God in/of the ordinary
Febi Ramadhan
Febi R. Ramadhan_Annisa Mawarni_Photo for Otherwise.jpg

Annisa Mawarni

Allah shifted His gaze onto us and, through the Prophet, reminded us:

I am with those whose hearts are broken.

 

“Honestly, even until now, I’m still asking Allah: why, out of billions of people on earth, why... why should I be one of the people who is given a test like this? Maybe, it’s like I can’t accept Allah’s destiny, right? But, if I’m being honest, that’s what I feel. I feel that my life is quite perfect if I am not a person with SSA/same-sex attraction.” I watched Adam’s words unfurl nonchalantly in the Facebook chat, but I could feel a deep bitterness and frustration behind them. I sat in silence reading his words, and my mind wandered tirelessly to every moment when I tried to talk to Allah like he did. There were moments when I found myself prostrate in prayer before dawn, crying, because God’s love felt so pure, present, and raw. It touched the very being of my body and rendered me bare, vulnerable in the face of the God’s unknowability. But there were other moments when I tried to reach out to Him to no avail. I kept calling Allah’s name in my prayers, in my shalat, in my sujud, but there were no answers. It those moments it felt as if Allah had left me. Maybe I had become sinful, no longer the devout Muslim I used to be – no longer worthy of His attention.

There was nothing simple about Adam’s agony. His bitterness and frustration hit a place close to home: we talked about the same God and a similar process of talking to and with him. We were dealing with similar feelings about being in this world. We shared similar – if not the same – religion, nationality, and sexuality: we were both Muslims, Indonesians, non-heterosexuals. His desires resembled mine, but, at the same time, ours were entirely different struggles.

For Adam, his same-sex attraction – which he deliberately referred to as SSA – was divinely ordained as a test from Allah, which direly needed to be fought. For me, my queerness never posed a religious question. If any question existed, it was a rhetorical one: why would Allah make me in this way if He is disgusted by my being and existence? But despite our differences, both Adam and I were engaged with Allah and the entirety of His being. His will. His intention. His rules. His divine creations.

This is an homage to Adam and his relationship with Allah. Everything else is just noise.

 

***

 

Adam’s stories began some years before today, in 2015. He was a second-year undergraduate student at the time, and it was the first time he felt a burst of attraction toward other men. There wasn’t any particular man that he was being attracted to; he just knew that he was attracted to men, in the same way that his friends were attracted to women. Adam kept his attractions to himself. There wasn’t any coming out process (yet), and there weren’t any romantic relations with other men (yet). His silence had its own reason: Adam knew that it was wrong for him to be attracted to men.

How could it be otherwise? His parents were devout Muslims, and they had sent him to Taman Pendidikan Al-Qur’an – a Qur’anic education centre – since he was five years old. Every afternoon, he and a handful of kids from the neighbourhood recited Iqro textbooks together in a nearby mosque, and they learned how to pronounce every word in the Qur’an. His teachers in the mosque had also taught him everything about Islam, from the ordinary to the miraculous. He had learned about Zulaikha, who almost raped the Prophet Joseph because of his unsurpassed beauty; the Prophet Solomon’s magnificent castle, that left Queen Bilqees in awe toward him; and the alluring love stories of the Prophet Muhammad and Khadijah. In each tale, the moral for Adam remained the same: (male) prophets always ended up with (female) wives. There weren’t any stories about prophets who loved other men. It was the natural thing to do, for a man to be with a woman. It was the fitrah – the natural predisposition – of every human being. It was the fitrah. It was the fitrah.

And yet, Adam was different. He never felt any attraction to women – only men. He did not have a Queen of Sheba or a rich merchant woman in his life, as the Prophets Solomon and Muhammad had, respectively. Even when his teacher taught him about the tale of the Prophet Joseph, he wondered about what kind of beauty the Prophet had. Was it his wavy, curly hair that led Zulaikha and other women in the palace to cut their fingers in ecstasy? Was it his chiselled jawline and beautiful eyes? Was it his well-built body? Adam never knew exactly what made the Prophet Joseph so physically exceptional, but he drowned himself in the vivid imagination of his appearance. Never had he ever told anyone about his luscious imagination. It was unnatural. It was unnatural. It was unnatural.

           

And, of course, there’s the story of the Prophet Lot and the people of Sodom. That was the first time Adam had been taught that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of Allah. Adam wasn’t aware of his same-sex attraction at the time, but he could remember that each and every kid in the room expressed disgust when their teacher told them how the people of Sodom were engaged in same-sex sexual activities. Some of them gagged. Some of them laughed while whispering, “Homo! Homo!” The people of Sodom were not only unnatural; they were the embodiment of abomination. They were the people who conspicuously showed their sexual depravity, raping male guests in the village who turned out to be angels in disguise. And so, Allah got angry, and the cities were turned upside down, and brimstone rained upon them hard as baked clay, and spread, layer on layer. The story got stuck in Adam’s mind. Whenever he found himself thinking about having sex with other men, his teacher’s voice echoed on the back of his mind: it is sinful. It is sinful. It is sinful. 

 

***

As the night deepened, Adam snuggled in his bed uncomfortably. A thin cotton blanket wrapped his body, and he was completely hidden beneath it. No one could know what he was doing. It was a quiet evening, and he could even hear his own breath, hurriedly chasing itself. He was alone in his room – or was he? His phone rang a couple of times, but he ignored it. It must be his boyfriend: Yusuf.

 

Adam had met his boyfriend a couple of months before, in an online Indonesian gay forum. He had not set out to sin. Quite the opposite! Adam joined the forum to seek knowledge about himself, his attraction, his sexuality. The forum was a vast one. Every person there had created a “fake” account under a “fake” name with a “fake” profile picture. Adam chose his name randomly: Hijrah_19382. He didn’t post a picture. It was always a horror to imagine that his actual friends or family members might find him in such a forum. Adam, or Hijrah_19382, began his voyage by reading others’ threads and posts. He read about what people meant by homosexuality, gay, belok (crooked), sakit (sick), and other signifiers of his sexuality. He also read about the causes of homosexuality, and how to cure it, and what Islam actually says about it.

           

During his online peregrinations, Adam found a thread for gay Muslims who want to repent. Without thinking too much, he clicked on the thread title and discovered that he was not truly alone. Many people like him were trying to live on the path of repentance. Adam waded through each post, reading how people with homosexual desires were laboriously trying to get closer to Allah (just like him!) by restraining their ungodly desires. One person, in particular, talked about another community on Facebook where people with SSA – this was the first time Adam learned the term – were building a community to strive together in living heterosexually. He was exuberant: not only had he found a number of people like him in the online gay forum, but he’d found a community where people with SSA were actively trying to live in accordance with fitrah. Without further ado, he joined the Facebook group and thanked the person who had posted the information.

           

Adam’s virtual hijrah did not stop at that point. A new stage of his pilgrimage awaited.

           

Days after his brief “thank you” notes Adam got a notification from the gay forum. The first time he saw it, he thought that it was the poster who had casually responded – but he was wrong. Another person had sneaked into his message box.

“Assalamu’alaikum, Hijrah_19382.” Peace be upon you, he said.

 

Adam was reluctant at first. He never had any intention to make friends in the forum. But his teachers always taught him that a Muslim has to answer another Muslim’s greeting. And so he answered, “Wa’alaikumussalam.”

 

The person did not wait to shoot him another message. “I saw your post, and I wonder if it’s okay for us to be friends? To remind each other about leaving this sinful path?” The person ended his questions with a smiling emoji..

      

Adam smiled back, but with his face. He had just found his first gay friend! Adam responded, agreeing. There would be no harm in befriending another man who was on the same path as him, he told himself – although, at the back of his mind, Adam imagined what possibilities he might have with this man. Perhaps, they could be something beyond friends. Perhaps, in another universe where Allah does not forbid homosexuality, they could become one.

And, with that a hint of hope, lust took over.

 

Adam did not know how it all happened, but he and this person – Adam later learned his name was “Yusuf” – actually became friends, really good ones. They exchanged phone numbers. They talked through WhatsApp every day. The casual chat became a routine: from morning greetings, daily prayer reminders, to evening goodbyes. The conversations were mundane. Adam told Yusuf about his classes. Yusuf told Adam about his work. They talked about new films that came out and old songs that both of them listened to. Also: what they had for breakfast. The traffic. The rain. A good-looking man that Yusuf randomly saw on the train on his way home – and the difficulty that he had to control his gaze. And so on. Until one moment.

           

“Just curious, Yusuf.” Adam texted Yusuf one evening after completing his Isha prayer. “Do you want to have a girlfriend?”

           

“Haha what a random question!” Yusuf responded within the minute. “Why do you ask?”

         

“I don’t know.” Adam threw himself onto his bed. He thought hard about what he was about to type. “Like I said, just curious.”

           

It was an honest question, Adam thought. They had been talking for months, and yet their homosexuality (or, SSA, in Adam’s vernacular) remained the same. Perhaps, having an actual partner would make the process better and easier for everyone? As Adam sent his question, he became increasingly worried about Yusuf’s answer. What if Yusuf thinks it’s a good idea? What if he actually found a woman and was able to build a serious relationship with her? What if Yusuf got married? What if their relationship ended abruptly?  

 

Yusuf is typing...

Yusuf is typing...

Yusuf is typing...

 

But the answer took too long to come.

           

Just at the moment when Adam was concluding that he had asked a wrong question, Yusuf sent a rather brief response: “Can I call you?”

Adam was completely taken aback. In the months of their messaging, he had never actually heard Yusuf’s voice – and vice versa. Talking endlessly through text was one thing, but hearing each other’s voices would be a completely different story. It would be titillating. It would be exhilarating. It would, in a way, make Yusuf real entity to Adam. A person. A man. A gay man.

“Adam.” Yusuf texted another message. “It’s completely ok if you don’t want to talk.”

           

But Adam took a leap of faith. He mustered his courage and called Yusuf through WhatsApp. Yusuf picked up seconds after.

“Hello.” Yusuf’s voice was nothing like it was in Adam’s imagination. Adam always imagined Yusuf to have a vibrant and jovial tone. Rather, it was mature and calm. Adam was taken aback again, and Yusuf seemed to notice this. “Assalamu’alaikum, Adam.”

“Wa’alaikumussalam, Yusuf.” Adam automatically responded to Yusuf’s greeting without even thinking about it. He felt nervous, but Yusuf seemed to be giggling from hearing Adam’s voice.

“It’s so good to finally hear your voice.” The maturity of Yusuf’s voice pulled on the entirety of Adam’s emotions. The pleasure is also mine, Yusuf – Adam wanted to say that, but his thoughts could not reach his tongue.

           

“Oh yeah, about your question, I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time, actually.” Yusuf seemed to notice Adam’s restlessness, and he chose to keep talking. “I know that, in the beginning, we talked to each other because we want to live as straight people, not living this path.”

 

Adam nodded, but he sensed that something was coming.

           

“But for these past few months when we regularly talk and text each other, I feel... I don’t know, happy? It’s like you fill a void that I have, and it all became clearer when you asked me if I wanted to have a girlfriend. The thing is... I don’t think that I can have a girlfriend. I don’t even know if I can marry a woman one day.”

           

Adam became alarmed.

           

“I don’t know if I make sense or not. Maybe I’m becoming a hypocrite. But, I don’t know...” Yusuf paused. Empty silence filled the space between the two of them. “Do you want to be boyfriends?”

           

Yusuf’s final question amused Adam, but at the same time there was a whole world unfolding in his mind. A cacophony of imaginations. A vivid image of elaborated vision. A dream. Adam saw himself being with Yusuf in a park somewhere, someday. They sat on top of a picnic blanket. There were several boxes of snacks. Some were eaten already. They were happy. Another scene: they were in a house. No, a home. Both of them were praying together. Yusuf was the imam; the leader of the prayer. Adam followed his movements, docile. Then, another scene: they were lying together on a bed somewhere, someday. Yusuf held Adam’s hand tight and close as they began to sleep. Then, another scene: they were growing old together. They were in their sixties. Yusuf was using a wheelchair, and his face had far more wrinkles than Adam’s. Adam was using a cane, and he had countless medical issues. Yet, their love persisted and persevered. It was beauteous. For a brief moment, all the stories about past Prophets and the people of Sodom vanished from his mind. Adam said yes.

 

***

 

Under the cotton blanket, Adam was alone. His phone kept ringing, but Adam chose to cover his ears, trying his best to avoid the notifications. Adam and Yusuf had been in a relationship for quite some time by then, but Adam knew too well that he was sinning. He was engaging in an act that Allah disdained: homosexual romantic relations.

For this brief moment, there was only love and endearment. But he was sure that every single thing aside from God would crumble and decay and rot and die.

“Every soul shall have a taste of death,” Allah said. But does endearment have a soul? Adam did not know the answer yet, but he knew that his fascination with Yusuf had started to crumble and decay and rot and die. Months had passed since Yusuf confessed his feelings for Adam, and they had spent lovely times together. Their casual texts and chats transformed into casual phone calls, which later transformed into casual video calls. Yusuf was jubilant – and so was Adam. But Adam had another feeling that Yusuf never actually knew about.

“I liked him, kak. I still do.” Adam told me wistfully months after his relationship with Yusuf ended. “I might even love him...”

I nodded, realising too late that he could not see me.

“But I still feel as if I’m sinning. No, I know that I’m sinning. I know that it’s not the right thing to do.”

 

And so the story went. Adam remained hiding under the blanket. Yusuf was ardently trying to convince Adam to meet in person, and Adam had rejected his invitations. At one point, his phone stopped ringing, leaving a long chain of WhatsApp notifications. Adam already knew the content of the messages. “Are you ok?” would be one; another would be, “Why didn’t you pick up the phone?” Adam could not reach out to pick the phone up. He knew too well that he and lust were not strangers to each other. One slippage of lust would lead him to agree to Yusuf’s invitation to meet.

First, it would be a casual hangout.

 

Then a hug.

 

Then a kiss.

 

Then carnal knowledge.

 

His mind conjured the images of the Prophets before him and reminded him: it would be sinful. It would be sinful. It would be sinful.

 

As he pondered on his imaginary acts, a teardrop fell. Then two. Then three. He felt ashamed. He felt guilty. Allah was watching him, yet he continued – as he believed – thinking of sinning. Even when he was physically alone in his room, was he truly alone?

“To God belongs all that is in the East and in the West. God’s is the place of sun rising and the place of sun setting. So whichever way you turn there is His Face; there’s His core being. He wraps around you. He knows.” Allah spoke through the Archangel Gabriel, then through the Prophet Muhammad, then through the Qur’an. He was/is everywhere, and Adam would not, could not be alone. God was in every ordinary thing and place and moment and thought, and God governed all of them. God governed Adam and Yusuf. And then, with a hint of desperation, Adam received a revelation: his sin would be a spectacle before the eyes of God. Adam felt even more deeply ashamed and guilty. Ashamed and guilty. Ashamed and guilty.

 

***

           

My mercy prevails over my wrath.

As Adam explained to me how and why he decided to end his relationship with Yusuf, Allah’s words traversed through my mind.

My mercy prevails over my wrath.

My mercy prevails over my wrath.

My mercy prevails over my wrath.

           

“You know, kak,” Adam said, and then paused. “Allah is testing me with my SSA.”

           

“What do you mean by that?”

           

“The thing is, we cannot choose what feelings we’re born with. But we can respond to these feelings in accordance with their fitrah.”

           

“So, basically you’re saying that you’re going to live with SSA forever, and you can only live in disguise?”

           

I could not see his face, but I imagined him chuckling when he read my honest question. Or flinching, perhaps. I did not know for sure.

         

“Not in disguise, kak. When someone is given a feeling of SSA from Allah, he could choose to become complicit to his lust by becoming gay. He could, I don’t know, fight to legalise same-sex marriage.” I nodded, though he still wouldn’t be able to see it. “But many people choose to struggle to get married in accordance to their fitrah as well. Suppress the feelings, not consuming things that could trigger its recurrence...”

           

He wasn’t finished yet, but I automatically cut him off. “What do you mean by things that could trigger its recurrence?”

“You know, like porn. Gay porn, primarily. Masturbating with these gay porn videos. And then talking with people in the gay forum. Building a relationship with these people...” Adam didn’t finish his sentence this time, but I knew there was something on his mind that had yet to find its final form. Was he thinking of Yusuf? Or was he thinking of the endless possible male partners he could have if he wanted?

“The point is,” Adam continued, not finishing his earlier sentence, “we should just accept that this feeling comes from Allah. If we are patient in facing it, Insha Allah, the reward is paradise.”

           

***

 

It was almost 5 o’clock in the afternoon in Chicago when Adam texted me on Facebook Messenger. It was almost dawn in Indonesia, and Adam must have finished his subuh prayer.

“Kak, I’m going to take some time off Facebook. I just talked with Allah in my shalat and there’s some stuff that I need to do for myself.”

I smiled before responding. If only I could talk to Allah the same way Adam could.

           

“Take your time, Kak Adam.” I typed my words carefully. “Are we going to meet again?”

           

Insha Allah, kak. Even if we couldn’t meet again here, I pray and I hope that we could meet in paradise.”

           

I was about to tell Adam that I believed in a different paradise, but I refrained from saying anything. Another fragment of Allah’s words came to my mind: Enter inside My servants, you have entered My garden. I have entered Adam’s mind; his thoughts; his deliberations; his doubts; his desires; his faith – and I knew that I had entered Allah’s paradise. But I kept my thought to myself. Perhaps they pointed to another voyage that I could take toward Allah somewhere, someday.

As for Adam, only he and Allah knew what he would do. And yet, there is a beauty in believing – and knowing – that Allah does not wander upon hellfire.

His mercy prevails over His wrath.

Adam’s faith affirmed it. His attraction might be a sin (for him); it might be a divine test (for him), and perhaps (for him) he had failed to conform to Allah’s will and deliberation. But he believed, and knew, that Allah would grant him eternal tranquillity somewhere and someday. If Adam could live in a place without divine tests and without sin, would that mean he could love anyone he wanted to love? Would he meet Yusuf in paradise? Would he finally live the life that he had longed for there? Would he spend eternity in serenity? He couldn’t know, and neither can I.

 

At least not yet.

Febi R. Ramadhan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University. Febi’s research documents heteronormative structurations of religious knowledge among Muslims with same-sex attraction in Indonesia, especially as they foster relations with their God. Febi was one of the co-winners of the 2021 Graduate Student Paper Prize of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion and their writings have appeared in Antropologi Indonesia, Paradigma, Jurnal Perempuan, Magdalene, and Remotivi.

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