Cape of Good Hope

Brian Whitaker talks to gay imam Muhsin Hendricks, director of The Inner Circle, a group providing support and counselling for South African Muslims. The key to coming out, he says, is honesty.

This article originally appeared in GT magazine, May 2007.

Every Thursday evening Muhsin Hendricks gets together with a dozen or so companions to study the Quran. Muhsin is an Islamic scholar but also a very unusual one. He’s gay, and so are the other members of his study circle.

In the eyes of most Muslims, homosexuality and Islam simply don't mix, and the idea that an openly gay scholar might guide their religious devotions is not only horrifying but almost unthinkable.

Gradually though - as happened in Christianity almost half a century ago - that attitude is beginning to be challenged. In various Muslim countries there are the first stirrings of what may one day turn into a queer jihad, and Muhsin Hendricks is one of the pioneers.

Muhsin's life began traditionally enough, growing up with a religious family in South Africa. At 21 he went off to study Islam in Pakistan then, after qualifying, returned to Cape Town where he combined teaching at a school with a part-time job as assistant imam.

He also did what everyone in Muslim communities is expected to do, and got married.

“It was a sort-of-love, sort-of-arranged marriage,” he explained. “It was more love from her side. I thought OK, fine, if there's a woman who wants to marry me ...”

Seven days before the wedding he told his wife-to-be that he was gay but they agreed to give the relationship a try. It lasted six years.

A month after the divorce, Muhsin’s mother started asking questions. “She said: ‘There's rumours spreading that you divorced because you are gay’,” he recalled.

“I thought: ‘I'm not going to hide it any more’ and just blurted it out. I said: ‘Yes, I am gay and this is who I am and I've made peace with that.’ Well, she obviously fainted. But then when she got back on her feet we started taking about it and began the whole process of getting to understand it.”

Unpleasant murmurings about his sexuality had also reached the school where he worked - “that I would probably be messing with some of the boys” - and so, at the age of 29, Muhsin decided to come out.

“I came to realise that I'm not the only one ... others are also faced with having to get married and so on, and negotiating this dilemma by drinking and committing suicide and all of that.

“Out of that grew the need to start an organisation - and that's the time when I went to the papers. I gave the whole story to the media about me and I said any people out there who are experiencing the same thing - get in touch.”

Gradually, those efforts blossomed and, 10 years later, Muhsin Hendricks is director of The Inner Circle, which provides support and counselling for South African Muslims and others who are trying to reconcile faith with their sexuality.

Religious condemnations of homosexuality focus mainly on the ancient tale of Sodom and Gomorrah which is found in the Bible and also in the Quran. Although many Christians no longer treat the story in a homophobic way, very few Muslims question the traditional interpretation. The problem, Muhsin says, is that they don’t take into account the social conditions of the time.

“The situation in Sodom and Gomorrah was one of male-to-male rape. It was the abuse of sexual power,” he said. “We're dealing with a civilisation that was very patriarchal - the men had all the sexual rights. They had legitimate wives but ... within the whole setup, sodomy also happened.

“They went out and humiliated men who came into Sodom and Gomorrah as guests and visitors - they humiliated them by sodomising them. They were disobeying the law of hospitality.” 

The work of Muhsin and The Inner Circle - at present little-known outside South Africa - will reach a wider audience later this year with the release of a new film, A Jihad for Love, billed as “the first-ever feature-length documentary to explore the complex global intersections of Islam and homosexuality”.

Its maker, Indian-born Parvez Sharma has spent five years on the project, visiting 12 countries and collecting more than 400 hours of footage. He is hoping launch it at the Toronto film festival this autumn and it will be shown in Britain by Channel 4, as well as broadcasters in several other countries.

Muhsin is one of the central characters in the film and he is shown meeting face to face with a conservative imam who had earlier denounced him on the radio for being a “satanist”.

“It was a fascinating discussion,” Sharma says. He won’t reveal the outcome of the confrontation but says it led to “a very interesting conclusion which everyone can see in the film”.

Although there are still many taboos attached to homosexuality in South Africa, in some ways it is untypical of African and Asian countries. In 1996 it became the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexuality and the highly-respected Christian archbishop, Desmond Tutu, has spoken out in favour of gay rights.

Perhaps because of this, the reaction to Muhsin’s activism from the Muslim community in Cape Town (about 15% of the city's population) has been less hostile than some might have predicted.

“We've been in the media quite often,” Muhsin said. “We even went on the Muslim radio station to debate this issue. We've never had any threatening phone calls. That makes it much easier for us to do our work.

“If you look at it from an organisational perspective, for us I think the process will probably take about another 10-15 years - to get through to the community and have enough debates to change mindsets. It's going to be a slow process.”

Parvez Sharma, though, as a result of his film-making travels, is more pessimistic.

"As a gay Muslim myself," he said, "I do not think that Islam is ready for accepting that within my lifetime. I mean mainstream, orthodox religious Islam.

“People in Tehran, for example, or in Bangladesh, are not going to be out on the street marching in a gay pride claiming any kind of gay identity any time soon,” he said. “Many of them will not even know what that means."

Many of the people he met while making the film were married or willing to contemplate marriage - "people who haven't claimed the word 'gay' or 'lesbian' at all to describe their behaviour or their sexuality".

He continued: "That is just not going to happen with a religion which is also under a tremendous amount of attack right now. Many Muslims feel they have far bigger battles to fight.

"At the same time, why I have pressed on [with the film] is that I feel this is as good a time as any to begin these discussions."

Within the Muslim world he found huge diferences of approach to gay rights, based largely on class. In Beirut, Cairo and other parts of the Middle East there are people with "access to education and the internet" who do claim a gay or lesbian identity, he said.

"In Turkey, I found a group like that in Lebanon which came closest to doing organising while using constructs like 'gay', 'lesbian', 'bisexual' and 'transgender' to describe themselves. They believe in ideas like gay pride and they are going to be holding a gay pride in June. But the group in Turkey definitely exists outside any discussion about religion."

Among the poor and illiterate of south-east Asia, it's a very different picture. 

"The only way any kind of activism around sexuality can be allowed to happen at all - and this is very recent - is under the guise of doing HIV/AIDS prevention," he said. "That becomes the only way to address the issues of people who exist on the margins, who practise male-to-male sex and who very often do not have access to safer sex education or treatment.

"Groups exist in Daka, in Pakistan, in Indonesia, in India, within Muslim countries that will take on the task of educating people around HIV/AIDS and that will become the only way to reach out and have some kind of mandate to do any work at all."

Curiously, such restrictions seem at odds with much of Islamic history. 

"Male-to-male sexual behaviour has gone on for centuries and has often been celebrated in the art and literature," Sharma said. "It has also been allowed to go on with tacit approval of the authorities and often support in the courts. There's a long history of homosexuality in the Islamic countries."

This is one of the strange paradoxes of the Muslim world today, highlighted by two of the couples he met while filming.

"I filmed with a very devout lesbian couple in Turkey who were completely out and comfortably with their sexuality," he said. "Then I filmed an Egyptian lesbian and her Moroccan partner who were so religious they found it hard even to articulate the word 'lesbian'."

Brian Whitaker is a Guardian journalist and author of “Unspeakable Love - Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East” (Saqi Books, £14.99).