Amina Wadud’s Path to Islamic Feminist Thought and Activism
Amina Wadud is Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies, Visiting Scholar, Starr King School for the Ministry
As a dread-locked Afro-American, Amina Wadud doesn’t resemble the stock media stereotype of a Muslim cleric. With a drawl hinting at her Maryland upbringing, and her slang-laced critiques on mainstream Islamic thinking on gender roles and sexuality, she doesn’t sound like one either. To Muslim conservatives and Western commentators obsessing over the hijab, or Islamic veil, she counters with her ‘hijab mantra’: “If you think that the difference between heaven and hell is 45 inches of material, boy will you be surprised.”
Such tart talk, from a woman, and a convert to the faith, no less, may not sit well with hidebound Islamic scholars, but it’s helped make Amina Wadud into the Muslim world’s most famous—and infamous—feminist scholar-activist. Since early 1992, when she published Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, she has been a major figure for scholars and activists around the Muslim world seeking out values of gender justice and equality in Islamic texts. She first attracted global attention in 2005, when she lead men and women together in prayers in Manhattan’s St. John the Divine—an assertion of female clerical authority that shocked even many liberal Muslims. The sheer act of leading men in prayer brought denunciations by leading Muslim clerics, death threats, a pornographic email, and a blog clocking an ‘Amina Wadud Death Watch.’ At one conference, shouted down by a conservative as a “devil in hijab,” she withdrew her paper.
Our guest blogger, Carla Power was the moderator for the Power Shift 2016 session: Reinterpreting Holy Texts. Carla’s book: If The Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Born Mary Teasley to a Methodist minister and a housewife, Wadud converted to Islam practically by accident. At 20, home on break from her undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, she walked into a neighborhood mosque in Washington D.C. At the time, she’d taken to dressing conservatively, wearing long skirts and covering her hair in African wraps. The men in the mosque assumed that her modesty meant she knew about Islam. She didn’t, but she found herself taking the shahadah—formally bearing witness that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is his Prophet—and so became a Muslim.
She didn’t begin reading the Quran for months, but says when she did, “I was smitten.” The transformation was not merely spiritual, but physical. For four years after converting, she wore a niqab, or face-veil—“the first face-veil in the city of Philadelphia,”—which she now thinks was a coping mechanism for a “country girl,” overwhelmed by the big city’s din. The veil gave her quiet, and for those four years, she didn’t talk much. “I was in serious spiritual retreat,” she says.
Islam offered the convert a refuge from the realities of being young, black, and female in early 70s America. For Wadud, the religion’s mystique had nothing to do with the equality and justice she would later unearth in it. Instead, as for so many African-American women converts, Islam promised “masculine honor and protection of the raised pedestal.”
The pedestal never materialized. By the time she went back to graduate school, she had already filed for a divorce from her first husband, and was supporting her two children, first on unemployment benefits, then by working as a substitute teacher in Philadelphia schools. Through this, she forged on with her study of Arabic and the Quran. For her PhD., she attempted what had never been done before: to write an exegesis of the Quran from a woman’s perspective. Going back to the text, she found a bedrock of social justice, the makings of “a balanced and shared society.” For Wadud, the Quran has the flexibility to adapt to 21st century notions of gender equality. It is a book expansive enough to be at once a document of its time— 7th century Arabia–and all time. “I’ve approached it as an African-American living in the 21st century,” she once explained to a group of Quran students in Oxford. “And guess what? The text held up fine.”
Wadud may not be the only scholar to have produced a feminist reading of the Quran, but her work as an activist means her feminism has had the broadest impact beyond the academy. Beginning in the late 1980s, when Wadud was teaching Islamic Studies in Kuala Lumpur, a group of women began meeting to read the Quran with Wadud as their sheikha, or scholar. Using Wadud’s theological guidance, the women formed Sisters in Islam , which remains today perhaps the world’s preeminent Islamic feminist group. In 2009, they established Musawah, a global organization dedicated emppowering Muslim women, and in particular reforming Personal Laws in Muslim-majority countries, the laws relating to divorce, inheritance and custody often based on sexist medieval interpretations of Islamic texts.
In more recent works, Wadud has written on how contemporary realities mean traditional interpretations of classical texts need revision. The classical Islamic legal formula on household gender relations—that males are providers and heads of households, and women are dependent on them for shelter and protection—no longer hold in many homes, she’s argued. Whether in the case of woman-headed households, or in households where both spouses work, the old formula for male protection in exchange for female submission no longer works for the 21st century.
Like other Muslim progressives, Wadud reads her Quran not as an inflexible series of rules, but as a guide to a faith preaching justice, equity, and harmony. Her scholarship—and the activism it inspires—derives from two key Islamic concepts: surrender and Allah’s unity. Islam means ‘to surrender to God,’; a Muslim, in Arabic, literally means ‘one who has surrendered.’ Wadud’s sees Muslims as being in a state of ‘engaged surrender,’ to their creator. Where traditionally, the stress has been on pious Muslims ‘surrendering’ to prescribed interpretations, Wadud’s stresses divine will balanced by human agency.
Wadud’s Quranic reading also hinged on the central Islamic principle of tawhid, or the absolute unity of Allah. Wadud framed what she called her tawhidic paradigm, illustrating the relation between creator and created as a triangle, with Allah, at the apex, holding human beings in a horizontal line of equality.
In a metaphysical sense, Wadud’s tawhidic paradigm establishes equality and justice under God. In a practical one, it has provided a structure for her activism. The tawhidic paradigm led her to question mainstream readings of verse 4:34—the infamous Quranic passage that Musawah has called the “DNA of patriarchy,” since it establishes male authority over women. When Saudi law regards grown women as minors, when a Nigerian woman is forced to accept her husband’s second wife, when a Malaysian cleric condones domestic violence—that’s fallout from 4:34. Pointing to tawhid, and bolstering her argument with other Quranic verses that stress equality and reciprocity rather than authority and subservience, Wadud challenged 4:34’s centrality in Islamic law and custom.
In recent years, her thinking on the ‘tawhidic paradigm’ has led her to one of the newest frontiers in progressive Islamic thought: the campaign for LGBTQI rights. Working with other imams and activists, she is starting a major project investigating Islamic primary sources on sexual diversity and human dignity. Now in her fourth decade of excavating Islam’s guarantees for equality and justice, Wadud continues to breathe new life into the act of reading classical texts, and to use them to live a fulfilled life as a feminist and a Muslim.