Daayiee Abdullah has lived three lifetimes in his 57 years.
Born and raised in a black neighborhood in Detroit, Abdullah graduated high school when he was 15 — the same age he came out as gay to his Southern Baptist parents.
After working as a court stenographer and gay rights activist in his twenties, Abdullah studied Chinese languages at Georgetown University. He was introduced to Islam in Beijing in the 1990s, studied Arabic at the University of Cairo, and taught in Saudi Arabia for three years. He is also a lawyer, a counselor, a wedding officiant and one of only two openly gay imams — Muslim minister — in the world.
As an Arabic expert, he says if you understand the vernacular of the time in which the Quran was written, it doesn’t condemn homosexuality. All of God’s instructions about marriages are written in gender-neutral language like “pair” and “couple,” and of the seven things listed as abominations, homosexuality isn’t one of them. Stealing money from orphans, however, is. Here he talks about what it’s like to be black, gay and Muslim.
Tell me about your religious upbringing.
I was raised in a Southern Baptist household, but at the age of eight I knew that something wasn’t quite right with certain aspects of the faith. It just didn’t fit.
So I started my search, and my parents were very open to that. They said, “It’s not about the religion you practice, but you should have one. As human beings there are times when we are weak, and this is something you can hold onto.”
And you came out long before you became a Muslim?
Oh yeah. I finished high school at 15. My father had a rule in the house—when you finish high school, then you’re your own person, and you can decide what you want to do with your life. So that’s when I told them [his parents] I was a homosexual.
What was their reaction?
It was a very positive reaction.
Even though they were Southern Baptists?
My mother and father both said, “You’re our son. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
You lived in Saudi Arabia for three years—were you afraid of being gay there? I mean, they impose the death penalty [for homosexuality].
Yeah, but I wasn’t there to have sex with people. I was there to work.
Sure, but you didn’t date at all the whole time?
No, I had a partner here. I would work 12 weeks and then have about three weeks off, so it worked out really well.
What’s the reaction from the greater Muslim community? Has anyone condemned you?
Oh, yes, frequently. But it is often based on misinformation and misinterpretation.
I encourage people to do more study to push themselves beyond their limits, beyond
their personal fears of what God is. The Quran says in so many places that you have
to seek God, and when you do, you will have your iqra moment [Quranic revelation],
just like the Prophet [Mohammad]. Now what God has for you to do won’t be
prophet stuff, because that’s already been done, but other miracles of life, God will
have you do.
What do you do for gay Muslims who come to you?
I’ve run the chat group “Muslim Gay Men” for 11 years now, and with it I talk to men all over the world, single and married, and lead discussions and learn from them.
Some of them want to have a marriage of convenience but I encourage them not to do so, because if you play this façade eventually it’s going to fall apart. And if you do it to an innocent person, then you’ve now done something that the Quran says you shouldn’t do. Then you have a wife who is not truly loved or appreciated, and what kind of life is that? It’s not about the faith that you follow. It’s about the integrity with which you follow that faith through.
You may not be able to tell people, but you don’t have to follow tribal expectations either. You may need to leave and establish a life someplace else. But if you continue to work against yourself, then you will find out years later that you have wasted your life.
I have a theory that at the end of life, God’s going to say to anyone, “I gave you a life. What did you do with it?” And my response is going to be, “God, get yourself a big popcorn and a super-big soda, and let the video run.” [Smiles.]
So do you think it’s harder to be gay, black, or Muslim in the U.S.?
They’re all the same. If I go down P Street then I’m that black guy who may be a criminal. If I go in my garb, then I’m that Muslim who might try to blow us all up.
When the Chinese come here on vacation and I see them having problems on the subway, I’ll stop and say, “How can I help you?” And they’re shocked, like, “Who is that big black man speaking Chinese?” [Laughs.]
Anything else you want to leave us with?
For anyone who’s an LGBTQ Muslim, I want them to understand the Quran’s promise is for all of humankind for all of human time. Our society was very different 1,500 years ago. Human conditions remain the same, but the way we approach them now is different.
A hundred years from now, when people are living on planets outside of Earth, how will they know the prayer time? How will they know which direction to pray in? We can’t fathom that. So how could people in the past fathom what we are today? Either you follow the rituals of dead people, or you live the Quran for today.