The controversy continues to rage over Amina Wadud, a woman Muslim scholar, who recently led Friday prayer services in New York. Her case is ultimately not about gender and prayer, but about religious tolerance, says Luthfi Assyaukanie
Dr. Yusuf Qardhawi, the Egyptian Muslim scholar and TV preacher, has criticized Wadud for violating 14 centuries of Islamic tradition. Similarly, the Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Seikh, has declared Wadud to be an "enemy of Islam" who has "violated the law of God" (Associated Press, 19/3). In addition, Egyptian and Saudi newspapers published reports about the service on their front pages and referred to Wadud as a "deranged woman" who was collaborating with Western infidels to corrupt Islam.
These reactions are distressing as they show how Muslims are both closed to change and are paranoid about modifying religious tradition. In particular, their reactions are extreme, for in addition to derision and criticism, Wadud has received death threats for 'corrupting' Islam.
While Muslim scholars have been debating issues such as wearing headscarves, the un-Islamic nature of bank interest, euthanasia and interfaith marriage, the reaction to Wadud supercedes all these debates in that she is the first woman who has been bold enough to actually put into practice an issue of such dispute in Islamic law.
Historic progress is inevitable
The excessive reactions on the parts of Muslim religious leaders, intellectuals and others, indicate that they simply refuse to learn from history. Similarly, almost all Muslim scholars since the start of the 20th century have prohibited bank interest, criticized working women and family planning, and banned certain technologies – all in the name of religion.
However, historical progress necessarily outweighs such conservative views which always work to prevent change. In my view, despite the paradigmatic resistance to change in Islam, the acceptance of "woman imam" is just a matter of time.
For example, though Egyptian scholars criticized Muhammad Abduh, a Muslim reformist figure, for allowing bank interest, and criticized Ali Abd al-Raziq for arguing that the caliphate system is not Islamic, many Muslims now accept their formerly controversial views.
Prohibition of women imams not part of religious doctrine
Today, certain Muslim intellectuals and scholars agree that the prohibition against the idea of woman being religious leaders is a consequence of male domination in patriarchal Arab society. In other words, it is not an element of religious doctrine given by God but a socio-cultural construct.
Thus Dr. Khaled Abou el-Fadl, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence from the University of California in Los Angeles, asserts that there is no actual prohibition in the Koran which forbids women from becoming imam.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia, Sheikh Husein Muhammad from Cirebon believes that woman can indeed lead mixed gender prayers. In fact, the objection to mixed gender prayer ultimately has no basis since in the most sacred place in the Muslim world, the Masjid al-Haram of Mecca, men and women pray together.
Muslims must learn to accept different views
What we unfortunately learn from this case is that Muslims are, in the main, rarely capable of accepting different opinions – particularly in terms of religion.
In fact, Wadud was only able to lead a Friday prayer because she was in America, and even there she had a difficult time finding a venue due to the threats from other Muslims.
It would have been impossible to organize such an event in a Muslim country. And again, even in America, the prayers had to be conducted in a church and protected by security guards because of the threats of violence from fundamentalist Muslims.
Hence, what we discover, yet again, is that Muslim's are prone to use violence or threats of violence as a means for expressing religious beliefs. We urgently need to change this combination of intolerance and extremism.
Wadud deserves our support. Her case is ultimately not about gender and prayer, but about religious tolerance. In order to appreciate the fundamental values of liberty and democracy, Muslims need to learn to accept that specific visions and interpretations of religion are open to change – that religious traditions are not static.
© Liberal Islam Network 2005
Luthfi Assyaukanie is author and lecturer at Paramadina University, Indonesia. He is also a member of Liberal Islam Network, an Islamic organisation that promotes religious tolerance and a liberal Islam.