The Root Interview: Openly Gay Imam Muhsin Hendricks

The South African Muslim cleric says that homosexuality and his religion can co-exist peacefully -- although many of his peers disagree.


Muhsin Hendricks, a gay South African imam, has been preaching for years that homosexuality and the Muslim religion can co-exist, even though his own experience shows how hard it is to gain acceptance. He recently spoke in the Netherlands on a tour organized by the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) group Cultuur en Ontspannings-Centrum (Center for Culture and Leisure). In a country known for its liberalism, some were shocked and angered at the interpretations of the Quran preached by the first openly gay imam.

Hendricks studied Islam in Pakistan, and both his father and grandfather were spiritual leaders within the orthodox Muslim community of Cape Town. This kind of hostility is not new. In his home country, the founder of the Muslim LGBT organization the Inner Circle has had threats against his life and is no longer considered to be a real imam by many of his peers.

The Root: You were married and had three children. Why did you decide to come out as gay?

Muhsin Hendricks: I think the reason I got married was the social pressure in the Muslim community to be a heterosexual. I came out at the age of 29 after being married for six years because I was conflicted with living a life of honesty and living a double life. I chose honesty despite the fact that I was very afraid for my life at that time because I was an imam.

I spoke with my wife and told her, “This is not possible. I can’t live that life anymore.” We decided to get a divorce, and the first person I needed to come out to was my mother. Once she accepted [my homosexuality], I was not worried about the rest of the world.

TR: How did you convince your mother to accept your homosexuality?

MH: It took her more than a year to get used to it. I took her by the hand and I said, “Let’s meet some gay people. Engage with them and you will find they are pretty normal people.” From a theological perspective, I also said to her that the verses can be interpreted differently, that when we take the context of Sodom and Gomorrah into perspective, one gets a different picture: God is not against homosexuals but against people who use other people sexually against their consent.

TR: You have been threatened because of your interpretations of the Quran.

MH: Most of it was just verbal threats, people who were angry because I am sort of disturbing the peace within Islam. But there was a fatwa passed by the South African Muslim Judicial Council, [saying] that people must not befriend me because I am out of the fold of Islam and my teaching is against Islam. This is the only real fatwa that was passed.

Other than that, something that was uncomfortable for me was when one day I was invited by another imam to his house to talk about homosexuality. I thought this was a breakthrough, but he said to me, “Actually, if this had to be a Muslim country, you would have been killed. The imams found an agreement that you should be killed; they just differ in how you must be killed.” So I was like, “OK!” [Laughs.]

TR: How do you manage to laugh about this?