'Alif is For Revolution' solo performance at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco,
photo credit: Kalima Amilak
'Storytellers of The Future'
Zulfikar explains why his video series Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth embodies a sci-fi aesthetic. The Queer Muslim future he believes in lies in a post-apocalyptic universe. "We are constantly pummeled by war and violence from abroad and then from within our own people”, he emphasizes.
His work draws attention to surviving narratives of the Muslim world, to what remains despite erasure - “All we have is a future of rubble and survivors. We've seen the Baghdad museum looted, we've seen the Bamiyan statues go, we've seen so much of our history just being leveled.’’ Through his art, he draws inspiration from the role of the storyteller, the Qissa Khawaani (Urdu), the Hakawati (Arabic). To Zulfikar, storytelling is one of humanity's most powerful saving graces.
On a cold winter morning in Karachi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto seats himself across his screen. In his frame, we catch glimpses of an imposing shelf to the left, a few books laying down as though to rest from bright nights of leafing and referencing. A few mementos reflect silver light to the camera. Zulfikar himself seems as dazzling and marvelous as what surrounds him, in a coral pink kurta and of the countenance of one who has inklings of what waits beyond earth. Our opening conversations with him are grounded in the ongoings of life during the pandemic - gym routines, helping siblings prepare for exams and the experience of residing with family through it all. One could hardly foretell that questions of multiverses, Noor Jahan's voice as a radio wave in outer space, repurposing Queer Mujahideen as a term and the artist's role in a revolution, would make for a morning's discussion.
Stories persist as legacies. Even as rubble. Even as dimmed radio waves. At this point, our morning, flanked by screens and home offices, starts to shimmer, the edges of objects blur to appear almost limitless. We discuss more elements from Zulfi's video series, which begins with a speculative audio-visual piece. Noor Jahan's voice emanates from satellite dishes that were formerly minarets; it travels beyond the earth's atmosphere in the form of radio waves.
"How long will it take for Noor Jahan's voice to go from radio Pakistan in 1974 and reach Mars?", his work poses this question. He explains that the endurance of these stories relates to cosmological interconnectivity, even as a counternarrative to loneliness.
There is no one kind of Islam or just one type of Queer Muslim future. There are many kinds of legacies that storytellers will invoke in the future. To Zulfikar, a futurism that is inclusive is inherently queer. The movement to a queer future that honors stories is inspired by radical fighters, artists, and lovers. Zulfikar looks back at previous political struggles in the Muslim world, inspired by the plurality and beauty of human history. He mentions that God is not Rab-al-Aalam but Rab-al-Alameen, not Lord of the universe but of universes.
The past is important to Zulfikar. “This is my real repurposing of historical materials. What does a queer Muslim Mujahideen look like? How do we repurpose this term, which has been so CIA-corrupted and so Talibanized to mean something very particular?" Here is where the narratorial voice of Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth, Faluda Islam, functions as an interpreter of the past. Made of many histories and identities drawing from Zulfi’s own identity as a queer, Pakistani-Lebanese-Iranian Muslim, she is his drag persona. Her role as a post-apocalyptic revolutionary and storyteller invites listeners to reexamine the past with her. Suspended in a Barzakh, a limbo beyond time, Faluda's zombie-like otherworldliness and her range of voices pose her as an ever-shifting being.
Zhavedan Dulha, جاودان دلہا
Screen print on muslin, printed polyester fabric, gold metallic fabric, embroidery, applique and quilting 2018, 48x60 inches.
Screen print on muslin, chiffon and polyester, archival inkjet print on silk, tassels, embroidery, camel hair yarn, lace, various, trimmings.
147 x 28 in, 2020
Zhavedan Ajal Adhahab جاودان عجل الذھب
Screen print on muslin, chiffon, and polyester, archival inkjet print on silk, tassels, embroidery, camel hair yarn, lace, various, trimmings.
96 x 60 in, 2021
photo credit: Chris Grunder
During our discussion, the politics of this fight for free futures take hold of our imaginations. Zulfikar's views on the artist's role in this struggle are as layered and nuanced as his work. As a performer and an artist with a legacy, he recognizes a keen awareness of the power there lies in an artist's voice. "Ultimately the only way that social movements can actually succeed, is not through the role of the artist. It's through the role of the worker, the role of the Mazdoor, the role of the kisaan’’, he says.
Our conversation with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ranged from the playful and fantastic to the grounded realities of revolution. In our imaginations, we saw dying stars, ghosts of voices floating through the cosmos, archaeologists and storytellers of the future unfurling what we would leave behind. For some moments during our talk, we experienced a heightened awareness of our personal histories. It was only natural to ponder the potential that Queer Muslim Futures hold.
In this publication, you will find vibrant visuals and writing, all as various genres - as a comic, as portraits, in the form of a map, as poetry, letters, speculative essays, and a manifesto.
This collection is imaginative and political. We owe its existence to those who dare to dream. It seeks to normalize Queer Muslim stories and endorses a type of futurism - one shaped by the fluidity of thought and radical softness.
This is a small beacon of hope, a firefly-sized light, in the broader discourse of Queer art, Muslim history, and all stories about humanity.
Download it for free here.
tHe haRAAm! p0LicE
What's Queer About Queer Muslim Resistance?
O those who believed! Be staunch in equity as witnesses to God and let not that you detest a folk drive you into not dealing justly. Be just. That is nearer to God-consciousness. [The Sublime Quran, 5:8]
Navigating the world as queer and Muslim can be challenging to our hearts, spirits and livelihoods, to say the very least. Our very existence is constructed to be impossible. As a queer South Asian Muslim femme based on Turtle Island, I am learning in community that collective resistance – acting in solidarity with our siblings invested in justice and anti-oppression of all forms – has transformative power. This refers to the ways queer Muslims love, and love hard, to challenge the dominant structures that claim we cannot and do not live lives of happiness.
It is essential to believe in and work towards possibilities of collective liberation – of futures free from trauma and oppression. I explore the following questions in this piece: how do we queer our resistance to centre and work towards justice? How do queer Muslims transform conditions of impossibility to possibility? And what’s love got to do with it?
I like to think of ‘queer’ as an analytic, a way to think and act transgressively, radically. It goes beyond an identity label: it is a tool to think, analyse, create, act, and desire new worlds of justice. As José Esteban Muñoz explains in his illuminating book Cruising Utopia, queerness is not something we can just be, achieve or embody, but we can feel its warmth in the everyday acts of resistance we enact. This pushes us to go further towards creating the futures we deserve. Queerness offers potentials for radical futures and alternative presents to those who are constructed as non-existent. It is a useful framework to think about how queer Muslims resist and what potential our resistance offers ourselves and the world.
You don’t have to ‘be queer’ to resist ‘queerly’. To queer is to transgress the norm in hope of working towards something better – something liberatory. Queer Muslims challenge the surety of what is considered normal not just through our existence, but also in the ways we resist to dream the supposed impossibility of justice for all. We ripple the very fabrics of oppressive structures through the ways we love, create, and generate. There are alternative ways we live that don’t confine us to the pain of impossibility. These ways illuminate moments of queer utopia in the present while giving us tangible evidence of how we can create futures of liberation. When I hear a story of two women living together for years, never getting married (but they’re just friends of course), or when the love of my chosen family soothes my soul after a fight with my parents, we are resisting the idea that queer Muslims are solely confined to our pain and traumas. The futures we want – freedom from the burdens of oppression in all forms – can and do exist through radical love and desires for more than what the world can currently offer.
I can’t help but return to love here. For if not fuelled by our love for humanity, for all beings, for the land we interact with, where does our resistance come from? Belief in the possibility of new worlds – where we are all free from the traumas of oppression, where oppression does not exist – is an act of radical love. It is in learning that the same dominant structures impact us all differently – whether it’s anti-Black, brown, Muslim, Indigenous racisms, and/or queerphobia, and/or anything else – that I have come to believe collective liberation will be achieved through collective resistance, Inshallah. To love radically, and collectively, is an act of queerness. There are no limits to what we can do with queer love in our hearts!
Islam is, at its core, a faith of justice. It is argued our purpose here on earth is to be God-conscious, which, according to the featured epigraph, is to be just. Thus, as queer Muslims, we must continue to centre queerness – transgression, creativity, radical hope and love – in our resistance to create worlds of beauty for all. To my fellow co-conspirators: we’re here, we’re queer(ing resistance), and we’re mobilising from the knowledge that we can create conditions of justice for and with each other.
Q. NaniJaan, I don't know how to start? I don't know what I am. I know I'm not straight. I don't know which amongst LGBTQIA+ is me enough to call mine. I thought I was gay, but sometimes I adore girls. It makes me feel like a fraud. Shouldn't I just focus on the normal way and forget this odd impulse within me to be part of the queer community? Is there some kami (lack) in me? KamMe
A. My baby, come close, let me see you. All I see is a whole being struggling to make sense of language. What is in a label? A word is just that - a sound, an articulation. You are immense. You cannot be pinned down by arbitrary terms. Don't search for a word to fit and burrow into. Look only at yourself. Make a self-gazing journal, jot down who and what catches your fancy, what stirs your heart, tickles your attention, who bestows night kisses in your dreams. List it all out. Again repeat after me: I am, I am, I am. When you find yourself, the word will come. You are light; you came before everything, before language, before words.
Also, online quizzes are fun, explore, and don't take any answers too seriously.
In this column, Naani addresses the agonies and angst of Queer Muslim distress, submitted to her as anonymous asks. As a wise elder equipped with an old computer and a velveteen heart, she cares for all who need advice.
Q. NaniAmma, I've always seen pretty white gays on television, and I only know that I'm not one of them. I mean, I am gay, I am, but I don't see myself wearing sequins anytime soon. Am I a fraud? UnsequinedGay
A. Meri jaan from the stars, you know you are made up of literal stardust, no? The air shivers around you, and your immense loveliness, vitality leak at your edges. Your skin can barely contain your totality; how can a television screen ever capture you? That creature on the screen is a product of western contexts and stereotypes, a stand-in for the real thing. On the other hand, you are flesh and blood and stardust, be fearless and unsequined. Sirf tum, only you can be that.
Until then, a few movie recommendations--Black is...Black Ain't (California Newsreel, 1994), China Dolls (Lindfield, N.S.W. Film Australia, 1997), Coming Out Coming Home (Asian & Pacific Islander Family Pride, 1996)
Q. Dearest QueerNani, there is this girl with shiny eyes and smile lines around her mouth, who I adore. I have always loved her. We are friends, you see, but recently I've come to love her differently. My chest feels insanely full just thinking about her. I can feel the walls of my heart stretch. What do I do? TangDilBilli
A. My luminous child, I couldn't help but purr in coy joy at your lovely emotions and how brilliantly you've described them. This love you talk about is the foundation of humanity, threading our existence with meaning and purpose. Look how brilliantly lovely and intensely human you are, capable of intense emotions and solid intentions. You are literal magic, a creative expression of the universe itself. I ask you to just dwell and make a home in these feelings. There is so much to explore. See how your body reacts around her, how your voice changes, what you notice in her, take everything in greedily. Consume life itself; love will come.
P.S. Also, make a playlist to store this experience.
Sadeeq Ali is a musician and actor based in Los Angeles.
In your experience, has the industry been welcoming to the intersection of 'Muslim' among their musicians?
I haven't had any issues so far, but that might also be because people are afraid to voice those opinions. The problems I have with the music industry tend to be more about branding and marketing tactics that don't align with my personality. I always say that being Muslim is so much more than just the religion itself. I find myself relating to Muslims all around the world because we usually have the same cultural values and morals as one another. I'd love to see many more mainstream Muslim musicians, though I believe we'll see a lot more of us soon.
Is it comforting to know that Queer Black musicians like Frank Ocean, Jaden Smith, and Janelle Monáe are making headway in the industry as well? Who are your personal icons?
It's very comforting. I can't imagine what it would be like to release music and not have artists that look like me already be represented in the industry. Anyone who knows me knows that I love Nicki Minaj. I'm always so impressed by her talent and her determination. I also love Eminem, Beyonce, and Rihanna, to name a few. I think they're all pioneers and icons in their own way, and they all teach me to forge my own path.
Since you write your own music, what is the process, starting from inkling ideas to the actual record coming into existence? How do you cope with writer's block?
The process is random. A beat that makes me want to dance is important because I'm a lot more lyrical as a rapper when I'm on a record that makes me want to move and bounce around. I'm building a studio in my apartment right now, so the process is changing for me quite a bit because I now no longer rely on professional engineers and mixers to help me with my records. When I get writer's block I walk away from the song and just try to live life until I feel like it's lifted.
If you could lay out a message to LGBTQ identifying, Black-Muslims struggling with their unique journeys, what would it be? Conversely, what would you say to those who resist accepting that Queer Black rappers and Queer Black Muslim folk exist?
I would tell them there's no shame in struggling with these co-existing identities. There are times when I don't feel equipped to deal with all that it requires to be myself in a world that discourages me so vehemently. However, the alternative just isn't worth it. Life is meant to be lived, and it's your birthright to live it according to your mind and your inner life. I don't have much to say to those people. I feel like the information already exists, and anyone resistant to learning about it is dealing with something far beyond my capabilities.
What are you looking forward to this year?
I'm looking forward to releasing new music and visuals! I recently dropped my mixtape, Zuko, and I just started working on my next music project, so I can't wait to start putting those songs out. I also hope to work on some more acting projects this year. The comedy theater I've been studying and performing at has been closed since the pandemic, so I'm really excited for it to be open again soon.
In your opinion, is effective activism propelled by activists with privilege and by formal organizations? Or could a layperson also find other means to resist the State?
When I first began organizing, I mainly did so alongside other poor Black people — some of them being LGBTQ, Muslim, disabled, or all of the above, and etc. Looking back historically, the organizing that shapes my thinking today was performed by regular people. And really, if we broaden our concept of resistance, if we consider fugitive Blackness, all our unpredictable movements, our cultural expressions, we see that laypeople resist every day. It may not take the shape of what is considered "protest" but speaks to the limit of the imagination. That being said, I don't think we should separate laypeople from organizations. Being able to form an organization, a collective, and work towards liberation is essential. Organizations can be ugly, toxic spaces, yes, but so can the written word and art and science-fiction, and yet, we can use them all as sites of power.
How do you put your personal beliefs into practice every day as a Queer Black Muslim?
Through my writing and other projects. NAZAR, The Drinking Gourd, and all of my fiction— mostly science fiction and fantasy — are all how I practice Islam as liberation theology, think of and through freedom, consider the futures, etc.
How did you set out to start your independent journalism project 'NAZAR'?
I decided to start my independent journalism project, NAZAR, to build my audience off social media. It was vital for me to not be entirely reliant on platforms I despise. At first, I considered making a newsletter where I shared personal essays and whatever thoughts I have. However, I'm a very private person and realized I didn't want people in my business like that. Instead, I began thinking about what subjects I wish I could cover more in my freelance work or whose coverage generally bothered me — and surveillance continued coming up. But the process of starting NAZAR was straightforward. Since I use Substack, the setup took me maybe an hour total.
What cues and keywords would you hint at to a classroom that engages with 'The Drinking Gourd' (the Black Muslim literary magazine you founded) for the first time?
For any classroom that engages with The Drinking Gourd, the name itself demands attention before anything else. It requires an analysis of Islam in the United States that actually takes enslaved African Muslims into account. It demands that we move beyond treating statements like "the first Muslims in America were enslaved!" as fun facts and actually sit with what that means for the ummah. It demands that we consider how Blackness is not secondary to being Muslim; how The Drinking Gourd explores it as a unit, BlackMuslim, no separation. But, I would also say that people should consider Afrofuturism and archives.
What are you looking forward to this year?
Towards the end of 2020, I started reconsidering how I engage with social media. Hopefully, I'm looking forward to pulling back from it more and focusing on other things — whether it is writing, reading, fighting, or finding some other hobby.
Vanessa Taylor is a writer and activist based in Philadelphia.
The Queer Muslim Monthly was launched after weaving together the threads of stories separated by oceans. The effect of it is much like an enchanted tapestry, its material sourced not from one known spool but from diverse perspectives. I shall not underestimate the magic of connections forged across time zones. This issue is the result of careful curation and collaboration; each outline and every word is chosen after deliberation and with bright eyes looking towards the future of our communities. I am grateful to be working and growing with a team of dedicated artists, writers, and curators. I hope that this issue radiates some of the joy that we experience as we share Queer Muslim art with you.
This issue has been supported by Gender Bender 2020.
Ainee is an Ace struggling to ace at life, part tree, part automaton. Always on a sugar rush, she purges excess affection and love through our Ask Naani column.
They are a self-taught artist and a small business owner. They use art to show how they perceive life and capture their thoughts, as our Haraam Police comic creator.
Maha is a queer South Asian femme based on Turtle Island. She is also the producer and co-host of Queer Muslim Resistance, a podcast from OPIRG Kingston In her spare time, she enjoys documenting her cats’ every move in her Instagram stories.
As a writer, editor, and witch based in Delhi, Maniza reveres the poetry of words. Language is their tool for magic as it has given to this world sensuous poems about fruits and Sapphic love, bad yet memorable lyrics, words to describe the aroma of coffee, and this eccentric monthly.
Besides his work as the curator and editor of this newspaper, and far too many projects that exceed the scope of this bio, Rafi curates what is left of his free time with Spanish crime series, 90's Bollywood music, and thoughts about love experienced freely and unconditionally.
Reya is a multidisciplinary visual artist based in Kolkata, India. Never a casual stan of anything, she spends her days consuming music, movies, and drawing obsessively.
© 2021 by The Queer Muslim Project