Lut's People: The struggle to be gay & Muslim in South Africa By Rebecca Davis & Haji Mohamed Dawjee

South Africa’s Muslim population exists in a state of contradiction.

They live in a country home to some of the most liberal laws on sexual orientation in the world – yet the official line from local Muslim authorities remains that homosexuality is forbidden.

Their community makes a disproportionately generous contribution to social upliftment and charity – yet gay Muslims are often ostracised by their own families.

The ideas of struggle, transformation and liberation are sewn into the fibre of Islamic theology – yet the notion of freedom and acceptance for gay Muslims remains impossible for many.

How do gay South African Muslims negotiate the seemingly irreconcilable divide between their sexual orientation and their religion? Are attitudes towards homosexuality as hardline among ordinary Muslims as those preached from the pulpit? And can things ever change?

The People

Zuleiga Gassiep, Johannesburg

Zuleiga Gassiep [Pic: Supplied]

"My brothers and I never really went to a formal madrassa (Muslim school), and when my parents tried to send me, it never lasted very long. The usthads (teachers) could not answer my questions and I had a lot of them.

In my family, we were taught to question, question everything, that believing in something or following blindly without question is how religion becomes the opium of the masses.

My dad took it upon himself to answer my questions, to debate endlessly and research when we couldn't come to our own conclusions.

As far as my Islamic education on homosexuality goes, all I was told about it was the story of Lut. I remember being told that sodomy was haram (forbidden) and that somehow this was related to homosexuality.

But I remember having a crush on my teacher, Mrs Glass, in Grade 1. I didn’t question my feelings too much at the time because I was too young to understand. Being a gay woman became more obvious to me when I developed the language to describe my feelings for women. And then, in the eighth grade, I came out to one of closest friends, Belinda, and my conversation with her made her consider some of her own feelings for the same sex. She was always supportive and understanding.

My family, on the other hand, coerced me out of the closet. They became really curious about the relationship I was having with a girl and eventually, after much interrogation, I confirmed their fears. I finally leapt out the closet and established that I was not having an affair - but that I was seeing a girl.

It was difficult and complicated because I felt unprepared for it. I didn't really get to choose my coming out, but it did feel good to get it off my chest. But I felt bad thinking I hurt my parents and that it might have put a crack in our relationship.

I initially challenged my dad to find where exactly in the Qur'an it says that being bisexual or a lesbian was haram. Obviously he couldn't find this, and whatever he did find was easily dismissed as a far reach. It’s these conversations with my father that helped me reconcile my faith with my sexuality.

It took many years but I persevered in my family with education through conversation. I would occasionally leave the TV on a show where there was some LGBT education going on, waiting for someone to say something so I could start up that conversation again.

My family created an environment where I could be whatever I wanted to be so long as I was kind - and most importantly, a Muslim.

I still abide by the five pillars of Islam. I batcha (pray) my Shahaadat (a testimony to Allah and the Prophet Muhammad) every day. Islam is very much a way of life for me."

Moenier Hendricks, Cape Town

Moenier Hendricks [Pic: Supplied]

"I live in Mitchells Plain but I am never there. I will never feel accepted in a small-minded Muslim community. I can’t handle the stigma.

In the 60s to 80s in Cape Town there was this idea of the moffie - now considered a derogatory term for gay men, even though there are plenty of men who are comfortable with being called that. Other than people talking about moffies behind closed doors, my community was silent on homosexuality. People knew about it but no one spoke about it – not outside of gossip and judgment, at least. As a result, I had no role models as a child and I had to cut my own path and find my own way.

My sexuality started to really challenge me in high school. That’s when I really confronted it even though I always knew I was gay. I knew I was different. I mean, I used to sit in class and think: "The Maths teacher looks sexy". I was teased constantly for being "different".

Then in university, I met a friend I could trust. She and I were the only coloured kids at the institution at the time, so we stuck together. She was the first person I officially came out to. She was a Christian girl and she just accepted me for who I am. She wasn’t shocked at all.

Eventually, I ended up going to the Triangle Project where I met other gay Muslims, and my mind was introduced to the fact that I could live a normal life. I could even get married if I wanted to; live an open life.

When I was trying to find myself, the thought of maybe approaching an imam never ever occurred to me. I didn’t believe that they were equipped to guide me in the way I needed to be guided. They would have judged me. And at the end of the day they are just other men, who have issues to sort out in their own lives. Everyone has their own beliefs. In my own faith, I tend to extract the parts of Islam that make sense to me and make me feel good. For example, I love fasting during the month of Ramadan.

I have accepted who I am. I am 40 years old and I have no time for struggles. I fill my life with beautiful humans who love me. And I want all gay Muslims to know there are people out there who will give you support. Second families.

Today, I look around and I feel so proud when I see young kids being so comfortable with who they are. It was never like that for me. I love that the youth are really breaking down doors and barriers, I see them existing in more open-minded societies. I do think that the Islamic community is easily influenced by their religion. But I see other Muslim communities being more accepting as well."

Zakariya Moola, Durban

Zakariya Moola [Pic: Supplied]

"The Muslim school I attended outed me to my parents. There was a rumour going around about a homosexual student and the principal would not stand for it. An investigation took place and all fingers pointed to me. The school called my parents and told them I needed psychological help for my "sickness".

The Mufti (a Muslim legal expert who is empowered to give rulings on religious matters) and the Jamiat (council of theologians) warned me that homosexuals had no place within Islam and the punishment in a Shariah law-abiding country was death.

My school scheduled a Skype session with a Mufti who told me that Islam had no place for me because I was homosexual. Another Muslim religious leader told my mom I needed to get married - I was 16 - and they needed to get rid of the TV. I was also told I was possessed by a female jinn (spirit) and that’s why I love having sex with boys.

When I was a small innocent child, I was unable to coin the phrase "gay" for myself but I always knew I was born that way. Between the ages of 11 and 15, I battled with my queerness and was unable to fathom how God could have created me this way. I felt ashamed, suicidal and depressed for a long time.

When my parents disowned me at the age of 16, my grandparents took me in. The rest of my family made numerous attempts to "pray the gay away" and I was threatened with acid attacks on my face. Now I keep my distance and make the occasional phone call. Today, I feel blessed to have found a husband who loves and accepts me; and I am eternally grateful for his family for the love and support they give us.

I fasted and prayed more than most because I was told that through prayer, my evil disease could be cured and through fasting my urges would be suffocated. Eventually, I made a choice between my own happiness and God’s happiness. I chose my happiness and gave up on religion.

But in my first year of college, I turned to Hinduism and I have been a practising Hindu ever since. I majored in Religion and in my final year did a module titled Islam in the Modern World. It was interesting to find that there were a lot of Muslim scholars, such as Amina Wadud and Scott Siraj Kugle, who took a different stance on LGBTIQ Muslims.

After my undergrad, I continued with an Honours degree in Religion focusing on homosexuality and Islam. It was challenging and emotional for me because my supervisor did not like the stance I was taking against Islam, but my truth needed to be told before I could give any reconciliation to my audience. But when I saw there was no leeway I decided to throw in the towel, and my paper has been on hold since then.

My brother still attends the same school. I have been out of that environment for 8 years now, but recently one of the boys found out I was gay and beat my brother as a result. My parents have taken no action. Neither has the school. The stigma and abuse continues, even in my absence."

Bibi Ravat, Pretoria

Bibi Ravat and her wife, Shivani Goolab [Pic: Supplied]

"I have nothing against Islam, but I am not a practising Muslim myself. I have the utmost respect for the belief and all those who believe and I love a good dhikr (a form of devotion, associated chiefly with Sufism, in which the worshipper is absorbed in the rhythmic repetition of the name of Allah or his attributes).

When I was younger I did not know that I could reconcile my faith with my sexuality. Today there are organizations available to support young gay Muslims. As for the Muslim community as a whole, I really believe they need to start having an open dialogue about sexuality to create a new way of understanding and accepting all Muslims.

Both my parents are Sufi Muslims and the sect promotes a broader understanding of spiritual practices within Islam, so I personally grew up in an open-minded immediate community. Yes. I say this because I did not grow up in a close-minded immediate community.

I have an older gay sister who isn’t Muslim and my mom has always accepted her: being gay was never equivalent to being wrong. However, when I was 12, I started to attend Pretoria Muslim School and there, I was taught that when it comes to Islam, it is wrong to be gay. In my youth, I never knew any gay Muslims.

It was at about the same age that I realised I had more of an attraction to girls. I was confused about this attraction, and my immediate reaction was to keep it a secret even though I personally did not believe there was anything wrong with me. Everyone in my family knew about my sexuality, though. There was never a point where I needed to have ‘the conversation’. My siblings accepted and loved me all the same. My mom and dad did the same, although they were concerned about my well-being purely because of the society we live in.

My wife is a practising Hindu, and we visited a Hindu priest to conduct a traditional Vedic (wedding ceremony), but the meeting did not go as expected. Hindu scripture, as the priest mentioned, does not state that it is wrong to be gay and the priest insisted he did not have an issue with marrying a gay couple - but he was concerned about his reputation in society.

People are too concerned about what the next person approves of instead of standing by their belief. When you stand by who you are, when you find your tribe, you find peace with you are.

I was lucky enough to find an organisation called the Art of Living, where we’re taught that we must be accepting of all people and all religions. There is so much available today that will resonate with who you are and who you aspire to be."

Riedwaan Jacobs, Durban

Riedwaan Jacobs [Pic: Supplied]

“When I was younger, there were times I used to pray and say "Ya Allah, take this away from me. It’s wrong". But at the same time, I was stuck in an emotional contradiction because there was never a moment in my life when I thought to myself: "There is something wrong with me". I believe I was born gay.

I encountered homosexuality, as a lifestyle, in a mosque at 16. I was never really taught about it, but the imam would raise taboo topics at the talk on a Friday during the afternoon prayer and homosexuality was one of them. It made me feel uncomfortable even though at that time I was not sexually active. It made me not want to attend mosque anymore, even though at that stage I was only going on a Friday. I started to rebel against my religion because I did not want to feel like a sinner in the house of God.

Outside of Islam, I think we already exist in a very masculine society, which makes it really difficult for boys to be gay. In some way or another, and in my experience particularly, every man I have dated has a story of a painful past. Every one has been hurt and the ones who are prepared to move past that pain are few and far between. As a result, I really do not wish gayness upon a boy child in this society. I really spent a lot of time in my own life beating myself up about my sexuality because of the norms of the community but my feelings never went away. Today, I really count myself lucky to be in a loving relationship.

The womb was my closet. I never came out to anyone. My sexuality was obvious. Everyone around me knew it, accepted it, and my life went on.

People in our communities, in our mosques, have man-made mentalities that they need to move beyond and I don’t think they will any time soon. They’re stuck constantly trying to prove that the Qur'an states something it does not. That homosexuality is a sin. I don’t believe that.

One day, I woke up and made peace with who I am inside of my faith and my religion. It’s like, I just woke up and told myself: "I am not fighting this anymore. The man in the kurta (long tunic) prays to the same God I pray to. And it’s the same God that created us". This made it easier for me to start going to mosque again, to wet my feet, get on my knees and communicate with Allah. He has accepted me.

I believe that if you’re a gay Muslim, you don’t have to leave Islam to be who you are.

I do not believe anyone who is born this way needs to ask for forgiveness, even though I believe I pray to a forgiving God.

Now I pray five times a day."

The Religious Response

A lot of the contestation over Islam and homosexuality comes down to just one story in the Qur’an. It is the tale of the People of Lut.

The story of Lut is used by many Muslims as evidence that God condemns homosexuality. In this reading, the people of Soddom and Gomorrah were destroyed primarily because theirs was a community where men had sex with men.

But this is not the only interpretation of the story. Some modern thinkers, like US academic Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, have argued that Lut’s People were punished for reasons beyond homosexual acts.

“The story is really about infidelity and how the Tribe of Lut schemed for ways to reject his Prophethood and his public standing in their community,” Kugle writes in a 2010 book, Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflections on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims.

“Same-sex acts were only one of a range of actions that constituted their infidelity – from murder and robbery to other repugnant acts in their assemblies (which commentators claim included public nudity, gambling, and idolatrous worship).”

Kugle also notes that the story of Lut does not address "homosexuality" as we understand it today, but rather male anal rape of men: a technique of shaming and emasculation sometimes used by heterosexual men against other men. The rapists in the story are depicted as heterosexuals: that is, as men who have wives.

Writes Kugel: "It appears that the men of Lut’s Tribe were actually heterosexual men attempting to aggressively assert their sexual power against other vulnerable men”.

This may seem like an arcane, semantic dispute – but for gay Muslims, the interpretation of the story can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Trying to get local Muslim religious bodies to clarify on record their current stance to homosexuality proved surprisingly difficult.

When we contacted the Jamiat Ulama – the Muslim Theological Council – a man who would not give his name demanded to know why this matter was considered newsworthy.

"These are old issues,” he said.

Though he said the Jamiat Ulama had a “clear position” on homosexuality, he would not elaborate over the phone.

After weeks of unsuccessfully seeking an interview from the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), we were told that MJC leaders “will not be able to participate in this discussion at this time”.

But the MJC’s spokesperson Mishka Daries did clarify the stance of the body, which is the most influential Muslim authority in the country.

“The position of the MJC on homosexuality is the position being held by the Sharia (Islamic Law) and held throughout the ages and taught by all the Holy Prophets and Holy Scriptures,” Daries wrote in an email.

“In conformity with centuries of unambiguous and clear evidence from the Glorious Qur’an, the Sunnah (Prophetic traditions) and the consensus of the scholars of Islam as well as the MJC fatwa committee, the MJC unanimously re-affirms that the practice of homosexuality is haram (forbidden) and abominable.”

This position is not new – and it is by no means restricted to Islam as a religion in South Africa.

But while some other South African religious bodies – such as the Anglican Church – have in recent years resolved to accept gay believers, there is still no evidence of a corresponding shift in attitude from Muslim authorities over the last decade.

Islamic bodies were among the most vocal opponents to the Civil Union Bill, which legalized gay marriage in South Africa in 2006.

In a submission to Parliament when the law was being considered, the MJC made its position clear.

“Whilst recognising the rights of individuals the Muslim Judicial Council hereby states that it disapproves of homosexual acts and holds it to be abominable,” the MJC wrote.

“It is obvious that in same sex relationships the child will be deprived either of a mother or a father and thus be deprived of a normal upbringing. The Muslim Judicial Council is of the opinion that the spread of homosexuality and lesbianism will invite the anger of Allah, erode the family structure and expose young, innocent children to an unnatural lifestyle.”

Among some individual South African mosques, an effort has been made to address the issue of sexual orientation more openly in the last few years.

Under the leadership of Imam Rashied Omar, for instance, Cape Town’s Claremont Main Road Mosque has hosted discussions of gay rights and affirmed the rights of individuals.

But these cases are few and far between.

“You’ve got two private parts, or you’ve got one private part?”

This is the first question a religious teacher at a Pretoria-based Islamic educational centre asks when we phone the centre seeking advice on reconciling Islam with homosexuality.

The teacher has requested us to call him back on his private cellphone.

When he heard that we wanted to ask him about being gay and Muslim, he said that he would prefer not to discuss such a “shameful subject” on the office landline in earshot of others.

Over the course of an eight-minute conversation, some of the questions we put to the teacher are: Is it possible to be gay and Muslim? Does the Qur’an say that being a homosexual is wrong? What will happen if I can’t rid myself of homosexual feelings?

The religious leader is firm in his views that one can only be gay and accepted as such if one has both male and female genitalia.

“If you are a lady and you marry a lady, then there is going to be punishment for you,” he says.

“That punishment is burning in the fires of hell.”

Listen to the audio recording of the conversation below, where the teacher explains that a gay Muslim can change her ways through prayer, meditation – and finding a “nice man” to marry with whom she can experience “full satisfaction” sexually.

Marriage to someone of the opposite sex is not the only possible “cure” for homosexuality in Islam.

There are pockets of Muslim belief where homosexuality is taken to be evidence of possession by a jinn (spirit). When the jinn has been expelled from the body, the thinking goes, homosexual impulses will vanish too.

A Johannesburg-based healer who identified himself only as Mansoor told us over the phone that he could offer a range of “treatment” to cure homosexuality. Mansoor said that he would recommend specific treatments after an initial consultation.

“If you know how to recite the Qur’an, I just advise you on what to do. You will do self-treatment,” he said.

“I give you the type of ayat (verses) that can get rid of such passions.”

If clients do not know how to recite the Qur’an, Mansoor said that more specialized treatment would be required.

Such treatment might include "cupping" – a process of drawing out “bad blood” from the body using small vacuum cups – or Sunnah medicine: a form of healing using natural remedies believed to have been favoured by the Prophet Muhammad.

“It depends on the situation, because I don’t know heavy you are feeling those kinds of passions,” Mansoor said.

“I would have to ask you a few questions, like the type of dreams that you are getting.”

The Community

“Ramadan For All”, reads the banner advertising an event taking place within Cape Town’s Castle of Good Hope in early May.

The Castle, built by the Dutch in the 17th century, is the oldest existing colonial building in South Africa. It is a reminder of a national history scarred by imperial occupation and dispossession, but in recent years has been used for purposes which testify to South Africa’s vibrant present rather than its dark past.

Just a few months previously, it played host to Africa’s largest LGBTIQ costume party, the Mother City Queer Project. Thousands of revellers dressed to the theme of Dungeons & Dragons danced the night away in all manner of risqué garb.

On this sunny morning in May, the Castle opens its doors to an event showcasing local Muslim businesses and NGOs, a few weeks before the holy fasting period of Ramadan begins.

Organisers promise that the event will demonstrate “that Ramadan has value for all Muslims and non-Muslims alike”.

But when they speak of “all” Muslims, is that an invitation to gay Muslims too?

Scenes from the Ramadan for All expo at Cape Town’s Castle of Good Hope [Pics: Haji Mohamed Dawjee]

Inside the Castle, the walkways are thronged with men in kurtas and women in hijab.

Numerous exhibitor stands bear witness to the Islamic commitment to charity and social upliftment. Visitors can take their pick in supporting causes ranging from organisations that assist those living with Down Syndrome, to poverty alleviation in Africa.

Local Islamic schools are touting for future pupils. There are stands selling food delicacies and brightly-coloured clothes, and stands promoting media outlets catering for the Muslim community. There’s even an opportunity to sign up for archery lessons.

One stand advertises something unusual: “The Original Cause Cabal”. It’s a family initiative, part wellness business and part publisher, promoting a way of life based on “character refinement, tolerance, understanding, kindness, and human etiquette”.

When daughter Rabiah Ryklief is asked whether the tolerance and kindness on offer extends to gay Muslims, however, she hesitates.

“We are not going to shun them,” she says eventually. “We neither support them nor we are against them.”

Ryklief says that the topic of homosexuality has come up for discussion in her family before – in reference to the burden it presents to some Muslims. Rabia’s mother, Washiela Ryklief, is a trained therapist. She says that she would not turn away a gay Muslim seeking therapy.

“I accept everybody,” Washiela says. “We believe we are human first.”

On the other side of the room, a book title catches our eye: Sexual Ethics and Islam. It is part of the display of the Al-Ikhlaas Academia Library, a new community-funded library in Athlone.

Founder Shamila Abrahams is passionate about the intellectual underpinnings of Islam.

“Islam isn’t just about religion. It’s supposed to permeate all knowledge areas,” she says.

Does the library stock books on sexual identity for questioning Muslims?

Abrahams doesn’t seem fazed by the question. She points at the Sexual Ethics and Islam book.

“Maybe there’s a chapter in that,” she says. A quick scan through the contents page, though, suggests that there isn’t.

Books are big at the Ramadan For All expo, forming the centrepiece of displays from libraries, publishers, and bookshops.

Independent publisher Baitul Hikmah has a table featuring some distinctly progressive-looking books. Marriage and Sexuality in Islam is one; Let’s Talk About Sex and Muslim Life is another.

“The title scares people away,” admits publisher Mohammed Amra, in reference to the second book. “But it’s an excellent opportunity for people to read about something affecting themselves and others. Storytelling is a powerful tool.”

Let’s Talk About Sex and Muslim Life, first published in 2016, is the work of prolific American novelist and self-help writer Umm Zakiyyah. The book’s jacket promises “a refreshing perspective that balances frank honesty with religious sensitivity”.

This book does contain a chapter on sexual identity: Gay and Muslim?, in which Zakkiyah writes that she is regularly contacted by Muslim youth struggling with homosexual attraction. She prints one such letter, from a 19-year old woman who fears she is attracted to other women.

What such a correspondent needs, Zakkiyah suggests, is “help that strikes a balance between not judging her for her struggle and not inviting her to effectively indulge in the very sin she is crying out for help in fighting”.

In Islam, writes Zakkiyah, “we are not held accountable for desiring something sinful. We are held accountable only for acting on something sinful”.

Zakkiyah’s response to young Muslims who believe they may be gay is compassionate, but firm: homosexual urges have to be resisted. To believe that one can be both a moral Muslim and gay is a path to kufr (disbelief).

"We never discriminated against 'moffies' in District Six" - Noor Ebrahim, District Six Museum [Pic: Haji Mohamed Dawjee]

Homosexuality was one of the few issues about which the apartheid government did not legally discriminate based on race. Across the board, it was illegal to be gay – a crime punishable with prison time.

Yet even within this environment of secrecy and fear, there was at least one pocket of South African life where gay Muslims managed to live lives of relative acceptance: within the vibrant community of Cape Town’s District Six.

Noor Ebrahim is 74 years old. Today he works at the District Six Museum. It’s testament to the nostalgia he still feels for the famous multi-racial suburb where he spent the first 31 years of his life – before being forcibly removed with his family in 1975.

Ebrahim needs little invitation to launch into his recollections of District Six with a wide grin. When he talks about the gay men he knew growing up, he does so using the language of the time, now considered offensive by many.

“I tell you, the moffies in District Six – they were great people. They were fun people. Loving people. We never ever discriminated against moffies in District Six,” he says.

“When we were teenagers, every weekend, like Friday and Saturday, we’d go party with them. You know? And I tell you, they can dance, yoh! We’d be just watching them all night, you know. And after the party, they’d take us to a restaurant and they’d treat us with a nice hamburger and chips. That was the moffies of District Six.”

Some of the gay inhabitants of District Six were Muslim like him, Ebrahim remembers; others were Christian. He says that regardless of religion, they were accepted by the community.

“It didn’t bother us! They were fun people. We loved them.”

He pauses.

“But I mean, they never got married to one another, you know?”

When it comes to issues like racism, Muslim Views editor Farid Sayed believes that there has been noticeable social progress over the past three decades.

While the position of Islamic organisations in South Africa on homosexuality has always been clear, the feelings of ordinary Muslims are less so.

When it comes to issues like racism, Muslim Views editor Farid Sayed believes that there has been noticeable social progress over the past three decades.

“With gay attitudes – here it’s a bit different,” Sayed says.

“People will openly say: ‘I am anti-racist’. It’s comfortable; it’s easy; the Prophet said that too. But when it comes to homosexuality, the attitude is: ‘Let’s not discuss it. It’s uncomfortable.’”

Rabiah Ryklief’s comment at the Ramadan For All expo – “We neither support them nor are against them” – appears to sum up one relatively liberal, but mainstream, strand of opinion.

Sayed puts it another way. “You’ll hear people saying: ‘I respect people, whatever their sexual orientation, but I wouldn’t want my son or daughter to be in a same-sex marriage’. Or they would say: ‘It’s a psychological problem, and we will deal with it in that way’.”

But there are also more extreme pockets of belief within the community, where disapproval of homosexuality is more openly voiced.

“I’ve seen people saying on WhatsApp groups that Cape Town has a water problem and there is a drought because God is punishing (the city) for homosexuals,” says Sayed.

“There are people who utterly believe that, who say that is the problem. Of course, they don’t want to follow that logic and question why there is drought in (conservative Muslim stronghold) Azaadville, or wherever.”

In general, says Sayed, the impression he receives as an editor of a Muslim-interest publication is that people do not want to talk about gay Muslims.

“If I were to suggest that the newspaper should cover this, go in-depth, the attack will come from people who I would consider to be quite progressive in other respects,” Sayed predicts.

“They will come back and say: ‘Look, Farid, you are giving them too much sympathy’.”

At least two surveys have been undertaken about attitudes to homosexuality within Muslim communities in South Africa. The first, produced by University of Johannesburg and Wits researchers Elsje Bonthuys and Natasha Erlank in 2011, interviewed residents of the predominantly Muslim suburb of Mayfair in Johannesburg.

Their qualitative findings tallied closely with Sayed’s anecdotal impressions.

“The most conspicuous aspect of community attitudes,” wrote the researchers, “is the collective ‘will not to know’ or deliberate refusal to notice the existence of gay men and lesbians. This was achieved through various forms of denial”.

Among the Muslims interviewed, they found “a strong desire not to know about sexual transgressions”. The researchers suggested that this was motivated at least partly by politeness, and also by the attitude that judgment rightfully belongs to Allah.

“Even long-standing, widely known same-sex relationships can be accommodated to a certain degree through the mechanism of deliberately ignoring the sexual nature of these relationships,” they wrote.

But three years later, another survey undertaken by Cape Town’s Al-Fitrah Foundation produced more overtly disapproving views.

The 2014 study found that 9 out of 10 South African Muslims surveyed “believe that homosexuality is a choice and that it is absolutely unacceptable for queer Muslims to express their sexual orientation”.

Over 4% of those surveyed “believe queer Muslims should be killed”.

Data Viz: Haji Mohamed Dawjee

I am scared to come out to my folks they will disown me immediately. Is there any Muslim ladies on this website that would like to start chatting as friends in Cape Town, I feel like I am the only Muslim girl at times that is gay. Please do advise…

One would think that the online space might become a vital refuge for some gay South African Muslims, offering a site for confession and fellowship without negative real-world repercussions.

In a thread which was active for a full decade, an internet user calling themselves "Sweety" posted the appeal above on a local health forum in 2006. Yet even in this space, among some affirming responses from others in similar predicaments, warnings appeared.

One question: what’s more important to you, making yourself happy, or making your creator happy? asked one user.

There are few, if any, active online spaces for gay South African Muslims to gather and chat in a safe and supportive environment.

A sign of potentially changing times is the fact that some local dating sites catering specifically for Muslims now also allow gay and lesbian Muslims to sign up and advertise their desire to meet someone. One such site is muslimsingles.co.za - but closer inspection reveals that it is one of thousands of dating sites owned by a large US company.

Most others do not cater for queer Muslims. On Muslima.com, where you can filter your search according to preferences like “wears a hijab”, “wears a niqab”, “polygamy” or even “smoking habit”, there is no option to register an alternative sexual orientation.

When we contacted Muslima.com to ask if gay and lesbian Muslims could set up profiles, we received a generic response from the website’s parent company, Cupid Media, advising us instead to choose “another one of our great dating sites”.

Masjid Ul-Umam: A Mosque with a Difference

Nothing about Capetonian Imam Muhsin Hendricks’ background suggested that he would become the world’s first openly gay imam.

“I come from an orthodox Muslim community and a very respected family, because my father was the imam of the mosque which was just a stone’s throw from our house,” Hendricks says.

“My mother was a teacher in the mosque, and my father was a spiritual healer. So if you were jinxed, it’s my father you would go to.”

Hendricks realized at a young age that there was something different about him, but his conservative environment meant that there was no space to voice his confusion. He describes his upbringing as “lonely”. What sustained him, however, was a deep religious faith – and a relationship with a God who, he was taught, would condemn him for the feelings he did not yet dare to express.

“When I reached the age of 18 I had this deep desire to study Islam further, because I couldn’t understand why a merciful and compassionate God would reject me for something I didn’t choose,” Hendricks says.

He travelled to Pakistan and embarked on four years of Islamic studies, but his confusion deepened.

“I thought that maybe I should get married, because that’s what people were saying was the solution. You’ll get married, and then you’ll go straight.”

It didn’t work. Six years into his marriage to a woman, Hendricks plunged into a profound depression. He was 29 years old, had three children, and could no longer cope with the pressures of dealing with what he describes as a “double life”.

In crisis, Hendricks resolved to embark on a period of intense meditation and fasting. He fasted for over two months, waiting for a sense of clarity as to what his God wanted from him.

“And on the 80th day, I came out,” he says.

"I’m gay and I’m an imam, and I want to announce it to the world. And if they want to kill me, they can kill me, but I’d like to meet my maker with that kind of authenticity"

Imam Muhsin Hendricks leads worshippers during the Magrieb prayer

[Pic: Leila Dougan]

Hendricks resolved to make his intentions known very publicly. He went to local newspapers in Cape Town.

“I said: 'Look, I’m gay and I’m an imam, and I want to announce it to the world. And if they want to kill me, they can kill me, but I’d like to meet my maker with that kind of authenticity'.”

He had never knowingly met a single other gay person in his life.

That was about to change. Other Muslims began to contact Hendricks as word of him spread.

“I was surprised at the kind of negotiations that people were making, because of this dilemma of not being able to reconcile faith with sexual orientation. There were attempted suicides. People were on drugs. People had left the faith.”

Hendricks pauses.

“Then a lesbian committed suicide because her father was an imam, and he had put a lot of pressure on her that she must change. I was very close with her, and I just – it was just too much for me to handle that. I said: 'No. Not another life is going to be lost'.”

The sun is about to set on a Thursday in Ramadan: the time of day when Muslims gather for prayers and to break their fast. In the Cape Town suburb of Wynberg, worshippers are heading in to a small mosque. There is laughter and chatter as they take up positions on cushions, counting down the last minutes of hunger before food can be consumed. Bowls of soup, samoosas and koesisters are handed around.

On the surface, there is nothing much to set this scene apart from what is happening at other mosques countrywide. But when prayers begin, it will soon become clear that the Masjid Ul-Umam (the People’s Mosque) is a place of worship with a difference.

Here, women stand alongside men, rather than being confined to a separate area. They are given equal opportunity to lead prayers. Some are not wearing headscarves, which would be unthinkable in an ordinary mosque. Among the men, too, covering the head is not compulsory: dye-jobs and dreadlocks are on display.

This mosque is the realization of Hendricks’ dreams: an all-inclusive space where gay Muslims and their allies can engage in worship without being made to feel unwelcome.

At the People's Mosque women stand alongside men, rather than being confined to a separate area [Pic: Leila Dougan]

The Masjid Ul-Umam is one arm of an organisation called the Al-Fitrah Foundation, founded and led by Hendricks. The mosque attracts between 20 and 30 worshippers on a weekly basis, but during the holy month of Ramadan numbers can swell to over 120.

Here, Hendricks has performed close to 20 same-sex nikkahs – weddings – since South Africa legalized gay marriage in 2006. He remains the only Muslim cleric in the country willing to marry gay couples. It was here, in 2012, that the first Muslim lesbian couple in the world to marry sealed their union with Islamic rites.

“There are more gay men frequenting our space, but there are more lesbians getting married,” says Hendricks.

“(Lesbians) get married, set up the picket fence, the wallpaper goes up and the cats get bought. The ones who come back and want to be the activists are the gay guys.”

Hendricks believes that it is still much harder to be a Muslim lesbian.

“Women experience double stigma. You’re already a woman, and you’re marginalised, and now you’re coming out as a lesbian and you’re further stigmatised and…I don’t think they smaak (are keen) for that.”

Before couples get married at the mosque, they undergo two counselling sessions with the imam. Hendricks also performs family interventions.

“There are a few families who are very supportive, but the majority are not. So you’ll see that the brother will come to the wedding, but the rest of the family won’t.”

One of the exceptions was the nikkah of mosque regular Iglaas Abrahams, 22, and his husband last year.

“I was very nervous at first. I didn’t know what to expect out of a marriage with a guy, or with a woman – it’s still marriage,” Abrahams remembers.

“My mommy and my two sisters and my best friend were there. I’m just glad they were all there. It was a joyous occasion. But let me tell you: a wedding makes a person tired!”

While people may privately disapprove of the Masjid Ul-Umam, Hendricks and the mosque’s worshippers are mostly left to their own devices.

“I’ve never had a single death threat or people wanting to come and throw a bomb on the mosque,” says the imam.

“I’ve had people insulting me, especially when I’m on radio, but…lately, there’s even more support from the Muslim community than ever before. And I think it’s because we say that we’re not confrontational, we’re care-frontational. We don’t seek to make the Muslim community wrong. We are just saying that we’ve got information, and we have the lived experience of queer Muslims.”

Hendricks points out that 113 chapters in the Qur’an begin with the words: “In the name of God, the most compassionate and merciful”. Compassion, he says, is the lens through which he practices faith, and encourages others to do the same.

He dismisses the idea that gay Muslims live in defiance of God.

“Gay people are by the design of God,” Hendricks says.

“The name of our organization stems from that belief. Fitrah, in Arabic, means your nature. The way God has created you.”

Lut's People: Places & Spaces

The following is an interactive map which plots out the details of several mosques, organisations and NGOs who are willing to offer help to gay Muslims. The map includes locations, contact information and links to the websites of these organisations which are based in several provinces in South Africa.

Interactive map by Haji Mohamed Dawjee

Reporting for Lut's People by Rebecca Davis and Haji Mohamed Dawjee was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Women Journalists, funded by the Howard G Buffet Foundation.

Lut's People was done in partnership with Daily Maverick

Banner image by Braden Summers (From the All Love is Equal project)

Video and photos by Leila Dougan, unless otherwise stated.

Created By
Haji Mohamed Dawjee

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