Daayiee Abdullah, America’s first openly gay imam, is spicing up a pot of bland Muslim soup. The monolithic, homogenous character of mainstream Muslim mosques is a result of politics and cultural hegemony, far from the embodiment of “true” Islam as these ideologies claim. Through a historical analysis, we can better contextualize mainstream Islamic expression today and understand the power dynamics behind its development. While this is a worthwhile endeavor and vital for anyone who wants to understand Islam, instead of looking to the past to understand the present, this particular piece will look at the present in hopes of affecting our future.
Daayiee Abdullah was the only imam willing to perform the janazah (funeral rites) for a Muslim who died of AIDS. This Muslim was rejected an Islamic burial by other Muslim imams because he had been gay. Abdullah oversaw the cleansing and dressing of the deceased’s body and led a prayer at his grave. These were Abdullah’s first acts as an imam. His reason for doing so, as told to Aljazeera America, is:
“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.”
The fact that a gay brother today will be rejected his funeral rights by fellow Muslim imams solely due to his sexuality is disturbing, to say the least. Why does a person’s sexuality override her or his religious belief? Are heterosexual Muslims collectively better than homosexual Muslims, regardless of each individual’s moral character?
If one didn’t know better (a.k.a, if one didn’t have some knowledge of the Quran and of Prophet Mohammad’s teachings), one would assume that the answer to that question is yes.
This is seen in the extreme marginalization of Muslims who identify as LGBTQ. The topic of sexuality is already taboo, and anything other than heterosexuality is feared and despised.
What sinful, licentious acts happen in the mosque Imam Abdullah leads?
At the Light of Reform Mosque in Washington, D.C., where Abdullah serves as imam and education director, women and men pray side-by-side and women may lead prayers.
These are the controversial actions that have received rejection, condemnation, protests, and even bomb threats from Muslims worldwide, ranging from Al-Azhar sheikhs to local American Muslims. This was seen in the reaction to Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies at Virgina Commonweath University, leading a mixed Friday prayer congregation — ironically, in an Anglican Church in New York after being repeatedly rejected by several mosques.
As quoted by the BBC, a man named Nussrah commented to the Associated Press on Wadud: “She is tarnishing the whole Islamic faith. If this was an Islamic state, this woman would be hanged.”
Here we see a familiar face: that of the angry patriarch, which we Muslim women have seen the ugly side of far too many times. Here lies the link that bonds the struggles of Muslim women with those of homosexual Muslims. Both groups are targeted, marginalized, and made second-class based exclusively on their sexuality. Interestingly enough, the Quran and the Prophet do not exclusively or emphatically talk about homosexuality or women’s sexuality specifically, as one would assume based on dominant arguments in Islamic debate.
Islam is a tradition that is very open about sex and marital relationships. It does indeed emphasize upright sexual morality across genders and, although the Quran and the Prophet’s teachings are very clear and direct about these things, neither source talks much about the things most emphasized by the mainstream today.
In regards to the highly emphasized topic of hijab, embodying female chastity, there is only one verse in the Quran that even mentions it and, due to its ambivalence, is hotly debated. Why, then, is hijab an obsession for religious clerics [read: male authorities]?
The one mention of what we have interpreted to be homosexuality in the Quran is found in the story of Prophet Lut. It includes the account of two angels visiting Lut disguised as young males. The men of the town showed interest in having sexual relations with these handsome strangers. Lut reprimanded them for such lewdness and instead of acknowledging his words, Lut’s people preferred to drive the visitors out of the city. The town was then destroyed as a punishment from God.
There are many lessons to be learned from this story. One would be to remain faithful to your partner, unlike the men who chose to pursue extra-marital sexual relations while neglecting their wives at home. Another would be to not view persons as sexual objects. The angels in disguise were completely objectified by the townsmen. Another lesson we can learn deals with respect and hospitality. Not only did these men make sexual objects out of Lut’s guests, but they were so rude as to suggest driving the guests out of the city for “professing to be pure.” These actions were unfair to the men’s spouses and families, disrespectful to Lut and his guests, and extremely inhospitable to the visiting angels. One finds in the story of Lut the condemnation of rape, sexual abuse, infidelity, humiliating others, and inhospitality — but not explicitly, or even necessarily, homosexuality. It could be inferred from the maleness of the angel visitors and the maleness of the men who desired to use them, but the specific issue of them being men desiring sexual relations with other males is in the context of several other problematic issues. I think what is simple enough to understand is that it is not acceptable to force sexual acts onto others. Especially someone else’s guests. Especially young boys. Especially if you’re married.
These men of Lut’s town seem to me more like heterosexual men imposing their dominance on sexually vulnerable people. But maybe that’s just the pseudo-psychologist in me speaking.
Imam Abdullah, in an interview with MetroWeekly, says:
“There’s nothing in the Koran that speaks against homosexuality. The Lut [a.k.a. Lot] story speaks about heterosexual men who use homosexual sexual acts as a form of punishment. When you read it literally, it says, ”men who turn away from their wives or mates.” Gay [men] don’t tend to have [female] mates unless it’s a cultural situation they’re forced into, by family or culture.”
Another taboo uncovered reveals debatable religious legitimacy albeit powerful cultural hegemony. Patriarchy necessitates hetero-normativity. Because when you take away the “manliness” of a man, you might get a more level playing field between men and women (God forbid!).
The fact that women and men are able to worship equally under the leadership of a gay imam is not entirely serendipitous, because it makes sense. The subordination inflicted on Muslim women within “traditional” Islam is inherently tied with that of gay Muslims. Both groups challenge the patriarchal hierarchy, and have the potential to reveal its contradictions.
The now-deceased, influential Al-Azhar sheikh Sayed Tantawi’s opinion regarding women’s rights in the mosque is reflected in his comment: “When she leads men in prayer… it’s not proper for them to look at the woman whose body is in front of them.”
Ah yes, because a woman’s body is nothing more than a sexual temptation for men thus relegating women to a hidden and passive role in the masjid.
So when Muslim brothers and sisters pray alongside each other one would expect sexual chaos to ensue and the entire prayer to be disrupted, right? According to this logic if a woman gives the khutbah (sermon), no man will benefit any good due to his natural and uncontrollable need to have sex with the khatibah (she who gives the sermon).
Does this in any way reflect the ideals the Prophet so ardently struggled for? Are those who objectify women to the degree that they cannot even pray beside one not parallel to those who sexually objectified Lut’s guests?
Warm images of the Prophet who created an open, welcome and safe space for all seeking knowledge, come to mind. His masjid where women and men, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, contributed to discussion, asked questions, learned from the Prophet and from each other with no mention of or concern for anyone’s sexuality. This atmosphere seems to be better replicated in Imam Abdullah’s mosque than in Al-Azhar mosque, one of the world’s top Islamic institutions. Maybe this gay imam is doing a better job of respecting the Prophet’s legacy of justice, equality, and humanity.
Abdullah on America Tonight said:
“We do not limit people by their gender or their sexual orientation, or their particular aspect of being Muslim or non-Muslim… They’re there to worship.”
The Imam also says, “It is our relationship with God and our relationship with each other that really establishes our faith.”
As a Muslim woman, I would feel much more comfortable praying at the Light of Reform mosque than at the Institution for Islamic Education in Illinois, for example, founded by Muhammad Abdullah Saleem, a prominent conservative Islamic scholar in the U.S. charged with sexually exploiting his female students and employees.
As discussed in the article, keeping women hidden and silent for the purpose of chastity only perpetuates women’s objectification/dehumanization, making it easier to exploit them. At least in a space like that of the Light of Reform, my sex is not the measure of my humanness and my sexuality is not the measure of my Muslimness.
To sum up here, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: In the paradoxical situation of Islam today, every Muslim woman needs a gay imam.