On a rainy afternoon not long ago, South Africa’s only openly gay imam was wrapping up a sermon in a candlelit room in Cape Town. A devoted congregation of a nearly a dozen lesbian, gay, and transgendered Muslims, adorned in hijabs, embroidered fezzes, and dark and glittering scarves, had assembled on the room’s floor, their limbs resting on jewel-toned pillows and on prayer rugs. Most were middle-class professionals of Cape Malay descent, an ethnic group with origins in South Asia. They belonged to the gay Muslim support organization, The Inner Circle, which is run by the gentle-mannered imam Muhsin Hendricks. The 45-year old Hendricks sat at the head of the room. With his tousled black hair, arched eyebrows, and tawny brown skin, he looked like a Bollywood actor, instead of the man whose work is called Satanic by Muslim religious leaders.
After leading the group in mediation and prayer in Arabic, Hendricks switched to English to begin a familiar sermon: “Today we’re going to talk about putting your full trust into Allah,” he said. His followers grinned. Hendricks explained that they could realize their true selves if they trusted that God loved them wholly, including the fact they were LGBT, he said, sounding a little like a Muslim New Age guru. Most people nodded solemnly, some likely thinking of their recent transformative class on how to reinterpret Islam as a religion of compassion and acceptance. The imam teaches a controversial class on how to reconcile homosexuality and Islam. After the sermon ended, Hendricks’ flock hugged each other warmly and shuffled over to a table to have lunch cooked by Hendricks’ Hindu husband.
“The sermon said that we blame others and don’t take responsibility for our own issues,” Zaahir Hamid said to the others. Hamid is a transgender man with glasses and spiky hair.
“It said you make up your own truth,” interrupted his girlfriend Lameez Lovett. She had big blue eyes and dark hair under a black hijab. “And you start distrusting people. It’s true. Being Muslim and being in a homosexual relationship and all the judgments that you get and how you have to hide away – I’m out there. I say things the way they are and I’ve had to keep my mouth shut a lot.”
Lovett had dropped out before the most recent class ended; she was too overwhelmed with the painful memories it dredged up. She is now in private counseling with Hendricks. Hamid, however, finally stopped wearing a hijab during a prayer, exchanging it for a fez, while taking the class. “It was a big thing,” he said.
Basil McGillivray, an older member with a shock of white hair, turned to Hamid to ask about how he avoids the suspicion of fellow worshippers when he prays in the men’s section at mosque.
“No one ever notices. The men come up to greet me,” Hamid said.
“If you went back into the women’s side of the mosque, wouldn’t there be condemnation from the women who would ask, ‘What is he doing here?’ McGillivray asked.
“Well, I’d have to put a scarf on,” Hamid said.
“Yeah, then you would have to,” McGillivray said, pausing. “So you’d be in drag.”
The table burst into laughter.
The grandson of an imam, Hendricks studied Islam at a madrasah in Pakistan in his early twenties, and later became assistant imam at a mosque in Cape Town, while teaching at two others. (“Because, in my community, you have to run two or three jobs to make up a salary,” he deadpanned). But at the age of 29, after being married for six years and having had two daughters and a little boy, Hendricks decided to come out. He was immediately asked to leave the mosques where he worshipped and worked. He now has a difficult relationship with other imams. They say that he is sinful, but reluctantly acknowledge that he is still bringing people to Allah.
As he met other gay Muslims, he invited them to casual gatherings he would hold on Thursday nights at his house, where they would talk about their faith. When a lesbian Muslim committed suicide in 1998, it spurred him to found The Inner Circle to reach more LGBT South Africans. “We couldn’t afford to lose any more lives. I already had an idea that an all-merciful God can’t possibly deny a certain sector of his creation,” Hendricks said.
He now leads halaqaat, or study circles, where students intensively study the Koran and are told that it is normal to be both gay and Muslim. Initially, students are in a state of disbelief. Hendricks encourages women to lead prayers, a provocative practice even among his own students who hail from different Islamic traditions. “Look, in order for you to understand yourself as a queer Muslim, there are a lot of things you have to unlearn,” he explained. The class, the youngest member of which was 16 in the last session, and the oldest 70, examined the seeming contradictions on homosexuals in the holy books of Islam. They read the passages on Sodom and Gomorrah – the section of the Koran used most widely against gays – to interpret that wanton sex and molestation were being condemned, not specifically relations between men. They also read in the hadith, which are the sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad collected after he died, about men who were not attracted to women who worked in the house of Muhammad (and who may have been gay). Most of the students are closeted, though some do come out when the class ends.
Hendricks tells his students to question their religion and find their own ways of embracing it, something he says the Koran encourages. South Africa, which allows same-sex marriage and protects LGBT rights in its constitution, is a rarity in Africa, where more than two thirds of countries criminalize homosexuality. The gains arose from an anti-apartheid movement that created one of the most tolerant constitutions in the world. But the lived experience for LGBT South Africans is radically different from what the constitution promises them. Homophobia is still rampant in police stations, hospitals, and townships where most working-class people live. Gays have been facing a recent brutal wave of violence, including the practice of “corrective” rape. And an Islamist fundamentalist backlash has flourished in Cape Town’s Muslim community, as South Africans rely on religion, conservative tradition, and an entrenched patriarchy in the face of widespread unemployment and failing schools.
Several scholars say that Islam constantly is being reinterpreted, and Hendricks is not alone in his effort to read the religion in a new way. “[Islam] is a part of tradition, it’s a part of change, and it is subject to social pressures like anything else,” said Farid Esack, a Muslim Liberation theologian and head of the Department of Religion Studies at the University of Johannesburg. Esack told me while Islam has been closed to homosexual identities, there are a few intriguing loopholes. Sufi poetry contained odes to homosexual love. Sharia, or Islamic, law deals with the act of gay sex, but not with sexual orientation, and it is silent on the idea of expressing one’s sexual orientation. Also, Muslims tend to be far more socially tolerant than they are in public religious discourses, allowing for the potential of a gradual shift in attitudes towards homosexuality.
After lunch, Saafi Annaz, a Somali refugee with a shy, gap-toothed smile and bright eyes, recalled nearly leaving Islam after a member of his mosque in Somalia told him that he doesn’t break fast with gays, humiliating the teenage Annaz. He left his home, where gays can be stoned to death, to come to South Africa eight years ago. Despite the country’s flaws, he said he knew he made the right choice when he found other LGBT Muslims who are close with God. “After all,” Annaz said, “We’re all here for a greater purpose.”