Inside Berkeley’s Qal’bu Maryam, Tuli Bennett-Bose was preparing for jummah, the Friday prayer service. At 18, Bennett-Bose was a recent convert to Islam, and still working out the intricacies of dress and ritual that come with being an observant Muslim. “I’m a half-jabi,” she joked as she rewrapped her rust-colored hijab to frame her face. Sometimes she prefers to let her head covering reveal some of her silver pixie cut. On this afternoon, she was covering all of her hair because of the service, and also because it was raining.
Qal’bu Maryam — Arabic for “Maryam’s heart” — opened in Berkeley in April 2017. The mosque represents a stark departure from orthodox Muslim tradition, welcoming LGBTQ congregants, allowing women to lead prayers and deliver sermons (called khutbahs), and encouraging all genders to pray shoulder to shoulder. Bennett-Bose stumbled upon the congregation online and was drawn to its inclusivity. “I know that I was meant to be Muslim,” she says. “But I also knew that I was gay before I converted.” Although many mainstream strains of Islam shun homosexuality, Bennett-Bose took the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. Soon after, she visited Qal’bu Maryam.
Neither Qal’bu Maryam nor its founder, Rabia Keeble, who converted to Islam 15 years ago, have been universally welcomed within the East Bay’s Muslim community. Some faith leaders criticize the congregation for its deviation from traditions that have been in place for millennia. Abdullah Ali, an assistant professor at nearby Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim undergraduate university in the country, has little love for Keeble’s “particular project.” Men and women praying side by side “is definitely not the instruction given by our prophet,” he says, referring to the hadith, or the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. “The instruction was very clear, and we know what prayer looked like at this time: Women pray behind men.”
More important, Ali says, Qal’bu Maryam was founded with the explicit intention of being “provocative” and, in particular, of antagonizing people who are committed to traditional Islamic teachings. “They want to challenge what they consider to be orthodoxy,” he says.
On that point, he won’t get much argument from Keeble. An Ohio-raised woman (she declines to share her age), Keeble came to the faith in 2003 and lives by a “no tolerance for bullshit” policy, doling out grand, confrontational statements that often rankle whomever she’s debating. “What I did started a conversation,” she tells me of Qal’bu Maryam’s founding. “Men and women need to learn together. This will end misogyny within the religious sphere.”
Keeble is a self-proclaimed “third-wave black feminist and womanist” whose daily getup includes hijab, eyeliner, and bright lipstick. Central to her mission is to reconcile Islam with contemporary feminism; it’s on this point that she encounters the most resistance. Both she and Ali believe the two worldviews can and do coexist. How they achieve it, however, is very much a point of contention.
Feminist Islam is not a new concept. While Europe suffered through the Dark Ages, women in Arabia benefited from inheritance, consent as a requirement for marriage, and education. Muslims frequently cite the Prophet’s wife, Khadija, an independent businesswoman, as evidence of the faith’s feminist principles in action.
“Feminists are not anti-Islam. We want the fulfillment of what the Prophet, peace be upon him, started before his death,” Keeble says. Ali agrees that Islam can be consistent with feminist ideology, but he points to liberation feminism, which “accepts that men and women are fundamentally different and that men have often belittled the importance of women.” “Equality feminism” of the type practiced by “people like Rabia Keeble” is not compatible with Islam, he says. “Equality feminism is focused on attempting to equalize the degree of influence and level of authority between men and women to the extent that we completely ignore biological differences.”
For Ali, the hadith was never to be taken as a sign of women’s inferiority, “just as leading the prayer was never taken as a sign of political power.” Instead, he says, the practice is rooted in principle: “The Prophet told the people, ‘Pray as you see me pray.’ And we know that the norm is that he was always leading prayer during his lifetime.” For that reason and others — for instance, the fact that Keeble thinks women can pray while on their periods, a practice considered taboo by Ali and others—he looks upon Qal’bu Maryam as a prayer space, not a mosque. It lacks the sanctity, he says, that a mosque deserves.
It’s exactly that inequality, in Keeble’s eyes, that has hurt Muslim women and caused them to have shallower relationships with their faith. Because of male dominance in mosques, “it is very difficult for women to approach the imam after sermons to ask questions,” she explains.
Fighting for her congregation has been draining for Keeble. Earlier this year, she took a month-long leave from the mosque to regroup; aside from dealing with “so-called volunteers who were all talk and no show,” she was “physically worn out” from handling outreach and logistics alone. She was also attending speaking engagements, creating and distributing weekly advertisements, and scheduling Friday speakers. During her period of reflection, she refocused on Qal’bu Maryam’s mission, paying particular attention to the sermons being delivered there. “I wanted to focus on the use of gendered language specifically. I have to ask myself, Is this language that honors women?”
Qal’bu Maryam resumed jummah on a rainy Friday afternoon in March. As usual, services took place within the Starr King School for the Ministry in North Berkeley, of which Keeble is a graduate. The school allows Keeble to use the space each week (a courtesy extended to all graduates). Finding a more permanent space in which to worship is at the top of her list, though. “In [people’s] minds, this is the mosque,” she says. “But in my mind, this is still the school.” Outside, a Black Lives Matter banner adorned the walls of the redbrick building, and its doors were decorated with LGBTQ flags.
“Anyone is welcome here because we are all God’s creations, and God doesn’t make mistakes,” Keeble said as a welcome to the five women and one man in attendance. The sermon centered on the hijab, the Muslim veil, and its ancient roots in all faiths. Heads nodded when the speaker, a politician and writer named Ferial Masry, said that in the Koran, there is neither a dress code nor a compulsion to don the hijab. The same applied to the space itself. As Keeble once said to me, “Wear whatever the hell you want.”
Following the sermon, the rain intensified and the group moved to a wooden table for a follow-up discussion on faith, feminism, and how religion can evolve. Bennett-Bose busied herself taking notes — jotting down sayings that resonated with her, or lines that she wanted to research further. As a recent convert, she says, she’s more able to embrace Keeble’s progressive interpretation of Islam. She worships in more traditional spaces as well — she’s part of the Muslim Student Association at UC Berkeley and attends other local mosques — but only at Qal’bu Maryam is she openly gay.
As the conversation at the wooden table died down, Bennett-Bose prepared to lead prayer. She removed her boots to reveal bright-teal socks. In the prayer room, the queer teenager recited verses from the Koran: “Bismillah, ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim.” (In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful.) Her recitation mingled with the tapping of raindrops outside. In a melodious tune, she delivered Surah Al-Kafirun, a chapter from the Koran called “The Unbelievers.” After she finished it, the last line hung in the air. Lakum deenukum wa liya deen: To you is your religion, and to me is mine.