Islam, gender equality and human rights are compatible – this is a basic conviction of Amina Wadud, author of several books about Islam and women. Martina Sabra interviewed the Islamic feminist at a recent conference about "Women power in Islam" in Germany
Professor Wadud, in 2005 you produced a world-wide media hype because you publicly lead a gender-inclusive prayer for Muslim men and women in New York. You received hate-mails from all over the world, there were even bomb threats. Looking back, what do you think about the events today, and what are your conclusions from what happened?
Amina Wadud: First of all, I wasn't the first Muslim woman to lead a mixed prayer. But the Sharia has determined by majority opinion that men should be the leaders of all rituals in public. I have been working in concert with more progressive Muslims, who lead mixed prayers. This is something that has been going on among the Sunnis for some 20 years – so it is maybe not very well known, but it is practiced by others. The New York prayer was intentionally done to bring in the experience of women as prayer leaders. The rationale is that some of the rules which we have practiced are not rules which are part of the Koran or the Sunna but they have become a part of culture and history. And those things can be changed from a religious point of view.
There was a great deal of media sensation. But the prayer is a kind of worship, an intimate relationship with God, and it is difficult to do it just for the sensation. It is very difficult to organize mixed prayers, because you need Muslims who want to pray together, and you need a place. You want it as an expression of being a Muslim, but you don't want it to be politicized. So in order to integrate these things, I sometimes rather say no when I am asked to perform a public gender-inclusive prayer. In private, smaller settings – yes.
Until the age of twenty, you were a Christian. Your father was a Methodist minister. Today you are one of the best-known Muslim reform thinkers worldwide. Why did you become a Muslim?
Wadud: I was always interested in theological ideas. As you're saying, my father was a Methodist minister. I was raised as a Christian and very, very interested in ideas about God, about morality, about human nature and about spirituality. So before converting to Islam I was a Buddhist, and lived in an Ashram and practiced meditation, which I still practice today. When I was twenty, I stepped into a mosque not far from where I lived. I wanted to know about Islam. I am very interested in the relationship between the profane and the sacred.
For me, Islam gave me a language, and actually Arabic was an important part of it – it gave me the language of tawhid, the language of God's intimate relationship with the creation, but also the power to bring harmony to things which are disparate. That for me is the epitome of surrender. Islam helped me to understand my experience with Christianity and Buddhism. It is a reasoned revelation. This is maybe not for everyone, some people have a more simplistic understanding of Islam. But this is how I lived it.
When I was given the opportunity to study a little bit about Islam, I was very impressed, especially with the Koran. For me, the Koran opened up a relationship between my logic, my reasoning, my understanding of the world, my love and desire for nature, and for the world beyond the world, for the unseen. And so I have developed my work specifically with the area of Koran and gender, and that is the area that I think it is sort of a gift to me because it is something that I love doing.
As a child, you witnessed the civil rights movement in the United States. As an adolescent, you say that you were very conscious about personal freedom and intellectual independence. Wasn't that in strong contradiction with the conservative mainstream Islam of the seventies?
Wadud: Certainly, I faced many contradictions. The struggle to be Muslim was easiest at the beginning, when I made the transformation from my post-Christian, post-Buddhist state into being a Muslim. Then, knowledge was the main impetus. Now it is more difficult, there is more that I understand and therefore more responsibility. My perspective is part of a reform and that makes it sometimes difficult because it is not mainstream.
When I first began to work on things that I considered to be gender mainstream, or gender-inclusive, the notion of Islamic Feminism had not been discussed. I wrote "Qur'an and Woman" in the end of the eighties. In fact, many see the book as the beginning of female-centred exegesis of the Koran, which is an important part of what we now recognize analytically as Islamic feminism. Muslim women are not all interested in Islamic Feminism. Some of them are not even interested in being Muslim. For me, I have not had a problem with Islam so much as I had a problem with the way in which Islam is practiced. And that this kind of Islam can sometimes be aggressive against women's full rights.
But again, you have to understand that this is a new phenomenon in its name. Whether or not women accept that name – I myself never go by feminist – I always go by pro-faith, pro-feminist, because I am trying to combine the two things: the relationship with God, and the relationship with God as a woman.
So when there is patriarchy we must dismantle the patriarchy, not to replace it with something equally unequal, but rather to truly establish relationships of reciprocity between human beings no matter what their agenda or their perspective and that's where we are finding ourselves in a new terrain where this work is going in many different countries where women and men, Muslims and non-Muslims, but clearly understanding that it's not possible for God to create a call to him, her or it, and that call does not equally include women and men.
In your writings, you often refer to Christian and Jewish religious thinkers, among others Paul Tillich and Martin Buber. In your books "Qur'an and Woman" and "Inside the Gender Jihad" you defend pluralism, the freedom of opinion and the right to be different from an Islamic perspective. According to your writings, the Koran should be re-read from a gender perspective and in the light of its historical context. Yet, the Koran is considered to be eternal and unchangeable. How does that match?
Wadud: I think that unless you have had a real connection with the Koran, you will not understand how it is a force in history as well as in spirit. You will not be able to understand that there is a cooperation between the reader and the text. You will say that there is some flaw with methodology. But you have to understand that the readers can use the text for whatever they want, because there is a dynamic relationship between the text and the interpretation. The text is both created in time but also evolves beyond time.
Could you give an example of how that works in practice?
Wadud: We are now participating in a global reform movement for a Muslim personal status law, and the very fundamental basis for that yields back to the egalitarian trajectory of the Koran. The Koran did not complete that in the context of the prophet's lifetime. But the Koran is not usurped by even its own historical context. But some people have grown up in a culture where the Koran is used for a narrow and restrictive interpretation so they consider that interpretation the only interpretation. And that's problematic from my perspective. My work has shown that the interpretation is never complete. Meaning is never fixed.
The Koran as an open structure – where do you draw the line between hermeneutics and arbitrariness?
Wadud: What has happened in modernity after the enlightenment is a more rigid demarcation of the text that loses its flexibility historically. So I don't want the text to be limited to this post-enlightenment interpretation. I don't want the long legacy of interpretative works to be disregarded. I do however see that the necessity for the inclusion of gender as a category of thought is something that is unique post-enlightenment. And in that respect what we are doing is that we are looking through our own historical lens, and our historical lens is as legitimate as any other historical lens, and our historical lens is also limited, in that we are not projecting into the future.
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