Meet Daayiee Abdullah, America's gay imam

Daayiee Abdullah is known as the only openly gay imam in the United States. He lives in Washington, D.C., and for years he has married gay couples and encouraged Muslims to believe that the Qur'an does not forbid homosexuality.

It's OK to be gay and Muslim, according to this Washington, D.C., imam

Daayiee Abdullah is known as the only openly gay imam in the United States. The Washington, D.C., resident converted to Islam when he was in his 20s and according to his interpretation of the Qur'an, homosexuality is acceptable in his faith. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

It's OK to be gay and Muslim, according to Daayiee Abdullah, an imam in Washington, D.C., who has spent years encouraging fellow Muslims to embrace his interpretation of their religion.

Abdullah is thought to be the only openly gay imam in the United States, a designation he says he is pleased to have.

"I'm proud of it, always have been," Abdullah said during an interview at a coffee shop in his neighbourhood. Dressed casually in a tank top, shorts, and baseball cap bearing the logo of a charity where he volunteers, Abdullah is, in many ways, not your typical imam.

The jovial 61-year-old has followed a winding and unconventional path around the world that led him to become a leader in the gay Muslim community in the U.S.

Abdullah was born in Detroit with the name Sidney Thompson. He grew up in a busy household with siblings and parents who were Southern Baptists. It was shortly before his 16th birthday when he told them he was gay. His parents accepted the news and continued to love and support their son.

Abdullah moved to San Francisco after college and joined a community of activists fighting for gay rights. Then he decided he wanted to study Chinese and he got a scholarship that took him to Beijing.

It was there, of all places, that Abdullah was introduced to Islam. Some of his classmates were Chinese Muslims, and through them he learned about the religion and attended a local mosque.

He was hooked. After spending a year in Beijing and two in Taiwan, Abdullah then spent years studying the religion in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah promotes an 'alternative view'

Along the way he also picked up a law degree from the University of the District of Columbia's law school and worked in the field for a while before deciding it wasn't for him.

He continued studying Islam, became an imam, and opened a mosque in Washington, one he refers to as a progressive Muslim prayer centre that is queer-friendly and gender equal (men and women can pray together).

Abdullah has conducted 65 weddings over the years, including marriages between gay Muslims and for inter-faith couples.
Daayiee Abdullah says other imams treat him respectfully despite his controversial belief that it is acceptable to be Muslim and gay. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

"Those who say there's something in the Qur'an that says it's against homosexuality are using their own interpretation of what they think the Qur'an says," Abdullah said. According to his interpretation, the book supports "sexual diversity."

Being gay is not socially acceptable in Islam, but that view can't legitimately be based on the Qur'an, he said.

He acknowledges the way he interprets that Qur'an is an "alternative view."

Abdullah's homosexuality and beliefs have at times made him an outsider in his faith, but in general he said other imams in Washington treat him "respectfully."

"In terms of who I am, people know, and many times people feel like they have to sequester me because I don't fit in with the uniformity. But that's OK," he said.

Seeking acceptance, not tolerance

As a counsellor he has helped gay youth and their parents navigate the challenges of being gay and Muslim. Abdullah said in some instances parents are supportive but worry their communities may not be accepting.

How gay Muslims are treated depends on what part of the world they live in, Abdullah said. It is easier in the U.S. and Canada than it is in Muslim states, but it's far from ideal, he said.

Abdullah is optimistic, however, and feels things are getting better. "I think that throughout the Muslim world there's been an explosion, a form of rebirth in terms of people becoming more open in certain ways."

Now we have a chorus of Muslim voices from around the world.- Daayiee Abdullah

This unusual imam, one of a handful known in the world to be openly gay, said he doesn't seek tolerance about his sexuality and his religion, he is looking for acceptance.

"You don't have to agree with me to accept me as a human being. My standard's always been and always will be that of human rights," he said. "The laws of Islam should mirror the United Nations declaration of human rights, that's the highest standard of law that we have today."

Abdullah is winding down his work at his mosque and is focused on creating a new online learning space that he's calling the MECCA Institute (Muslim Educational Center for Creative Academics). He describes it as a progressive and inclusive Islamic theological school that will connect people around the world.

"I'm moving to a new stage in my life," he said, adding he thinks the institute will be useful for Muslims who don't want to accept the status quo.

"Now we have a chorus of Muslim voices from around the world," he said. "As a chorus of voices people need to pay attention to what people are saying around the world."