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Queering Jihad in South Africa: Islam, Queerness, and Liberative Praxis

Graduate Division of Religion, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA
Religions 2023, 14(9), 1081;
Submission received: 11 April 2023 / Revised: 23 May 2023 / Accepted: 25 July 2023 / Published: 22 August 2023
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Future of Islamic Liberation Theology)


This essay examines the theology and politics of queer Muslims in South Africa. Through a queering of the analytical lens of “struggle and praxis” or jihad, this essay traces the deployment of the term jihad by a collective of queer Muslims in Cape Town. In this articulation, queer Muslims play with their inherited traditions of liberation, challenging its presuppositions, and expanding its contours. This essay argues that these queer Muslims read liberation traditions through their experience and praxis which guide their orientations toward theological meaning-making and community practice. By doing so, they challenge the regulatory nature of hegemonic forms of queerness, which emerged in the Global North, resonating in the local posturing of South Africa as a safe space for queer people, ignoring the disparity between the law and public practice, and erasing the experiences of the margins of the queer community. By embracing this marginality, queer Muslims “reimagine” tradition by presenting an inclusive alternative theology and praxis, suggesting a queer possibility within Islam.

1. Introduction

It is a Friday afternoon in March 2023. I am on my way to Masjid Al-Ghurabā to deliver the Jumuʿa khuṭba. I am running late. Stuck in the end-of-week school pick-up traffic, I finally make it to the mosque. Sweaty, nervous, and on the verge of energy over-drive, I walked into an unassuming office block, hosting a sacred space of a group of “compassion-centered” Muslims. Set aside from the hustle of a working and lower middle-class neighborhood, as a focal point for ritual performance, community-building, and religious meaning-making, the masjid was a humble but unique space. Greeted by the melodious recitation of the Qurʾān by a mosque board member, I felt a bit more settled (perhaps because of the affective dimension of scriptural aesthetics). I sat down and readjusted. After the call to prayer, I ascended the pulpit, taking my time to pause on each step. “As-salāmu ʿalaykum wa raḥmatu Allāh wa Barakātu”. I began to feel the adrenaline of the moment and the expectations of my performance. I reflected on a parable in the “Heart of the Qurʾān,” Sūrat Yāsīn (Q36:13–23), about a man on the outskirts of the city who spoke truth to power. According to tradition, Habīb al-Najjar lived on the margins of Antioch because of his outcast status as a leper. (Lumbard 2004, p. 1074). However, despite his social position, he has firm convictions in God and the message of monotheism. He recognizes the truth claims of the apostles sent to his town and defends his belief until he is killed by his community, rewarded with the bliss of The Garden (Ibn Kathir n.d.). Through the textual silences in the narrative, the Qurʾān challenges its reader to connect the dots between marginality and spirituality. Extending this idea to include intersectional solidarity (a type of ethical intervention I was trying to make), I started to reflect on a notion of queerness emerging from the tradition and experiences of Islam. My experience and performance of the sermon were an experiential opening that led to a framing of tradition that embraces textual and material practices (Asad 2015) in which “queerness” is a point of orientation toward the workings of power (Ahmad 2006). My deployment of “queer” in this essay reflects a signification of sexual non-normativity (captured in the initialism of LGBTQIA+), a practice of anti-normative undoing (Cohen 1997), and a form of racialization (Puar 2007). In this essay, through the analysis of the “queer jihad,” or the struggle for sexual dignity and justice, I examine the theology of the margins (Kugle 2005). Katrina Daly Thompson presents this idea cogently when she says that Muslims on the margins of the global umma are often marginalized due to systems of violence supported by rapacious theologies or traditions. However, because of their marginality, these Muslims are trying to create inclusive support systems and sacred spaces based on a capacious understanding of the Divine–human relationship (Thompson 2023, pp. 5–7, xvii–xix).
This essay attempts to examine the ambiguous nature of queerness. Following Sa’ed Atshan (2020), I am employing an “auto-ethnographic” approach as my main research methodology. Trying to challenge the binary between “researcher” and “subject of research,” I deploy my own experiences in conversation with a textual and online archive of queer Muslims in Cape Town. Opting to protect my interlocutors, I have chosen to only report published data that are focused on the personality of the founding imam, Muhsin Hendricks. Despite this limitation, the imam’s ideas are not created in isolation. They are discussed and refined within the community. In this way, the data of this essay reflects a dominant position within a queer Muslim community. I, therefore, attempt to reflect on my positionality as queer “Coloured” Muslim middle-class man, my solidarity with marginalized Muslims, and my research on queerness in Islam in my place of birth, the city of Cape Town, and its impact on the grammar of this essay. Acknowledging my own positionality as a male “intellectual elite” from the Global South and based at a prestigious university in the Global North, I am trying to deploy the resources at my disposal to produce alternative narratives and determine alternative critical genealogies about Islam, religion more broadly, and queerness that breaks open normative binaries. Undertaking a project with intertwined boundaries is challenging because it destabilizes notions of self/other. Theorizing this destabilized binary, Indian American anthropologist Kirin Narayan deploys the concept of the “enactment of hybridity” to demonstrate the unsettling and multi-sited nature of research (Narayan 1993, pp. 671–86). Reflecting on her “hybrid” heritage and its impact on constructions of insider/outsider, she writes that scholars are “minimally bicultural in terms of belonging simultaneously to the world of engaged scholarship and the world of everyday life” (Narayan 1993, p. 672). She challenges the notion of a “native anthropologist,” explaining how power is dynamic and unstable influencing the configuration of self, which also tends to be dynamic, unstable, and queer (Narayan 1993, p. 676).
Focusing on the queer Muslim’s inflection of struggle, this essay analyzes an unsettling category of praxis and struggle by examining how queer Muslims represent a particular manifestation of the oppressed on the earth or al-mustadʿafīn fiʾlʿarḍ. Praxis is “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” (Freire 2000, p. 126). In the Freirean sense, praxis deconstructs the networks of power to reveal the ways in which structures are constructed by human beings to dominate some and uplift others. By reflecting on these structures, through a process called conscientization, marginal social classes can collectively work together to transform systemic patterns of exploitation and marginalization (Kamrudin 2018, pp. 144–46). Drawing on a Ḥadīth tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, queer Muslims deploy the concept of the marginalized, estranged, or queer (al-ghurabāʾ) as a contemporary signifier of difference marked outside the fold of ethical care. Reading José Muñoz’s “disidentification,” alongside my experiences and research, I echo how this approach is used as a tool of survival, which various marginalized communities undertake, to subtly subvert normative semantic, conceptual, and ethical relations (Muñoz 1999, p. 8). The ambivalent disruption of this approach is that it does not entirely remove culture or tradition. Rather, it reworks the symbolic meanings of established myths and rituals for egalitarian objectives. Queer Muslims in this regard not only frame their queerness as a transgression of religio-cultural norms, but also embody those norms and repurpose their ethical meanings for their distinctive struggle as articulated through the figure of the stranger, marginalized, or queer. This approach to queerness extends beyond the secularity demanded by a queer liberal secular nationalism or “homonationalism” as argued by Jasbir Puar (2007, pp. 12–14). I examine how queer communities “negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship” (Muñoz 1999, p. 8). Queer Muslims “disidentify” with previous traditions of liberation; they do this by challenging heteronormative liberative interpretations, resisting homonormativity (Duggan 2002), and repurposing tradition for their distinct struggle for dignity and social justice. In this way, queer Muslims in Cape Town do not only reconstruct traditions, but they also “reimagine” the possibilities of tradition. As an alternative hermeneutical strategy, queer jihad is disruptive of some norms and presents an alternative beyond imposed binaries. Atalia Omer (2019) argues that the process of reimagining tradition involves a retrieval of the inherited wisdom that is creatively re-thought to explicitly link the political with the spiritual (p. 156). In this way, as religious activists draw on the tradition and reframe its ethical symbolism, they present new and inclusive ways of being human, and they reimagine religious anthropology and its implications for ethics. Omer’s analysis shows how religious “reimagination” is embodied by a community of engaged and queer practitioners through re-reading inherited narratives, discourses, rituals, and symbols.
This essay is divided into three sections. First, drawing on my experiences in Cape Town and an expanding archive of queer activism (Kugle 2014), I provide an account of the political economy of Islam in the Cape. Traveling from the material and discursive context to a religio-political mapping of a group of queer Muslims, I focus on how queer Muslims in Cape Town have come together to form community and try to cultivate a “compassion-centered” Islam attentive to the margins of society. Second, by texturing theology and activism, I attempt to provide an overview of how the Islamic tradition of jihad is embodied by “deviant” Muslims. Examining the embodiment of the queer jihad, as a form of queering, I argue that Muslims with non-normative sexualities and gender identities critically embrace, challenge, and reimagine Islamic tradition by deploying their lived realities as a re-orientation for religious meaning-making. Third, reflecting on how queer Muslims in Cape Town disidentify with traditions of liberation theology, I examine the potential of queering the analytical concept of praxis, a hallmark of liberation theology. Through a queer expression (al-ghurabāʾ) of the broader signifier of the “oppressed on the earth,” or al-mustadʿafīn fiʾlʿarḍ, I contend that queer Muslims shift the underlying anthropology of traditional notions of praxis, by repositioning subjectivity to the margins of society.

2. Queer Muslims in Cape Town

In 1994, South Africa transitioned to a nonracial secular constitutional democracy from apartheid, a structurally violent Christian nationalist state which exploited Black people as laborers in a system of racial capitalism. From the emergence of the colonial regime in 1652 to the various forms of settler-colonialism and white domination (such as the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910) crystalizing in apartheid (1948–1994), race, class, and gender have driven the political economy of the country. During apartheid, the Afrikaans elite, drawing on earlier colonial regimes of control, constructed a socio-economic hierarchy that created “racial groups”: White, Indian/Asian, Coloured, and African Black with various ethnic and language sub-groups quadrillaging most of the population. Resisting these constructed markers of difference, the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) created a unifying category of the politically Black, expressed through the experience of oppression (Biko [1978] 2002). While Whiteness was the ideal racial formation under apartheid, a white heterosexual pairing was highly desired to combat the challenge of its demographic minority (Leap 2004, p. 138). In this essay, I draw on the thought of the BCM noting also how there are, within South African Blackness, diverse experiences based on history, language, and geographic location. My focus therefore will be on Coloured inspired notions of queerness within the city of Cape Town (see Erasmus 2001). Initially a constructed identity of liminality, the “Cape Coloured” community has cultivated diverse expressions of sexuality, race, class, and gender often signified in the ambiguous figure of the “moffie,” the non-normative drag entertainer, dressmaker, or hairdresser tolerated for their usefulness to straight society (Pacey 2014).
As the country developed its secular constitutional framework in the 1990s, the elites of the liberation movement also decided to protect several marginalized social classes including women, queer people, and trans communities. As a form of nation-building, the late Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu called South Africa a “rainbow nation” (Livermon 2015, p. 15). However, despite progressive ideals, there are many limitations to the promise of freedom and the practice of agency for people with non-normative gender expressions or sexualities. For instance, the adoption of same-sex marriage in 2006 outraged traditional religious sensibilities. In response, Muslim clergy, or the ʿulamāʾ elite class, responded to this Bill by affirming the dominant legal (fiqh) position prohibiting same-sex acts (Hendricks 2009; Kugle 2010). The biggest ʿulamāʾ body, the Cape’s Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), opted to remain authentic to a particular vision of Islamic tradition that ignores the legacies of gender and sexual diversity in precolonial Islamicate societies (El-Rouayheb 2005; Kugle 2016; Peletz 2009). The willful ignorance of the MJC of this diversity in Islamic history shows their unwillingness to expand the circle of compassion to marginalized Muslims.
In July 2022, following the release of a trailer for a local documentary on queer Muslims, the MJC reaffirmed its normative legal position. Taking this position further, they also stated that any legitimation of sexual non-normative desires, such as the one adopted by many queer Muslims and some allies, affirming an acceptance of the practice of queer sexualities within the context of an ethical relationship, is outside the fold of Islam. Through their process of vehement othering, or takfīr, they opened the door to violence and exposed queer bodies to death—a figurative and lived reality (Judge 2018). By producing a necro-theology, the MJC tussles between the politics of life and the casting out for death (Muslim Judicial Council 2022). As Puar writes, between the “interstices of life and death” is the “differences between queer subjects who are being folded (back) into life and the racialized queerness that emerge through the naming of populations” (Puar 2007, p. 34). Through this dual process, queerness operates not only as an act of creation calling subjects into being, but it is also a framing of deviant populations marked for death (Puar 2007, p. 24). Despite the MJC’s life-affirming ethos, as expressed in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and their attempts at warding off extremism (Muslim Judicial Council 2020; Herman 2015), there are some bodies who do not warrant the legitimation of theology and are cast out for the violent embrace of death (Puar 2007, p. 33).
As Muslims with non-normative sexualities embody differing orientations to queerness, they not only confront homophobia within the Muslim community but also struggle against hegemonic forms of queerness that position the figure of the queer Muslim outside the folds of queerness (Rahman 2015; El-Tayeb 2012). The discourses around Islam and sexual diversity are often prefigured by the civilizational discourses of late modernists (Islam is oppressive towards queers) and the fraternal patronization of traditionalists (queers can be Muslim only if they are celibate and silent). Echoing Orientalist (Islam as sexually promiscuous and liberal) and neo-Orientalist tropes (Islam as sexually repressed), Muslims with queer desires often have their experiences, voices, and theologies elided. This discursive midfield is further complicated by competing claims of the “indigeneity” of queerness in African contexts (see Livermon 2015, pp. 18–20; Van Klinken 2019). This traveling Orientalism (and racism!) is not only discursive but also materially impacts political policy by continuing the idea that Muslims are inherently queerphobic and violent toward “deviance” (see Butler 2010, pp. 105–6). Moreover, as queer Muslims assent to their public presence, their agency is often curtailed by traditionalists and modernists who expect queer Muslims to perform orthodox piety or a regulatory form of queerness (Peumans 2017). By fashioning Islam as the ultimate boogeyman of modernity, discourses originating in the Global North show how racist and xenophobic scholarship can impact policy (Omer 2023). Despite these discursive and material hegemonies, queer Muslims celebrate their intersectional identities by forming community and imagining a different egalitarian future (Rahman 2010).
In 1998, Imam Muhsin Hendricks, along with a group of fellow gay Muslims, founded a small community of LGBT Muslims initially called Al-Fiṭra. Imam Muhsin grew up in a traditional Cape Muslim family and describes his childhood as being closely intertwined with Islam through the masjid where his grandfather was an imam and his mother a schoolteacher (Gregory 2022; Piraino and Zambelli 2018). His father was also a spiritual healer and would prescribe a ruqya, or healing recommendation from the Qurʾān treating illnesses, a common profession in colonial and apartheid South Africa (see Morton 2018, p. 89). Imam Muhsin studied Arabic and Islamic Sciences (law, scripture, theology, philosophy) at the University of Islamic Studies (Jamia-Dirasat Al-Islamiyyah) in Karachi, Pakistan (1990–1994). After ending a heterosexual marriage, he went into social seclusion (khalwa) for over 80 days engaging in acts of worship. These acts of ibādat included fasting (ṣiyām), ritual prayers (ṣalāt), invocations of God (dhikr), and introspection (muḥāsaba). After this intense period of inner cultivation, Imam Muhsin publicly “came out” about his sexuality. He describes his journey guided by a “compelling need to be authentic” (Hendricks 2020; Gregory 2022). “I felt…I can’t say it was a dream or wahy [revelation] that I was getting or anything like that. It was just this overwhelming sense that I am okay with who I am now” (Hendricks 2020). Imam Muhsin’s spiritual cultivation radiated outwards and gave him the strength and conviction to be public about his sexual identity. He founded Al-Fiṭra (which later became The Inner Circle in 2006 and then Al-Ghurabā in 2018) in 1998 to provide support and community to people struggling to reconcile their faith and sexual identity by organizing a community for pastoral care (psycho-spiritual counseling, ritual community, performance of civil unions), public education (training for imams), and archive-building (Tofa 2014). While trained in Islamic Sciences, Imam Muhsin embraces all forms of knowledge (Gregory 2022). In his interpretation of the Lot story in the Qurʾān, for example, he uses contemporary archeological and religious studies knowledge to create a broader setting in which he presents his interpretation. In his empowerment course, he uses contemporary spirituality through astronomical archetypes to explore notions of human personality, a point that we bonded over (we are both Geminis!) during the community lunch served after the Friday service.
In the beginning, queer Muslims congregated for prayers and social support in the homes of early congregants. The figure of the home as a place of prayer and congregation has resonances in sacred and local Islamic history. Before it was a global religion, Islam started with a small local band of social outcasts in the Bayt al-Arqam—the House of Arqam – where the marginalized and persecuted Muslim collective met in secret in the early days of Islam in Mecca. Named after the companion, Al-Arqam b. Abī al-Arqam (d. 675), the Bayt al-Arqam was the ideal space because of its secret location. It thus became the first space of congregation for the early Muslims. Manifesting in the local history of Islam in the Cape, the home as mosque, became the first site of prayer and congregation in colonial Cape Town. Enslaved and free Muslims came together for prayers, spiritual education, and community in the homes of land-owning free citizens, such as the home of Saartjie van der Kaap, which eventually became the first mosque space in 1798 (Davids 1980, pp. 93–94). The contemporary sacred space of these queer Muslims strives towards egalitarian ethics by encouraging the participation and leadership of women and queer Muslims in ritual and admirative activities such as leading ritual prayers, delivering sermons, or serving on boards. As a congregant said:
I came to this mosque to be able to pray in a space that is not gender segregated, to be able to stand in the front row, behind the imam, to sometimes be asked to lead the prayer, just to be in a space where women are in the front lines, are included as much as possible, are real, actual participants, and not on the sidelines and forgotten about.
(recorded in Dougan and Davis 2018)
The space that this group creates is a place where marginalized Muslims from positions across matrices of identity and ideology gathered to engage in religious meaning-making through their acts of worship or social solidarity (Hoel 2013). Rejecting the idea of a “gay mosque,” Imam Muhsin encourages all Muslims who are committed to the notion of a compassion-centered Islamic tradition to join the community, because queerness, for Imam Muhsin, can be expressed through a socially just and compassionate Islam (Hendricks 2012). I witnessed this practice at their 2023 Queer Ifṭār, the meal that breaks the fast during the month of Ramaḍān. The community that gathered was diverse and varied. People (mainly Coloured and Indian, with a few White folks and very few African Black people) from all over the city came to open the fast. Despite its ethical commitment to an egalitarian space, this community of queer Muslims, like many other marginalized groups, has not fully lived up to its ideals, especially in terms of gender justice. Afshan Kamrudin comments:
Breaking from the strict indoctrination of the larger Muslim community was challenging even among marginalized communities. In a conversation with Imam Hendricks about gender-neutral prayers at [The People’s Mosque], he recounted: “At first, there were many gay men who rejected the idea of praying behind a woman. When I asked why, they responded ‘because she will invalidate our prayer’ when I asked them to explain [and] they responded, ‘she will distract us.’ This response is generally given by Muslim men to mean that women distract them sexually to keep men from concentrating on their prayers, so I responded, ‘but you are gay’”.
This common response to the call for woman’s ritual leadership reflects a pervasive androcentric religious anthropology, an understanding of the male form as the normative human model from the perspective of the Islamic tradition (Shaikh 2012, pp. 6–10). In tracing this sexist notion, Fatima Mernissi comments on the circulation of a ḥadīth, narrated by the companion Abū Hurayra, in which the Prophet is reported to have said that three things—a donkey, a woman, or a dog—invalidate the prayer if they get between a person and the orientation of prayer (Mernissi 1991, pp. 70–81). Presenting a more nuanced tradition attributed to the Prophet’s wife, Āʾisha, Mernissi challenges the dominant circulation of Abū Hurayra’s account with a counter-narrative by a companion with greater access to the Prophet. Without investigating the intimate relationship between heteronormativity and androcentrism, this worshiper’s response shows how deep forms of sexist and patriarchal prejudice can be embedded in a collective hermeneutical resource. Despite the social location, sexist or racist ideas can manifest in theology and politics. My experiences over the years in this space suggest that the mosque largely replicates the racial politics of Cape Town (see Osman and Shaikh 2017). Dominated by Coloured and Indian men, this community needs to re-evaluate its commitment to racial justice in the city by purposefully breaking down racial barriers in the city. Despite these challenges, Imam Muhsin attempts to conscientize his community, challenging them to be attentive to all forms of social hierarchy and its spiritual perils. This is indeed a big task for a group dominated by queer Coloured men. However, I have witnessed the practices of this community (as signified by their current board makeup and arrangement of the sacred space) trying to challenge gender and racial hierarchies with some success.
In August 2018, Imam Muhsin announced on his Facebook page that he would be leaving Al-Fitra/The Inner Circle. He later went on to continue his work with queer Muslims through the work of the non-profit Al-Ghurabā Foundation, which was established in September 2018. After Imam Muhsin left, his position was temporarily filled by several local scholars and activists invited to perform the Friday (Jumuʿa) congregational service or to facilitate educational workshops on Islam and sexual diversity. The imam’s exit from the organization was not without public scandal. The board sent a communication stating that impending financial audits were part of the reason for Imam Muhsin proactively leaving the organization. In January 2019, the board informed members of the shift in focus from Muslim-related issues to broader issues of care for queer youth in Cape Town. Imam Muhsin was cleared of the charges of financial impropriety by an external committee (Gregory 2022). His splinter community, Al-Ghurabā Foundation, is a grassroots community-based organization (now based in the same space as The Inner Circle) that provides religio-political conscientization through a critical investigation of the structures producing marginality and spiritual care, nourishing the souls of marginalized Muslims (Freire 2000, p. 32). After recently securing external funding (much of which comes from European countries or liberal human rights organizations), Al-Ghuarbā Foundation continues to grow and provide compassionate care for non-normative Muslims. The Islamic traditions that inform this activism are the focus of our next section.

3. Jihad and (Queer) Embodiment

Through the reimagination of theology and tradition, the queer jihad deploys gendered and sexualized ideas to articulate an alternative understanding of the human subject beyond heteronormative boundaries. Showing the ability of a queer experience to expose the ubiquity of heterosexual scripts within society, it also proposes alternatives based on a different reading of tradition. This reading not only looks for an archive of “sexual and gender deviance” within the tradition but also examines queer possibilities derived from tradition. The Arabic verb ja-ha-da means to endeavor, to strive, or to exert oneself. In the contemporary period, jihad has come to signify several interconnecting layers of violence producing the figure of the terrorist Muslim: a queer “other” of secular modernity (Puar 2007, p. 76). However, Islamic discourses have framed jihad around a different point of orientation – God. As the Divine becomes the objective of jihad (al-jihād fī sabīl Allāh), it frames the telos not only at the arrival of material goods but also in spiritual success, blurring the imposed binaries of secularity. As jihad is placed in the path of God, it operates in relation to a cluster of ethical terms, such as patience or forbearance (Afsaruddin 2013, p. 11). As Asma Afsaruddin (2013, 2022) notes, earlier commentators of the Qurʾān and contemporary activists understood jihad as both an inner process of ethical cultivation and an external process of physical struggle against injustice. These scriptural and ethnographic insights resonate with a contested ḥadīth report which establishes the various valences of the term for Islamic imagination. Found in the collection of al-Bayḥaqi (d. 1066), a group of victorious Muslim fighters had returned to the city from battle. Alerted to the pride of his companions, the Prophet is reported to say: “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” The two struggles are not disconnected. His bewildered companions ask: “Prophet of God, what do you mean by the lesser jihad?” To safeguard against the rise of hubris and pride (the original “sin” of Iblīs) in his companions, the Prophet makes an explicit link between struggle, both in its manifest and subtle forms, replying “That is to struggle with swords against an enemy who oppresses you.” They answer by asking what could be greater than the fight against the pagan Arabs, who oppressed the early Muslims. The Prophet Muḥammad answers them, “To struggle against the enemy who resides here…” as he holds his hands up on either side of his chest, “that is the greater jihad” or al-jihad al-akbar (Neale 2017, pp. 6–8).
As one of the chief villains in the creation myth, Fazlur Rahman Malik discusses Iblīs as the “anti-human” force, that “whispers” into the hearts of humans (Q.114), leading them down the path of oppression (Fazlur Rahman Malik 2020, pp. 25–27). Mahmoud Muḥammad Taha explores Iblīs as the archetypical wrongdoer who was not only prideful but also in a state of loss, “hopelessness and utter despair” (Taha 1987, p. 98). In that experience of alienation, they decide to seduce the Children of Adam as an unhealthy coping mechanism because of their lack of receptivity to the Divine. Iblīs’s downfall was their pride, veiling them from their Lord. Translating this cosmological myth into social action, Azizah al Hibri develops the concept of “Iblīsi logic” to account for this primordial moment of arrogance based on perceived differences in outward form (Hidyatullah 2014 pp. 112–113). The social manifestation of Iblīsi logic is thus a system of discrimination based on external markers of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, ethnicity, or nationality. Because Iblīs only saw the materiality of the Adamic form, they did not see with an inner eye, showing the potential of the Adamic form, revealing the Divine breath residing in each human life (Q15:29). By attending to moments of “Iblīsi logic” in his community, the Prophet wanted to prevent manifest and subtle oppression (ẓulm).
Toshihiko Izutsu writes that the meaning of the verb ẓa-la-ma is to put something in its wrong place, to transgress, to oppress, or to be unjust (Izutsu 1966, pp. 164–65). While fighting against an unjust enemy (such as the oppressive pagan Arabs) is a powerful form of jihad, it can also lead one down a path of self-righteousness whereby the self is inflated with self-grandeur (istikbār) which is a common manifestation of ẓulm (Kugle 2021). Making an intervention about the nature of the self (nafs), the Prophet warns his community about the treacherous path of the nafs, which can mislead travelers to forms of egoism that feeds the self that incites one towards evil, al-nafs al-ʾammāra bi sū. By creating this distinction between the greater jihad and the lesser jihad, the Prophet demonstrates how oppression can disturb the human subject at multiple registers of being human (Fazlur Rahman Malik 1980, p. 25). According to many patriarchal theologies, the sexuality of human beings is often seen as a sign of an unrefined nafs. This point was localized for me when I spoke to queer Muslims about their journeys of discovery and authenticity. My comrades referred to a common trope in which the practice of homosexuality was seen as a battle of the nafs, with the projected outcome of a life of celibacy, removing the possibility of romantic and sexual fulfillment. This limited view ignores the desires and needs of many human beings and restricts the practice of Qurʾānic ideals of compatibility, mutuality, love, and tenderness for a group of people because of their God-given disposition (Mir-Hosseini et al. 2022). However, the charge of an unrefined nafs has been imposed on women and queer people who call attention to the unequal practices within Muslim communities and spaces (Shaikh 1994). Furthermore, it fails to account for sexuality as a healthy expression of human dignity and part of Islamic anthropology (Kugle 2010).
An anti-sex reading of Islam does an injustice to rich literary and material legacies which intertwine sex, (non-normative) sexuality, and spirituality (Zargar 2011). This is also a limited reading of the human person, as it does not capture the importance of the material body in the production of religion. It is only through the human body that the Divine can be manifested in a complete and holistic form (Shaikh 2012). As the human body holds the breath of God in each human life, it is through the body that religious meaning is experienced. Such an approach does not recognize the multiple ways in which the body becomes the site of meaning-making and knowledge production. The body, from a queer perspective, is both “the foundation for and the product of the coming into being of a meaningful world, which is human being. By using the abstraction “embodiment,” theorists stress that the body is not a thing, as if its materiality made it a simple logic. It is instead a concatenation of actions, affecting and affected by culture” (Kugle 2007, p. 13). As queer Muslims have put their bodies on the line for their objectives, they also deploy their bodies as a site of meaning-making. The queer jihad proposes to challenge normative notions of the correct comportment and attached beliefs and traditions of the “good” Muslim body. Agents and structures of normativity view their claim to authenticity as the only claim. However, they often miss the boat by disregarding all bodies as a central site of theological making. In some Islamic discourses, the human body has the unique ability to be a complete manifestation of the Divine regardless of socially constructed markers of difference (Kugle 2007, p. 30). The embodiment of the queer jihad is not only the activism for sexual dignity but also the slow shifting of a sexual economy. While forms of queerness have become regulatory and normative, the “others” of the queer community suggest a remaking of the political economy of bodies. Through their embrace of the lived experiences of queer marginality, this community expands the hermeneutical orbit of the term. In the contemporary period, for Muslims on the margins of society, jihad has become an Islamic term that captures their emerging theology of liberation. As different forms of jihad are extracted from sacred history or post-Prophetic battles and struggles, jihad’s hermeneutical orbit expands in meaning and political symbolism. We now turn to this extended orbit as non-normative Muslims queer the contours of traditional liberation theology.

4. Toward a Queer Praxis

The Prophets mentioned in the Qurʾān come from Biblical and Arabian traditions (Q42:13). While scripture only mentions a few by name, Islamic tradition is open to the possibility of multiple people (regardless of gender) acting in the capacity of a messenger or prophet across history and space (Q16:36), culminating with the emergence of Muḥammad in Arabia of Late Antiquity (Q33:40). Before Muḥammad, prophecy was fluid, and with his arrival the final message in a greater tradition of emissaries was presented to humanity. As a defining feature, these prophetic figures were selected and extolled as ideals from their communities because of their belief in God, and their witness to social justice (Esack 1997, p. 99). Despite their different struggles, they represent various aspects of the ideal human deployed as hermeneutical inspiration for liberation. An Islamic queer liberation theology is a theology for the marginalized, a reimagining of Islam that embraces al-ghurabāʾ as a living embodiment of the general prophetic message, inspired by forms of monotheism, and of standing up for justice. However, the difficult struggle for justice demands a confrontation of our own privileges and complicities in global configurations and structures of violence and inequality, a point I tried to make during my sermon by asking congregants to think about struggle and justice as intersectional. The Qurʾān exhorts its believers to “Stand up firmly for justice as witnesses for God even if that testimony is against yourself or your parents and those closest to you” (Q4:135). This sign recognizes that being a witness for God could mean a scrupulous account of what is considered to be equitable and fair. The Al-Ghurabā community grapples with this Divine challenge in overlapping ways in their theology and praxis with queer Muslims.
By naming his new community Al-Ghurabā, Imam Muhsin repurposes a ḥadīth of the Prophet and suggests that a contemporary manifestation of the tradition’s figure of the strangers is potentially found through the praxis of queer Muslims. From the Arabic verb gha-ra-ba, al-ghurabāʾ denotes a sense of strangeness, marginality, and even queerness. Al-Ghurabā, a fitting name, indicates a sense of queerness and a produced force at odds with society. Drawing on a ḥadīth, the imam reads his queerness into this tradition by suggesting that sexual marginality is a social manifestation of strangeness and marginality: “Islam started as a strange thing, and it will return to a strange thing. So, give glad tidings to the strangers (al-ghurabāʾ).” It also has the spiritual potential to act as an opening into a deeper receptivity with the Divine. Recorded in the collections of Imam Muslim (n.d., Ḥadīth 145) and Ibn Majah (n.d., Ḥadīth 3986) this ḥādīth is interesting. Located in the Imam Muslim’s “Book of Faith,” and in Ibn Māja’s “Book of Tribulations,” this tradition offers us some insight into the link between social marginality and spiritual cultivation in the Meccan phase of the Prophetic mission. As the first Muslims experienced great persecution, boycott, and violence, they also show how Islam emerged from the margins of Arabia society, attracting non-normative people such as women, slaves, social outcasts, and the poor. As Islam emerged in Late Antiquity, it disrupted the logic of jāhili Arabia. The religio-political implications of Muḥammad’s message critiqued “those in power precisely because the teachings of a universal God were intimately linked to an understanding of a unified humanity and a shared way to value human beings” (Claassens et al. 2019, p. 155). Muhammad’s message thus undercut the circulations of wealth, therefore presenting a great threat to the economic interests of the Meccan elites, who supported practices of tribal hierarchy and slavery (Claassens et al. 2019, pp. 155–56). Muslim tradition has called the pre-Islamic Arabian period as a time of ignorance or jāhiliyya. It is interesting to note how its legacy still haunts Muslims today. Rooted in the verb ja-hi-la, the term signifies a sense of ignorance or a lack of knowledge. For Izutsu, the jāhili period was before the coming of Islam which represented a distinct episteme regime that was separated by the spiritual act of aslama (Izutsu 2002, p. 222). While Islam presented the possibility of an alternative episteme, its objectives were often curtailed by the limitations of history. The movement of Islam disrupted the jāhili order of Arabia without completely erasing older patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization (Mernissi 1991, pp. 85–180). Despite this haunting legacy, marginal Muslims have struggled to illuminate and uproot the legacies of the jāhili order.
This new sense of being (read as Islam) would be based on ethical values such as tending to the orphan, caring for the sick, upholding the equality of women, and embracing the sexual diversity of creation, according to Imam Muhsin. By grounding his understanding of Islam within the “tradition,” he draws from the collective resources of the constructed past to derive an authoritative claim from its wisdom for his contemporary project. As queer Muslims have taken up various resources from the “discursive tradition” to articulate their overall struggle, or their jihad, they expand the contours of lived materiality (Asad 2015, p. 166). As the Islamic tradition grows, adapts, and transforms because of the work, activism, and embodiment of queer Muslims, we see various contestations over the claim to the authority of tradition. Talal Asad, therefore, suggests “that tradition can accommodate rupture, recuperation, reorientation, and splitting—as well as continuity” (Asad 2015, p. 169). As queer Muslims read tradition in dialogue with their experiences, they present a “reoriented” notion of tradition that embraces just and compassionate aspects of the inherited legacy of the “turāth” and deploys them for their contemporary manifestations (Moosa 2020, p. 79). Following in a modernist trend, Masjid al-Ghurabā endeavors to re-engage the sources of tradition to present a renewed discourse and practice attending to the local and global configurations of Islam (Moosa 2020, p. 85). This “double movement” approach to tradition echoes Fazlur Rahman’s theory of scriptural hermeneutics and ethics (Fazlur Rahman Malik 1984, pp. 6–8). As the “turāth” is presented to Imam Muhsin he draws on selective aspects, in dialogue with contemporary epistemes, and personal experience, to present an engagement with the discursive and practical legacy. By approaching tradition as an “embodied moral argument,” this community animates teachings of the past with contemporary notions of sexual and gender identity (Tareen 2020, p. 13). Imam Muhsin’s “Tik-Tok Tafsīr” is a particularly interesting example, whereby during the month of Ramaḍān he presents a summary of each part or juz of the Qurʾān. Drawing on his broad-ranging spirituality and classical Islamic knowledge, he conveys a message of fun, hope, and empowerment to queer Muslims as they attempt to live out their religiosity in authentic and meaningful ways during a sacred period.
“Folk of tradition,” Ebrahim Moosa says, also makes a “claim to do ontology: an investigation into the nature of being” (Moosa 2009, p. 429). Through an engaged commitment to working with the inherited tradition, queer Muslims show how they contested some aspects of the “turāth” that, according to them, is based on limited exclusive anthropology. By expanding the boundaries of Muslimness, this community contests the underlying scriptural politics that establish hegemonic readings of the story of Prophet Lot, for example. In doing so, they provide queer readings of tradition that reject heteronormativity within the “turāth” responding to the pervasive forms of homonationalism locally and globally and its undercurrents of (neo)liberalism, intersectional violence, and secularity. Through a re-reading and embodiment of ḥādīth of marginality, this community presents an embodiment of the queer potential of liberatory praxis and theology. Through his empowerment programs for queer Muslims and imams, Imam Muhsin attempts to increase religious literacy and cultivate holistic hearts. In the struggle against apartheid, Muslims called their activism a form of jihad (Esack 1997, p. 107). While Islamic liberation theology has framed praxis through the term jihad, the struggle has been expressed through the experiences of the signifier, al-mustadʿafīn fiʾlʿarḍ. Kugle’s assessment of the linguistic nuance suggests that the oppressed are “deemed weak” because other human beings have created systems of structural exclusion causing suffering, hardship, and indignities for precarious social classes (Kugle 2010, pp. 34–36).
Giving body to this abstract notion of al-mustaḍʿafīn, queer Muslims re-examine the analytical category of “the poor,” through deviant, “indecent,” or queer embodiment. Marcella Althaus-Reid unsettles the silent and insidious forms of gendered and sexualized structural and cultural violence embedded within liberation theology. Althaus-Reid demonstrates that the notion of “the poor” should be grounded in the queer, strange, indecent, and unstructured nature of what it means to be a precarious social class. Althaus-Reid’s queer critique of an earlier generation of theological insights offers a corrective: theology needs to be based on capacious religious anthropology because structures of hierarchy and violence are interconnected in an assemblage of identities and experiences (Althaus-Reid 2000, pp. 6–8). In Althaus-Reid’s reading, liberation theology must undertake a process of self-reflexivity (echoing Segundo 1976). Through a lens of the “indecent” Althaus-Reid engages the process of “unmasking and unclothing of the sexual assumptions built into liberation theology during the past decades but also today when confronting issues of globalization and the new neo-liberal world order” (Althaus-Reid 2000, p. 168). By challenging the underlying assumptions set within a traditional interpretation of the story of Prophet Lot and suggesting that the “crime” of the people of Lot was not an orientation toward an subject of desire (sexual orientation), but rather an abuse of power, signified by a lack of belief, expressed partly through sexual acts of violence such as rape, and partly through non-sexual violence such as highway robbery. Imam Muhsin provides some insight into the textual silences by connecting the tradition to contemporary knowledge showing archeological evidence of the structural violence in Sodom. He takes up the emerging archive of non-normative expression in premodern Islamicate communities as an example of a precolonial tolerant (and possibly celebrated) sensibility. He presents these as hermeneutics in which to read the sources. This queer reading of the tradition does not resist religion. Rather, it embraces religion as an intersectional part of human experience.
As Puar argues, the regulatory workings of secular queerness make the figure of the queer Muslim an impossibility (Puar 2007, p. 13). However, queer Muslims are advocating for a re-definition of their ontologies and present alternative approaches to tradition, rejecting the confinement of regulatory queerness and the limitations of heteronormativity. Reading Puar’s assemblage alongside the figure of the queer Muslim, I suggest that through an engagement with the radical locality of experience and struggle, a queer Islamic theology can contest power away from the “core” and to the “margins” of society. By continually centralizing the category of praxis as the bedrock for a theology of liberation, queer Muslims engage in a “constant reinvention of text and context in liberation theology” contributing to its emergence as a “mode of theological engagement that always oscillates between action and reflection-based praxis, which in turn makes its theoretical foundation unstable,” so argues Ashraf Kunnunmmal (2020). Simply put, because praxis is an unstable theoretical category, it also leads to theology being dynamic, unstable, and attentive to the experiences of marginality (Kunnunmmal 2020). Praxis can thus be a queer category of knowledge that examines the configurations of power that produce oppression and injustice as an interconnected social and spiritual condition.

5. Conclusions

In Sūrat Al-Qaṣaṣ (The Story), many liberation theologians found support in the seductive words of the Qurʾān (28:5–6): “We wanted to grace the oppressed in the earth, so We made them leaders and inheritors of it. We established them in the land to show Pharoah, Haman [his minister], and their supporters/allies, that which they feared.” Power becomes alluring as the oppressed are given “great strength and resilience” because they firmly believe that “God is on their side” (Kugle 2010, p. 35). Refining the valance of al-mustaḍʿafūn, queer Muslims suggest that marginality and queerness should be an orientation to the world. By reading the hadīth of the Prophet from the perspective of their sexual marginality, this community contends that al-ghurabāʾ are those who follow the “Sunnah and lifestyle” of the Prophet Muḥammad which espouses to protect the downtrodden, care for women and orphans, and tend to the natural environment as manifestations of personal piety (Hendricks 2018). As queer Muslims survive, challenge, and adapt to various intersections of violence, they “recycle” the inherited traditions of wisdom by “injecting into the normative a creative commotion that both increases its longevity while altering its shape. The result, while derived from norms, is no longer entirely normative” (Mack 2017, pp. 60–61). These discursive moves allow queer Muslims to make a claim to the Islamic tradition, challenging the (hetero)normative human person as the ideal marker of Muslimness. This process also materially disrupts the preservation of heteronormativity within Muslim society because it presents an alternative practice that are slowly being embraced by Muslims on the margins of society.
In this essay, I explored the use of an “auto-ethnographic” method. I drew on my personal (both political and spiritual) experiences and my secular training as a scholar of religion. I hoped to wrinkle the established separation between subject and object in knowledge production. Through this method, I examine this case study of theological or religious anthropological, blending the discourses from Islamic scholarship and insights from the “field.” Through my religio-social mapping of Islam in Cape Town, a context informed by the broader Indian Ocean diaspora, I presented the case of queer Muslims in Cape Town who have come together to form community, critically embrace tradition, and live authentic lives, blending their Muslimness with their queerness. The mapping provided the foundation into a theological reflection based on an analysis of the queering, through “disidentification,” of the ethical term jihad from liberation theology. By tracing how jihad has been read in scripture, and prophetic history, I examined the queer possibility of an embodied notion of jihad. Going beyond this move, this essay also argued that queer Muslims “reimagine” tradition, expanding its boundaries through creative hermeneutical strategies based on the lived realities of Muslims on the margins of society. Tradition is also embodied in a context shaping the contours of ethical cultivation. As Muslims battle against prejudice and persecution they do so with their beings on the line. In the documentary, The Radical (Gregory 2022), Imam Muhsin says that he did not only find God in the tradition of the past, but he also found God in his own experiences. Through his experience as an openly queer imam, he found his Rabb (Nourisher and Sustainer). The Islamic tradition is replete with examples of embodied and experiential knowledge production as openings to the Divine. The embodied experiences of people need to be embraced as a site of religious meaning-making and not cast out because of its supposed lower status in the hierarchy of producing knowledge. Rather, the binary that holds up this lower status needs to be cast out because it limits the possibilities of God’s expression through the creation. Indeed, Allāh knows best.


This research was funded by the Laney Graduate School, Emory University, USA.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Ethical review and approval were not required for this study due to it being a particular case study and non- generalizable. However, research ethics guided this project in its production where personal names, except for public personalities, were removed and informed consent was obtained.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

Publicly available datasets were analyzed in this study. Links can be found in the reference list.


The author is indeed very grateful to Scott Kugle, Rashied Omar, and Shadab Rahmatullah for their generative comments on earlier drafts of this essay. Gratitude also is extended to the peer-reviews for their productive feedback and time. The author is also grateful to Tyler Tennant and the editorial team for their guidance in clarity, expression, and presentation.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Osman M. Queering Jihad in South Africa: Islam, Queerness, and Liberative Praxis. Religions. 2023; 14(9):1081.

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Osman, Mujahid. 2023. "Queering Jihad in South Africa: Islam, Queerness, and Liberative Praxis" Religions 14, no. 9: 1081.

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