Last update: 2021-12-09 11:40:35
In 2005, she caused uproar for leading Friday prayer in a mosque in New York. But her commitment to gender equality is not just about controversial gestures. The American Muslim scholar amina wadud is in fact convinced that to respect the universal value of Islam’s holy text, the latter needs to be interpreted from a female standpoint, without which it will remain prisoner to a patriarchal culture.
Your book Qur’an and Woman. Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective is a fundamental text for gender studies in Islam. What does your method consist of?
My method overlaps with classical methods of Qur’anic analysis. For example, I use the traditional disciplines, the so-called ‘ulūm al-Qur’ān, the Qur’anic sciences, but I stretch how they are applied. The new aspect of my method is reading for gender, to use gender as a construct but also as a rubric of analysis to determine the extent to which any text participates in the patriarchal norms of its time or translates those norms for more universal, spiritual and justice-based purposes.
What image of woman emerges from the sacred texts?
What emerges from the Qur’an is that there was a teleology, that is, a purpose for human creation. According to this teleology, the human being is a khalīfa, a moral agent who holds the secret order of the divine, of the Creator, of Allah on the earth. So, the purpose of women and therefore their main identity or personality is to be agents of the divine on the earth.
What does a feminist perspective add to the understanding of Islam?
Because being a feminist has many meanings, I have to be more specific. Mine is not feminism understood as a new construct of the 21st century, it is one that takes Islam as a rubric for establishing social justice, equality and human dignity in all contexts—be they public, private, economic, spiritual, artistic or aesthetic. The basis for the construction of this kind of feminism is the reading for gender that I mentioned earlier, because I hold that Islam and Islamic primary sources are intended for all people of all times and all places, irrespective of gender, gender identity, gender location or gender expression. And as such, the tendency towards patriarchal interpretations and dominance of those traditions over time is a reflection of a limited perspective on something that has universal implications. So, if we combine this Islamic methodology with an understanding of feminism as simply one of many projects, ideologies, perspectives and fields of study, therefore a sort of epistemology that addresses women to involve humanity in general, then we can be in agreement on how the term “feminism” is still very problematic for, I would say, the vast majority of Muslims. As such I never use it as a separate term, but, to define my activism, I prefer the expression “Islamic feminism.” I even distinguish it from “Muslim feminism,” because yes I am a Muslim and an Islamic feminist, but I do not agree with all Muslim feminists, some are secular, some are liberal and they do not refer to Islam in particular but they might use other methods to assert the idea of equality and dignity. So, it is really important to distinguish Islamic feminism from feminism in general.
Are there any particular Muslim scholars who influenced your work?
During my early studies and throughout my PhD, which then led to the publication of my first book, Qur’an and Woman, all my teachers and advisors were male. The Muslim men among them, including a Qur’anic scholar, were not very encouraging towards my methods or my objectives. Of course, 35 years have passed from that moment and it is pretty much a done-deal, but at the early stages I had very few mentors. I did benefit from the teaching of Fazlur Rahman, but he never used gender as a category of thought because it still needed to be developed. However, fortunately for me, along the way I have met people who are still dedicated to these issues. They include people like Zainah Anwar, who is the director of the Musawah global movement, Ziba-Mir Hosseini, who is a scholar currently located in New York but with Iranian origins and a PhD from the UK, Saadia Yacoob, a brilliant scholar of Islamic law, and Marwa Sharafeldin, an Egyptian activist who works as a facilitator with Musawah. So, actually everyone who works with Musawah has influenced my life in one way or another. This movement intentionally links scholars and activists, associating the production of new knowledge in Islamic feminism with the commitment to actual policy changes and constitutionally granted equality. I have also been heavily influenced by scholars from the US context, like Kecia Ali, whose brilliant work on ethics includes specifically ethics on gender and sexuality, or queer Muslim scholars like Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, or activists in that field like Muhsin Hendricks from South Africa, and finally younger scholars, like Sa‘diyya Shaikh, from South Africa as well. They are very lovely and encouraging within the context of the work, but they were not part of the work in the beginning, let us say in the last three decades, when it was quite a lonely act.
What reactions did your studies provoke within academic circles and among Muslim religious figures?
In academic circles, especially in the field of Islamic and Qur’anic studies, I simply challenged the exclusion of gender. And I did it in such a way that it became important for people to take it into consideration. Reading for gender is not produced simply by women or for women, even though we are beneficiaries of these studies because their absence allows men to protect themselves as if the Islamic and Qur’anic field was neutral. But it was not. In some cases, it was a very male privilege. So, my work allowed more conversations among scholars about the necessity of engaging gender as a rubric of analysis.
There is also a wide spectrum of Muslims in the confessional setting who are not happy with the implications of my work, in terms of unconditional equality, reciprocity and justice for women. So, they would like to challenge my work, but mostly they are uninformed. Within a scholarly context I have less problems than I do within confessional contexts, which are patriarchal and a little bit stuck in their ways. And that is exactly where the negative reactions come from. I have wondered if these reactions are credible along the lines of the credibility I have established as a scholar, or if it is simply something that would have some sort of charismatic influence in the community. I have reached the conclusion that these reactions are not credible, also because in many confessional communities people are not really familiar with my work. If you engage only with some conclusions, like women imams and the creation of inclusive mosques, then you can easily fall into a place where you can say that this work is not good. And the only perceivable impact is that this will challenge the position of patriarchal privileges.
In your studies you speak of a “reformed theology.” What do you mean by this term?
Islam and Islamic thought throughout 1400 years of existence have gone through reforms continuously on a small and large scale. This means that there has been a continuous thinking and rethinking of the understanding of what our faith and the objective of this faith are. It is a totally normal process. So, we are experiencing something similar today, which is special only because we live in a time when access to information is instantaneous and has a global impact. As such, every potential crumb of change will have a ripple effect of greater significance, much more quickly than any time in history.
The other thing that impacts on this duty of reform and the exceptional nature of this process in our time is what I call the critical mass of Muslim women’s self-agency. Muslim women are on the move in every context. And as such, they create a force to be reckoned with unlike any other time in those 1441 years of history. So, by reform I mean critically engaging Islamic primary sources as well as their ethical or moral impact on the realities of Muslims in the world. So, in that way this is equal to other reform movements in the past, but as I noted there are certain exceptions in terms of the scope of such reforms.
In your opinion, what aspects of Islamic tradition need to be more urgently and more thoroughly reformed?
First of all, I need to clarify the difference between what I consider to be Islamic primary sources, that is to say the Qur’an and the Sunna (the established practices of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), and everything else after that, which is a construct of humans interacting with those primary sources and/or from their intimate relationship with Allah, the Creator. You cannot reform the primary sources. The Qur’an exists as it is, and the Prophet’s traditions, irrespective of how accurate the records might be, cannot be reformed. Like the Qur’an, the Sunna is also as a kind of divine light. You cannot change those things, but they must be put into application and implementation in real life by real people. I see Islam as being alive, and as such, every day it is subject to reform. As much love as I have for the Qur’an, it can be of no use to us if we cannot put it into implementation. And we cannot put it into implementation unless we interact with it intimately, critically, in detail and lovingly. And so, even though I consider the Qur’an as unchangeable, nothing we do with the Qur’an is unchangeable in the same way. Everything is subject to some human intervention, and therefore to reform.
The Friday prayer you led for a mixed-gender congregation in New York in 2005 was very controversial. Many Muslim scholars maintain that the imamate is traditionally a male-only prerogative. On what grounds do you propose a different interpretation?
Those who established the tradition of the male-only imamate, in violation of the Qur’anic principle of equality, justice and dignity for every human being, male or female, were not only human, they were male only. But men do not have the exclusive right to establish what is and what is not Islam. Women also have a voice in this matter. The Qur’an makes no statements to confirm that only men can be imams and also makes no statements that women cannot be imams. Muhammad made no statements saying that only men can be imams either, in fact he assigned a woman as imam in his own time. In my view, this is an indication that the intervention of human interpretation over divine sources is ongoing and can be changed. In some cases, it needs to be changed. And so, whatever is the opposition to women’s performance of the role of imam, it is a construct made by men and it can be deconstructed by other men or by men and women together.
Do you still lead prayers?
I only lead prayers when two things come together. One is an invitation and the other is my comfort and willingness to accept it. I never go to a place that enforces a woman imam upon people, because maybe not everybody is ready, and because the worship practice of Muslims is so central and so intimate to their spiritual well-being, it would defeat this purpose to invoke this as a coercive act. There are many places where I refused. And one of the reasons is that I am personally not a “groupie”: I really prefer to do solitary prayer. To stand in front of a congregation is a huge responsibility even in and of itself, but it’s also really not my personality, and so it’s a huge challenge for me in particular. Fortunately for me, one of the first statements that I used to make with regard to the idea of women as imams in so many places has got around to a wide audience. In particular I have always stated that it is good and necessary in our communities and for our communities to establish a relationship with women as prayer and ritual leaders. And so there has been an increase in the recognition and I no longer feel obliged to lead prayers because women are doing it literally all around the world.
You are a scholar but also an activist: can you elaborate on the relationship between your academic interests and their concrete application to the life of Muslims?
My interest in Islam started really as a teenager. I was particularly interested in religion: I was born and raised Christian in a loving household and yet even there I noticed that not everybody worshipped in the same way. I explored other Christian prayers at that time and eventually I moved away from my family to live with other families who also worshipped in different ways, like Catholic, unitarian universalist, and Jewish families. By the time I went to the university, at the age of seventeen, I had just started reading about religious traditions outside my own US-American context. I practiced Buddhism for a year and I still practice meditation today. When I started reading about Islam in my mind it was part of the same quest: the quest of understanding. However, when I read the Qur’an in only English, I was so moved that I began immediately to try to remove any barrier between me and the understanding of the text, namely Arabic. And I invested in that process something like ten years before entering a graduate school specifically for Qur’anic studies. When I finished my degree, I did not have a job. And so a divine light shone in my life: I was denied any job I applied for in the context of the US and I ended up in Malaysia at the International Islamic University. Within one month I began meeting with a group of women who were setting up the organization “Sisters in Islam”. It was the first and last time I have belonged to a group. However, this experience gave me so much. I was finally able to connect these beautiful theology, theory and ethics that were in my head with the way in which women fight for equality and justice, as Muslim citizens who believe in Islam but not that Islam should be interpreted and implemented in a patriarchal way. “Sisters in Islam” are dedicated to the idea that Islam belongs to all of us, and therefore all of us should have a say in how it is applied in our lives. This is the most beautiful thing that happened to me, outside falling in love with the Qur’an in just the English version. So, it was the start of a cooperation between my theoretical utopia and the realities on the ground, especially in the context where there is some kind of Muslim personal status law or Muslim family law, which unfortunately is not the case in the United States. So, the work that I do in terms of activism is actually global and not US-based, even though I am very much in love with my own African-American origins as a Muslim woman. We don’t have Islamic law in America, we have a sort of Muslim kind of communal understanding, but with no legal impact. Nevertheless, understanding the relationship between theology and law, which is the cornerstone of Islam as an established reality, makes me think about sacred texts, ethics or theology in a different way. I benefitted from this greatly but at the same time I think it is pretty easy to say that I benefitted from the trajectories of Muslim reform movements in terms of personal status law.
Can you tell us more about the Sisters in Islam, and the Musawah movement that they gave rise to?
Sisters in Islam is an organization, while Musawah is a movement and they are both based in Malaysia. I have no institutional role in Musawah. I am not one of the organizers, I am not one of the founders. I only function as a scholarly reference person for particular projects on knowledge building or training workshops for equality and justice in Islam.
Both of these organizations have in common, one at the national level and one at the international level, the idea that Islam is a religion based upon a just God, and that justice is not an abstract idea. It is an applied idea. And its application has changed in meaning over time: today there cannot be justice without equality. The nation-states give credit to themselves for establishing equality constitutionally and for signing international treaties and documents, like CEDAW, the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discriminations Against Women. They signed them, but then they expressed some reservations in the name of Islam and they do not implement it, again in the name of Islam. So, what we are doing is making sure that there is a consistency, that you cannot stand on the one hand saying you are establishing human rights and human dignity, and then, on the other hand, you do not let women drive or have free access to divorce. Inequalities manifest themselves in different countries, and they pretty much fall on the same line. We talk about equality, we talk about justice, we talk about human dignity, but we do it only in abstraction and when it comes to the patriarchal control over women, children and family things do change. So, what we are dedicated to is a coherent relationship between Islamic ideals and their application to women and to women’s lives.
In the twentieth century, your work was preceded by that of other women who played an important role in Islamic intellectual production. I’m thinking of Bint al-Shāti’ for instance, the first Arab woman to write a Qur’anic commentary in contemporary times. Have you ever read her work?
Yes, I am familiar with Bint al-Shāti’. I had attempted when I was in graduate school to get funding to go to Egypt again (I had already been to Egypt in my second year as a graduate student for the language program) to interview her. But I didn’t succeed. What I learnt subsequently is that she was a woman doing exegesis, which was great, but she also denied gender as a category of thought. It took me a while before I even understood that this is a substantial difference. I do not talk in any of my work about gender as a category of thought. It is something that evolved methodologically, more coherently in the last ten or fifteen years, so after my two major publications. To understand that method, which before I had only been using intuitively, has meant that now I can teach those methods to others. That is what I have been doing since I retired, that is, to introduce people to critical reading of texts in such a way that they can understand that the location you are in makes a difference when you are reading the text, and that’s fine. However, when you assert that your location is in fact the same as God’s, that’s not fine. This is just one possibility among other possibilities. And the only way you can determine the harm and benefits is by looking at the impact of an interpretation on the lives of real people.
To cite this article
amina wadud, “Without Women, You Cannot Understand the Qur’an”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 37-44.
amina wadud, “Without Women, You Cannot Understand the Qur’an”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/without-women-you-cannot-understand-the-quran