Imam Muhsin Hendricks is one of the moderators at the PAN AFRICA ILGA’s 5TH REGIONAL CONFERENCE which will be broadcast from Constitution Hill from FRIDAY 27 AUGUST to TUESDAY 31 AUGUST. Over 100 speakers and almost 600 delegates from all five regions on the African continent are expected to participate in the movement’s first virtual event.
Hendricks has selected his panellists carefully. His focus is on people from diverse faiths who have an inspiring personal story to tell: Nurul Huda, founder of the Sydney Queer Muslims organisation in Australia; Rev Mambhele, from an African traditional background; Jacqui Benson from the Jewish faith, and Hanzline Davids, a Christian minister. The session is entitled: Devoutly Queer: Religion and our Sexualities.
There are common threads in the experiences of LGBTIQ people of faith regardless of their religious affiliation, Hendricks says. They tend to go through a process of spiritual evolution that takes them away from their religious tradition to find themselves and then back again with “a more personal relationship with God as opposed to a relationship with organised religion.”
Hendricks’ own journey, currently the subject of a documentary film in the making, has been radical and profound.
After completing his theological studies in Pakistan, he felt compelled to “unlearn and undo” patriarchal influences and perspectives in Islam that he had adopted without question. “I relearned or restudied the Quran for myself and many new things opened up for me that reconnected me with the faith in a very different way,” he said.
He withdrew from society and dedicated himself to an intense period of reflection. “It was a very solitary time. I went to live on a farm and fasted for 80 days. I needed that seclusion to make sense of who I am and of my purpose in life. It was a question of whether the need for authenticity was so important to me that I was willing to sacrifice my life for it. Clearly if I was going to come out of the closet, I was going to be faced with a lot of opposition from the Muslim community.”
Returning to city life, Hendricks threw himself into LGBTIQ activism and in 2011, founded an alternative mosque.
“One of our attendees at the mosque was sitting in the front row of a mainstream mosque one Friday, listening to a sermon that was all about condemning homosexuals. He said he felt so unsafe that he vowed he would never go back to a mosque. So I said maybe it is time that we created our own inclusive safe space for worship. That’s when we turned one room in our office into a mosque and now after so many years, the whole bottom section of our office is a mosque,” Hendricks said.
Hendricks trains Muslim religious leaders from across the continent; offers counselling to Queer Muslims across the globe, and also runs workshops with his Christian counterparts.
In Islam and Christianity, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has been used to censure homosexuality. But Hendricks points out that from the Quranic perspective, around 96 verses spread over 10 different chapters deal with the atrocities of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and only three verses describe homosexual encounters. In all these encounters, the interaction was related to some form of injustice.
The first is to do with the molestation of men on the trade highway as a way of humiliating them and cutting off their access to trade. The second speaks of the orgies that took place between men in the Temple of Ishtar related to idolatrous worship because they believed that if they gave their fertility to Ishtar, in turn Ishtar would keep their lands fertile. And the final incident, “the cherry on the top” is associated with the attempted molestation of the angels of God.
“The case that I make in my trainings is that none of these incidents has anything to do with sexual orientation. This was just straight men behaving badly; it was using sex for power,” Hendricks argues. “So is Islam really condemning homosexuality or is it just patriarchal opinions about it because it threatens masculinity?”
Similar arguments can be made in the Christian context. In the ancient world, same-sex rape was a common tactic of aggression and humiliation. Various biblical texts show that the men of Sodom’s actions were not connected to sexual orientation. In more than 20 references to Sodom and Gomorrah in scripture after the book of Genesis, only two mention sexual sins at all.
The original interpretation of the Sodom story dates back to the 14th century BC. Biblical prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Zephaniah, equate the sin of Sodom with oppressing marginalised groups, murder, theft; adultery, idolatry; power abuses; oppression of the poor and prideful and mocking behaviour.
A couple of years ago, Hendricks co-facilitated an interfaith workshop with Presley Sutherland for the Metropolitan Gay Church in Cape Town. Sutherland spoke about Sodom and Gomorrah from a Christian perspective and Hendricks from an Islamic perspective. They were amazed to find that they drew similar conclusions and that the conclusions of classical scholars who used the texts to condemn homosexuality were also similar.
Since then Hendricks has embraced interfaith work as part of his activism.