My latest interview features an infamous figure often cited as one of the world’s few openly gay imams. Meet Imam Daayiee – a scholar, social justice advocate and unifier of many couples over the years!
VoS: Thank you Imam Daayiee for taking the time out to talk to Voice of Salam. To start with could you talk a little about yourself, your journey to becoming an imam and your current projects?
IDA: Well, I was born in 1954 in Detroit, Michigan – Motown, Motor City. This was the same year that Brown v Board of Education removed discrimination from American education. I was a civil rights kid.
When I turned 15, I graduated from high school, I came out to my parents and from there moved to San Francisco several years later. I lived there during the mid-to-late seventies and went to the first march in Washington in 1979. I later wound up in DC and from there, I decided to go back to college and wound up going to China to study Chinese. That’s where I got introduced to Islam and then from there I went into my Arabic studies and went to work and study in the Middle East. I then also got involved with Al-Fatihah as a spiritual advisor.
I later went back to the States to go to law school, then back to the Middle East to live and work there for several years. From 2002 I was involved in programme for Muslim gay men, then Muslims for Progressive Values and then to the MECCA Institute as Executive Director. MECCA Institute is an online inclusive seminary where men, women, LGBT (members) and non-Muslims have an opportunity to learn a non-exclusive understanding of the Qur’an. This helps people who’ve been inundated from their communities with hatred – particularly in western multifaith societies.
VoS: Amazing! So you converted to Islam a long while after you’d come out. Did you encounter any kind of people or narratives that implied your new faith wasn’t compatible with your sexuality?
IDA: Oh you heard that all the time! But I knew it was nothing but mythology. See, studying Arabic meant that I had access to the language, to literature because of my literary interest and my ability to communicate with people.
I wasn’t there to learn politics. When I went there to study, I lived with people. I got an apartment in the same neighbourhood where this corner mosque was and shopped at the corner store – this was an opportunity to meet and greet with people, for them to understand that we can talk to each other and interact with each other on a very human level. When we’re connecting with people, difference doesn’t become such a big problem.
VoS: Definitely. With the sort of pieces I’ve put out there, I’ve not encountered that many issues – although I was warned that I would. So, I feel like people perhaps are more open than perhaps we give them credit for. Yet the predominant teachings are against sexual diversity. What would you say to this?
IDA: All of it is based on mythology which has been passed down through the ages. People turn to myths. It makes life easier to use a myth to dismiss a person. It’s judgmental! So, when we learn to understand that we’re all human beings, we all have rights and those rights are based on our humanness, then we’re better able to connect.
“If I don’t do this, then I’m not a good Muslim. I’m not a good Christian. I’m not a good Jew. I’m not a good Buddhist.” This is based on what the society and the culture demand of them versus what the person themselves actually feels.
VoS: We definitely have to break it down by looking at the humanity of each person. People do find it easier to grab on to these particular stories of “how to be a good Muslim”. There’s a lot of people that will say you can’t even be gay and be a Muslim which is ridiculous! When you were living in Saudi Arabia, did you encounter any problems based on your sexuality?
IDA: No, I didn’t and people are asking a lot of questions all the time, as I wasn’t speaking of a female [wife] in my life. I had a relationship. So, I brought back from Saudi Arabia a full niqab for one of my lesbian friends and had her put it on. I took a picture with her and I put it on my desk at work. Hehe… That stopped all the questions. When people invite you to join them in their mess, sometimes you have to walk around it!
But I have to say from my observations in several cities, because I did travel around the Gulf area as well, but they have quiet places where the men got together. As you know, it’s often gender segregated. I’ve talked to women who’ve also said something similar. They exist. They’re there.
VoS: For sure! Back in the US, what are some of the methods and tools you’re using to help them to reconcile their faith and sexuality, to mediate with their families or simply counteract these hateful narratives?
IDA: Well generally, my interactions are far more personal. I provide counselling and because of my exposure to and living in different lands and travelling, I understand the culture so I can talk to them about those things from a more informed position as an imam, also understanding language, culture, law, society. I’ve been able to inform them about how to view their situation in different ways. They’re inundated with certain stories but they have to be able to parse them apart to see clearly beyond it. Many times, it’s nothing but a stack of cards – no information. You just blow that mess away!
VoS: Do you face any barriers in your work in terms of Islamophobic trolling or from people within the community? How has your work been received?
IDA: As an intelligent black man in America, I’m an endangered species. And then to be Muslim upon that and then to be a social justice warrior and someone who’s innovative to bring new change, to bring about change, all those things I find much bigger than just the idea of, of homophobia.
I’ve been involved as an openly gay person basically for almost 50 years because I had the support of my family when I came out. They saw no difference in me between myself and my other siblings. Through that process, I met other black gay people who are from similar backgrounds. Their parents were also supportive of them and we came together to understand that those who had had the negative influence needed to see examples of those who didn’t.
What I’ve come to realise is that I always have to raise the question with everyone is that, where is your level of integrity? Who are you as a person? The Qur’an talks about us as who we are in our hearts. And so, if we’re going to really be serious about understanding ourselves and that there’s a community here, then we have to see what’s in our heart, what’s in our minds, what’s in our goals and what’s in our integrity to listen and work with others. And some people don’t have that, they’ve never developed that. But there are others who do and when you call upon that – that particular aspect of them – many of them can come through.
VoS: That’s great to hear that your family was so supportive. On top of that, you also perform interfaith marriage ceremonies. Could you tell us a little about that and of some of the faith backgrounds you’ve brought together?
IDA: My whole process is to make certain that people understood what marriage means. I became a marriage officiant and my pastorial training also included premarital counselling. My lawyer training also helped me with other issues. Stuff has to be practical you know!
There’s been Christian – Muslim but also Muslim and Jewish, Muslim and Hindu, Muslim and Confucian, a Zen Buddhist and Muslim. Muslim and an African faith. And then there’s same sex in a variety of diversity too.
Two thirds of the couples I’ve married now are heterosexual couples who are progressive thinkers. I’ve had couples from various backgrounds. I’m talking across the spectrum – it’s been very diverse. I’ve had people who are living in the States but were born and raised in other parts of the world intermarrying with other people. It’s been a very beautiful process but I think that in many of the mosques that people generally go to the US and Canada there are unable to get this. I believe that whoever God puts together – whoever Allah puts together – who am I to tell them no?
VoS: So same sex and of different faiths and cultural backgrounds, lovely! In a blog that I featured recently, a sister in the UK talked about the abuse she faced from her family. For people in that situation, being belittled or persecuted, what advice would you give them on either an emotional or practical level to help them during difficult times?
IDA: I think that if they’re seeking a greater sense of emotional stability – a sense of confidence and being able to make certain that they can move forward even after the attacks – that is reinforced with knowledge. No one’s going to come and give them everything on a silver spoon – period. Never has been that way. So, you have to invest the time and energy both in the theological side but also in understanding what it means in the society that you live in.
VoS: From the theological perspective, do you have any particular sort of reference points?
IDA: There are several throughout the Qur’an. People don’t read the Qur’an. If they do read it, they read it during Ramadan and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re giving deep contemplation to it. The Qur’an says that’s it’s made for you to reflect upon. So, I say that they have to check the stuff but I’ll give you an example.
In Chapter 24 (Surah al-Nur), verse 31, at the very end it says who women don’t have to veil before and speaks of the relatives. Then it says: those men who have no desire for women and children who have no knowledge of sexual issues or sexuality. So, who are those men? They need to think about that and understand that who those men could be those who have no desire. For example, I say that there are three different types. You have old men before Viagra. You had you had those who were eunuchs but then there are those men who just aren’t interested in women’s sexuality.
VoS: Certainly. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent in the UK but it seems to me that there’s a lot greater tolerance in the US in the Muslim community for LGBTQI Muslims. What do you think?
IDA: There are pockets of those same kind of people in the US and in Canada as well. As more and more people have come from other places, they have brought with them their culture and these cultural renderings are not necessarily appropriate for a western multifaith secular society. It’s also important that people understand that there’s a diversity of Islams out there. There is no one size fits although The Gulf tries to promote that idea. It’s not an accurate rendering and never has been if you really understand Islamic history.
People have to abide by the laws of the places that they go to. If they think homosexuality is wrong, you can believe that personally but that doesn’t mean that you have the right to attack someone or do those types of things to try to hurt them. Respect the human rights of everybody, if you want yours respected.
VoS: Definitely. It’s about respecting everybody else’s’ rights. What do you see for the future of the Muslim LGBTQI community? Obviously, it varies between different groups, locations and countries, but do you think we’ll see greater inclusion and understanding?
IDA: Well, I’m 63 so us baby boomers in their early eighties down to the mid-sixties, we’re dying out. What’s coming behind it will be different and it seems that according to demographic information such as that in the Pew report – at least in the west in America and Canada – (younger) Muslims are facing less discrimination. That’s a positive. However, the other side of it is that internally within the Muslim mindset – the Muslim community – people have to change how they understand the Qur’an in a non-Muslim society. It ain’t gonna work no other kinda way! It ain’t gonna change unless you change it!
So, that’s part of the process that has to be done. The younger people will be more broad-minded and the old die off. But you have to be able to challenge it with education. If you read the same things that other people have read and then you come with a different conclusion, they can’t claim that you haven’t read what they read. You just have a difference of opinion! Don’t given them any power. If you give your power to them, they will abuse it and use it against you. No electricity – machine is shut down! They only have power with those who they control.
I have spent time in the UK and have found that there is a welcoming community there of non-LGBT and more open-minded Muslims there. So, there is a foundation that you can work with but there’s also a need for the common citizen, the common Muslim, to do a little bit on this on their own. There are a variety of ways in which we can tackle the situation to better educate people but the people have to be willing to want to learn, to know more.
VoS: Of course. So the last question, would you say to those who are struggling with their sexuality and faith identity?
IDA: Well then again, they have to do some research. There’s enough material out there now to read and think and contemplate what they’re talking about. They’ll give you references and some will go through the Qur’an with you. Others will talk about the mental health aspect. Others will talk of societal issues. These are things that people need to understand better.
One of the issues that I’m taking some particular interest in are older Muslim men who were gay, who got married and had children and now they’re in their late forties, fifties, sixties. Either their spouses have died or they’ve divorced because they’re unhappy. How do they deal with this? Because they can’t go back to being 17! So, it causes a lot of problems for some of them. It’s a growth process and something that people are not paying a lot of attention to but since I’m an older gay man, I want for my brothers and my sisters what I want for myself and that’s happiness in this life you know!
No matter what your diversity, be it sexual orientation and or ethnicity and geographic locale – you have to educate yourself.
VoS: Definitely and I’m hoping that with the blog people will have the confidence to get past the idea that there is a one-size-fits-all way to be a Muslim and look at rationality and humanity. Thank you so much Imam Daayiee for taking the time out to speak with Voice of Salam!
Credits and acknowledgements:
I’d like to thank Imam Daayiee for his time dedicated to this (much longer edited!) interview. Wishing you all the very best for the future ahead!
Imam Daayiee Abdullah is Executive Director of MECCA Institute (Muslim Education Center for Creative Academics) – a Muslim think tank and online Islamic theological seminary. Imam Daayiee teaches an inclusive Quranic liberation theology through its Muslim Chaplaincy programme.
MECCA Institute opened in August 2017. In 2019, MECCA shall open its Islamic continuing education department providing courses for Muslims and non-Muslims living in modern, multifaith and secular societies.
Imam Daayiee lectures nationally and internationally on progressive Muslim concepts, intra-faith and interfaith networking, and the development of inclusive and progressive revisions of Islamic theological thought and Islamic law utilising the UN Declaration of Human Rights as its filter. He actively promotes understanding and awareness of issues of race, gender and sexual equality as understood in the UNDHR within and beyond Muslim communities.
As former Education Director at Light of Reform Mosque, Imam Daayiee continues to provide pastoral counselling for Muslim youth, adults, their families and friends. He performs same sex, opposite sex and interfaith marriages for Muslims and non-Muslims of diverse backgrounds.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.