Mus­lims liv­ing out and proud

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About five years ago, my fam­ily showed me a pam­phlet that was cir­cu­lat­ing about The In­ner Cir­cle, ridi­cul­ing the idea of a “gay mosque” in Cape Town and com­par­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity to bes­tial­ity. I was dis­gusted at how my com­mu­nity could think this. Ex­ist­ing in a world dom­i­nated by cis­gen­dered het­ero­sex­u­als, I did not even have the lan­guage to ex­plain why I was so hurt by their amuse­ment. It had to do with de­hu­man­i­sa­tion. So, let’s have a con­ver­sa­tion with three queer hu­mans.

Five years af­ter be­ing trapped be­hind my own tongue, I find my­self across the ta­ble from Imam Muhsin Hen­dricks, in­side The In­ner Cir­cle, a mosque in Wyn­berg.

Look­ing out for a bright green dome, I had found in­stead a small and hum­ble mosque in what looked like an of­fice park. I am dressed some­what for­mally, note­book in hand with a slight ner­vous­ness, not know­ing what to ex­pect from “the big, bad guy” be­hind the head­lines. He smiles as though he’s seen straight through me, ges­tures to­wards his cloth­ing and ex­plains that he’s feel­ing quite ca­sual, and asks me to take a seat. “I am an open book,” he says. And the ice is shat­tered.

I ex­hale, slip out of in­ter­view mode and sur­ren­der to con­ver­sa­tion. “I must be hon­est,” I say, “I’ve read so much about you over the years. I’d like to know ... who is Muhsin? Be­yond the fig­ure that the me­dia has con­structed?” He laughs, ask­ing if I’d like to get into his per­sonal life. I nod a yes.

Af­ter a moment’s re­flec­tion, he re­sponds: “I think, these days, my re­la­tion­ship with my fam­ily and my three-year-old son has oc­cu­pied a lot of my so­cial space. I’ve been train­ing him how to swim since the day he came out of the womb. We of­ten go to the gym to swim. And I’m re­ally ex­cited be­cause, two weeks from now, I’m go­ing on a camp with him. And I’m not tak­ing my lap­top and I’m not do­ing any­thing else be­sides spend­ing time with him.”

Hen­dricks sits back, re­flec­tive. “Be­fore I be­came an imam, I was ac­tu­ally a fash­ion de­signer. I used to do wed­ding dresses up in Jo­han­nes­burg and matric-ball dresses. I started out sewing Salaah pants for Tabligis [prayer pants for a Mus­lim so­ci­ety that spreads faith].” We both laugh. “Then I did a course on pat­tern grad­ing and be­came a fash­ion de­signer. I had my own busi­ness up there. But I knew it wasn’t my call­ing, so I did it only for six years... Other than that, I love Bol­ly­wood. I love the colour. I love the cul­ture. My hus­band is Hindu. So, in our spare time, we watch Bol­ly­wood movies or go to Bol­ly­wood shows. When I get a moment to my­self, I like to be in na­ture.” Fam­ily per­son. Fash­ion lover. Arts and cul­ture lover. Na­ture lover. De­spite the dis­tance I was ex­pect­ing to feel, I had soon be­gun to see how much we had in com­mon.

Hen­dricks had been a well-known Is­lamic scholar and teacher in Cape Town prior to com­ing out. “When I was an imam ... I think that was a cru­cial pe­riod for me to build a rep­u­ta­tion with my com­mu­nity. By then, ev­ery­body knew me, my per­son­al­ity and so on ... I was rated as one of the best Ara­bic teach­ers at Clare­mont Main Road Mosque. Sud­denly, when I came out, I was re­duced to noth­ing. I re­mem­ber when I came out it was in the Week­end Ar­gus. When I went to school the next day, I was dragged into the of­fice. They pulled me aside and said, ‘How! Why didn’t you tell us you were gay?’ I said, ‘Well, none of you told me that you were straight. I didn’t think I owed it to you to tell you that.’ They were wor­ried that parents would take their chil­dren out of the school. I said, ‘Well, I’m still the same good teacher that I was be­fore I came out.’”

In re­cent years, the com­mu­nity has de­vel­oped a love-hate re­la­tion­ship to­wards him. “One Fri­day, we didn’t have Jummah [the im­por­tant Fri­day prayer] at The In­ner Cir­cle as I was out of town. One of the mem­bers of our mosque went down the road and the Khutba [a lec­ture prior to Fri­day prayers] was about me. The imam said some­thing like, ‘Yeah, we can’t do any­thing with that imam be­cause at least he’s do­ing the work that most of us don’t want to do.’ So, it’s kinda like, let him do his thing be­cause at least he’s keep­ing peo­ple Mus­lim and he’s opened up a mosque for bro­ken wings. How­ever, af­ter try­ing to en­gage and invit­ing them to be a part of my work­shop on Is­lam and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, or come to the re­treat, I re­ceive no re­sponse from them. Love-hate. What can I say?”

Queer east African en­vi­ron­men­tal fem­i­nist Araweelo (not her real name) says that she be­lieves Is­lam and queer­ness are com­pat­i­ble. “One of Is­lam’s strong­est lessons is to be true to your­self and to live a life of hon­esty. To not be ac­cept­ing of both into your life would be to live a life of dis­hon­esty.”

I, too, be­lieve that whether we are hated or loved, we have an obli­ga­tion to­wards our­selves to live au­then­ti­cally.

To live au­then­ti­cally, says Araweelo, les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, trans and/or in­ter­sex (LGBTI) peo­ple of­ten un­dergo pro­cesses of hu­mil­i­a­tion and de­hu­man­i­sa­tion from peo­ple who do not un­der­stand this au­then­tic­ity.

For liv­ing au­then­ti­cally doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean “com­ing out”. It means sim­ply be­ing. “Nei­ther side of my fam­ily is aware of my queer­ness, as Kenya is not ac­cept­ing of such an iden­tity. Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is il­le­gal in Kenya,” ex­plains Araweelo. “Be­ing queer and Mus­lim would of­ten in­volve be­ing os­tracised from your fam­ily and may lead to aban­don­ment, some­times even death.” South African queers ex­pe­ri­ence aban­don­ment and death in some cir­cum­stances. How­ever, we can­not deny how much more freely we can ex­press our­selves in com­par­i­son with many oth­ers on the con­ti­nent.

Imaan Latif, also known as Sov­er­eign Shakti, is a Jo­han­nes­burg-based queer Kun­dalini teacher trainee, Is­lamic po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, sports sci­en­tist, Sunni Mus­limah and con­cep­tual artist. As we chat, Imaan tells of her fam­ily’s re­sponse to­wards her sex­ual iden­tity. “My fam­ily is vi­o­lent and an­tag­o­nis­tic to­wards me for liv­ing and be­ing my true self, be­cause they are an­tag­o­nis­tic and vi­o­lent to­wards their own true selves. That’s not to say that I ques­tion their be­lief and val­ues, but rather that they have to con­sci­en­tise them­selves to­wards truth and de­con­struct their own re­pres­sions and op­pres­sive or­tho­dox­ies. I be­lieve this is the prob­lem with cul­tural co­coons; they breed cy­cles of tox­i­c­ity. And self-aware­ness re­quires ques­tion­ing, un­der­stand­ing and com­par­i­son, for growth.” The im­age of a semi-naked queer body on this page is a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Ler­ato Dumsa’s pho­tog­ra­phy and Imaan’s cre­ative direction, and is part of an on­go­ing body of work. “This piece is based on my voice as a queer per­son and as a per­son of faith, within the faith of Is­lam,” says Imaan. “It goes deep into my pro­cess­ing of my em­bod­ied prac­tice.” She ex­plains that she is work­ing on her own the­sis of em­bod­ied prac­tice. “It’s a life­long de­con­struc­tion, re­con­struc­tion, rein­ven­tion of the body in it­self.” The body of work weaves to­gether var­i­ous art forms, writ­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy and video in­stal­la­tion among them. Sure to raise a con­ser­va­tive eye­brow, one of the de­colo­nial tools that Sov­er­eign Shakti makes use of is “au­ton­o­mous pro­pa­ganda”. “For me, au­ton­o­mous pro­pa­ganda is to­wards de­con­struct­ing in­doc­tri­na­tions and ide­olo­gies. The brain­wash. The white­wash. Western pro­pa­ganda and white pa­tri­archy.” She ex­plains that it is through the cloak­ing of peo­ple’s iden­ti­ties that au­then­tic­ity and one’s true self can of­ten get lost. Artis­tic and in­tel­lec­tual en­gage­ment, for her, can be seen as the un­veil­ing of her au­then­tic self.

Back in the mod­est mosque in Wyn­berg, Hen­dricks ex­plains that the Is­lamic holy book, the Qu­ran, is not fix­ated on sex­u­al­ity. In fact, it is so­ci­ety’s fas­ci­na­tion that tries to draw out queer an­tag­o­nis­tic in­ter­pre­ta­tions. He ex­plains that the na­tion of Is­lam, the Ummah, is not ho­moge­nous. “Ummah in terms of some of the con­ver­sa­tions the Prophet – sal­lal­lahu alayhi wa salam [peace be upon him] – had when he said he was pray­ing for his Ummah ... It would be ev­ery­body who be­lieves af­ter him. Whether they are Mus­lim-iden­ti­fied or peo­ple from the book. My con­cept of Ummah means peo­ple who are Al­lah-con­scious and peo­ple who strive to­wards peace and jus­tice, which is the essence of Is­lam. For me that’s Ummah. Whether they’re white or black or straight or gay, if that in­ten­tion is there, they are pretty much Ummah.”

The In­ner Cir­cle was for­mu­lated as a so­cial sup­port group for queer Mus­lims dis­crim­i­nated against on the grounds of their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and/or gen­der iden­tity. Hen­dricks, found­ing mem­ber of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, fre­quently refers to The In­ner Cir­cle as a gath­er­ing space for the “bro­ken wings” of so­ci­ety.

Dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity is of­ten the most vi­o­lent in our own homes and “safe spa­ces” within our com­mu­ni­ties. It goes be­yond phys­i­cal vi­o­lence alone, ex­tend­ing to acts of emo­tional, psy­cho­log­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal and spir­i­tual vi­o­lence, to name a few.

Every­one that is an­tag­o­nis­tic to­wards queer peo­ple is di­rectly im­pli­cated in some act of vi­o­lence. The “bro­ken wings” come from dif­fer­ent in­ter­sec­tions of life, bring­ing an ar­ray of peo­ple to prayer, such as queer and trans peo­ple, het­ero­sex­u­als, sex work­ers and even moth­ers com­ing in to sup­port their chil­dren.

Their mes­sage is clear: No mat­ter how many times they try to de­hu­man­ise you, know that there are other hu­mans like you, searching, read­ing, cre­at­ing art and try­ing to el­e­vate. Not only do we cry to­gether, we also pray to­gether, and col­lec­tively try to heal to­gether. This se­ries on LGBTI life in Africa is made pos­si­ble through a part­ner­ship with The Other Foun­da­tion. To learn more about its work, visit theother­foun­da­


QUEER­NESS AND FAITH Imaan Latif, also known as Sov­er­eign Shakti, makes an on­go­ing body of art, such as this pho­to­graph, that chal­lenges con­ser­va­tive notions in Is­lam

Imam Muhsin Hen­dricks

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