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?
MH: Whatever you do in life, if you do it out of conviction and sincerity, and knowing that what you are doing is the right thing, you do not have to fear anything! And I am not prepared to let fear rule my life; I [would] rather choose faith.
TR: Have you inspired other imams to come out?
MH: I do work with some of the imams that are gay, but they are still in the closet because it is really not easy to come out in the Muslim community: People might lose their job, their status within the community … I also work with a lot of straight imams that are very sensitive about the issue in my community.
TR: In South Africa, the post-apartheid constitution of 1996 does not criminalize homosexuals. Still, the stigma is strong within some communities. Is it worse in the Muslim community?
MH: You must remember that our constitution is a very young one. So although we have a very brilliant constitution, it has not reached the grass roots yet, and there are a lot of pockets of conservative communities — not just in the Muslim community. So although we are protected by the constitution, we still fear that anti-LGBT groups might do something to harm us. It is a constant challenge.
TR: Do Muslim LGBTs often get married to keep their homosexuality secret?
MH: A lot of them do. That is one of the ways they negotiate the dilemma between their sexuality and their faith. Some of them would stay in marriage, some of them would have clandestine affairs outside of marriage, but we constantly work with them to help them find the truth within themselves and to bring themselves to honesty. But it is a long process.
TR: What kind of help does the Inner Circle bring to Muslim LGBTs?
MH: The Inner Circle was created 13 years ago to give support to Muslims who happen to be queer. The other purpose is to empower the Muslim community that they come from. We have various programs for building the self-esteem of queer Muslims, and a sort of workshop and training that we take outside into the community to educate about queer issues.
TR: Do you see some progress?
MH: It is a slow process, but definitely, there have been milestones. For instance, we came out with a documentary, A Jihad for Love [by Parvez Sharma], and it changed a lot of minds. In 2009 we came out with a book called Hijab: Unveiling Queer Muslim Lives [by Pepe Hendricks and Muhsin Hendricks], where there were real stories. A lot of people have written back to us to say they appreciated this — and this actually improves the understanding of homosexuality. Lately we have been invited by a lot by universities in South Africa to talk about the issue of Islam and sexuality and gender.
Habibou Bangré is a writer based in France.