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?
Zuleiga Gassiep, Johannesburg
"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
"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
"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
"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
“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.”
“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?