Dec 20 9:10 PM

Meet America’s first openly gay imam

America Tonight

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.

‘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.’

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.

But not all of them are gay. Many are just Muslims looking for a mosque that accepts all kinds.

Hanaa Rifaey and her husband Rolly grew up going to local mosques with their families, but they say they didn’t really experience the kind of acceptance the way they do at the Light of Reform.

"I think that's exactly why we've wanted to come here,” Rifaey said. “I think it was even more important once we realized that we were starting to have our own family, was that we wanted to have a mosque where our child would feel included and welcome regardless of who he or she had turned out to be."

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.

A raging debate

Not everyone is happy with the mosque.

"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,” he said. “I think that when people are unfamiliar with things, they tend to have an emotional knee-jerk reaction to it."

But Abdullah is firm in his belief that there has never been “one monolithic, isolated” formulation of Islam. "It's not something that's new. It's just like reform and revival within Islam, about every 100, 150 years there have been these discussions and there have been people who have opposed the status quo on these issues,” he said. “So it's not something that I'm just coming up with as a modern Islamic scholar, but something that has been in existence since time immortal."

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.”

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."

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