Interview with Imam Daayiee Abdullah on Homosexuality in Islam

On Sunday July 19th, I met with Daayiee Abdullah on Skype for an interview. He had already told about his views about homosexuality and Islam at some interviews and as a storyteller in the documentary Gender Me (Nefise Özkal Lorentzen, 2008). I asked him some Turkey related updated questions.

He is one of the few openly gay imams and appears to be a happy and self-confident gay Muslim. His views and answers are quite inspiring and mind opening.

Skjermbilde 2014-12-15 kl. 22.49.36 people
Foto: Integral Film

Interview | Daayiee Abdullah

Is Homosexuality an illness?

I would like to have a definition cleared first: How do you describe “homosexuality”?

First of all, there is a variety of ways of how people understood same-sex relationships in different cultures worldwide. Somewhere it was supported and became an important part of a culture. In other places it was frowned upon, for whatever reason due to mythology or certain cultural morals that they had. But in the more modern period, the last 150 years so to speak, the concept of it turned into something that was Victorian and very medically described as if it was an illness rather then a diversity and how people express themselves sexually. For me it a sexual diversity.

Then it has nothing to do with what the Holly Books says. Is it only a cultural belief that homosexuality is an illness?

It is. Because before there were religions, there were ways in which same-sex relationship existed that had no negativity to it. It was just one of the possible ways, in which people could express themselves, even in terms of people being bisexual. For example, there were people who had children, but they also had a male support. That means that they were army bodies, military people, or common citizenship as men in society that might have been part of it. Or, even trough the process of slavery.

So there is just a variety of ways and this happened before there was a God. Then when we came down the Abrahamic faiths, meaning Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is a way in which the concept of homosexuality came into it. An early one form the Judaic understanding, there was an issue to build a nation and therefore they frowned upon the people not having sex to have babies.

From the Christian perspective, it was dealing with the issue of “pedophilia”, which was a form of sexual relationship between men with money or power and younger boys. This was considered at that time positive, because it brought those people out of poverty and to a more prosperous live likelihood. But it was one of the things on which the Christians frowned upon. Then all that information came into Islam through those convert both the religious and common people who became Muslim over time after that.

So understanding of homosexuality has to do with the culture and not necessarily the way in which people understand “the sexual act”.

Can we say that this is just interpretation of some particular people?

Well, yes we can. But more specifically; people do not look at all the factors. They read the information like a text book versus understanding the complexity; meaning that the theme, actors, what their roles were and what the end results were about. Was it rape or a consenting adult relationship?

Some say that; “Homosexuality should be treated.” Do you know any homosexual that was healed?

I do not know of any homosexuals that have been healed. Those who say homosexuality is an illness do not really understand science or their biology or many different aspects of things. Because something is different, then they want to label it as being other or unnatural. The nature is full of natural and unnatural phenomena. Therefore, they cannot arbitrarily put a line of demarcation. “If you are this side you are right, if that side you are wrong.” That is humanbeings trying to be in control over other people or they are trying to deal with their own failure of emotional understanding. Sometimes people are fearful of the things they do not understand.

Homosexuality and Islam

Why do you think there are that many Qur’an interpretations?

They came in different time periods, at different geographical locations. Hanafi was before Shafii, Maliki came between the two. Hanbali came afterwards and he wasn’t a true Qur’anic scholar, but a specialist in hadith studies, so he wasn’t the kind of scholar like the first three—he was an expert on Qur’an or Qur’anic interpretation. And the Shia were just as old as the earlier schools of thought, and has had its development that coincides with Sunnis. So there are about five different mainstreams or main theological themes people work with, and all of them do not agree on everything. So there is room for other interpretations.

What do you think about the Hadith on Loth’s people? How do you interpret it?

I am not fond of Hadith, because of the 5000 collected, I think the vast majority, around 4900, are dubious, made up or so weak they contradict themselves and each other. According to scholars only about 100 of them are somewhat accurate, and that’s not something I would put any reliability or validity. But many of the other things that are discussed contradict each other, or they contradict the Qur’an itself.

Therefore, they were utilized and made up to help protect political interests.

The issue in terms of the Lut story is made up. When the Qur’an references are used, I get people to understand that wherever they talk about Lut, it is based on other societies in which our creator destroyed for doing harm to innocent people. What did they do that did harm to people? Some scholars will say that it was the sexual act: the act of having sex with the same-sex person.

When I have taken that as a theory: If it is the sexual act that makes you, then the universal laws say that the sexual act of coitus, a man penetrating a woman, is the same sexual act of a rapist. So, all men are rapists. And a woman, when she is being penetrated, does the same sexual act that a prostitute does, then all women have to be prostitutes… it is their acts that make them who they are. But of course, every man is not a rapist or every woman is not a prostitute…

So by extension, then every homosexual act is not an indicator of their sexual orientation, but their intention of straight men with wives who used homosexual rape as a form of torture and control over the land. When people begin to think more deeply; well it cannot be the sexual act, it has to be something more, they open to new interpretations. As they dive into it, they come to see that this was a process of rape, punishment and torture that were utilized against innocents. The Qur’an gives a full explanation of what was happening, for they are highlighted in Quranic verses that speak to harms done by people towards innocents in an oppressive, harmful and destructive manner.

This is the only Islamic discourse that is used against homosexuality. Is that right?

That is correct. But we have to recognize that people who have never done in-depth study of the subject, want to pass misinformation on what they have been trained to understand without having had to do in depth, scholarly study on the subject. That is where the problem comes from. Even people who had a chance to understand it more deeply, though they may not agree with my conclusions, they change the foundation on which they base their conclusion. Because some of the themes they have used in the past fail to meet the standards of believability now.

Islam has 1500 years history and only in this century a couple religious men announced their homosexuality openly? Why now?

That is not accurate. There is a particular reading by the Wahhabis, who follows the Salafist beliefs, which is very narrowly prescribed. But throughout the Islamic history, there have always been individuals and scholars who supported those people who have sexual diversity. And about every 150-200 years, there has always been a spiritual revival and an intellectual and legal reformation; meaning that legal reforms came about making it easier for Muslims to live fully. So that the understanding of the message of Qur’an is reevaluated for the time in which the people live. An example of this is a 160 years ago, the Ottoman Empire decriminalized homosexuality as a result of how British colonialists had come into the Ottoman Empire. And as they divided the Ottoman’s empire into different European colonies, they brought in their Victorian laws that were against Sodomy.

But the Ottoman Empire, in order to counter their influence, did stop the punishment or any type of legal action against people who may be categorized as homosexual. So, long before the West did, the Muslim world had decriminalized it. And now it is a 160 years later, it is time for another reform that is taking place in terms of women’s right and sexual diversity.

Those things are on the forefront and scholars are agreeing that the way it was understood in the past is not a positive one, and has been due to politics and culture as to why it has been negative. Now we can reevaluate it and see that with our science, with greater understanding of human psychology, greater understanding of medical science, and greater understanding of our world because of technology, we cannot depend upon “ijma” as a legal standard upon which to view LGBTQ Muslims.

Islam and Peace

Were you religious as a Christian gay?

I was religious as child, but at age 8 I recognized that there was something different and I needed to search more. Where I grew up, it was not providing answers that made sense. So I started to study and be exposed to other types of faiths. In Detroit they had a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, Jewish synagogues, a variety of Christian faiths, as well as others. And because of that much different experiences, I got exposed to a lot of different understandings of what our creator meant. So I was never convinced that there was only just one way, but there were multiple ways in which people can express themselves. The creator is only the creator, but how people express themselves may be different. And that is OK, as long as the goals are to maintain a sense of equilibrium and understanding between people.

You were not born as Muslim, you choose to be Muslim. Why Islam?

When I was studying at Beijing University, some of my Muslim classmates were Hui Chinese and Uighurs. Huis are ethnically Chinese and Muslims and Uighur are the decedents of the Turks that went into Western China. Through talking with both of them after the classes or so, I became interested and I wanted to know more about Islam. I visited Nyou Jye Mosque in Beijing and got my first real introduction to Islam. The ceremonial of the Khutba I heard there in Chinese, I did not understand Arabic at that time, made good sense to me. So it sparked my interest and through continuous study and review, and now many years of scholarship and working with people and providing pastoral counseling, I can tell that it has proven itself to be the right choice.

Do you believe then that Islamic teachings are the way to achieve a peaceful society?

I think that if we hold true to those foundational issues of mercy, compassion and justice, it makes it much easier for people to live out the peaceful aspect of Islam. What causes Muslims and non-Muslims to fail to or tend to not understand Islam, is that they look back to the Book as a rule book; meaning “this is what they did, we have to do the same thing.” And that is not what it is, the Qur’an and its message came just like the Bible or Torah for its time. But also its message was that if you believe this way then peacefulness is part of the process of maintaining your way among other people.

What do you think about Islam’s reputation today?

It has been misappropriated politically and therefore it has caused lot of political issues over the last 15-20 years. But even more over the last 50 years, as the Wahhabist-Salafist thinking has been promoted by oil money from the Middle East to other parts of the World. They also exported their Middle Eastern culture. It has been detrimental in many ways, because people are bringing into a different culture things thay are alien, and therefore it causes people a disruption. And the politics of it is to claim that the new information is the better way of understanding their faith. Which I disagree with, it is not.

Being a gay Muslim

How do you define yourself? What is your identity?

However I describe myself, in terms of being black male American, highly educated, well traveled, speaker of several languages, lived aboard; the gay part is one of those aspects that comes towards the end of that long list. It is not my first and only identity.

You discovered your homosexuality as a child and announced it as a teenager. It should have been a tough journey.

It was not a tough journey. Once I have dealt with the issue with my parents, it was easy after that. Who else cares?

You mean, the biggest problem to peace with the homosexuality is the family and then the rest is easy to convince, right?

Yes, it is. You know, you grew up in a family, everybody gets to know each other. If there is a level of understanding in the family then there is only room to grow.

Until age 30 you were a Christian Homosexual and since then a Muslim one.What did change after you converted to Islam?

No, it’s not changed. When I came into Islam I was already convinced of and was at peace with both family and friends about being gay. Did that change after I became Muslim? The problem comes from that people have a misunderstanding of what something means. You can have a diversity of meanings how people understand themselves using the same language. So I did not change in any way, for there was nothing to change.

I am a man loving man. Also since I am a retired football playing looking guy, I am not stereotypically feminine in any way, nor is my personality. Thus, this does not put me in a position for what most people would think of someone who is male and gay, usually along the lines that they want to be a woman or possibly transgender. Though that is not always true -people are growing in understanding – so it may be true for some, but not all.

So your sexual identity has nothing to do that you choose Islam.

That is correct. How I understand Qur’an is that people develop and find their mates, their companions. Qur’an is very clear, it does not always speak in terms of male and female, but speaks in terms of partner, spouse and those types of terminology without gender. Those rules or those particular comments could be applied to a person no matter what their gender or sexual orientation may be.

Do you see yourself as imam of only LGBT people?

Of course not. And this is one of the issues that is very important and I am glad that you raised it. The media has in the past tried to put that off as “you are the gay imam”. Yes it is true to a certain extend, but I am an “inclusive imam”. That means that my whole framework and my whole interaction with people is based on inclusivity. Everyone is included, not excluded, and therefore it makes a significant difference. Both heterosexual and sexual divers people come to me for pastoral counseling or assistance in many different ways, including them getting married in non-traditional ways. I have done 65 weddings in the last 15 years, 47 of them were heterosexual men and women.

Problems LGBTQs deal with

What responses do you get from the American Christian society?

As with anything that is political, we have a religious community that is split on the question. Those who support the same ideals that I do, such as marriage equality, that religion should be open and all people no matter what their gender or sexual identity can participate agree me. There are others faiths, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, which also think the same way i do. And then you have your detractors, who disagree.

In America, the secular law is the standard and I think for the World, the “UN Deceleration for Human Rights” is the greater standard – we should all be aspiring to regardless of our religions believes or national origin.

People write me their opinion by mail or on social media. I receive negative responses from time to time, but 3-4 times the amount of people who disagree write to me “thank you for doing what you do”.

How do you respond to negative reactions from religious environments towards your personality?

First, I try to make certain that we all are able to have a dialog. It is not about being right or wrong, though many people come with that attitude. But I want them to understand where my position is and I understand theirs, quite often it is the traditional one. I want them to understand that I am using the same texts that they used, and I come up with a different conclusion. That does not mean I am wrong. It is just that the conclusion is different, or does no harm to anyone.

Even in our physical world; things that are seen from different perspective could be understood differently. An example can be some people who look at a car accident. The ones who saw the accident from ground level–on the street–will see something different than someone who saw it from the second floor of a building looking downwards. It is the same information, but seeing differently, and through both views we discover what caused the problem, how the two drivers responded to the accident, and greater truth comes of it, not just one myopic point of view. So by us comparing and contrasting the different pieces of information as understood in Qur’an, we can come to a greater truth. What people fail to understand that we are searching for the greater truth, which subsumes or, the lesser truths. So people are not always open to that line of thinking.

What are the toughest moment and happiest moment in your life?

One of the difficult ones is that; it is hard for people to understand that some of our LGTBQ people, while gaining their freedoms in some countries, may still have difficulties with family and society, but also it may be due to them suffering from other causes, and appear to be broken people. Sometimes it is due to their having suffered ridicule, shaming, ostracization, or experienced psychical assaulted. They come in a way that they need nurturing in order to become whole again.

One of the reasons why the Retreat in Philadelphia every year is very important. People come there and find finally a sense of family, a sense of people who are alike them. And then come to better understand themselves in a more comfortable atmosphere. Many of them when they return back to their areas where they may not have a strong support group, they now have an internet connection where they have people they know and can then share with them.

Education is a must

What is your purpose of establishing the MECCA Institute?

Skjermbilde 2014-12-15 kl. 22.40.11
Foto. Integral Film

I am the founder and president of MECCA Institute. About five years ago, it hit me that the way that we are going to make a significant change in how people understood the Qur’anic message would be through reeducating people – not based on just learning what they thought in the past – but learning what they thought in the past ,and then taking what is applicable from the past that would apply to today’s modern world, utilizing that information and leaving room for new innovation that would apply to modern times. A quick example is that earlier in urban areas or dessert oases there were rules and regulation how to ride your camels or how to deal with your horses, or how to do any other business in that time.

In modern time we may have some differences as to how to do those things now, but we continue to uphold certain ethics when interacting with other human beings. So where do they park their camels today? See they do not ride camels or horses in their day-to-day lives, they drive their cars and use public transportation, but the same basics of civility, courtesy, etc., are still valid today as they were in the past. But the etiquette, how to treat people utilizing these methodologies and transportation, is still the same. You would not run people over, you are not supposed to do thing that can be considered problematic in today’s society.

The purpose of MECCA Institute is to help people to better understand the Qur’anic message by challenging them to think about the information themselves – not being dependent upon what a scholar says, or mullah supports, or some fatwa from some distant ivory tower type. That means they have to put themselves into studying, they have to do the reading, respond to the questions the sciences encourage one to use to find answers, and to respond to the way in which the dialog is going. Not sitting there passively and allowing someone to tell them what it means – that’s a sure way to following another who may not know what they are doing or saying.

It will be an online course, no matter where the student lives or resides, they should be able to join the course from their smart phones, tablets, laptops or desktops. It will be an interactive course, too. They can ask questions and will be able to interact with the professor. We will have teaching assistants who will help in that facilitation. But the information will be available and archived for later usage. We plan to open registration by the end of July, and classes will begin in the second week of September, 9-15.

We, the MECCA Institute team, in short, will be teaching from an inclusive and progressive perspective to bring out modern interpretations of Qur’an by doing comparative studies of the interpreters; by teaching the psychology of Qur’an; Qur’anic human ethics, as well as discussing early Islamic history, gender and sexuality as understood within the early Islamic context. We plan to have courses on recitation of Qur’an, Qur’anic and Conversational Arabic classes, and there will be a course on Hadith and their problems under strict scrutiny.

These are beginning classes. The goal is to eventually have enough courses that people at the end of three years can obtain a degree of an inclusive imam or imamate program. This will help our communities as these graduates would graduate with the requisite talents, skills and training, to work in society; like in the prisons, hospitals, military, and inclusive mosques and other places of worship.

You mean MECCA Institute will raise female imams?

MECCA Institute is an inclusive and progressive school for Islamic theological training. By its “inclusive and progressive” training, it would have to include women, sexual minorities, and transgender within its student body, as well as the other identifies or Muslim schools of thought, race, ethnicity, sex and gender, disability or other distinctions that have been used to separate and segregate us as believers. As it relates to women leading prayers, there has never been a Qur’anic reason for preventing women from participating in any aspect of the prayers.

This has been done due to patriarchy inherent in the governmental structures (dynastic) of the times, when Islam came into being. The prevention of women participants came after Prophet Mohammad’s death in 632, and by 661/662 the dynastic formulations of the tribal society had returned, when the grandson of the vizier became the leader of the Islamic empire and moved the capital to Damascus.

What courses will you teach there?

This fall, I am going to teach a course on a comparative and chronological Qur’an. This is a three-quarter course that will have 36-lessons over a nine month period. That means that I am taking Qur’ans from the last 100 years, written by authors of different backgrounds and ethnicities, some of them will be those considered pretty popular, and we will study how they viewed the Quranic message. Students will read the Qur’an in the order the revelations came down to Prophet Mohammed. I think it will be quite enlightening for the students to understand the diversity of opinions, rather than just from one particular school of thought promoted today as “real” Islam.

LGBTQs among today’s people

Why that much hypocrisy and collective negligence against LGBTs in every society today? Why hatred?

People are taught to do so and the culture supports that line of thinking. They generally do not have a good reason why they would hate someone. It is like a person has been raised to hate black or Asian people, or some other ethnic group. Frequently there is nothing in that person’s history that they have been hurt or injured by the individual they hate. Even if they were hurt by someone of a different group, they fail to see that it is not the entire ethnic group that did that to them. That is why it has been taught to them. There is no logical reason they come up with those conclusions except that is what someone told them, and that’s good enough for them.

Beside America you also know other country’s LGBT societies, like the Norwegian. Do you see a difference between different cultures in expressing their homosexuality?

No, I don’t observe anything special in Norwegian LGBTQ people that is not found in the USA or European countries. There are special issues concerning immigrant groups that remain insular and isolated from the larger community, but that has to do with governmental policies rather than individuals, per se. What I am speaking about is providing refugees maintenance, then not making them take language courses and sociology, so their assimilation into the society is easier. These are failings of governmental lack of insight. Another area is the police not taking honor killings and forced marriages seriously, as this places many young people in danger.

Do you have any contact with Turkish LGBT organizations.

Very little. Earlier I had some contact, since they wanted to utilize materials and things I talked about some years ago, and since they have reduplicated them for the Turkish audience, we do see a more positive view among Turkish LGBTQ people.

The last critic against LGBT people in Turkey was that a couple of them undressed during the last Pride Parade. They were photographed naked and broadcasted on internet. Those photos were found extreme and attracted negative responses.

What do you think about such marginal behaviors?

I do not see it being any different to what heterosexuals do all the time. However, I’m not one to promote such behavior because it does give those who need something to criticize a perfect target to take aim and hurt other LGBTQ people. But back to my point, I think that part of the criticism is an attempt to point the finger at something that happens for heterosexuals all the time—overt exposure under some circumstances like in non-Muslim states. This can be the case even though what they do may not be as public as this may have been.

But Turkey is supposed to be a secular state, not a religious state. For them to allow individuals to use that as an excuse to attack people is a failing of the government. This is one of the problems. But there was one picture that I saw from that incident: There was a transgender person hit by a water canon and had a bleeding lip. You can look at those photographs, and see that they were satisfied in a way that they could not be ignored any more. That means that society now has to deal with them as real people.

The society in its desire to eradicate what they perceive as an “indictment” against their faith, has now obtained approval to do so by the state. Therefore the government as a secular state must change its approach to being more accommodating and but in check those who desire to use theology to interpret the law. It is not about religious people tolerating anything, but it is about the government accommodating all citizens and respecting their human rights.

Although the secularism is in the Turkish legislation, it is not necessarily in practical life. What would you recommend Turkish LGBT, who are citizens of a Muslim and a so-called secular country?

I think people have to work on both sides of the equation; they have to work legislatively and work within the culture itself. Because when people know individuals are different, they come to see them as human just like themselves. And the government has to work towards the common good for all citizens, removing any favoritism and other forms of corruption. That common good is not found only in what “religious” people say, but also what secular people say, and follow the constitution of the country. It should be balanced and available for all citizens.

What if the homosexuality is recognized as an official gender and given equal rights. What would be your challenge in life?

There must be growth in understanding how people self-identify. We must stop as human beings deciding for others what they are and how they must act, particularly when they are not harming another human being. Gender does not make a sexual orientation, therefore, the issue is human rights and not putting someone in a “category.” This is labeling and labels causes problems for human kind. In my own future, my purpose is to make sure MECCA Institute continues to grow as an institution, making sure people have access to a broader and deeper understanding of their faith as Muslims, in a way that allows them to experience both inner growth and development in their day to day lives, but also to see an expansion of Quranic ethics become a strong part of society itself…treating each other in ways that promotes compassion, mercy and equality for all.

Thank you for your open and honest answers, Daayiee Abdullah.

The photographs that are used in this interview are taken from the documentary Gender Me (Nefise Özkal Lorentzen, 2008) and the copyrights of the photographs belong to Integral Film.

P.S: Special thanks go to Nefise Ozkal Lorentzen, who made this interview possible.

Who is Daayiee Abdullah?

Click here to read the interview in Turkish (Türkçe)

1974 Ankara doğumlu ama 2 yaşından beri Istanbullu. Çocukluk ve gençliği cimnastik ve dans çalışmalarıyla geçti. 2000 yılından beri yoga yapıyor. 2002 yılında evlenip yurtdışına yerleşti ama bir ayağı hep Istanbul'da oldu. Çocuklardan sonra, Norveç'te hayalindeki işin eğitimini alma fırsatı geçti eline. Trondheim Üniversitesi'nde Medya Bilimi ve Görsel Kültür dalında lisans ve yüksek lisans okudu. İki yıl Zürih, 10 yıl Trondheim'da yaşadıktan sonra 2014 yazında eşinin memleketi Almanya'ya yerleşti. Şİmdi iki oğlu ve eşi ile sakin bir hayat sürmekte, ve Türkiye'nin Gezi Gençleri'nce yönetileceği çağdaş bir ülke olduğu hayalini kurmakta. // ENGLISH: Born in Ankara in 1974, moved to Istanbul at age 2. Spent lots of time with gymnastic and contemporary dance at early ages. since 2000 practices rather yoga. Married to a German in 2002 and move to Zurich. Later lived 10 years in Norway/Trondheim and eventually settled down in Germany. Studied Media Science in Trondheim and finished master degree in 2012. Has two sons. Looking forward to the days that Turkey is eventually led democratically by the Gezi youth.