Out of the closet, into a fatwa

2011-10-15 00:00

THE first openly gay imam in the world told an international gathering at Salt Rock on the North Coast this week: “If I lived in a Muslim country I would probably have been killed. There’s no agreement on how I would be killed, but I would have been put to death and no imam would have been willing to bury me.”

Muhsin Hendricks is an Islamic scholar, an imam (or religious leader) and a human rights activist focusing on sexual orientation and gender in Islam.

He was addressing a group of mostly Anglican people taking part in a consultation on sexuality being hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Ujamaa Centre and the Chicago Consultation.

The Ujamaa Centre facilitates safe places in which the Bible becomes a resource for social transformation. The Chicago Consultation is a grouping of Anglicans around the world who support the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians in the worldwide Anglican communion.

While studying in Pakistan Hendricks married and had three children before accepting he was gay and “coming out” at the age of 29.

The Muslim Judicial Council in Cape Town pronounced a fatwa or religious judgment against him in 2007 after he appeared in a documentary called A Jihad for Love, which explores the lives of Muslims who are queer.

“The fatwa cast me out of the fold of orthodox Islam, and was pronounced in 300 mosques in the Western Cape.

“This means that I am not welcome to preach or lead worship in any of them. Orthodox Islam regards homosexuality as ‘unIslamic’, a moral disorder, a ‘reversal of the natural order’ or disease that needs to be cured. In Islam we are about 20 years behind Christianity in addressing inclusivity and the place of gay people in the faith community.

“Because Islam is largely silent on the issue of sexuality gay Muslims are marginalised and feel very isolated. As a consequence they engage in casual sexual behaviour and substance abuse is also fairly common,” Hendricks said.

He has done independent research on Islam and sexual diversity, an area that reportedly does not often get explored in the Muslim world. In 1998, after a young gay Muslim woman committed suicide, he started an organisation for gay Muslims, the Inner Circle, in Cape Town. In 15 years the organisation has documented five suicides. Hendricks is now its director, the largest formal organisation in the world that supports Muslims marginalised because of their sexual orientation and gender. Hendricks said it is the only organisation that has a strong public education and training programme in Islam and sexual diversity.

“The South African Constitution offers us rights and protection that Islam denies us, and for that we are all very grateful. This allows our organisation to be based safely in Cape Town and go out to work in different Muslim contexts all over the world,” he said.

Because gay Muslims are not welcome in orthodox mosques the Inner­ Circle has begun to function as a faith community for about 20 people. Hendricks leads worship and preaches at Friday prayers and has conducted marriage services for five gay couples since the Civil Union Act was passed.

Explaining why Hendricks had been invited to take part in and address a Christian gathering, Professor Gerald West, director of the Ujamaa Centre and co-convener of the consultation said: “The Ujamaa Centre is committed to working with other faith traditions. We believe that it is in struggling together with issues of marginalisation that we discover the depths of our own tradition and one another’s traditions.”

The three-day consultation explored theological perspectives on human sexuality and justice in a variety­ of cultural contexts. Participants came from all over Africa, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States.

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