Friday, 29 April 2016

Meet America's first openly gay Imam, Daayiee Abdullah

Imam Daayiee Abdullah in a garden.

America's first openly gay Imam, Daayiee Abdullah says there is nothing in the Koran that condemns homosexuality.

He is the founder and executive director of MECCA Institute, a scholar in Shari'ah Sciences.

He’s been condemned by other Muslim leaders, and some local imams have even refused to greet him. But Imam Daayiee Abdullah is proud of his story.

He was born and raised in Detroit, where his parents were Southern Baptists. At age 15, he came out to them. At 33, while studying in China, Abdullah converted to Islam, and went on to study the religion in Egypt, Jordan and Syria. But as a gay man in America, he saw that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims had unmet spiritual needs and he became an imam to provide community support.

"Being an openly gay imam and having been identified as such, I do get a lot of feedback and also kickback, but that's OK," Imam Daayiee Abdullah said. "I think that when people are unfamiliar with things, they tend to have an emotional knee-jerk reaction to it," he told journalists at  

"Being an openly gay imam and having been identified as such, I do get a lot of feedback and also kickback, but that's OK," said Imam Daayiee Abdullah, of Washington, D.C. "I think that when people are unfamiliar with things, they tend to have an emotional knee-jerk reaction to it."America Tonight
“Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. And because of the necessity in our community, that's why I came into this particular role,” he told America Tonight about his journey.

His first act as an imam? Performing funeral rites for a gay Muslim who died of AIDS.

“They had contacted a number of imams, and no one would go and provide him his janazah services,” he said, referring to the Muslim body cleaning ritual. That pained him.

“I believe every person, no matter if I disagree with you or not, you have the right as a Muslim to have the proper spiritual [rites] and rituals provided for you. And whoever judges you, that will be Allah's decision, not me.”

It’s one of the mantras he lives by in his work, even as others condemn him.

Imam Daayiee provides other services that are unique for an imam of a Muslim community, like marrying same-sex couples. So far in his 13 years as imam, he has performed more than 50 weddings.

"We're actually out there doing something, making a difference in people's lives," he said.

Some local imams have refused to greet him, and many others across the country argue his work performing same-sex marriage is not legitimate, and that he should control his “urges.”

“Anyone who has an inclination that is not acceptable, they have to control themselves,” Muzammil Siddiqi, a well-known imam at California’s Islamic Society of Orange County said earlier this year when asked about Abdullah. “If someone has an inclination to commit adultery or an inclination to drink alcohol or a great desire to eat pork, I would say the same thing: Control yourselves.”

Imam Daayiee Abdullah
Imam Daayiee AbdullahAmerica Tonight
At the heart of the disagreement is the interpretation of Islam.

“If you go to most Muslim scholars, they're going to tell you that homosexual acts are a sin in Islam; that there's no way around it,” said Dr. Hussein Rashid, an adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University and contributor to a report on homosexuality in U.S. Muslim communities called the Muslim LGBT Inclusion Project. “I think what we're seeing now not only in the United States, but worldwide really, is a question of going back to sources and rereading these sources,” Rashid added. “But the tradition was and remains that homosexuality is a sin in Muslim tradition."

The various scholars who contributed to the project’s report emphasized that there is no singular interpretation of homosexuality in Islam. By examining historical approaches in different Muslim cultures, the report challenged the idea that LGBT people are not accepted in Islam.

"I think Daayiee is trying to say, 'Yes, I can be gay and I can be a Muslim, and I can tend to people who are also gay and Muslim,' that this is part of their identity as a human being and that the religion of Islam teaches people to embrace all aspects of their humanity," he said.

A growing movement

Though it is unknown how many American Muslims or Muslims around the world are gay, a growing number are vying to be heard.

Several recent films have helped to shed light on LGBT Muslims and their everyday realities.

The most well-known, “A Jihad for Love,” spans 12 countries in nine languages to share the stories of LGBT Muslims. The film “I Am Gay and Muslim” tracks several gay Moroccan men as they explore their religious and sexual identities. And the coming independent film “Naz + Maalik” follows two closeted American Muslim teens as they grapple with FBI surveillance.

Around the world, new spaces are being carved out.  Last year, a gay-friendly mosque opened in Paris – Europe’s first. Muhsin Hendricks, an openly gay imam in Capetown, South Africa, has for years been leading congregants and preaching that homosexuality and Islam are not incompatible. And in America, LGBT Muslims have some strong support. The only Muslims in the House of Representatives, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., have both advocated for gay rights. The group Muslims for Progressive Values, which helped found the Light of Reform Mosque, also has strong presence in Philadelphia and Atlanta, and is growing.

And Abdullah has hope that the message he is working to spread will continue to resonate: "It is our relationship with God and our relationship with each other that really establishes our faith."