This story by Isa Ndegwa, which originally aired on Kenya’s Iqra Broadcasting Network on 19 November 2019, is part of a series produced with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from an October 2019 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.
Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed: “Reactions about me being a gay imam founding an inclusive mosque in Paris was much more positive than we…We have some threats and some insults and many people telling us that you are dirtying up Islam.”
Daayiee Abdullah: “In terms of being a gay imam, there’s really nothing different than being an imam. I just have a specific community that I tend to cater to, which are LGBT Muslims. But also in that community are young adults who want to raise their children in more open communities and older people and everything else. So it’s not like it’s unusual. I provide the same kind of pastoral services…”
Nur Warsame: “I mean, spirituality and sexuality are two qualities, and there are many other qualities, some are known to you, some are not. You cannot put a binary called black and white on a human being.”
Recent times have seen more and more imams from different parts of the world come out as openly gay. Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed in France, Daayiee Abdullah in the United States, and Nur Warsame in Australia are among the openly gay Muslim preachers who have made headlines and sparked both condemnation and support of same-sex relationships from Muslim communities around the world.
In Kenya, some Muslim leaders reject the idea of embracing LGBTQI people as part of their flock, citing religious scriptures as the foundation for their intolerance towards sexual and gender minorities. But the question lingers: How does Islam really view matters of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression?
Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, an openly gay Algerian imam who founded the first all-inclusive mosque in Europe, says: “Challenges that gay Muslims or transgender Muslims are facing is turning round, how I could be both gay or LGBT and Muslim at the same time. Because our representation within Islam of sexuality is not seen as a sin. It’s not seen as something dirty that you have to reject. So that’s very modern, that something new within Islam to consider that sexuality is an issue that you have to deal with.”
Muslims who oppose same-sex relationships often use Quranic verses and the hadith to justify their condemnation. They often cite hadith such as:
“The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: If you find anyone doing as Lot’s people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done.”
Muhsin Hendricks, an openly gay imam based in Cape Town, South Africa says such hadith and verses are subject to interpretation and that some Muslim preachers deliberately misinterpret such verses to spread anti-gay bias.
“Islam doesn’t have a voice, or the Quran doesn’t have a voice, other than the voice we give it. And often we make interpretations and inferences from our…through the lens of our personal experiences with Islam. So in terms of the LGBTQI community, there is a diversity of views on the issue from very severe punishment for homosexual activities, which is execution, though most of the Islamic schools in the Shia and Sunni Muslim sects believe that homosexuality is a major sin.”
Imam Muhsin says more progressive views on the same issue have emerged in recent years among Islamic scholars who have done some research on the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity. Though most still regard same-sex sexual activity as a sin, they don’t believe gay people should be punished.
“And it seems that the whole issue of LGBTI is always watered down to sex. So clearly this shows that there is a lot of work to be done in terms of understanding the difference between sexual behavior and sexual orientation and identity. Often the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is quoted as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. Yet we understand now that the story has to do with power and privilege, where sex was used as a tool for power, and therefore we cannot use the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a blanket condemnation for homosexuality.”
“Certain hadith that are used or cited in support of killing homosexuals, it has been considered by quite a few hadith scholars as inauthentic hadith and some of them are fabricated and weak hadith and therefore it cannot be used as a basis for killing homosexuals.”
In an effort to counter homophobic narratives, Imam Muhsin founded Compassion-Centered Islam, a network that provides psycho-spiritual support to LGBTQI Muslims, helping them to reconcile their sexual orientation and/or gender identity with Islam.
“This is a common problem and this is one of the reasons why we have established our organization is to provide or to allow access to information that ordinary Muslims are not privy to. And the kind of information is information that will really liberate them because a lot of queer Muslims have grown up and were taught through the madrasa system and through attending mosques that homosexuality is haram. And that’s where no explanation is given, no research has been done on the issue, so homosexuals do feel that they want to reject Islam, before it rejects them. And even after we have given them access to information that can help them to reconcile with Islam, it takes a long process for people to really reestablish a connection with Islam and with Allah.”
Many gay Muslims in Kenya struggle to reconcile their sexuality with Islam because when they seek religious guidance in places of worship or from religious leaders, they are often met with rejection and condemnation.
I talk with Ishmael Bahati, an LGBTQI activist and executive director of PEMA Kenya, an organization which advances the human rights of gender and sexual minorities in Mombasa and beyond. He highlights the challenges gay Muslims face in their attempt to reconcile their sexual identity with their faith. He says the issue doesn’t lie with Islam or the Quran because he does not believe that the Quran is homophobic. He say the problem lies with communities’ level of rejection.
According to Ishmael, the enemy is not religion or Islam but the society that promotes a particular perception of homosexuality and homophobia. Ishmael narrates how tough his journey has been towards reconciling his sexuality with his Islamic faith:
“I even contemplated suicide. I tried suicide three times. So having gone through all that and being comfortable with myself, I thought that perhaps there are very many other people that are going through the same scenario or same struggles and they have no one to speak to. So I offered myself to start speaking to people about just their sexuality you know, being comfortable with their own sexuality. Because most of the conflict that people have is not about them being gay, it is actually them fitting into society, a society that is religious. Most of the queer persons are giving up on faith because they feel that the two cannot be reconciled, you cannot have the two, that they are forced to choose between their faith or their sexuality. And most people because of the strength that sexual identity has, they choose sexual identity over religion.”
Ishmael says the issue of reconciliation is not about coming out to family or religious leaders as gay, but rather one has to be ready to accept who they are and also accept that they can comfortably be both Muslim and gay.
While some local religious leaders are slowly adopting more tolerant and accepting attitudes towards LGBTQI people, many congregants still hold strong conservative anti-gay views, as do many Muslim imams and preachers who reject the idea of accepting LGBTQI people within the Islamic faith. One such leader is Sheikh Awadh Hashim, a prominent Muslim preacher at Alhuda Mosque in Nairobi, who believes homosexuality is a choice and should not be tolerated in Kenya. Sheikh Hashim cites “African culture” and religion to argue that homosexuality and inclusivity are somehow being promoted by “Western culture,” ignoring the long history of same-sex sexual activity and gender diversity that has always existed within African and Muslim societies.
Experts and activists agree that sexual orientation is innate to each person, not a choice, and research has shown that homosexuality is a natural variation that exists across societies and species, casting significant doubt on Sheikh Hashim’s sentiments, which are shared by some Christian leaders who also perpetuate the myth that homosexuality in Kenya is somehow a result of Western influence.
Despite rejection by some religious leaders and political figures, Kenya is slowly becoming more tolerant towards matters concerning LGBTQI people. In the 2019 national census, the government included intersex as a key population to be counted, making Kenya the first African country to recognize intersex people. The official results from the census revealed that there are 1,524 intersex people in Kenya. The Kenya Human Rights Commission estimates the figure is much higher than this given the fact the many intersex people do not know they are intersex or fear stigmatization or rejection if they identify as such. The 2019 Kenya population census was perhaps a step in the right direction towards a more accepting and inclusive attitude towards all sexual and gender minorities.