Khalil realised he was gay at 17.
It was 1984, and he was living on a council estate in West London with his parents and two sisters, who originally came from Pakistan. “We had some family guests over,” he recalls, “and they brought along their daughter, who was around my age. My father kept making all these jokes about us getting married… and I knew he was joking, but I was trying not to cringe. I wasn’t attracted to her at all, and I realised at that moment that I hadn’t been attracted to any of the girls that had come over before.”
Seven years later, Khalil got married to the same woman, and they currently live in a well-to-do suburb of London along with their two children. However, he admits that despite having “the ideal life of a Muslim man” on the surface, he does not feel attracted to his wife.
It’s a position that an increasing number of devout gay Muslims find themselves in, as they attempt to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation.
When we meet near his office, Khalil (who has, along with the other interviewees in this article, asked for BuzzFeed News to use a pseudonym) is dressed in a pristine pinstriped business suit, and sports a medium-sized, perfectly trimmed beard. He greets me with a firm handshake – "Salaamwualaikum" – and apologises for being late, telling me that he needed to pray first.
We’re later joined by two other men, Adnan and Mohammed, both of whom are in similar situations. Adnan, is tall, skinny and dressed in a plain suit. He's been married for just under two years, having had a ceremony arranged by his parents. Mohammed, who is short but well built, is dressed in the traditional Islamic thoba – a garment he says he usually wears in public. He’s a university student who hopes to be married soon.
The men head to an Italian restaurant in central London. Khalil booked a corner table weeks in advance: he highly recommends the food, and says that these types of venues are much better for such meetings, because of the nature of their discussions. "You don't really want to be talking about these things in a Muslim restaurant," he jokes. Adnan, relaxed in his chair, laughs with him, while Mohammed, who shows some nervousness, hunches over his phone.
After a small amount of short talk over olives, in which they talk about their jobs – and, more importantly, last week's football matches – Khalil asks how Adnan and Mohammed have been "managing" since the last dinner.
Although the men acknowledge they have same-sex inclinations, they are reluctant to identify themselves as "gay". However, they say that as Muslims who are "devout", they have dedicated themselves to strengthening their imaan [religious belief] in an attempt to overcome them.
The men are part of a small support group which began on a web forum. Some of the members now meet every few months to discuss how they are managing their sexual feelings.
In some British Muslim communities, homosexuality can be a controversial issue: some believe the act counts as a form of "zina" – an Arabic term referring to "unlawful" sexual activity.
Many imams were uncomfortable talking to BuzzFeed News about the issue on record, although one scholar, who wished not to be named, said that homosexuality was a “cardinal sin” in most strands of Islamic thought. He emphasised that the same view was held in most world religions, including Christianity and Judaism.
Others imams, such as Ghulam Rasool of Leicester central mosque, said that Islam did not make a direct reference to homosexuality, but instead prohibited areas of sexual activity deemed impermissible, such as anal sex. He adds that the regulations apply to everyone, including those in heterosexual relationships.
“To have the inclination has never been condemned,” he said. “It’s acting upon it."
He added: “Whatever thoughts prevail for your mind, if you don’t act on the bad impulses you have to learn how to deal with them as a Muslim. And if you can’t, it's about where that sin fits in the Islamic spectrum.”
Rasool adds that similar rulings on sexual activity are evident in all branches of the Abrahamic faiths – but points out that in Islam, sexual habits have always been a "private issue".
There is still little information on how many gay Muslims are living in Britain – not least because many (especially regular worshippers such as the members of the support group) remain closeted, out of fear of reprisal from conservative elements of their communities.
As a result, some Muslim activist organisations, such as the LGBT support group Imaan (which is not affiliated with the men interviewed in this article), have articulated the need for British Islamic communities to be more open to such Muslims.
The organisation also said it does not support or encourage LGBT Muslims to enter "marriages of convenience," or pursue treatments that require one's sexual identity to be repressed.
Although Imaan usually works with LGBT Muslims who are "being pressured into heterosexual marriages", its spokesperson, Naeem (who preferred not to give his surname), told BuzzFeed News that it had heard of some cases where religious individuals were willing to repress their sexuality.
"The LGBT Muslim community in Britain is as diverse as the wider Muslim community here," he said.
"We come from various ethnic and sectarian backgrounds and each would have inherited their community’s attitudes towards Muslims of other ethnic or sectarian communities."
Naeem emphasised that the experiences of LGBT Muslims are unique and that they shouldn't be treated as a single group. However, he added that many are reluctant to talk about sexuality out of fear they "might dishonour their families, be forced into marriage as a form of rehabilitation, or become unwelcome in their communities".
In some cases, he says that people have suffered "intense emotional, psychological, and spiritual trauma" as a result of familial pressure to marry the opposite sex.
However, the men believe that common assumptions about homosexuality in Islam have been misinterpreted.
“It’s not homosexuality itself that’s a sin,” Adnan says. “It’s more about acting on your sexual urges – I think that’s been really misunderstood by the media, so they make out that Islam is homophobic, or anti-gay or whatever. It’s not, it’s just about controlling things that are haram [forbidden].”
Mohammed agrees. Although he realised he was gay in secondary school, and says he’s had “quite a few flings” with men in his early years at university, it was only a couple of years ago that he decided to devote himself to his faith.
“There was always a part of me that said what I was doing – going to clubs, having boyfriends – was wrong, but I tried to block it out," he says. "It was only when my mum passed away that I began really taking Islam seriously, when I realised we will all eventually return to Allah to be questioned about our evils.”
“The imam said that this was just a challenge in my life – so the only way to overcome it would be by devoting myself more to God. I was recommended to fast at least once a week, to be more devout in my prayers – and to get married. The imam had told me he knew many men who had felt these ‘natural emotions’, and were able to overcome them by living a good, Islamic way of life.”
Mohammed describes the group as the first “safe space” where he was comfortable talking about his past activities. “No one judged me for my past," he says. “They were very open about their experiences, and how they returned to Islam. Usually, people would post a motivational image with verses of the Qu’ran on them, mainly about Allah forgiving you for your sins. And it was nice to be in a place where there were brothers to support you – it’s not often you find [something] like that in a masjid [mosque].”
Mohammed adds that the most common advice to Muslims in the forum – especially young people – is to get married. “Most of the brothers in the group recommend nikah [marriage] to overcome sexual urges,” he says.
“It’s not just for gay or lesbian people – Islamically we’re taught to regulate our sinful desires, like having sex out of marriage. Nikah isn’t just sexual, it’s also a way to come closer to Allah and please him.”
He cites a number of men he knows through the forum who claim to have “overcome their sexual feelings’ toward men” by marrying “practising sisters”, although he admits that they don’t really talk about the more intimate parts of their relationships.
“It’s not just religion – it’s more to do with culture,” he insists. “Islam doesn’t shy away from talking about dealing with homosexual feelings and transgressions. It offers the best solution for overcoming these feelings. But if you bring it up outside the mosque it is dangerous, and I think that keeps many gay and lesbian Muslims from coming out.”
When asked how his family would react if he came out, he says: “They’d definitely be very shocked to say the least – I’d be quite worried to find out. I’ve heard about gay Muslims who have come out and have lost contact with all their family, kids and friends.”
Adnan also keeps his sexual past a secret from his wife, although he says that it “isn’t much different” from the experiences of other Asian Britons.
“I don’t really know many Asians generally who are open about their sexual history, gay or not. It’s not something we really talk about in our culture, so in some ways it’s actually much easier,” he says. “It helps that I was always quite religious. I wasn’t very outward about my sexual preferences, and was only in one, very short relationship when I was younger.”
Adnan says he’s “working hard to build a strong relationship” with his wife, and believes that “if Allah wills, our relationship will blossom when we are graced with children”. However, he’s reluctant to answer questions on whether he has felt sexual attraction to other men since he’s been married. “I’m just trying to live my life as Islamically as possible,” he says.
While Khalil, Adnan and Mohammed have not resorted to drastic measures in their attempts to overcome their sexual inclinations, they do say that others in the group have done. They recall one man in America who went to a spiritual healer, believing that his sexual inclinations were the result of an evil spirit known as a "djinn". Others have allegedly embraced full abstinence or sought help through gay conversion therapy (which has been condemned by the medical and mental health sectors in both the UK and US as damaging and ineffective).
“A lot of the time Muslims with these feelings want to follow the "sirat al Mustaqeem" [the right path] but they don’t know how," he says. "They’re lost. So they go to people who say they can cure them, and a lot of the time they don’t! I’ve heard stories where con artists have ripped people off pretending they can cure them of illness, diseases, and it’s just a con.”
He adds: “It’s much better to seek proper solution. I’d recommend any Muslim brother or sister feeling these emotions to go to their Imam or a respected scholar first... then seek devout brothers and sisters online for guidance.”
While this view might be controversial, the men say it is becoming the “normal opinion” of most devout British Muslims trying to understand their faith in the context of a sexually liberal society.
“It is quite sad to see some Muslims being abused by their families and communities just because they are gay,” Adnan says, recalling a former friend who was kicked out of his family home after coming out to his family.
Khalil says that while he would ideally want gay Muslims to “return to the right form of Islam”, it was “unacceptable” for anyone to be abused because of their personal qualities: “Doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, black, white or whatever, abuse is abuse, whatever the circumstance.”
And although none of the men have ever heard an imam publicly condemn gays or gay activity, Mohammed says that he still feels uncomfortable whenever his friends make “crude jokes” about gay people.
As we finish, the men exchange salaams outside the restaurant, and reaffirm the need to “get in touch any time” if they need to.
“Oh no, I better head back before it gets too late,” Khalil jokes. “My wife will think I’m having an affair!”
To contact Imaan, visit its website or email firstname.lastname@example.org
CORRECTION: This story has been edited to clarify that the none of the interviewees are affiliated with Imaan. Additionally, Imaan neither supports or endorses the decisions made by the interviewees. (20/04/15)