An Interview With Dr. Amina Wadud

This is an interview that Dr. Wadud did during her visit to the Nordic Forum in the Swedish city of Malmö in June 2014. The interview was conducted by “Feministiskt Perspektiv”, a Swedish  magazine. The original interview is in Swedish, and so I translated it to English. 

Amina Wadud became world famous in 2005 when she led both men and women in prayer in New York. She is an Islamic scholar that has produced women and LGBTQ-friendly Qur’anic interpretations. Bella Frank met her during the Nordic Forum in Malmö.

“There is no verse in the Koran that says that men must lead the prayer, there is no verse in the Qur’an that says women cannot lead the prayer.”

The words are Dr. Amina Wadud’s. She is an Islamologist and Islamic feminist and last summer she visited Malmö during the Nordic Forum. 20 years ago, she became the first woman to hold a Muslim sermon, known as a khutbah, for both men and women in South Africa. She is a role model for Muslim feminists and feminists from other faiths who see no contradiction between religion and gender, and she has spent decades producing new readings of the Qur’an and has literally pushed forward the position of women in Islam.

Amina Wadud became known to a wider audience in 2005 when she led both men and women in prayer in New York, which came to be discussed among Muslims and Muslim scholars worldwide. Many called her act anti-Islamic and profane, such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. But she was also supported by others as Gamal al-Banna, the younger brother of the Muslim Brotherhood founder, who argued that her act was supported by Islamic texts and sources. And many Muslims see her as a role model, as can be seen in the book A Jihad for Justice – Honoring The Work and Life of Amina Wadud in which 33 writers, academics, activists and others have expressed the importance that her work has had on their lives.

The Koran from a woman’s perspective

Her personal reading of the Koran developed gradually. She became a Muslim in 1972, earned a  doctorate in Arabic and Islamology in the late 1980s and studied at al-Azhar University in Egypt. She then got a post at the International Islamic University of Malaysia and it was there, during meetings with “Sisters In Islam”, that questions were raised about the role of women, especially pertaining to the Islamic rituals : For example, what did Islam say about where women inside a mosque should pray?
The main question in her first book entitled the Qur’an and Woman, which was released in 1992, was simply whether it mattered if the Qur’an was read from women’s perspective.

The conclusion : Yes it does.

“The reason for this is that women and men have different experiences, not least because of patriarchy, ie the privileges of men and men’s way of being and thinking”, she tells me when we meet in the sunny lobby of the Triangle Scandic Malmö hotel. One of the examples she gives is that when the Qur’an speaks of Mary giving birth to Jesus, it is described through Mary’s internal process. But despite the fact that men can not bear children, it has only been men who have interpreted this verse and its meaning and it is thus this lack of experience that becomes problematic.”

“Experience tells us something about what it means to be human, and if the only way we think about what it means to be human is from a man’s perspective, there will be gaps. So I thought that there was a possible gap in how we understand a text which is more than 1400 years old and that is central to the Islamic world view of Islamic law and Islamic cultures, and that in 1300 years we only had reports from a male perspective and thus there were probably some things that we had missed.”

“One of the problems is that for so many centuries, women were absent in the official reading of the Qur’an. In Islam there is a tradition of ijtihad, which means “effort”, that is, the effort to try to understand God’s word, usually undertaken by scholars who find new interpretations of the law based on Islamic principles. The sources are the Qur’an, but also the Prophet Muhammad’s life, which is recorded in the hadith.”

“However, if the principal architects of it happen to be male, it means that the way they interpret texts will include a privileged spirit of their experience of the text, their thoughts and ways of being. To add a gender inclusive reading also means that what we believe is the primary source can no longer be taken for granted – because of human effort to understand it. It is a human effort to understand it, the effort is not divine, yet the conclusions drawn have been given divine sanction,” she says.

Sermon led to long studies

She explains that her driving force behind her Qur’anic studies was her love of the Qur’an, its language, and a willingness to understand. So she therefore studied first “tafsir”, interpretation. So the focus is on understanding the Qur’an and not in the areas that are closely related with Islam, such as law and culture. But Amina Wadud realized that she could not stop at merely reading the Qur’an, and the need to move from interpretation to the application became increasingly clear. However, a step that could have appeared as a logical extension of the thoughts of the application, namely that she as a woman also participate in the rituals that usually have been reserved for learned men, was not a planned decision.

The first time it happened was eleven years before the acclaimed prayer in New York during a lecture tour in South Africa. Just 45 minutes before it was time for the friday prayer, she was asked to speak and to give a so-called khutbah at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town. It was an event that led to much debate around the world, but instead of participating in these debates she devoted the next decade to intellectual and spiritual studies, where she contemplated within herself and asked questions about what it meant both for herself but also for Islam and for other Muslims.
“It took eleven years before I would again agree to not only keep preaching but also lead the prayer, and do so a very public way,” says Amina Wadud.

One of the questions she wrestled with is that in Islam, prayers are directly between the believer and God without any intermediaries. So why does it then matter where men and women stand in the mosque? Why is it important that a woman can lead the prayer when she is still able to communicate with God directly? The answer that Amina Wadud arrived at is that an important part of Islam is its collective rituals, and that the leadership roles of these rituals had been wrongly been assigned men. “This has no basis in the Qur’an,” she says.

“There is no textual basis for it. There is no verse in the Qur’an that says that men must lead the prayer, there is no verse in the Qur’an that says women can not lead the prayer, there is no hadith that says women can not lead, nor is there any hadith that says that men must be those leading the prayer.”

Can no longer be ignored

When she led the prayer at the Synod House in New York in 2005, it was to bind together the inner and spiritual aspects with the public and political external aspects. Although it is still very rare for a woman to lead men and women of prayer – it happens, but mostly in the smaller circles of reformist Muslims – something has fundamentally changed.

“Now everyone is talking about it, everyone. Even if they only speak about it to say that they disagree with it. In other words, it can no longer be ignored, and for me it is a very big milestone that one can no longer ignore that it exists and it is great,” she says emphatically.

In the book “Inside the Gender Jihad” in 2006, she writes about her experiences as a black woman and a Muslim working as an academic in universities in the American South, and the experience of growing up as a poor black girl and the struggle for social justice which she inherited by her father who was Methodist pastor. For Amina Wadud, Islam is a fight for social justice and she has described her long work with Islam, justice and gender as being closely linked to her father. It is now more than half a century ago that he took her to what would become a defining moment for her, and for the struggle for social justice. The year was 1963, and the event was Martin Luther King’s march on Washington.

“It was a pivotal moment for me. It was hot and we stood at a monument where there was no shade to shelter us from the sun and people kept coming up on the stage to make speeches, and as a child I did not understand what it was they were talking about.

“In my blood and in my heritage there is a close relationship between faith in God and social justice.”

Allied with the LGBT community

Amina Wadud’s work with a gender inclusive reading of the Qur’an has also inspired other groups of Muslims to initiate readings based on other issues of sexual orientation, such as queer and LGBT. Amongst others we have Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, who has written the books Homosexuality in Islam and Living Out Islam, and groups like the El-Tawhid Juma Circle in Canada.

“We do not need to separate our religious selves from our sexual orientations just because there is a heteronormative. Muslim societies have been predominantly heterosexual but there has always been diversity, it’s just that some have been marginalized and have therefore remained invisible. I am allied with the LGBT community. Humanity is not only limited to heterosexuals, and a Muslim has no priority in their faith over another Muslim exclusively for where they happen to be on the heteronormative scale.”

This implies a questioning of dichotomies previously presented as self-evident and where fundamental choices have been explicit. The choice between being a feminist and a Muslim, the choice between Islam and human rights or the choice between being gay and being Muslim. The alternative to such dichotomies are what she calls radical pluralism and horizontal reciprocity. Radical pluralism is all about praising diversity and equality at the same time, and also about breaking privileges : privileges that have to do with gender, race, class or ethnicity.

“Radical pluralism evens out the playing field and it is uncomfortable because it means that you can not always get the best place, you can not always get the best light, the best air or the best water. Sometimes you have to share it with others, and it can also mean that you get less, or you will not get anything.”

“We must be willing to understand that until the playing field is equalized, those who have privileges must accept that they have them, and then stay away from them,” she says.

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