In 2005, surrounded by reporters, television cameras and photographers, a woman led Friday prayers in New York. In 2012, an Imam established the first “inclusive mosque” on the outskirts of Paris for gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims. And in 2013, the spotlight was on the first gay Imam in the U.S., Daayiee Abdullah, who, despite condemnation, performed funeral rites for a gay Muslim who had died of AIDS. All these examples show that winds of change are sweeping over Islam. Of course, not everybody agrees with these actions. For some these show signs of a revolution, for some it is ‘biddat’, an unapologetic innovation, and for others it is just sheer blasphemy.
The “inclusive” mosque was established by Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, an Algerian-French Imam. The mosque, Zahed says, was a project that stemmed from “a long personal journey” — he grew up tolerating many snide remarks before coming out to his parents at the age of 21. Zahed said in an article in The Guardian that he set it up so that there could be “a place of worship where people will always be welcomed as brothers and sisters, whatever their sexual orientation or ethnicity.” It all started when a Muslim transgender died and nobody was ready to lead prayers for burial. Zahed stepped in and created history, and this immediately led to the integration of the marginalised. Says Zahed: “Thanks to both the media’s interest and to academic work, we sought to organise inclusive Jumu’a prayers despite the risks. Nobody generally wants to pray for a transgender’s death or for gay weddings. Today this is no longer the case.”
Keeping Zahed company in the U.S. is Imam Daaiyee Abdullah, believed to be the only openly gay Imam in the U.S., who came out to his supportive family many years ago. Born to Christian parents, Abdullah acknowledged his sexuality before embracing Islam. His story is similar to Zahed’s: he also led the funeral prayers for a gay Muslim when other Imams refused to step in. Such has been the impact of Abdullah’s work that when I speak to Zahed, he recalls Abdullah’s words to substantiate his point. Says Abdullah: “Islam is a living religion, it must breathe.” Zahed adds, “Diversity as sacred, unified yet differentiated human nature — that is the ‘social contract’ that the Quran has offered for 14 centuries. And the Arab-Islamic civilisation, known until recently for its tolerance, was to some extent its vivid illustration.”