Empathy and Gratitude: Ramadan Reflections and Call from an Ally Imam

by Guest contributor

Imam Abdullah Antepli reflects on Muslim culture, the celebration of Ramadan and the need for LGBTQ inclusion within faith.

By Imam Abdullah Antepli 

If you ask Muslims the very first word that comes to mind when they think of Ramadan, one of the top three words will be “community.” Ramadan 2020 is in full swing despite all the limitations and restrictions that the COVID-19 global pandemic has imposed on 1.8 billion Muslims around the world. However, in the time of COVID-19, all Muslims are asking ourselves, “How does one go through the holiest month of the year in social isolation, within the confines of their homes and often alone, especially when this is a time that most Muslims connect much more deeply with their local Muslim communities and cherish their collective spaces?” While learning how to observe Ramadan while socially distant from our communities, observing Muslims have been expressing spiritual joy and delight in finding God, community, meaning and purpose in many creative and unexpected ways during this Ramadan. 

One important aspect of Ramadan is taking on a list of observances throughout the month, including fasting. Non-Muslims may ask why Muslims choose to take on these observances every year. The Holy Qur’an and the blessed Prophetic tradition make it very clear in so many instances that the main wisdom behind rigorous and often challenging Ramadan observances is to encourage Muslims to slow down and center yourself around God and what is most important. Some of the many outcomes and measures of success of this internal and ethical growth are empathy and gratitude. 

Most Ramadan disciplines are designed to cultivate empathy toward those who are less privileged. With Ramadan coinciding with social distancing and isolation for so many across the globe, the month not only provides many creative and new ways of engaging with the Divine, but also forces us to see so many ethical and moral ills of our societies much more clearly than before. 

To me, one of the most important and most needed such growth of new and healthier  realizations is our, as Muslims, understanding and support to our LGBTQ siblings around the world, because this COVID-19 Ramadan potentially provides so many helpful insights into their suffering within Muslim majority and minority societies. Through the painful and often suffocating social isolation practices during this Ramadan, allied Muslims now have a better understanding of what it means to be alone, lonely and without a community. The loneliness and not having a communal space is a shared grief for so many members of our Muslim LGBTQ family. 

Through the social distancing practices made necessary by COVID-19, we have had a taste of how painful it is to live in hiding and fear. Living in a quarantine of self is a painful and often permanent reality for many LGBTQ Muslims, and can mean living a life without being able to pursue happiness or love, or live openly as who they are. 

As a result, so many mental health challenges, including addiction and suicide, homelessness and many other hardships are much higher occurrences among members of our LGBTQ family than in the rest of society. As an Imam and pastoral care provider for several decades, I have had my fair share of witnessing this tragic and morally indefensible suffering of many LGBTQ Muslims that I came in contact with. 

For straight and cisgender Muslims who are blessed with good health and loving families, we must learn to be much more grateful for the loved ones in our lives during this unique and unusual Ramadan of 2020 and be morally more motivated to help those who do not have these belssings. As we come to the end of this month-long spiritual and ethical journey, we must remember to welcome and make space for our LGBTQ siblings, and to be more effective allies moving forward. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and observing Ramadan through it, we have experienced something similar to what many of our LGBTQ siblings who are not living openly experience every day. Much more empathy, understanding and appreciation for LGBTQ Muslims is called for as we go through these unique and extraordinary weeks and months, and after these times. 

I invite myself and those who pay attention to commit to removing all toxic and destructive religious, cultural and other elements within our societies that constantly dehumanize and harm the LGBTQ community. There is so much ethical, moral, spiritual, social and civic work that needs to be done, wherever possible, in this regard by committed allies around the world. May we be transformed by this unusual Ramadan more than ever before. I invite other believers to lend their compassionate ears to this goal. Inshallah.