Lately, a short film on a woman imam from the US, who leads mixed-gender congregation prayers in mosques and debunks popular and long-held myths about Islam, has been making waves in film festival circuits around the world. The 19-minute film, al imam, recently telecast on National Geographic channel and most likely to be screened at Cannes 2019, is about 57-year-old Ani Zonneveld, a Grammy-winning songwriter who relies on nothing but the Quran to establish that Islam doesn’t curb free thinking and isn’t misogynistic, nor does it ban homosexuality. It isn’t intolerant of other religions either.
In the process, Zonneveld unflinchingly calls out certain Muslim countries and a section of Islamic religious leaders for promoting a more hardline version of the religion. In an email interview from Los Angeles, where she lives, Zonneveld says it was the 9/11 attack in the US that compelled her to read the Quran closely. Until then, she says, she was a “closeted Muslim”, happily making music. The re-reading of Quran made her realise that the holy scripture is not only progressive but also has little coherence with what hardline Islamic preachers generally tell the world.
It was a discovery that changed her life.
Zonneveld made up her mind never to return to the traditional, “discriminatory” mosque and, for the first time, wrote songs about Islam. Two years later, she released music albums like Ummah, Wake Up in which she describes jihad as an inner struggle and urges Muslims to work for progressive causes. The albums did not do well and she was once told at an Islamic music festival in Canada, where she was refused space, that it was forbidden (haraam) for men to hear women sing.
Zonneveld continued her conversations with concerned Muslims, and, in 2007, co-founded Muslims of Progressive Values (MPV), whose members have no hesitation in offering namaz beside and behind a woman, and living and propagating a more emancipated version of Islam by drawing from the Quran.
Born in Kuala Lumpur — her father was the Malaysian ambassador to Germany, Egypt and India — Zonneveld says her upbringing was in a manner of traditional Islam, which she remembers as more easy-going and accepting of the diversity in people. “It was a very different Islam than what it is now,” she says.
So, how did she decide to become an imam and lead prayers? Zonneveld says she had never thought about becoming one until an MPV member in Los Angeles wanted her to officiate her interfaith wedding in 2006. Since then, she hasn’t faced any resistance for leading prayers for a simple reason: even her detractors cannot deny Islamic history. “There is evidence that the first woman imam, Umm Waraqah, was appointed by Prophet Muhammad himself. There have been women spiritual leaders in the Muslim world through the centuries,” she says. “There is more. Women protested and spoke back to Caliph Omar in the mosque, interrupting him when he was wrong. After all, prayers at Mecca are mixed,” she says.
There is a moment in al imam when Zonneveld is conducting a nikah without covering her head. “Muslims put too much emphasis on outer coverings and zero on character and substance, which completely contradicts the Quran. Do you think Allah cannot hear me and see my heart without a head covering? Maybe men can’t but that is not my problem,” she says.
Zonneveld reserves the most unsparing words for Muslim men, who, she says, have co-opted Islam to dominate women. “When Quran was revealed, it condemned the injustices of the tribal Arab society. It empowered women, slaves and the oppressed. But Muslim men now use the same Islam to oppress and silence women,” she says.
In the independent relationship — unmediated by any dogma — that Zonneveld has established with Quran, she finds the sacred text to be the most permissive. She says that denying women their rights is a “bastardisation” of Islam. “Let’s take forced marriages. The Quran or Hadith is clear. The woman decides who she marries. But forced and child marriages are still rampant in Muslim societies …Imams all over the world should simply say: this is haraam,” she says.
Zonneveld claims Islam approves of homosexuality, and that Quran does not frown upon gay imams. “Allah created homosexuals. Did Allah make a mistake? Gays are human beings and deserve equal respect, dignity as all God’s creation. There is nothing in the Quran prohibiting gay imams. When the Quran condemns the man from laying with another man instead of his wife, the Quran is really talking to the straight man,” she says.
Zonneveld moved to the US in 1981 to attend college and soon started out in the music business as a songwriter and producer. She says she wrote whatever genre her publishers asked her to write — pop, dance, rock, or blues. She went on to win a Grammy for songwriting, becoming the first Malaysian ever to be nominated and win the prestigious award. Later, she began singing spiritual Islamic songs she herself wrote.
So, what does she think about some Muslims looking down upon music, especially women musicians?
“That is another bastardisation of Islam. We have had centuries of women in the arts. We had poets and singers and suddenly, it’s all haraam? What is the first thing hardline imams do? They ban all expressions of the human soul and mind. They kill your creativity because that hardens your heart,” she says.