Thirteen years ago, in 2002, Washington, DC-based Muslim religious leader Daayiee Abdullah was asked to conduct a funeral for a man who had died of AIDS. "Several imams had been approached about this but wouldn't do it," he said. "Since I believe everyone has the right to religious rites, I did not hesitate to officiate."
This seemingly benign act attracted enmity from critics worldwide, but Abdullah did not flinch. Instead, as the first openly gay imam in the United States, he became even more outspoken, advocating not only religious access for people with HIV and AIDS, but also mixed-gender worship, support for reproductive justice, full acceptance of LGBTQ people in Muslim communities, LGBTQ inclusion in Muslim liturgy and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. His positions, he says, are firmly rooted in the Quran, and he references the earliest Chinese and Arabic translations to support his assertions - books he's read in their original languages.
"The idea that same-sex-oriented people can't be as faithful or pious as heterosexuals is not something that is found in the Quran."
"The idea that same-sex-oriented people can't be as faithful or pious as heterosexuals is not something that is found in the Quran," he told Truthout. "It's a cultural attitude, influenced by time and place, which is why ideas about acceptable sexual behavior vary widely."
The same is true of the Hadith - statements attributed to the Muslim prophet Muhammad - Abdullah continues. "The Hadith are fables. They're stories meant to teach a lesson. They are not set in stone as mandates for behavior."
This stance - that the written word is open to interpretation and can be made relevant to contemporary life - has rankled many Muslim leaders, Abdullah reports, including scholars at the Georgetown University Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and the Shura Council of North America. But their criticism has neither silenced him nor kept him from contesting homophobic, racist or sexist commentary.
In fact, they've inspired him to establish the MECCA Institute, an online school and think tank that will, by the fall of 2016, offer classes in modern-day explication of Islamic philosophy and tenets. Among the institute's goals is countering fundamentalist dogma - like the rigid ideologies promoted by ISIS and the Wahhabis - so that contemporary Muslims have the tools they need to practice a socially relevant, open-minded faith, regardless of whether they live in secular, multireligious or traditionally Muslim countries. Classes will include Early Islamic History, Comparative Quran, Arabic, and Gender and Sexual Variance in Islamic Texts and Contexts, and the classes will be taught by male and female faculty.
A $60,000 grant has enabled Abdullah to lay the MECCA Institute's foundation, develop a website and promote its educational programs. "Five years from now I want to see 100 new imams who've been trained in an inclusive Muslim ideology," he told Truthout. "All of our classes will be open to Muslims and non-Muslims. Anyone who wants to learn about Islam, Christianity or Judaism and promote interfaith relations will be welcome. As an institute, we want to melt barriers and open up dialogue between diverse people."
Promoting interreligious understanding and intercultural coexistence is second nature to Abdullah, perhaps because his schooling has included extended stints in China, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Taiwan. Each country, he says, practices the religion somewhat differently, making it clear to him that culture plays a significant and dynamic role in spiritual practice. These nuances are of deep interest to Abdullah as he works to find and maintain his own reverential path.
During a two-and-a-half-hour interview in a café located near Abdullah's home in Washington, DC, he slowly reveals his personal, political and spiritual evolution, describing the many opportunities he's had to study, travel and work in Asia and the Middle East. As he talks, he looks straight ahead, rather than at me, and keeps his hands folded tightly in front of him. It's as if he's unrolling a filmstrip in his head, a process that requires intense concentration and focus.
Abdullah held onto the gay-positive Islam that he'd experienced in China and knew that he wanted to worship in a similarly supportive environment.
The first thing I need to know, he says, is that he was not born Muslim, but was instead raised Southern Baptist. "I grew up in Detroit and converted while I was an undergraduate studying at Beijing University," he said. "I was a Chinese and Arabic Languages and Literatures major in college and went to China to study Mandarin." While there, he met a number of Hui and Uighur people, Chinese Muslims whose ancestors had been introduced to Islam by traders traveling the Silk Road more than 1,000 years ago. "The Islam they practiced did not see being gay as an issue since Chinese history includes many leaders with same-gender partners," he said. "They took me to their mosque, and what I heard made perfect sense, so I kept going back."
Abdullah subsequently traveled to Taiwan where he found the mosques to be completely different and far less accepting of LGBTQ identity. "I felt as if people were always looking down my throat there," he said. "There was also a lot of gossip being spread about the imam's son. He'd apparently been caught having sex with another man when he was studying in Saudi Arabia. He was now back in Taipei and under close supervision. I tried to speak to him, to tell him I was gay, too, but he was always being watched so I couldn't."
Despite this experience, Abdullah held onto the gay-positive Islam that he'd experienced in China and knew that he wanted to worship in a similarly supportive environment when he returned to the United States. What's more, he felt deeply connected to Muslim prayers and liturgy. "As a Christian, I felt as if I was always asking for something," he said. "In Islam, I simply surrender to God and open myself to new inspiration and responses to my prayers. The process involves releasing whatever my questions are. If an inspiration is not forthcoming immediately, I am left with the grace and inner peace to await its arrival and let go of my problems and worries."
That said, Abdullah admits that he has taken some detours. For example, he pursued a juris doctor degree, specializing in Islamic commercial law, before realizing that legal work was not his calling. After leaving the law, he taught English to members of the Saudi Royal Air Force, traveled to Mecca, moved to DC, and got involved with the now-defunct Al-Fatiha Foundation, an international Muslim LGBTQ organization that folded in 2011. For a time, he studied and taught at Cordoba University's Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Virginia.
Then, in the summer of 2002, he conducted the funeral for the man who had died of AIDS. After this, he says, people began to acknowledge his extensive theological training and started to refer to him as an imam. Normally, he adds, people are given this title after completing a master's degree in Islamic studies or after reciting the Quran and then studying under a local imam at a local mosque, a process that typically begins in childhood.
Although Abdullah's path of study was different, the title of imam stuck.
Shortly thereafter, he began working with Muslims for Progressive Values, a Los Angeles-based international organization that repudiates all forms of violence, whether perpetrated by individuals, groups or nations. Muslims for Progressive Values also works to maintain the separation of church and state and supports efforts to increase female and LGBTQ inclusion and visibility. Abdullah headed the organization's queer outreach efforts, an involvement that pushed him to create the Light of Reform mosque in 2011, a "rainbow" congregation where women and men prayed side-by-side in a room provided by a local DC library. Some weeks 12 to 15 people showed up; other times, he said, laughing, "It was me and the library mouse."
Although the mosque is now dormant so that Abdullah can focus on getting the MECCA Institute up and running, he has carved out time to attend Black Lives Matter protests and participate in actions to support reproductive justice, helping to bring religious LGBTQ voices into Black Lives Matter organizing and building intersectional support for antiracist and pro-choice organizations, including the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Indeed, bringing alternative voices into Islamic discourse and bringing Muslim voices into progressive interfaith campaigns is Abdullah's raison d'être. In addition, he continues to conduct marriage ceremonies - same- and opposite-sex - as well as funerals, and provides premarital and personal counseling to Muslim and non-Muslim members of the LGBTQ community.
Now 61, Imam Daayiee Abdullah took his appellation - his birth name was Sidney Thompson - from a tribute offered to him by a Chinese friend several decades ago. The friend called him Tang Da Yi, the peaceful man of great virtue, and Abdullah wanted his Arabic name to have a similar sound and cadence. It's obviously a lofty title, but Abdullah does not seem the least bit daunted by its magnitude.