Gay and Muslim in South Africa

Source: Radio Netherlands
30 May 2008

Gay and Muslim in South Africa

by Eric Beauchemin

Imam Muhsin HendricksHomosexuality remains a taboo in much of the vast Islamic world. Most Muslim clerics condemn homosexuality outright, citing several verses of the holy Qur’an. But one South African imam thinks that they are wrong.

Imam Muhsin Hendricks was born and raised in a deeply religious Muslim household in South Africa. He started discovering that he was different at the age of five, but it wasn’t until he reached the age of 12 that he actually realised that he was gay. He decided to study the Qur’an to clear up what he believed was a fundamental contradiction. He says:

“I was always told that homosexuality was completely wrong. So I needed to understand how my creator gave me all these feelings, while people kept on telling me that as a devote Muslim, I was going to go to hell.”

Mr Hendricks eventually went to Pakistan to study the Qur’an. Most religious scholars, he says, were basing their condemnation of homosexuality on a misinterpretation of the hadiths in the holy book.

“The whole story of Sodom and Gomorra, as related in the Qur’an, has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Homosexuality and sodomy are two distinct things. In the Qur’an, Gods put angels disguised as handsome young men in the city of Sodom and Gomorra. The city’s men go rushing towards them and are raped. But this has nothing to do with consensual sex. They were out to molest those men. So it has nothing to do with sexual orientation.”

Marriage

At the age of 23, Mr Hendricks decided to marry because

“my society says that anyone who becomes an imam must get married. If I didn’t do it, I would always have worried that maybe I could have been straight.”

Seven days before the wedding, he admitted to his wife that he was gay. She was furious, but later that evening, she called him and said she wanted to help him “solve this problem” and so she was willing to marry him anyway. Within a year, the marriage was foundering, but his wife became pregnant, and Hendricks decided to stay with his wife. He adds:

“And then two other children came. I don’t know how that happened, but they happened.”

But six years into the marriage, both he and his wife realised that it just wasn’t working out, and they agreed to a divorce.

Coming out

The first person Mr Hendricks came out to, after his wife, was his mother. He thought as long as she could accept him, he didn’t care what other people thought. One month after the divorce, his mother went to see him and said, “I hear the reason that you divorced is that you…” She couldn’t complete the sentence.

He told her the truth, but she refused to accept it. She said their religion didn’t allow it. Gradually he tried to teach her about homosexuality, and he brought all of his gay friends home. Mr Hendricks recounts:

“When I got into my first relationship, my mother came to visit us. She spent ten days with us and afterwards she said, ‘I don’t see any difference between your relationship and a straight relationship because the two of you fight like husband and wife.’ For me, that was a confirmation that she’s come to accept me.”

Community

When Mr Hendricks came out at the age of 29, he had been serving his community for over a decade and was well respected. He was a co-imam at one of the local mosques and taught at three other mosques. He was a senior Arabic teacher because of his knowledge of the language.

He says he has never faced any discrimination from his community since he came out 11 years ago, though he has been condemned on national radio talk shows in which he has taken part. Attitudes in the Muslim community towards homosexuality are gradually changing, he says.

“In the last five years, there have been more discussions and debates than ever before. Just the mere fact that there has been no strong opposition is an indication for me of some sort of acceptance. It just can’t happen publicly now.”

Mr Hendricks knows that Muslims in his country are increasingly tolerant of gays in their midst because of the country’s liberal constitution.

“People understand that if they oppose homosexuality publicly, they could get into trouble. I guess we are kind of blessed in South Africa to be able to do this work. I don’t think it would be possible in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.”

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