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All Islam's Sheikhs Are Extremists, Right? Wrong: Meet the African Imam and Mosques That Shock Even Moderate Muslims


By Samantha Spooner

02 JAN 2015

DEPENDING on the news channel you watch and media that you read, you might think all Muslim leaders are sword-waving radicals and extremists.

And matters are not helped by the recent wave of terror attacks in Africa and other parts attributed to fundamentalist Muslims dominating the headlines. They don’t get as much attention, but moderate Muslims keep telling anyone who will listen to remember that these are far from actuality of what Islam is all about.

After all, Africa for one has been the continent where a distinctive, moderate and tolerant Islam has been practiced for decades. A phenomenon sometimes referred to as “African Islam”.

This moderate form of Islam is widespread on the continent, practiced in the nine predominantly Muslim countries, and another 10 countries with Muslim populations of near or over 50%, and at least 12 more with significant Muslim minorities.

Many of these African Muslims are Sufi in orientation. This form of the Islamic faith is more personal and more emotional stressing the love of God, as opposed to the fear of God.

However, it’s true that in in recent years, Sufism has increasingly been displaced by more radical, extremist versions of Islam – often termed Islamism. It has resulted in Islamist violence which plagues Libya and Nigeria.

Mali is still recovering from an Islamist takeover of half of the country, and Tunisia is increasingly nervous about the return of battled-hardened nationals fighting for Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria and Iraq. This has all also coincided with a resurgence of Islamic political movements in the five “Arabophone” countries of North Africa.

Still, this extremism masks the vast majority of moderate Muslims who completely reject these movements and preach messages of peace and live a life of tolerance. Some of these Muslims have even become so liberal that their stances have shocked the moderates.

Here are a few examples of the liberal Muslims that don’t often make the headlines, or if they do they are quickly replaced again by the extremists:

South Africa’s Gay Imam

Today in nearly all of the Islamic world homosexuality is not socially or legally accepted. Yet in South Africa gay Muslim cleric, Muhsin Hendricksi, has spent years helping gay Muslims reconcile Islam with their sexuality through The Inner Circle, an organisation he founded in 2004.

When asked about Islam’s view of homosexuality, Hendricksi said: “The Koran only speaks about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Koran doesn’t use the word homosexuality. It’s only a term that was coined in the 18th century, and the Koran was a 7th century book. The story has been interpreted for years to refer to the atrocities of Sodom and Gomorrah as homosexuality so what I do is I unpack it.”

Somalia’s Runaway Love

In Somalia running away to get married is a common feature of Somali society and culture, however Islamic clerics have different opinions regarding the legality of this type  of marriage. Al-Shabaab, Wahhabis and other Muslim radicals believe that eloping is taboo because it ignores the consent of the parents - they say it is un-Islamic, therefore must be eradicated. They believe the practice is taboo because it ignores the consent and the knowledge of the parents.

Sheikh Abdall Ahmed is one of Somalia’s moderate clerics who supports run away marriages, even facilitating them. He says there is no distinction between running away to get married and a marriage with parental consent. “According to Islamic law a man and a woman can contract marriage without consent from their parents, therefore clerics like me approach the couple to carry out the ritual as we normally welcome them,” he explains.

Egypt’s Grand Imam on Abortion

Sheikh Mohamed Sayyid Tantawi is the grand Imam of Egypt’s top Islamic body, al-Azhar. He is known for his preaching of tolerance but still shocked when in 2009 he issued a fatwa sanctioning abortion at any time during pregnancy for women who have been raped, but added on the condition the woman was found to be “chaste.” He argued that “if a girl was walking in the street on her way to university and someone raped her” then “she has the right to go the doctor and have an abortion to save her honour.”

The Grand Imam of Egypt’s remarks affirmed the moderate stance advocated by Al-Azhar. However, it is a point of great contestation between Muslims. This is because in principle, the Qur’an condemns the killing of humans (except in the case of defence or as capital punishment), but it does not explicitly mention abortion leading to ambiguity. 

Some believe that women are allowed to prevent pregnancy but forbid them to terminate it, whilst others may believe that use of the morning after pill immediately after the sexual assault in order to prevent the possible implantation of a fertilised ovum is acceptable. The sanctioning of abortion at any time during pregnancy for women who have been raped by the grand Imam was therefore considered very liberal and controversial.

South Africa’s Gay-Friendly ‘Open Mosque’

This received some media attention: In Cape Town the doors of the first outwardly gay-friendly mosque in South Africa opened in September. The “Open Mosque” is the project of UK-based Muslim academic Taj Hargey who intends it to be a place for “open-minded people” in an effort to counter Islamic radicalism.

In addition to welcoming worshippers who identify as gay, the mosque is open to Muslims of all sects, those from other faiths and women will be able to lead prayers. The Mosque even hosted a Christmas lunch this year to bring together the Christian and Muslim communities.

This controversial gay-friendly and gender-inclusive house of worship has however been subject to threats and attacks. In October arsonists attempted to set it on fire and over a week later it was again attacked, rammed with a 4X4 vehicle and the caretaker was held at gunpoint.

Algerian Singer’s Voice of Defiance

Possibly the most internationally famous Algerian singer in the Arab world, Khaled Hadj Ibrahim has also made waves with his moderate - perhaps even radically liberal -  stance. The North African singer fully embraces openness and his songs have been banned from state radio in the past. He openly drinks alcohol and his collaborations with Jewish and American artists have been known to irk even moderate Muslims.