LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - "The best thing was to just come out and be authentic - even if it means the world is going to kill you, but at least you die an authentic person," says Muhsin Hendricks, one of the world's few openly gay imams.
Born and raised in South Africa, the 46-year-old has spent years helping gay Muslims reconcile Islam with their sexuality through The Inner Circle, an organisation he founded that was set up in 2004.
Hendricks spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Cape Town about what the Koran says about homosexuality, the reality for gays in South Africa and what it was like coming out at the age of 29.
Q: What was your experience growing up being gay and a Muslim?
A: I come from a very conservative Muslim background. My grandfather was imam of our community mosque, so there was a lot of pressure on us children to be good Muslims - if there is such a thing as a good Muslim.
There was no expression for sexuality. There was nobody you could talk to about sexuality. So for the first 16 years of my life, it was a lonely journey with me having to deal with all these emotions on my own. My mother was ruling with the iron fist, so she was not somebody I could approach with that. I resolved at the age of 18 to further my studies in Islam because I couldn't understand that when I went to the mosque, they preached a very compassionate and merciful God, but it was the same God that gave me this sexuality and asked me not to act on it. I needed to find out what the Koran was really saying about sexuality, and then at the age of 21, I won a scholarship to study at one of the universities in Pakistan.
I think it was during my studies when there was confusion - am I doing the right thing? Am I being the right person? That's when I decided to get married. I thought if I'm not going to get married, I'll probably go through the rest of my life thinking what if I had tasted a woman like they say I have to, would that have made me straight?
So I got married. Fortunately there was a girl very much in love with me. I told her a few weeks before I got married. I said, 'Look, this is who I am. I'm willing to give it a try.’
But six years down the line, having had three kids, things didn't happen and we both just felt that we had been doing an injustice to each other. The best thing was to just come out and be authentic - even it means the world is going to kill you, but at least you die as an authentic person.
I didn't just take a small step out of the closet, I just jumped out and went straight to the papers and on the front page, it was: 'Gay imam comes out'. I had three jobs at that time and I was fired from all three of them. I went through a kind of depression.
Q: How did your family respond to you coming out?
A: I was divorced for a whole month before my mother came to discover I was divorced. She said she was hearing some rumours I was divorced because I'm gay. I thought, you know what, this is the woman I most feared in my life but at this point I can't hide it anymore, so I said, 'It's true, it's not a rumour' - and she fainted. After my sister came to help her, I thought I'll just leave her to work on that. The next morning she came to me and she said, 'We're going to have to go to an imam. I think you're jinxed. You need some spiritual help.’ I said, 'No, mother, that's enough. I've gone through that process for 29 years and I don't think there's anything wrong with me.’
We had a tiff. She said, ‘I can't accept it.’ I said, 'Well what do you want to do? Because I can't accept the fact you can't accept it.’ I think because I spoke in a way I had never spoken to my mother before she could understand the seriousness of my pain and she said, 'Show me what you think is right.’
I got her documentaries to watch, books to read on the issue. Then finally there was an acceptance. One day I heard my mother saying to a lady enquiring about this and about me - she said to her, 'I know my son is a very honest child. He's always been God-conscious, and I don't think he would choose something like this. I'm not going to throw my son away. I still don't understand it completely, but he's my son and I'm leaving that up to God to decide.’ She accepted me and she accepted my partner. When she passed away I was the only one at her bedside.
Q: What does the Koran say about homosexuality?
A: The Koran only speaks about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Koran doesn't use the word homosexuality. It's only a term that was coined in the 18th century, and the Koran was a 7th century book. The story has been interpreted for years to refer to the atrocities of Sodom and Gomorrah as homosexuality so what I do is I unpack it. One of the principles that we learn when we study the Koran is that you can't quote a verse from the Koran out of context. It has a context, it has a history, there's a real particular purpose. So, I say, 'Let's do the same with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.’ We look at the archaeological findings, we look at what historians say about Sodom and Gomorrah, and once we piece that together we find that the story was really about economic exploitation, inhospitality to guests, rape, molestation, homosexual practices that were related to idolatry. So then I ask in my conclusion, 'If you look at that and if you look at who you are in terms of your sexual orientation, do you think that story talks about you?'
Q: South Africa does not criminalise homosexuality. In fact, its 1996 constitution prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and has been described as one of the most progressive constitutions in the world - but what’s it really like for gays and lesbians in the country?
A: I think that that statement holds true, that we do have one of the best constitutions in the world, but it doesn't translate to what happens at grassroots level. We still see that lesbians are being killed in the townships, there's corrective rape happening. Now and then you hear that some gay person has been killed and nobody knows why, and I think that happens because there haven’t been enough programmes instituted by government to help with the transition. We come from a very violent history of apartheid and then suddenly into a very liberal constitution.
If you perhaps were living in more developed cities in South Africa like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth, you'd probably see less of that discrimination, but the more you move you into townships where there is a lack of education, there is a lack of information around these issues, you do still see violence and discrimination happening.
People in work areas are very aware that they shouldn't be discriminating, but if you dig deeper down you still wonder if people have really made peace with the fact that gay people are on the same level in terms of human rights as straight people.
Q: Is the situation getting any easier for gay Muslims in South Africa?
A: I'm not sure I can look at South Africa in isolation to what's happening in the rest of the world. I think there's gains in some areas and there's losses in others. If we look for example at the recent statement from the president of the Muslim Judicial Council in Cape Town, we see that there's a definite move in the last five years now from saying that queer Muslims should be killed - 'If this had been a Muslim country they would have been killed' - to 'Let's look at what kind of programmes can be instituted, what kind of help can amassed to help queer Muslims.’ They still think we should become straight, but at least they're not saying we should be killed. That's a big shift for us. Another big shift is the fact that for the first year at our annual international retreat, there were two straight imams willing to engage. Positive steps like that. We get more families coming into counselling where before it was only queer Muslims, now it's queer Muslims and their families.
But on the other hand, look at the rise of fundamentalism on the African continent - the Sahel region, the sub-Saharan countries, and events like the Arab Spring - how that influences the way people practise Islam. What happens in other countries does affect Muslims in different parts of the world as well, so perhaps that's the challenge at the moment.