DA: Let me just tell you a little bit of the history. There was progressive muslim movement. There were several different progressive Muslims from the very beginning, the first started around 2002 - 2003. And they were basically looking at progressive Islam as a new alternative view.
It was actually started much earlier. We have remnants of it started almost over 100 years ago. But because the political situation after world war one, after the Ottoman it didn't become a philosophy until a professor at the University of Chicago was assassinated in 1988 but he was one who was promoting the idea of evaluating the Islamic concept for modern times. I didn't get a chance to meet him. But I learned about him right after his death because I was a student at Georgetown at that time. I had read one of his earlier books. So I just started delving into his materials.
At that time, I had gone to the Middle East and was living there and studying. So I was being able to read his materials and compare it to my life there. So, in the early 2000s, Muslim prpgressive process started developing and there were a couple of reiterations, but eventually in 2007 Muslims of progressive values officially started by Pamela Taylor and Zuriana Zonneveld. it's been going on now for 15 years. I was a member of it until 2014.
I was the one who started mosque in Washington DC in 2010 - 2011 and ran it for like four years. And so that was part of that and earlier in 2001, I became the leader of a group called Muslim Gay Men, which was a Yahoo group.
EO: You are known as a very humorous imam. Why?
I was in discussions with a number of different organizations that were anti LGBT Muslims, one of them was the Straightway which was in the UK. And on many occasions, we would have harsh discussions online and they would come with the traditional statements of and I would challenge them with the scholarship and many times it would just blow them out of the sky. I love humor. I grew up in a household where humor was very important. In my responses I used humor a lot and it took attention and it helped me to grow my community.
EO: So, this way, you turn this very serious subject to more bearable and relaxing matter.
DA: Yes, it allows people to ask those hard questions freely.
EO: When you answer questions, do you give examples from Koran verses?
DA: Well, for a few of them I do, but I didn't grow up learning the Koran.
A modern day Muslim uses computers and reference materials and things like that. I didn't grow up in a Muslim society nor did I start Islam as a child, I became a Muslim as an adult and I don't see prophet Muhammad as a savior as many Muslims do who grew up with it. But I see him as an example of a human being that was enlightened through our creator. And he took that information and made the world better for a whole lot of people. And I see similarly, I'm much closer to someone like Malcolm X.
I saw him in person when I was a kid because one of my older brothers was in the nation of Islam. And so my exposure to him, I saw him as a person who was a brilliant man. And when he came back from his trip to Mecca and had a change well, in reading his autobiography and other things and learning more about him. I saw that as I went into Islam, it was very similar.
Imam Abdullah, Founder and Executive Director of MECCA Institute and Saloonaat Washington DC, since 2014.
EO: What happened after you left MPV in 2014?
DO: That's correct. I left muslims progressive values in 2014, I actually had a vision throughout my life to start an institute that's when I started MECCA in 2014 and became officially an organization in 2015. And then we wound up getting some funding so I could start an online school which the school, the school is not in operation at the current time because of COVID, but we were getting funding and I was able to use the funding to give students scholarships as we ran the school and pay the teachers and keep the website going and things like that. But when COVID hit in 2020 the money dried up, you know, dried up and, and the students weren't have, you know, some of them lost their jobs and things like that. So they couldn't afford to, to um continue studying. So our goal is to have it start up again and probably in the next two years. But in the meantime, we've been doing a lot of other things and developing institute. But anyway, um, I hope that that's sort of responses to the issue. Now, I know in 2011 and 2013 each year, um, the national, um, gay lesbian Task Force invited a number of us to come in at each conference that they had and have us meet and discuss how we wanted to move the, the, um, movement forward and eventually it turned into Mass Jet.
Imam and Director of Islamic Education in The Light and Reform Mosque (Mascid An-Nural Isslaah) in Washington DC, 2010 - 2016.
Director at MPV (Muslims for Progressive Values) in Washington DC, between 2011 - 2014.
DO: Light of Reform Mosque closed around 2016 because I wasn't getting the kind of support that I needed. I was doing it all on my own. Due to a lot of the trauma I wasn't able to get enough people to just come into some of the basic stuff. Like come and help me, you know, set up on Fridays and, you know, they were not dedicated.
EO: Were they afraid?
DO: If they were showing up they weren't afraid. But the problem is they weren't dedicated. They wanted to come and get well, but they didn't make a commitment. And so, I would have people show up sometimes it would be a couple of people other times we would have more and then if we had like, or events we would have 80 - 90 people show up. But, you know, but that's a good number to come. Yeah, it was, I mean, it really was. And I would ask them, I say, you know, I need, uh, you know, if I could get eight people, 10 people to volunteer that means that you would only have to come and volunteer once every two months or so. And if you can do it we could always use someone else and then you can just fall back in line again and they weren't willing to do it. So I told them, I said I'm tired, I've been doing this for almost five years and I'm not doing it anymore.
EO: Are you afraid that radicals may threaten you to kill you?
DO: Yeah it happened it the past in the US, I have had several life threads, they said they would kill me or beat me to death etc. I wasn't afraid. I told them: "This is America, if you try to harm me, I will harm you more. This is the land of freedom and I would kick your ass to go back to your countries or stay in jail forever." When they see that I was not afraid of them they stopped.
In the early years back in the early 2000s, I had a couple of threads. I had one guy at a conference, get up and say that he already killed me. I said I'm a lawyer and I will have your ass locked up. You and your family sent back to wherever you came from. I said I will have you shipped out of here so fast. I said, and we will ship your shit to you. A lot of times you have to confront these people straight up and not be afraid of them and let them know that in this country it is against the law and I will be calling the FBI. I will be calling the, they will be picking you up putting you in jail moving, you know, sending you back to wherever you came from and we will ship your stuff to you. That's your property. We're not gonna keep that, but we're gonna ship it to you and we will not be allowed to come back to this country again.
EO: Do you get international followers from all over the world?
DA: We are the largest progressive muslim organisation online with over 100,000 followers on social media. We have muslim students as well as a large number of students who converted to islam from different faiths.
EO: I had watched the 2022 NYC Pride March in Manhattan. It was huge and the whole march lasted for 6 hours non-stop there were not only national organizations also international organizations. I couldn't see your organization there. What do you think of the Pride March or any other marches around the globe?
DA: Yes. Well, actually with me and the Institute, we are not flashy. We're really not into marches and such events. Our work is on research and education. That's our niche. And so there are other organizations that throw parties and do different things and the pride and all of that. But I'm more focused in on the education because I, one of the reasons why I do this is because when people need, when they have to have that conversation with mom and dad or their relatives or, you know, in other places in the mosque even um I'm not gonna be there. So they need to be educated, to be able to talk to these people with reason and for them to hopefully help them re-educate.
We help reeducate them, those particular people confronting them with enlighten them with the information, alternative views of how things can be looked at.
In MECCA Institute, we emphasize standards. As a lawyer, I tell them that Islamic law will not be anything in the world until it meets the minimum standards of the UN Declaration of human rights.
Anything less than that Islam is below the bar will always be considered barbaric which means you can't meet that standard and you're following antiquity and you're not dealing with the modern day world.
So women's rights are important. The youth are important. LGBTQIA people are important, the disabled are important. All these people have rights that we have to respect and if you're not willing to do that, then what you promote is not appropriate for this century.
EO: I was born and raised as a muslim. The first word revealed to our Prophet Muhammad from Allah was “Iqra” which means to Read! To seek knowledge! That attracts me a lot. What attracted you in Islam? And how did you become muslim?
DA: When I first did my namaz when I kneeled to reach the secde and sitting in salah I felt a relief, I felt like all of my problems went away with the namaz. I felt peace in me.
(Salaah or namaz is an obligatory prayer performed by a practising Muslim five times a day. The namaz is performed early in the morning, afternoon, evening, near sunset and late evening. Each namaz lasts for between five to 10 minutes, and so cumulatively the prayers take up around 30 minutes in a day.)
Well, I'll combine the two questions that you had. I had studied Buddhism at one time, but let's go all the way back to when I was a child. I was ferocious in my study of the Bible. And I was the kind of kid that would go into Sunday school class with my Bible and my concordance. And I would show up in the Sunday school and started asking a lot of questions that they were not able to answer them all and they were directing me to higher authoriy such as “ask to the Reverend Johnson”. So I was a terror! (Laughs.)
I started questioning as a Christian as a Southern Baptist faith that my parents are Southern Baptist. I tell people that my parents never call Jesus “God” to my knowledge, they never said Jesus was God. They always taught me that Jesus was an example for us to follow, but they never said that Jesus was God.
So one day, when I was eight years old, early 1962s, Reverend Johnson was a doctors in economics and he built our church and took it from a little smaller church into a big church with over 2000 members and they built a nursing home and housing for seniors and different other good things. He did a wonderful job and I always respected him, but in 1962 in one of his sermons, he said that he believed in birth control. Now, Reverend Johnson had 12 kids and a couple of his sons were the same age as I and we were in the boy scouts together.
And so I said; “Reverend Johnson, I really enjoyed your sermon today.” And he said; “Really, Sydney? Did you?”. Like I said; “Yeah.” And I told him; “The thing about birth control, I agree with you. I think, people should plan their families because it's the economic thing to do.” I said, but it seems to me that in order for you to learn that lesson, you had to jump off the cliff to learn about gravity. He had 12 kids already. My mother grabbed my hand and said; “Let’s go.” That's so funny.
And from that day forward until the day he died, whenever he would see me, he would always look at me a little strange. Because my mother always told me, when I was four years old, she used to tell me; “Just because the conversation is open, you do not have the right to join in.” That's because sometimes I would bust them out and tell them; “No that ain't true!”
So I knew around then that, that particular faith was not going to be enough for me. So I started researching and I learned about metaphysics. I spent several years learning about it. And then I started studying metaphysics for several years, which I still utilize it. I think it was science of mind that really played an important role, but that wasn't enough, it just wasn't enough. It was mentally satisfying, but it wasn't giving me that interest soul satisfaction.
Then as a young adult, when I was living in San Francisco, I was studying with a Buddhist group and it did help enlighten me because during some Buddhist chanting, I felt the separation between my soul and my body because I can actually look down at my body and see that I was, but I felt separated.
I knew that I had a soul that was separate from my body, but that still wasn't satisfactory for me. And then I played with the science of mind a lot. But then when I wound up going to China in 1983. I was at Beijing University, (I went to Georgetown University and I did my first nine months and then I wound up going straight to China for a three year period) I was at Beijing University for my first year in China. And there I met a couple of guys who were Muslims and one of them said to me; “Do you know anything about Islam?” I told him about the nation of Islam and then he says, no, no, no, the real of Islam. And I said, the real Islam. He said, yeah, and that's when I started taking interest.
So he invited me to the street mosque there in Beijing. And I went for the prayer and he showed me how to do what we do and everything and got prepared and went in and the the mosque was an old Pagoda that would be converted to a Mosque. So we were sitting in there and listening and my Chinese, I mean, the Arabic, I hadn't studied that at the time. So I didn't understand the in Arabic. But when they did it in Chinese, it started to make a lot of sense. So I said, ok, and then I, I went back like once or twice a month with him. Um and he gave me my first Koran which was in Chinese and Arabic.
(Click the link.)
EO: How many languages can you speak?
DA: Three languages. English is my mother tongue and Chinese is my first foreign language and Arabic is my second foreign language.
EO: So you converted to Islam in China in 1983?
DA: 1983 is when I actually did it, yes. I did the official conversion later after I came back to the United States, but I didn't get any certificate, I kept going. And then um after my years in China, I went to Taiwan for an additional two years and it was there that I got to see the difference between the Islam in China that had been there and came to learn later that it had been in China since 654 and so one of the first mosques in the world was established there in the year of 654.
DA: Well, the Chinese were Muslims long before many other countries became Muslim. Most people don't know this. I went to Taiwan and there they had a Saudi mosque in Taipei and there I was exposed to the Saudi people.
There I met with another gay muslim. I couldn't have the opportunity to tell him I'm gay too. I wanted to let him know he wasn't alone but it just wasn't available to be able to do that. And I was there in trying to be a student and I wasn't there to start a gay parade or anything like that. So, there's just the opportunity just wasn't there for that. But I, I felt the thing and, and that's, I think that's part of why I've continued to grow in strength in order to be able to do what I do today. And then I was in Taiwan for two years and then I left there and came back to Georgetown, started nine months of Arabic studies and went to the Middle East and I was in Cairo a year, Jordan and then a year in Damascus at the University.
EO: How do you make your living right now?
DA: Well, now I'm retired and I'm using my social security benefit. That's how I make it. But prior to that, I'm a lawyer by training and I practiced for a couple of years and then I quit because I didn't like the law. I found that I would have to turn into an evil person in order to be successful in it. And I was not interested in that. I studied because of my training at two different schools. I started off in public interest and when I got my masters at the University of Michigan, I got public legal training.
I found that I wasn't going to work for a corporation that was doing harm to other human beings for the sake of money. So I couldn't do it. So then my interest was getting into Islamic theology, took a deeper, grow different importance in my life. And that's what I did. So I, I was able to take care of myself. I mean, I worked, I was a prior, I had been, before I went back to school. I was a course sonographer. And so I went back into that for a couple of years and then, you know, the question is right. No, what is it? Ok. Of course, you know, when you look at the TV shows and the person that's sitting there that's on the little machine, taking down the testimony of the people that we know. Well, that, that's of course stenographer and I had trained to be that. Ok. So it was a skill and so, I mean, it pays well. But once I got, you know, I did that after I had, um I left the law firm, I did have to, you know, keep paying bills and stuff. And then eventually I was able to, as things picked up as the gay mom, I started doing school lectures. And then from there, I was doing a little bit of counseling, but also I was doing weddings and funerals for LGBT people. And then it, you know, it started off with LGBT but then more straight people wanted to get married, they wanted someone who was not the traditional imam. So they were doing, you know, interface, weddings and things like that. So that went on at their funerals and um a little bit of counseling uh for people. And then, um after that ended, and I mean, I just did it on my own. And then when I retired in, in 2019 and my social security started, that's what I've been living off of since then.
EO: You traveled a lot overseas. What was your obserbation in terms of religion?
DA: I went to China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia while I was a student and I learned that Muslims were not all alike that there was diversity, there was cultural diversity.
EO: What's your family tree?
DA: Well, they're both Americans. Black Americans born in the US. We are descendants of the African slave trade. On my mother's side, her grandmother was native American Cherokee from North Carolina who married, her husband was an African American from who was, from the people freed and they settled in Arkansas on my mother's side and my father's side, his grandfather was an Irishman when the Irish came over to the United States and he married a black woman. So that, that's my family tree.
DA: Islam is culturally based, that's the cultural changes. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and then Southeast Asia in all those places what I saw is that they were promoting their own cultural rendering of what they believe is Islam.
If you really want to know what Islam is, stick to the Koran. Because the Koran itself says that this is a book perfect in itself.
After I had finished college after I left the law firm, I went to Saudi Arabia and went to school there for a couple of years. Just part time, I was working for the Saudi Royal Air Force. So that's how I got there. And then I would take some courses along the way.
I was there, I met a fellow who introduced me to his cousin and his cousin, really nice guy. But he was born with a birth defect. You know, he didn't have a right hand. And he also had stroke, he had sunstroke in the desert. Sometimes he would just stop talking and it could be five minutes, it could be 10 minutes, 20 minutes and then he would snap back and start talking like, as if he had just, you know, he hadn't stopped in that pause. I was in the Congress in class one day I told the teacher I was left hand because I write with my left hand. And so he said, well you should use your right hand because the prophet used his right hand. And I explained to him people in the world are right handed because that's just their natural hand. I said, but number three, let me explain this to you what I, what you do with your left hand, I do with my right hand. Well, that, that was a different conversation when that came up. But anyway, in the class, this is what I asked him. I said, so I know a fellow who was born with a birth defect. he doesn't have a right hand. I said, so he uses his left hand to do everything. He eats with it and just does his personal hygiene and everything else. And the teacher said to me, but that is, that is his right hand. And he got mad. He sent me, he, he sent me down to the, to the dean of the school. And I have, you know, and I had raised some other questions a couple of times. I mean, I'm a lawyer. So I'm asking, I'm asking some questions and the, the dean told me he says, you're gonna have to stop asking questions like that because he's just going, they want to kick you out. Yeah. And I said, but, but I said, but why he said that, you know, you have to understand some of these people have never been anywhere in their life. So they're not exposed to the world as you have. He said, so you're asking them questions and they feel embarrassed and, you know, and so you go and, you know, this is an important job for them. They're, you know, they're teachers that they all that they, that they're about. I said, OK, I'll stop asking questions. So I asked myself, can I come down and talk to you about it? He said sure. So that's how I stopped getting in trouble with the teachers.
"We do have classes on Sufism. Because of its training and its ability to help people harness their energy to become better people, Sufism challenge their own conditioning. I think it's a very important and within Islam, I think it's an important aspect that helps people if they need it guidance.
As far as Rumi; Rumi has always been one of the people that I've explored but then there are others from the East Indian background and some others who, I also find that their poetry was wonderful.
EO: They say bisexuality will increase in the future. What do you think of it?
DA: Well, the numbers for bisexuals have always been larger than the LGBT or the L G T community. It's just that people have never come out. They hide themselves. So, it's easier for them to keep themselves in the background and fall in the heterosexual thing.
So it's, the numbers have always been that I don't think there would be a significant change in that per se. I think there'll be more people who will present themselves in the future, but then I don't think the actual numbers are going to change because I expect people gonna expect them forever and ever. But I think that one of the issues that we have and now I'll speak to this as from a male perspective; in their mind they think that in order to be gay then you have to be, you think you want to be a woman. And I tell them, no, that's never been my situation.
When I was growing up, I have a picture sitting right in front of me that I showed my mother when she was alive and it's two little boys about four or five years old. They are sitting, it was taken back in the 1940s and they're sitting on the curb and one of the boys is sitting next to him with his hands, sort of his arms crossed over the other boy's arm with his hand on his knee. And the other boy, they're both sitting on the curb. But one of the boys looks like he's sort of on bended knee. And the other boy has this cap pulled down over his face, like he's proposing to him, you know. Well, I showed it to my mother and and she says, oh, that was you at four years old, always talking about your little boyfriend and you're gonna get married and you're gonna be the daddy and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So my mother thought, I thought that was a child's play, but that was actually me identifying as to who I was. So I never thought I wanted to be a woman or a girl or anything like that. And so, a lot of times because of the stereotypes that have been out there, people get the wrong impression that if you're gay it's just like, a lesbian, you know, that she wants to be a man. You know, she's a type, a man type of thing. But I've known lipstick, lesbians all my life, you know, so women who wear lipstick and stockings and high, you know, high heel shoes and everything else. So they make these false assumptions.
I have standards. When I came out to my parents, I was graduating from high school. I was 15 years old. Go off to college. And I told my parents that I was gay and they asked back in the 1969 my parents asked a typical question. Well, there is something we did. I said, no, you did everything fine. No problem. And so they said to me, both of my parents said to me that I have upheld the standards that they have held for all of my brothers. You know, I have six brothers and a sister and I've upheld all those standards and there's nothing wrong with me. And so with that I went off and, and live my life as a man who loves men.
EO: Your legal name is still Sidney Thompson. Why didn't you change it yet?
DA: Well, I had actually filed papers to do so in 2001 and then of course, 9/11 had occured and so I withdrew my paperwork then because I wanted to get into trouble just because of my name.
EO: How did you pick your name?
DA: Daayiee has the same sound as my Chinese name with my Chinese name is and big and then e is means virtue, big, virtue. And then my given name is Tong, which is the Chinese time period between 659 and 954 which was the most peaceful and literary time period in Chinese history. So great literary scholars during that time. So I my Chinese name is the big, the, the band of great virtue. And so has the meaning of being the person who proselytizes in person. So in the modern standard Arabic, it has the meaning of the one who proselytizes. So it fits the sound the same and it was great virtue.
Grandfather of the LGBTQIA Muslims
EO: Are you in touch with other imams like you?
DA: Yes. Well they're 15 gay imams only 8 of them are openly gay. I've met the vast majority of them. We used to have an inner circle; have a yearly conference in Cape Town each year and people come to that event. The last one was in 2016. It was actually at that last um meeting I was at in Cape Town where I was crowned the grandfather of the LGBT Muslim.
We know the younger people that thought that they could use it as a dig, right? You know, the older people. And I, so when I, when they gave me the award, I told them, I said, you know, the wonderful thing about this is that I can look out and in the audience because we were at, at a dinner and I said I can look out into the audience and see all of my Children and they're nothing but beautiful stars against the night star uh the night. Mhm. Mhm. And that's, and so they, they, they, they, they what they did, they had to sit back and go. Oh, so that wasn't gonna take a but, you know, you know, sometimes people wanna, you know, we, we wanna take a dig but you, you just switch it around on them, you know. Yeah, you have to do things with dignity, you know.
EO: You've had a 10 years long relation then you broke up with your partner. You said that your schedule and being in front of the spotlights were too much for him. When you were with him or when any moment; have you ever thought of gay marriage and having children.
DA: I thought of gay marriage in my younger years but never wanted to have children. We are a total of six siblings and my parents have 24 grandchildren already. Both my parents passed away but when they were alive, they've had 19 grandchildren already.
Almost every year I try to get together with my family and spend time with my nieces and nephews, that's enough for me.
"After a few months of practicing islam I came to understand that when you pray and you lay your forehead to the secde you turn over all your problems to Allah. And I did that and it came to me that when I would do that in, I was release all my, my concerns, all my issues to Allah. And when I would sit back up, I noticed something very different and that was, there was a release and a let go. That means that my mind became clear. And therefore, if I was to receive inspirational messages, there was space for it to come in. And if there was no man after I finished praying, there was no inspirational message. It definitely was such a great sense of inner peace. No other system did that for me. So that's why I just decided that Islamic faith was the faith for me." Daayiee Abdullah
"I think that people should be left alone and let them live their lives fully and if it doesn't concern you keep your nose out of it." DA
"This is a continuation. I'm just one of the members along the line. And so when people can get to understand that there's a continuity, but as we go through our lives, as the ones before us and the ones after us, there will be a connecting point, but it doesn't have to be the same thing all the time. And then I believe that it's really important." Daayiee Abdullah
EO: What's your plans for the future? And this, you can combine these two. What is your dream like Islam in the future? What needs to be changed? And do you project that the change will happen soon? And what's your future plans?
DA: Well, my future plans are to continue promoting MECCA Institute and the variety of different sub things that we're currently doing. We have a research center, we have a publishing house, we have the schools and we have an online community and then the nonprofit itself. In 2015, I gave an TED talk and in it, I explained to people that in 100 years from now, maybe less or a little longer, we'll have people living on other planets doing whatever they'll be doing at that time or working on other planets and that I'm certain there will be Muslims. A and so the question will be when it becomes prayer time. Which way is Mecca - Kible? Yes.
Well, what is the answer? I don't know. But am I am doing research. They'll probably have to arch their prayer off of whichever nearest star if they wanna be, you know, categorically correct. They'll figure it out. That's right. But I'm just saying that, you know, it's one of those things. So the future is not for us to always know because the, you know, probably Muhammad did not know about the internet. Ok. Know about a whole bunch of stuff. Yeah. Yeah, we, we, we are a product of our time.
There will be no camel caravans in space. The dog barking as the camel caravan goes by, it won't be any of that. A lot of traditions will change, but the concept of prayer will have to be expanded. I do, I want to see things change, but that doesn't mean I want people to continue the Islamic faith, but the traditions will have to change.