Think you have challenges in your life? What do you think the challenges are for a gay, black, Muslim who is the United States’ first openly gay Imam?
Well, Imam Daayiee Abdullah is all those things. Plus you can add one more thing to his description: He’s truly one of the most optimistic people you will meet—and for good reason.
“When I graduated from high school, I hoped that one day gay Americans would be able to get married. And now here I am 45 years later officiating same-sex marriages—how can I not be optimistic that the future is bright?” explained the 61-year-old Abdullah, who lives in Washington, D.C.
Abdullah has been fighting for civil rights all his life. First, for African Americans. Then for gay rights beginning in the 1970s. And since the 1990s, he has been on the front lines advocating for LGBT Muslims in America.
Yes, I know for some the idea that there is a gay Imam is astounding. I’m sure many are asking: Aren’t Muslims supposed to kill gays?
We do see gays killed by ISIS, and there are five Muslim majority countries (out of more than 50) that have a statutory death penalty for homosexuals: Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen.
But what I would imagine only a few non-Muslims know—and ISIS and others like them could care less— is that there is absolutely no mention in the Koran about punishing gays, let alone killing them.
As Imam Abdullah explained on my weekly SiriusXM radio show on Saturday, “Nowhere in the Quran does it say punish homosexuals. And historians have also never found any case of the Prophet Muhammad dealing with homosexuality.”
To his point, there are at least eight Muslim countries that do not criminalize a gay lifestyle on a national level including Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim country,) Jordan, Turkey, Bahrain, and Albania. Keep in mind Jordan is governed by King Abdullah, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, so if the tenets of Islam truly called for gays to be punished, that law would surely be in place there. (Most Muslim majority countries still have criminal penalties on the books that call for imprisoning gays, but the degree to which these laws are currently enforced varies greatly.)
So if there’s no discussion of sexuality in the Koran—why do some punish or kill gays under the guise of Islam? Abdullah explained that “it’s based on culture, mythology, and pre-Islamic laws, with the goal being power and control over people.” And when he says pre-Islamic rules, we are talking laws based on Bible passages such as in Leviticus, where it states that if men engage in homosexual acts, they are to be put to death.” (Islam was founded around 700 years after Christ’s time, and Leviticus was written probably 1,400 years before that.)
But here’s the reality that is not often discussed. The practice of Islam is influenced by the country and culture in which it is practiced. For example, this weekend, the Imam is part of retreat of over 100 LGBT Muslims. In the United States, no American Muslims will demand they be imprisoned or killed. (The worst fear they have is going to a red state, where “religious liberty” laws could possibly result in them being denied service; fortunately, the retreat takes place in Philadelphia.) If the same retreat took place in Iran or Saudi Arabia, of course, the participants could be met with jail or even death.
What makes Abdullah particularity optimistic is the growing acceptance he has received among Muslim Americans. “The younger they are, the more tolerant and accepting they are of LGBT Muslims,” he noted. This is unsurprising given that polls of Americans of all faiths have found a generational divide, with younger people being more accepting of gays and supportive of marriage equality than older ones. Abdullah added, “But there are even older Muslims who are now supportive, including a grandmother here and there.”
Abdullah noted, with his trademark enthusiasm, that technology has helped quicken the pace of tolerance and acceptance of gays. Even a Facebook friend who is gay can help put a human face on the entire LGBT community.
But still there are those Muslims, even in the United States, who might see a problem with an openly gay Imam. I witnessed that first hand when I posted on my Facebook page that he would be on my radio show. While most were fine with it, some objected to me “promoting a gay lifestyle” by featuring him on my show. Others had no issue with his sexuality, but rather didn’t think he should be openly gay and an Imam.
In response to those who don’t believe a gay person should be a religious leader, Abdullah responded, “Some don’t believe that homosexuals can be pious. But we can be just as good at our faith as anyone else. We are simply different from other folks, not less committed to our faith.”
But being gay in American poses challenges apart from intra-Muslim community concerns. We see some conservative Chirstians who oppose marriage equality and want to deny service to gays simply because of their sexual orientation.
“Some people are uncomfortable with gays,” Abdullah acknowledged. “But your discomfort with my sexuality should not translate into me having less rights as an American.”
Abdullah’s next project is an online school he intends to launch this fall called the Mecca Institute. His hope is that the school will be a vehicle to connect Muslims and non-Muslims alike to have discussion about Islam that’s both open and honest. Abdullah explained that his inspiration for this project was the “golden age of Islam,” which dated from the 7th century to 13th century and was marked by, among other things, scholars of different faiths sharing ideas, which in turn become an intellectual linchpin of science, philosophy, education, etc.
When you speak to Abdullah you can’t help but get caught up in his optimism. In a time where we see such negativity, it’s truly refreshing to hear a person who can paint a picture that the days ahead will be better than our past. And here’s the thing: He truly believes it.