Finding a mosque for Germany’s first gay imam
Men of all ages slip their shoes off at the entrance to the mosque and find a place on the floor, which is spread with colourful rugs. The rugs point towards Mecca. At the front, Imam Amir Aziz leads the prayers, as the mosque fills up. Only one woman arrives; she disappears into a corner behind a wooden screen. There is a box of scarves back there for women to cover their heads with during Friday prayers. Narrow gaps in the screen give a vague idea of what is happening in the mosque’s main room.
“We won’t do this in our mosque,” says Christian Awhan Hermann. The separation of the sexes doesn’t fit his idea of Islam. The 49-year-old Berliner is visiting Friday prayers at the Lahore Ahmadiyya congregation. He converted to Islam two years ago, and describes himself as Germany’s first openly gay imam.
He aims to use his newly-founded Kalima association to give a voice to Muslims who face discrimination, in particular those who are gay, queer or transgender, for whom there are hardly any support services within their religion. But women are explicitly welcome, too. They are to have equal rights in all functions, from communal prayers to becoming imams themselves.
Reconciling faith and sexuality
Gay and Muslim – for many Muslims brought up the traditional way, the two things don’t go together. All their lives, they have been taught that homosexuality is "haram", forbidden. That was the experience of a young man from Bangladesh, who is studying in Berlin and came across Hermann on the Internet. His conversations with the imam helped him to reconcile his faith and his sexuality, he says.
But many other gay Muslims have the impression that they must choose one identity or the other. Some feel excluded and turn away from their religion, while others follow an even stricter version of the religious rules because they believe their sexuality means that God doesn’t love them. Hermann calls that brainwashing.
A lot of his advice centres on the issue. "These men have firmly internalised the idea that it’s not okay to be the way they are." But the Koran doesn’t explicitly forbid homosexuality, he says.
Some Muslims take a different view. They point to the Koranic story of Lot, and put the city of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction down to the obscene behaviour of its male inhabitants. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany takes a similar line: homosexuality is "not permissible" in Islam.
Islam's take on homosexuality "unclear"
Many interpreters don’t class homosexuality itself as a transgression, however; the sin lies in practicing it "actively and openly", according to the Central Council. And although that may not have any worldly consequences, it comes "between man and God".
"The sources don’t say anything that clear," says the imam. His title gives him authority, even if he isn’t recognised by all Muslims. Hermann was trained by the French imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, who is also gay. He has come in for a lot of criticism online. "Yesterday gay, today supposedly an imam," reads one comment.
But he mainly gets hostility from right-wingers, says Hermann. It is possible to have a dialogue with conservative Muslims, where he can score points with his expert knowledge. But perhaps, he says, he just isn’t famous enough yet to provoke a lot of opposition. His Facebook page has around 650 "likes" and some 720 followers. It’s hard to estimate how many people he reaches.
Hermann is – as yet – an imam without a mosque, his community scattered right across Germany. He attends Friday prayers as a guest at a different mosque in Berlin every week, getting to know various imams and communities.
Creating change within the Muslim community
He wants to make his presence known with the label "gay imam", looking to have that conversation with people and create change from within the Muslim community. At the same time, he sees himself as someone for gay Muslims to speak to, and is spending a lot of time building up a network in Berlin’s LGBTQI scene.
The Islamic studies scholar Andreas Ismail Mohr is interested in Hermann’s work, and regularly publishes on the topic of homosexuality in Islam himself. Hermann has honest intentions, he says, and is doing some good work – but in Mohr’s eyes, he isn't an imam. "An imam is someone who regularly leads prayers with a group and has theological expertise." The title isn’t protected, but he would still advise Hermann to distance himself from it. That would also leave him less open to attack.
The activist life suits him; he likes to stand out with his full grey-brown beard and traditional Pakistani dress, a beige-brown striped tunic and trousers, and blue trainers with orange laces. During prayers he wears a taqiyah, the Muslim head-covering for men. He has largely abandoned his jeans and t-shirts. He says this is because he feels "connected to the east". He pulls his "mobile mosque" around with him: a blue-checked suitcase with wheels, containing a laptop, prayer mats and textbooks for religious instruction.
From Hermann’s appearance, few people would guess that he only converted two years ago. He left school at 18 and did an apprenticeship as an industrial management assistant. After taking one look at church-tax salary deductions, he left the Protestant church. But God has always played a role in his life, he says.
He found his way to Islam in 2017, in the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe mosque of women’s rights activist and female imam Seyran Ates, one of the loudest critics of conservative Islam in Germany. In her mosque, men and women pray together, and she welcomes both gay people and Muslims of different denominations.
He is grateful to Ates for this, he says – even though the two of them fell out and went their separate ways a year ago. Hermann looks disappointed. "The points Seyran makes are too hard for a dialogue between the Muslim groups to be possible with her." She is more interested in high-impact media appearances than in religious content, he claims.
After Friday prayers in the Wilmersdorf mosque, a young couple approaches Imam Amir Aziz and asks him to marry them. She is from Syria; he’s from Iran. Ten minutes later, they’re married. Two men from the congregation serve as witnesses, the mother of the bride gives her consent via video chat, and the imam signs the certificate.
For a contemporary Koranic interpretation
"Muslim marriage is a contract in civil law, not a sacrament," Hermann explains. He is most often approached by women who want an Islamic divorce: without the husband’s agreement, there are very few imams in Germany who will pronounce a divorce. But in exceptional cases, a marriage can be dissolved unilaterally, Hermann explains – if a husband is violent or has been unfaithful, for example.
In Hermann’s eyes, a good imam is not primarily a prayer leader or scholar, but an approachable pastoral adviser who is an expert on the Koran. His criticism is not directed at Islam, but against the hard lines of some "literal interpretation fanatics". His religious instruction centres on a contemporary interpretation of the Koran.
Until he gets his own mosque, lessons take place in the kitchen of one of Hermann’s friends. A mind-map on discrimination hangs on the kitchen door. In a corner, a picture of the Virgin Mary and some model angels stand on the piano; surrounded by candles and fairy lights, the arrangement is a little like an altar.
Two participants sit at the table, and another two are taking part in the evening via Skype. They are talking about the "fourth pillar" of Islam, fasting and Ramadan, discussing whether giving up plastic or meat in Ramadan might count as fasting, or how to view meat that fulfils all the "halal" criteria and is therefore allowed, but which comes from intensive farming.
Hermann likes to talk about Islam, the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad, whose practical solutions to the problems of his time he finds impressive. But he is still grateful not to have been born into the faith, thereby sparing himself a "double coming-out" as a gay Muslim.
When a waiter asks him what he would like, he replies: "Ten million euros for my mosque and a man to spend the rest of my life with."
© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2019
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin