One Muslim's fight to marry Islam with homosexuality
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Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed (right) has made headlines by becoming the first French man to be married to another man in a Muslim religious ceremony. In his new book, he tells the tale of his unique journey of faith and love.
Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed is an intellectual, an expert on the Koran and an AIDS activist. The 35-year-old also has the distinction of being the first gay man married in a Muslim wedding ceremony in France. "I am sure that if the Prophet Mohamad was still alive, he would marry gay couples," Zahed confidently told FRANCE 24.
His marriage last February, by an imam-in-training in the Parisian suburb of Sevres, has brought Zahed much attention, even if his marriage is not officially recognised by French authorities.
Zahed has made the reconciliation of Islam and homosexuality his life’s pursuit. He's fought this battle through his gay rights group, Homosexual Muslims in France (HM2F), and through rigorous academic research.
A student of anthropology and psychology at Paris's prestigious School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Zahed is currently preparing his doctoral thesis on Islam and homosexuality.
His first book, The Koran and the Flesh (Le Coran et la chair, Editions Max Milo), which hit French bookstores on March 29, promises to further shine a spotlight on this unique man.
A poignant account of the difficulties growing up as a gay Muslim, the book tells Zahed's journey across different continents and of his constant confrontations with bouts of humiliation and personal doubt.
Learning to be a man
"Homosexuality is not a choice, and it would be crazy to choose to be gay in the socio-cultural environment I grew up in," Zahed writes.
Born in Algeria in 1977, he was the second of three children of a modest family. When he was three years old, the family left their home in the Algerian capital of Algiers and settled in Paris, taking up permanent residence in France and only returning to Algeria for short holidays.
Zahed says he was a shy and effeminate boy, realising at eight years of age that he was "between the two: I’m a bit girl, a bit boy." However, neither his "macho thug" father nor his older brother were willing to accept this dual identity. "I spent my childhood with a father who constantly called me a sissy, a chick, a cry-baby," he writes. And to teach him "to be a man", his brother regularly beat him, once going so far as to break his nose. "He was ashamed of his 'sick' brother," Zahed remembers.
Desperate for answers, the teenager plunged himself in religion and was accepted into a Koranic school in Algeria run by ultra-conservative Salafist Islamists. Back in Algeria, he learned to recite part of the Koran by heart, prayed five times each day and strictly observed the teachers’ guidelines.
Mohamed’s spiritual desert
Again, his manners were viewed as too effeminate by his Muslim brothers, who eventually kicked him out of the community. And on 30 January 1995, as Algeria was mired in civil war, a truck packed with explosives devastated downtown Algiers and killed 42 people. The Armed Islamic Group claimed the attack, an event that proved to be a turning point in Zahed’s life.
"That day, I felt an ache in my gut just thinking that, even at the most minimal level, I shared something in common with those people who attacked Algiers," Zahed writes. The attack and his ostracism from the Salafist school signal "the beginning of a long spiritual desert" for the author, who for 15 years "violently rejected Islam."
Back in France at age 21, he confessed his sexual orientation to his family. His mother was inconsolable for several months, but his father’s reaction surprised him. "This is the way it is," the once-unbending man declared. "I understand. One must accept."
Despite his break with Islam, the young man still yearned for faith, and turned to Buddhism. "But I realised that misogyny and homophobia were the same everywhere," he told FRANCE 24, and gradually Islam re-conquered him.
"Little by little I started to pray again, and then I went on my first pilgrimage to Mecca, the source of Islam, to reclaim my religion," he said. "I rediscovered an interior peace that I hadn’t known since childhood."
In France, the HIV-positive Zehad founded his first NGO, The Children of AIDS, for which he embarked on a year-long trip across the globe. "It helped me realize that I was a good person. I also realised that I could be gay and have a religious practice." He founded his second organisation, HM2F, in January 2010.
"Current Islamic ethics condemns this sexual orientation, but in fact nothing in Islam or the Quran forbids homosexuality," Zahed argued. "Indeed, for centuries, Muslims did not consider homosexuality to be the supreme abomination that they do today."
A restless peace
When it comes to homosexuality and Islam, Zahed is relentless. "There is nothing about homosexuality that ‘goes against nature’ according to one interpretation of Islam. Quite the opposite," he argues in The Koran and the Flesh. This idea is the battle flag he carries with him every day.
His work with HM2F took him to international destinations, including South Africa, where in 2011 he participated in a conference organised by an association similar to his own. There he met Qiyaammudeen Jantjies-Zahed, who, like him, was a devout Muslim man.
Two months later, in June 2011, Zahed and Jantjies-Zahed decided to get married in South Africa, where gay civil marriages and adoptions by gay couples are legal. The couple decided to settle in France, which does not recognise marriage between two men. Nevertheless, it’s in France where they celebrated their religious union.
Despite labyrinthine administrative procedures that his spouse Jantjies-Zahed must now face in order to remain in France, and despite the threatening emails and phone calls that continue to hound him, Zahed says it is all worth it.
"I have found calm," the smiling man says. "I could die tomorrow. I'm finally at peace."