“We are not going to shun them,” she says eventually. “We neither support them nor we are against them.”
Ryklief says that the topic of homosexuality has come up for discussion in her family before – in reference to the burden it presents to some Muslims. Rabia’s mother, Washiela Ryklief, is a trained therapist. She says that she would not turn away a gay Muslim seeking therapy.
“I accept everybody,” Washiela says. “We believe we are human first.”
On the other side of the room, a book title catches our eye: Sexual Ethics and Islam. It is part of the display of the Al-Ikhlaas Academia Library, a new community-funded library in Athlone.
Founder Shamila Abrahams is passionate about the intellectual underpinnings of Islam.
“Islam isn’t just about religion. It’s supposed to permeate all knowledge areas,” she says.
Does the library stock books on sexual identity for questioning Muslims?
Abrahams doesn’t seem fazed by the question. She points at the Sexual Ethics and Islam book.
“Maybe there’s a chapter in that,” she says. A quick scan through the contents page, though, suggests that there isn’t.
Books are big at the Ramadan For All expo, forming the centrepiece of displays from libraries, publishers, and bookshops.
Independent publisher Baitul Hikmah has a table featuring some distinctly progressive-looking books. Marriage and Sexuality in Islam is one; Let’s Talk AboutSex and Muslim Life is another.
“The title scares people away,” admits publisher Mohammed Amra, in reference to the second book. “But it’s an excellent opportunity for people to read about something affecting themselves and others. Storytelling is a powerful tool.”
Let’s Talk About Sex and Muslim Life, first published in 2016, is the work of prolific American novelist and self-help writer Umm Zakiyyah. The book’s jacket promises “a refreshing perspective that balances frank honesty with religious sensitivity”.
This book does contain a chapter on sexual identity: Gay and Muslim?, in which Zakkiyah writes that she is regularly contacted by Muslim youth struggling with homosexual attraction. She prints one such letter, from a 19-year old woman who fears she is attracted to other women.
What such a correspondent needs, Zakkiyah suggests, is “help that strikes a balance between not judging her for her struggle and not inviting her to effectively indulge in the very sin she is crying out for help in fighting”.
In Islam, writes Zakkiyah, “we are not held accountable for desiring something sinful. We are held accountable only for acting on something sinful”.
Zakkiyah’s response to young Muslims who believe they may be gay is compassionate, but firm: homosexual urges have to be resisted. To believe that one can be both a moral Muslim and gay is a path to kufr (disbelief).
Homosexuality was one of the few issues about which the apartheid government did not legally discriminate based on race. Across the board, it was illegal to be gay – a crime punishable with prison time.
Yet even within this environment of secrecy and fear, there was at least one pocket of South African life where gay Muslims managed to live lives of relative acceptance: within the vibrant community of Cape Town’s District Six.
Noor Ebrahim is 74 years old. Today he works at the District Six Museum. It’s testament to the nostalgia he still feels for the famous multi-racial suburb where he spent the first 31 years of his life – before being forcibly removed with his family in 1975.
Ebrahim needs little invitation to launch into his recollections of District Six with a wide grin. When he talks about the gay men he knew growing up, he does so using the language of the time, now considered offensive by many.
“I tell you, the moffies in District Six – they were great people. They were fun people. Loving people. We never ever discriminated against moffies in District Six,” he says.
“When we were teenagers, every weekend, like Friday and Saturday, we’d go party with them. You know? And I tell you, they can dance, yoh! We’d be just watching them all night, you know. And after the party, they’d take us to a restaurant and they’d treat us with a nice hamburger and chips. That was the moffies of District Six.”
Some of the gay inhabitants of District Six were Muslim like him, Ebrahim remembers; others were Christian. He says that regardless of religion, they were accepted by the community.
“It didn’t bother us! They were fun people. We loved them.”
“But I mean, they never got married to one another, you know?”
While the position of Islamic organisations in South Africa on homosexuality has always been clear, the feelings of ordinary Muslims are less so.
When it comes to issues like racism, Muslim Views editor Farid Sayed believes that there has been noticeable social progress over the past three decades.
“With gay attitudes – here it’s a bit different,” Sayed says.
“People will openly say: ‘I am anti-racist’. It’s comfortable; it’s easy; the Prophet said that too. But when it comes to homosexuality, the attitude is: ‘Let’s not discuss it. It’s uncomfortable.’”
Rabiah Ryklief’s comment at the Ramadan For All expo – “We neither support them nor are against them” – appears to sum up one relatively liberal, but mainstream, strand of opinion.
Sayed puts it another way. “You’ll hear people saying: ‘I respect people, whatever their sexual orientation, but I wouldn’t want my son or daughter to be in a same-sex marriage’. Or they would say: ‘It’s a psychological problem, and we will deal with it in that way’.”
But there are also more extreme pockets of belief within the community, where disapproval of homosexuality is more openly voiced.
“I’ve seen people saying on WhatsApp groups that Cape Town has a water problem and there is a drought because God is punishing (the city) for homosexuals,” says Sayed.
“There are people who utterly believe that, who say that is the problem. Of course, they don’t want to follow that logic and question why there is drought in (conservative Muslim stronghold) Azaadville, or wherever.”
In general, says Sayed, the impression he receives as an editor of a Muslim-interest publication is that people do not want to talk about gay Muslims.
“If I were to suggest that the newspaper should cover this, go in-depth, the attack will come from people who I would consider to be quite progressive in other respects,” Sayed predicts.
“They will come back and say: ‘Look, Farid, you are giving them too much sympathy’.”
At least two surveys have been undertaken about attitudes to homosexuality within Muslim communities in South Africa. The first, produced by University of Johannesburg and Wits researchers Elsje Bonthuys and Natasha Erlank in 2011, interviewed residents of the predominantly Muslim suburb of Mayfair in Johannesburg.
Their qualitative findings tallied closely with Sayed’s anecdotal impressions.
“The most conspicuous aspect of community attitudes,” wrote the researchers, “is the collective ‘will not to know’ or deliberate refusal to notice the existence of gay men and lesbians. This was achieved through various forms of denial”.
Among the Muslims interviewed, they found “a strong desire not to know about sexual transgressions”. The researchers suggested that this was motivated at least partly by politeness, and also by the attitude that judgment rightfully belongs to Allah.
“Even long-standing, widely known same-sex relationships can be accommodated to a certain degree through the mechanism of deliberately ignoring the sexual nature of these relationships,” they wrote.
But three years later, another survey undertaken by Cape Town’s Al-Fitrah Foundation produced more overtly disapproving views.
I am scared to come out to my folks they will disown me immediately. Is there any Muslim ladies on this website that would like to start chatting as friends in Cape Town, I feel like I am the only Muslim girl at times that is gay. Please do advise…
One would think that the online space might become a vital refuge for some gay South African Muslims, offering a site for confession and fellowship without negative real-world repercussions.
In a thread which was active for a full decade, an internet user calling themselves “Sweety” posted the appeal above on a local health forum in 2006. Yet even in this space, among some affirming responses from others in similar predicaments, warnings appeared.
One question: what’s more important to you, making yourself happy, or making your creator happy? asked one user.
There are few, if any, active online spaces for gay South African Muslims to gather and chat in a safe and supportive environment.
A sign of potentially changing times is the fact that some local dating sites catering specifically for Muslims now also allow gay and lesbian Muslims to sign up and advertise their desire to meet someone. One such site is muslimsingles.co.za – but closer inspection reveals that it is one of thousands of dating sites owned by a large US company.
Most others do not cater for queer Muslims. On Muslima.com, where you can filter your search according to preferences like “wears a hijab”, “wears a niqab”, “polygamy” or even “smoking habit”, there is no option to register an alternative sexual orientation.
When we contacted Muslima.com to ask if gay and lesbian Muslims could set up profiles, we received a generic response from the website’s parent company, Cupid Media, advising us instead to choose “another one of our great dating sites”.
Nothing about Capetonian Imam Muhsin Hendricks’ background suggested that he would become the world’s first openly gay imam.
“I come from an orthodox Muslim community and a very respected family, because my father was the imam of the mosque which was just a stone’s throw from our house,” Hendricks says.
“My mother was a teacher in the mosque, and my father was a spiritual healer. So if you were jinxed, it’s my father you would go to.”
Hendricks realized at a young age that there was something different about him, but his conservative environment meant that there was no space to voice his confusion. He describes his upbringing as “lonely”. What sustained him, however, was a deep religious faith – and a relationship with a God who, he was taught, would condemn him for the feelings he did not yet dare to express.
“When I reached the age of 18 I had this deep desire to study Islam further, because I couldn’t understand why a merciful and compassionate God would reject me for something I didn’t choose,” Hendricks says.
He travelled to Pakistan and embarked on four years of Islamic studies, but his confusion deepened.
“I thought that maybe I should get married, because that’s what people were saying was the solution. You’ll get married, and then you’ll go straight.”
It didn’t work. Six years into his marriage to a woman, Hendricks plunged into a profound depression. He was 29 years old, had three children, and could no longer cope with the pressures of dealing with what he describes as a “double life”.
In crisis, Hendricks resolved to embark on a period of intense meditation and fasting. He fasted for over two months, waiting for a sense of clarity as to what his God wanted from him.
“And on the 80th day, I came out,” he says.
Hendricks resolved to make his intentions known very publicly. He went to local newspapers in Cape Town.
“I said: ‘Look, I’m gay and I’m an imam, and I want to announce it to the world. And if they want to kill me, they can kill me, but I’d like to meet my maker with that kind of authenticity’.”
He had never knowingly met a single other gay person in his life.
That was about to change. Other Muslims began to contact Hendricks as word of him spread.
“I was surprised at the kind of negotiations that people were making, because of this dilemma of not being able to reconcile faith with sexual orientation. There were attempted suicides. People were on drugs. People had left the faith.”