked how non-queer Muslims can better support and celebrate queer Muslims this Ramadan, Khamissa mentioned the month’s charitable nature.
“We need to realize that as such an under-resourced group, the only people we have are each other,” they said. “If we’re letting the other people fall through the cracks, we’re not changing anything. If we’re fighting for liberation for queer Muslims, or we’re only fighting for South Asian and Arab Muslims, or able-bodied Muslims, nothing is ever going to happen.”
Khamissa added it’s vital to acknowledge intersectionality in Muslim communities, too.
“The general Muslim population should remember those folks in the community that truly need the help—Black queer Muslims, Black trans Muslims, [and] other racialized trans Muslims,” Khamissa said.
They added that because of their goal to prioritize queer Muslim youth in Toronto, Khamissa wants to see more programs for queer Muslims in Muslim spaces.
“What I think would be more powerful than making our own centres would be Masjids right now that are already existing, creating their own programs [for queer youth].”
Leya Precious Thunder Warrior spoke about the need to exist together. They think inclusive Masjids and communities are integral.
“Creating Mosques and families and communities that are welcoming of their queer children, cousins, aunts and uncles [is vital], they said. “We are such a family-oriented community.”
According to Leya, non-queer Muslims can show their support by understanding their queer Muslim peers’ intersectional hardships.
“There is a lot to be reckoned with and understood by non-queer Muslims who want to be a part of this space of peace and acceptance,” they said.
“I ask for those who are Muslim to notice themselves and their own stories and what’s difficult and maybe taxing about being a Muslim,” they explained. “Acknowledge that whatever you struggle with will be a lot harder for queer Muslims.”
With online celebrations, Iftar drop-offs, and efforts to stay connected during a pandemic, the queer Muslim community has proven to be tightly-knit—the way it should be during Ramadan.
The joy queer Muslims are feeling this month needs to be preserved even when Ramadan isn’t happening. Queer Muslims have found community during Ramadan, but it’s important to remember that this solidarity doesn’t always last year-round.
Moving forward, Nour hopes to see more recognition from non-queer Muslims in her community.
She said local Masjids need to follow the footsteps of Unity Mosque, and Muslims need to bring online representation to a physical setting. She added that community members—queer or non-queer—need to support each other as Muslims and human beings above everything else.
“Find a way to not only accept us but to recognize that we are still a part of the Muslim community [and] we always have been,” Nour said. “Find ways to make your community safer and more inclusive.”