She might be the most controversial Muslim feminist of our time. To many Muslims, especially those who live in Islamic countries, she is merely a heretic. But to some Muslim women, especially to those who were born and grew up in secular societies, she remains a hero and inspirational figure, even an example to follow.
Dr. Amina Wadud was born Christian as Mary Teasley in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. She received her BsC from the University of Pennsylvania , in 1975. In 1972 she converted to Islam. By 1974 her name was officially changed to Amina Wadud reflecting her chosen religious affiliation.
The controversy of the Qur’an being interpreted by a woman – She is the author of the ground breaking and now classic Qur‘an and Woman: Re-Reading the Sacred Text from a Woman‘s Perspective – the first exegesis of the Qur’an done by a woman in Islamic history. With it, Amina Wadud provides a first interpretative reading, which not only validates the female voice in the Qur’an but brings it out of the shadows and contributes a gender inclusive reading to the text.
Wadud breaks down specific texts and key words which have been used to limit women’s public and private role, even to justify violence toward Muslim women, revealing that their original meaning and context defy such interpretations. She argues lucidly that the Qur’an does not prescribe one timeless and unchanging social structure for men and women, affirming that the Qur’an holds greater possibilities for guiding human society to a more fulfilling and productive mutual collaboration between men and women than as yet attained by Muslims or non-Muslims2.
Is she a reformist or a heretic? Often, attempts by scholars to question the Islamic classical theology are met by outcry from conservative Muslims. It seems to be an entrenched norm in Muslim societies to label any reformist as ignorant or a heretic. No exemptions were made for Wadud, in this regard. Her book has been met by a big storm, including from Muslim Imams and Islamic scholars in Western countries. She has been accused of undermining Islam from within, even Dr Yusuf Al Qaradwi, the prominent Islamic scholar who used to be considered a “moderate”, described her as a heretic. Ironically, Al Qaradawi, despite his accusation, said there are no theological rules or restrictions to prevent women from carrying out Qur’anic interpretation. However, such allegations of ignorance and heresy have no grounds in Dr Wadud’s qualifications. She received her MA in Near Eastern Studies and her PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies both from the University of Michigan in 1988. Whilst in graduate school, she also studied advanced Arabic at the American University in Cairo, continued with Qur’anic studies and tafsir (exegesis) at Cairo University, and took a course in Philosophy at Al Azhar University3.
Gender Jihad “Gender Jihad” is a term coined by Dr Wadud. The term is of symbolic value in two ways: on the one hand, it stands for the core concept of her thoughts and ideas about equal rights for Muslim women from within Islamic teachings and theology. On the other hand, it draws a positive interpretation to one of the most notorious concepts in current time, the jihad. In a paper written to Musawah Organization,4 Wadud sum- marises her ideas and thoughts about gender equality as follows. To her, equality is a basic principle of creation, as the Qur’an em- phasises on creation of pairs – “the male and the female”, which is why there are equal rewards or punishments to men and women in the hereafter. In the same vein, she sees plurality as part of the divine design, hence, respect for all human beings regardless of their beliefs is a must. She argues that human beings are created with a free will to choose between good and evil. Therefore, the only one who has the right to judge is Allah, the ultimate judge. She attributes the imbalance of injustice in the Islamic world today in terms of women to the fact that women are considered morally responsible subjects in the law without being considered equally as creators of the law. It is a historical fact that Islam was revealed into a context dominated by patriarchy. However, to her, patriarchy is the ultimate violation of divine unity (shirk), because, it not only denies the equality of Allah’s creation but more than that rests on the satanic notion of istikbar, which is to think of oneself as better than another. From this perspective, the alternative concept to the patriarchal relationship comes from the notion of tawhid, meaning that two persons will always be in a relationship of horizontal reciprocity. The logic behind this is that Islam understands Allah to be the only supreme, the great- est. Nothing else can be superior to any one individual.
A reformist in action: Wadud as Imam Contrary to some intellectual and academic elites who prefer producing abstract ideas and theories, Wadud held her ideas out for test, in spite of consequences and reactions that might result. She believes that unless ideas find their ways out of closed rooms, nothing can be changed. Hence, theories and concepts need to be tested to prove their correctness. As a founder of the organisation Sisters in Islam with other intellectual Muslim women in Malaysia, she made a further statement of leading by example.
The organisation is well-known for building awareness of women rights among Muslim women in Malaysia and throughout Islamic communities in the world. Its goal is promoting an understanding of Islam that recognizes the principles of justice, equality, freedom, and dignity within a democratic nation state. Accordingly, fighting polygamy and domestic violence, promoting women’s rights to divorce and for the alleviation of all forms of injustice against women is their field of intellectual activities.
Wadud’s efforts to shake up the entrenched traditional rules that block women from equality exceeded any expectations. In a very astonishing step, she came to address mixed-sex congregations and gave a sermon in South Africa in 1994, ended by leading the Friday prayers. The same was repeated in the United States in 2005. These actions broke with established Islamic law, which allows only male Imams (prayer leaders) in mixed-gender congregations, and triggered debate, Muslim juristic discourse, as well as outcry and rage.
Walking on a road less traveled – Wadud has more than 30 years in the field of Islamic studies. In these years, she contributed an enormous body of work to the Islamic library, including books, studies and papers. Most of her contributions are devoted to promoting and reinforcing gender equality within the Islamic paradigm. Nevertheless, she often faces deliberate disregard and disdain, not only by traditional and conservative ulama, but also by Muslim academics and scholars in the West. Is it because she has come before her time? Or because of the dominance of conservative Islam and the intimidation it creates? Or do her reforms threaten personal interests that cannot be achieved without aligning them with conservatism? Aminah Beverly McCloud, director of the Islamic World Studies Program and Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at DePaul University is of Wadud’s generation and a close friend too. In an article in tribute to Wadud, she questioned the disregard for Amina’s contribution by Muslim communities and her academic colleagues alike:
“Amina Wadud is a truly gifted spiritual leader and scholar who has few to sit at her feet, engaging in her thought. This is a travesty. Her texts are reviewed for other agendas such as feminism or progressivism. What is lost is the trajectory of a scholar on both a spiritual and intellectual path.”
As a Muslim woman who studies Islam, she has always been in a peculiar position. While Muslim communities allow men ample space for growth and development, women on the same path are anomalies as their growth and development is encouraged in service only capacities. Every public appearance is scrutinized for error and if there is one, it is highlighted. Women, too, follow in this negation of the few women scholars that exist. I have seen the thousands who will come to listen to male American Muslim scholars and the financial and academic positions awarded them for their work. Though her thought is original and groundbreaking, none of these rewards have happened to her.
As an African American Muslim woman, her knowledge has always been treated with suspicion by other Muslim women and certainly by Muslim men. The sad part of it is the disdain that women hold for each other, often preferring leadership and scholarship to come only from men. I have observed Muslim women lauding non-Muslim women who study Islam and then watched their disdain for Muslim women in the same or greater positions. I listened to her angst over university “feminists” who denied her an opportunity to teach in their faculty because she is an avowed Muslim and when Muslims refused to listen to or even read her work because it was feminist.
Dr Wadud began interrogating the central text of Islam, the Qur’an, to engage it on the position of women using a modern approach. Whether scholars agree or disagree with her choice of tool, hermeneutics, agree or disagree with her analysis of findings, a discussion should have emerged that transcended “a woman’s reading” or dismissal. Instead, this eye opening and truly critical, reflective reading found resonance with only a few good women.
While I have had many reflective moments regarding Dr Wadud, far too many to mention here, utmost on my mind is the lack of recognition for a gifted scholar. Faculties are not vying for her, students are not demanding, the American Muslim community is not touting her scholarship, and those with financial resources are not providing chairs in institutions for her to continue. Is it because she is African American, American, female, what?
Biographies casually remark that she retired from Virginia Commonwealth but do not narrate the issues. Immigrants demanded that she be fired and threatened her. Because the community, immigrant or indigenous, did not value her, her academic life was dull and her personal life filled with challenges. Though she has never shied away from challenge, there just never seemed to be the necessary space of quiet as people constantly sought to invade her personal space”.
Compiled by Abdulkhailg Elsir
1 http://w w w.calem. eu/Amina-Wadud- doctor-imam.html
2 Oxford University Press website
3 DePaul University Archives: Islam in America Collection: Amina Wadud Papers
4 Musawah (“equality” in Arabic), a global movement for equality and justice
in the Muslim family, http://www. musawah.org/
5 Aminah Beverly McCloud: A jihad for justice, Amina Wadud -Scattered thoughts and
ref lections, written by different scholars