Imam Daayiee Abdullah is the spiritual leader of the Light of Reform mosque in Washington. An American-born convert to Islam, Abdullah may also be the only openly gay imam in the U.S.
For years, he has cared for the spiritual needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims. On his calendar this May is an annual retreat for LGBT Muslims and their partners, organized by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. The retreat brings Muslims together to talk about faith and sexuality.
HuffPost Religion recently talked with Abdullah. His responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Were you a very spiritual person growing up?
I was definitely a very spiritual child.
Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, I knew people from all over the world. All types of families had come there because of the auto industry. I had schoolmates that were black and Korean. I was exposed to Hindu gods and Buddhists, a variety of Christian faiths, both Protestant and Catholic.
I was raised Southern Baptist, but by the time I was 8, I knew it wasn’t for me. I felt as if my religion wasn’t resounding with me and that there was something else out there. And one day when I was talking to my parents, I told them what I thought. They said they couldn’t tell me what to believe in, but that I needed something to believe in. They allowed me to search.
When I grew older, I started practicing Buddhism. I worked as a court stenographer for some time before going to law school. I spent several months abroad at a university in Beijing. That was where I was first began to really study Islam, through my friendship with the Uighur Muslim community in China. I converted to Islam in China when I was 29.
Overall, it was the form of prayer that really spoke to me. As a Christian and a Buddhist, I felt like I was always in supplication, always asking for something. In Islam, prayer is a surrendering, a giving-away. You’re giving God your problems, letting it go and leaving yourself open. Prayer in Islam left me full of peace.
Are you with someone now, and if so, how did you fall in love?
I came out to my parents before I became a Muslim. I was 15 years old. I knew from a young age that I was uniquely different.
My last relationship ended about six months ago. We ended because he couldn’t take the pressure from the community and his family. He didn’t want to be out. That was an ongoing tension between us. He wasn’t very comfortable with me being in public. And that continues to be a problem in many Muslim communities.
What is your ministry like?
There’s a wide variety of people coming for Friday prayers at my mosque in D.C. It’s a diverse group of people across ages and races. We have an inclusive, open-mosque concept, where women can participate in and lead prayer and religious activity. The number of people fluctuates -- from 15 to 20 for prayer services, to 70 people for social events.
This fall, I’m hoping to launch a new initiative, an online school for Islamic liberation theology. I’m trying to bring in scholars from China, Brazil, the Middle East, the U.K., so that critics can’t stuff the conversations we’re having into an East vs. West dynamic. I want to create a core of progressive Muslim voices from around the world.
You’ve become known as America’s first openly gay imam. Is that a title you embrace? How do you see and approach this responsibility?
I really believe all of this came about not because of any action on my part, but because of a need in the community for someone people can identify with. So I embrace the title from that perspective, but I continue to let people know that my ministry is much broader and more encompassing than that.
Let’s talk about the retreat you’ll be attending this spring. What are people searching for when they come?
The retreats have become opportunities for people to interact with people just like themselves. Many of them are broken because of people shaming them. They lack self-esteem. They don’t feel equal to everyone else.
Generally, they spend the retreat trying to reconcile their particular sexual orientations with the traditional mythology that’s promoted within their faith communities. It’s coming to grips with that.
There’s this idea that to be a Muslim, you have to act a certain way, look a certain way. People end up accepting culture as a standard instead of faith. For example, wearing a niqab is a cultural requirement, but it isn’t a requirement for piety. But people who are introduced to Islam through that background think that’s what being a Muslim is. You need to look beyond that and find what resonates inside you.
Once LGBT Muslims understand the cultural biases that are often used when interpreting Islam, it’s a new awakening. It helps them to understand that no matter what, they are good people. In the conversations people have at the retreat, they find they are just as equal, just as faithful as anyone else.
What do you wish other Muslims would understand about you?
That there’s no difference. I want them to stop focusing on culture and start thinking about the standards of what it means to be a good person. Don’t judge people by their color, gender or orientation. Look at what qualities the person exhibits when they interact with you and with others.
Gay Muslims aren’t often treated very well. But people are people, no matter their race, country, religion or sexual orientation. We need to look at the whole person. Because God is very merciful.