Q&A: Amina Wadud
The Islamic Feminist reformer called the Lady Imam:
“Everyone has the agency to interpret islam.”
Ruskeat Tytöt got an exclusive interview with the US-born Amina Wadud, one of the prominent thinkers of the new Islamic Feminist movement. The world-renowned theoretician, also called the Lady Imam, was invited to visit the University of Helsinki this past April by the academy fellow Mulki Al-Sharmani.
In the Islamic world, criticism against the patriarchal interpretations of Islam has increased in recent years. It must be noted that gender relations and rights have been subject to discussion within Islam throughout centuries, and women’s rights differ a great deal according to different religious, social and political contexts. However, the new movement is arguably more pronounced and organized than ever before.
For the Islamic Feminists, it is important to combine religious framework with human rights. Religion itself is not a problematic framework that causes oppression, however, the people who interpret it may do so. The Muslim Feminists aim to change the situation through academic research as well as grassroots activism and organized movement. For example, in South Africa, progressive Muslim leaders have embraced this movement and named it “Gender Jihad”. In Indonesia, an organization called Sisters in Islam has organized women to advocate for more equal rights and laws, and Musawah is a world-wide Islamic Feminist movement which aims to widen the Muslim feminist network, with mutual help and knowledge building.
This “third way” of Islamic Feminism aims for a reform from within Islam. You can trace the beginnings of this movement back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when the above mentioned grassroots movements were established. Unlike secular muslims, the proponents of this third way of Islamic feminism do not want to abandon faith for improving women’s circumstances. On the other hand, supporters do not want to repeat Islamist Feminist views that Islam is already equal enough as it is. For the new Muslim Feminists, it is more a matter of taking agency into one’s own hands: an attempt to dismantle centuries of patriarchal interpretations of Islam by male scholars’ misogynist lenses. Islamic feminists believe in the subjective nature of knowledge building and attempt to read and interpret the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sunna through the lenses of women and minorities.
The advocates of the third way are a heterogeneous group of Muslims; religious, secular, varied nationalities, from different Muslim denominations or diverse intersecting identities. They are often critical towards Western feminists’ stereotypical views of Islam and Muslims, who often see Muslims as silent victims in need of help in removing religious shackles.
Amina Wadud is one of the most important scholars and reformers of Islamic feminist interpretation. She completed her seminal PhD at the University of Michigan in 1988, and the book Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective was published in 1999. In her scholarly work she investigated the Qur’an and Islamic sacred sources from a woman’s position. According to Wadud, the Islamic sources have been interpreted throughout the ages almost solely from the patriarchal framework upholding the masculine power structures. Because of this, many current practices uphold a view that a man is above a woman. Wadud and other Muslim reformists demand new readings of the primary sources from women’s and queer people’s viewpoints. Wadud has been the first woman to give a khutba and lead a prayer for a mixed congregation, which further establishes her work as groundbreaking.
You have said that when speaking of Islam and Feminism, it is important to define what is meant by these concepts. How do you interpret them?
I define feminism with the quotation from Simone de Beauvoir: “Feminism is the radical idea that women are human beings”. The reason why I wanted to define feminism first is because then we then also have to look at the ways people construct notions of what it means to be a human being. As a Muslim, I use Islamic sacred sources to talk about human beings as persons created by a Creator with the intention of being the khalifa of God on Earth. The khalifa is an agent, the one who fullfils the divine will and the divine will is to live in harmony with all of the creation and the Creator.
So, both women and men are created to be moral agents on the Earth. The problem is that throughout history, philosophy and historical texts have been dominated by male thinkers and leaders by altering the definition of human beings to only privilege themselves. I use the qur’anic statement in order to remove the idea that a woman is somehow depended upon anyone else for her agency - it’s directly from God, she’s directly made fully human from God.
A lot of people think of the divine will as a bunch of do’s and don’ts – halal and haram – but I see that the divine will permeate every living thing on the Creation. We are living things on the creation so we have an organic capacity to live morally and ethically. So I am not better than another person regardless if I argue or disagree with them, whether they’re a good person or a bad person or I’m good or bad.
Islam is sort of a sacred pact between Allah and every created person directly. This relationship is unmitigated by anything. If we have a direct linkage with Allah, the only thing we can have in action with other people is one of equality and reciprocity. Actually, equality and justice are organic, they’re natural, they’re scared, they’re divine.
Disrupting equality and justice is an ethical sin. It is a common ethical sin, not just in Islam, but in other doctrines and religions.
How did you get the courage to do your own interpretation and create this paradigm in a religious framework that has historically been very hierarchical in who can interpret it?
I didn’t understand feminism in that applied way to my own faith’s choice until I took agency to think about how Islam is constructed. I understood that there are multiple constructions across time and place. We all have the agency to participate in the construction of Islam today.
I am a black woman living in a racist society, purposely and intentionally covering myself in a recognizable Muslim way, pursuing, achieving and excelling in the area of scholarship where there have not been enough women. I lived in Malaysia for a long time, and there I learned and became involved with how women live in relation to certain legal systems, as well as cultural systems, where Islam is used as a tool for patriarchy. I didn’t have mentors, I didn’t have fellow hijabi sisters, I didn’t have other African-Americans who could help me grapple the entanglement of forms as an African-American Muslim woman in the 21st century.
That is my life journey, really, which is long. My coincidence of conversion in the ‘70’s lead me to read the Qur’an five months after I had taken shahada and falling in love with the Qur’an. My life goal was set then because I really wanted to understand this text and that led me not only into the study of Arabic, but I also completed my Master’s degree and PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies, lived twice in Arabic speaking countries, and did intensive studies in Arabic for ten years, give or take a little gap while giving birth to my kids.
Eventually, I focused on communicating and claiming that at no point in history has any one person ever had the divine sanction to make exclusive claims about the qur’anic meaning except the Prophet – peace be upon Him – who received the revelation of the Qur’an. I understood that the interpretation of sacred texts is not strictly restricted to those who have beards. So, to become competent, I grew my confidence by studying Islamic Sciences for twenty years.
Up until the 20th century, only men’s interpretations had been accepted as official analyses, although the multiple translations contradicted each other frequently. I wanted to demonstrate what it means to not only read the text as a woman but read the text for gender. I teach my students that all texts can be read to see how gender is constructed in them.
I was trudging a previously uncharted path. I didn’t trudge it because there were no prior footsteps, I simply placed one foot in front of another on a path that I was compelled towards through my reading, my spirituality, my body, my location.
I don’t think that we are doing a very good job of renewal. We tend to resort back
to a nostalgic alignment to some utopian vision of Islam that never really existed.
Who have been role models in your work?
I was quite fond of the book by Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani scholar and philosopher, who was given a hard time in Pakistan because his understanding of this phenomenon called the ‘revelation’ didn’t align with the more conservative interpretation in Pakistan. So he came to the US and wrote quite a number of books. One focused on the major themes in the Qur’an and in it he talked about a methodology that was helpful for me because if we look at the qur’anic statements, each statement has a moral objective. How that moral objective was put into implementation and interpreted or understood at the time of the revelation, may not be the same way in which these principles are manifested in the modern era. Therefore, he recommended a much more dynamic, new way of reading.
I think it is interesting that I had no women as mentors, my PhD committee was made up of only men, and all of my teachers in the graduate school in Islamic Studies were men. Also, the field of women’s studies did not deal with Islam in any coherent way. It is curious that there were no women at all in the trajectory, except for maybe a kind of a tacit inspiration for me.
The Sufi theoretician and mystic Rabiyya al-Adaweyya very much inspired me through her spiritual independence and excellence - but not in an academic sense. I did get from her example, the ownership of my own soul, my own spirit. I have the capacity to live the life that I aspire to, through my own relationship with Allah. That relationship with Allah is of no use if it cannot be put into implementation fil ard, on the earth.
What kind of reform is going on Islamic Studies, in your opinion?
Islam has gone through reformation at various points in history. We are now all members of this phenomenon called the nation-state and that many of us only got here after a period of gross and civilizational violence called colonization. We can no longer view Islam in isolation from other events. We cannot examine Islam apart from ideas of empire or think of Islam as superior to other religious traditions. So in this reform, we should aim to come to a place of radical pluralism and at the same time still maintain the same level of devotion to Islam.
I don’t think that we are doing a very good job of renewal. We tend to resort back to a nostalgic alignment to some utopian vision of Islam that never really existed. I want all my utopias to be in the future. This reform movement needs a dynamic, vibrant relationship with those sources, that is in absolute harmony with current realities. Islamic feminism is an important part of that reform movement. So aligning Islam with its own principles and values in a world that is as chaotic as the world is now, is a really good objective. I will go on with the niya, the intention to do good to establish this khilafa, this agency, and to make sure that everyone else gets to have that agency.
We should create such political, educational, spiritual, devotional, economic and environmental systems that will integrate at a level much higher that is calibrating anywhere on the planet right now. I would like to see Islam as an ingredient in the transformation of the planet Earth and all its inhabitants.
I think Islam has always had that goal, but I think that by the time we came out from colonialism, we were satisfied to be compartmentalised within the nationalist ideology of the time while trying to integrate some idea of Islam into it in order to give superiority over the colonising and imperial West. Consequently, Islam has now become reactionary in its relationship with the West. Instead of having a trajectory of Islam deriving from its own crucial moments in history and sources, we are reacting all the time.
We should strive to be in a place that is more compassionate and more tolerant, but right now we as Muslims are our own biggest enemy. It’s not Islamophobia or even Western imperialism that is our biggest enemy anymore. We’re the only ones holding ourselves back.
I think that the field of Islamic studies needs a dynamic overhaul to integrate awareness of the challenges that we are facing with the trajectory of the sources and their principles to help better our future. It’s not going to be happening by those in power, it’s not going to be the governments. It’s definitely not going to be the patriarchy. We have to realise that authority belongs to every person, it does not just belong to a select class. Anyone can interpret Islam.
We can’t be complacent and lazy. We have challenges all the time, but the beauty is that we continue to make progress together, although it may be a constant back-and-forth movement. This really is a formula for the future of Islam.
How do you combine academic work, activism and spirituality?
When you’re in the ivory tower, in the academy - you are able to split the hairs regarding this discourse without any pragmatic implications on social contexts, policy matters, or human rights issues.
It could not land a job in my field of expertise in the US as a hijabi and a woman of color. Also, the philanthropic relationship between the United States and Muslims and Islamic Studies is complex and difficult as it is. So, al-hamdulillah, Allah didn’t see that path for me.
Beginning to work in Malaysia brought my work to a completely new level: my scholarship was challenged by the realities of cultural and political context. I began to see that in order to reach actual reforms, I needed to push in more pragmatic and coherent ways. In Malaysia the most important turning point for me was learning how to link my interpretative trajectory with the need for reform and policy in the context of Muslim personal law. I was simultaneously blessed with amazing friendships, amazing women and also amazing men, which became the international feminist movement Musawah. It was a pivotal turning point.
My spiritual turning point on the other hand, took place when I was invited to South Africa in August of 1994. Nelson Mandela had been in office for a hundred days when I got to South Africa and the atmosphere was stirring. There were progressive men who were working on what they called the gender jihad, and they invited me to give a khutba in a mosque in Cape Town. The reason why that was spiritually transformative for me was because when the invitation came, intellectually I had no precedent, I had no way to even conceive of an idea like this, it just hadn’t occurred to me.
I wasn’t thinking about history, but rather my first thought was: “Why me?”. It didn’t have to be me and I am so clear on that. It just happened to be me. When you are looking for equality and reciprocity, any Muslim who prays and knows how to pray, can lead prayer.
Islamic communities can embrace this non-hegemonic way of prayer leadership. Because the Imam is not a leader, the Imam is a functionary of prayer. We can all be as close to Allah as our hearts are. It does not matter if you pray in the back line or in the closet.
Text and pictures: Mona Eid