He’s been condemned by other Muslim leaders, and some local imams have even refused to greet him. But Imam Daayiee Abdullah – believed to be the only openly gay imam in the Americas – 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.
“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.
A place for everyone
“The beautiful thing about God is that when you change your attitude, and say, ‘God, I need some help,’ and mean it sincerely, God is always there for you,” Abdullah told congregants one night during a regular sermon, known as a khutbah, at the Light of Reform Mosque in Washington, D.C.
He serves as the imam and educational director of the mosque, which he helped form more than two years ago to be a safe space for values and practices that other mosques may eschew.
During his service, women and men kneel side-by-side and women are allowed to lead prayers – actions that have sparked controversy even among American Muslims.
“We do not limit people by their gender or their sexual orientation, or their particular aspect of being Muslim or non-Muslim,” he told America Tonight. “They’re there to worship.”
The mosque’s congregants are diverse and represent a wide range of cultures, religious upbringings and sexual orientations.
Laila Ali was raised Muslim, but didn’t feel accepted by Islam, because her beliefs fell outside traditional schools of thought. Then, she heard about Abdullah.
“A lot of us started feeling like we only had the choice to either be Muslim in name only and do whatever we want, or leave the religion altogether because there was no place for us,” Ali said. “And the first time I talked to Imam Daayiee on the phone, I started bawling … I was like, I didn’t know there could be a place like this.”
Sixty-three percent of the 2.75 million Muslims living in the U.S. are first-generation immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center, many of them coming from countries where same-sex relationships are punishable by law, and in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan, even by death. For its LGBT congregants, the Light of Reform Mosque is a rare safe space.