Interview with Amina Wadud, American Muslim Feminist
Amina Wadud is an African American scholar of Islam and a prominent Muslim feminist.
The daughter of a Methodist minister in Bethesda, Maryland, Amina converted to Islam at the age of 20 after studying several world religions. Amina’s focus is a progressive re-interpretation of Islam and a break from patriarchal readings of Quranic text. She has pioneered female-led sermons and mixed-gender congregations all over the world, from American university campuses to South Africa, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, and India.
As female imams are not permitted in mainstream interpretations of Islamic law, Amina’s activism has often triggered significant controversy. In 2005, she gained international notoriety after leading a mixed congregation in New York City. Amina has a Bachelor of Science from the University of Pennsylvania, a Masters degree in Near East Studies and a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Michigan, and has accreditation in Arabic language, philosophy, and theology from Cairo University and Egypt’s famous Al Azhar University. Amina was kind enough to take the time to speak with Euphrates for an interview—here, we find out more about her work and vision.
Hi Amina, thank you for taking the time to speak with us! So, having been brought up as the daughter of a Methodist minister in Bethesda, Maryland, what led you to convert to Islam?
I was introduced to religious diversity in a way that really piqued my interest—people did not all worship the same way, and I just found that fascinating. I went to high school in New England and I lived with a Catholic family, two Unitarian Universalist families, and a two Jewish families. How human beings identify with religion interested me when I attended a church other than that of my father.
In college I became fascinated with eastern traditions and became Buddhist and lived in an Ashram for about a year. Then I started reading about Islam and became Muslim—and here I am 42 years later still a Muslim.
To me it seemed like a part of the search of understanding. I am still on that same search, but I find the answers from Islamic theology satisfying.
There is a widespread perception in the Western world that Islam is oppressive to women. What do you make of that?
I tend to focus on the ways in which oppression manifests through religion, including through Islam. I do not equate the practices of patriarchy with God. We must also remember that there is evidence of gender oppression in all religions.
More important for me are the ways in which the notions of patriarchy get linked with the notions of religions, particularly Islam. My lifelong effort as a Muslim has been to disengage that connection between God and all forms of discrimination. Not just sexism, but racism and nationalism and xenophobia and homophobia and class elitism, the caste system, apartheid, and everything.
Humans are flawed, but God is the complete manifestation of everything we can imagine as perfect, and yet there is an intimate relation between that perfection and our imperfection. So we have the possibility to aspire to eliminating the patriarchy, sexism, races, homophobia, etc.
You advocate a new and progressive reading of Islamic scriptures. Could you describe some of the main points of this reinterpretation of the Quran?
So I found it peculiar in my initial research 30 or 40 years ago that we do not have a record of women’s responses to the sacred texts. I thought that might make a difference, presenting the possibility that we could do a different reading.
I have been working on what I call “reading for gender.” What I showed was it makes a difference who is reading a text, and a woman’s experience of the text is going to reflect something about her experience of being a believer.
So if we say that this is communication from a divine source, from God, from Allah for humankind, to all of us—male, female, not just Muslim—maybe we missed certain things about understanding the texts by not having a woman’s voice in textual interpretation throughout our intellectual legacy.
So that’s where it started and the next level is: how do we incorporate this so that everyone gets it, male and female?
You have experienced a lot of opposition as a woman prayer leader. Some accounts describe death threats when you tried to lead a mixed-gender prayer session. What was that like for you?
That was pretty curious—there I was leading my life when all of a sudden there was all this brouhaha afoot. While there were no direct death threats, I was treated as if there might be some threats, and it alerted me to how the sensationalization of certain things can sidetrack people from the most important message behind those things. People really like the sensationalism, but the point about female ritual leadership could get lost or be taken out of proportion to its significance, which is the affirmation of the full humanity, human dignity, equality, and justice of each person, even in rituals that may have, by historical practice, been exclusively led by men.
I don’t see another way that this could have been done at this point in history. A quiet conversation about it—which by the way had already occurred—did not seem to have an impact the way this event did. I kind of accepted it as one way to bring the conversation to the table.
Are there a lot of men who support your vision?
Most of the people that I am around are OK with it, both women and men. What is interesting is the degrees to which a person can make an outstanding commitment. By that I mean not that they are going to talk the talk but walk the walk. Are they going to participate in mixed gender prayers? There are more and more of these sprouting all over the globe. Are they going to orchestrate them, actually let their community know that they are moving toward women as leaders? There are a lot of people who are supporting it but not doing much about it.
Then there are people who are experimenting with the deconstruction of hegemony in ritual leadership. The purpose is to realize that if every worshipper is worshipping God and God is present everywhere, then there really is no such thing as a prayer leader. It’s just a functionary role, but it reflects something about the position of the community with regard to its own feelings of authority and we need to reflect on that. Then when we realize that somehow we are dong a disservice, either to the community or to God, we need to change that.
Watch Amina talk about what led her to feminist activism and prayer-leading.
Recently, especially in the wake of the Paris shootings, there is a recurring debate about Muslim identity in Western countries—can you be a modern German or French citizen but also a devout Muslim, for instance. What is your take on this?
I think that we haven’t really learned how to figure out what it means to be multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious in a world where there are sometimes conflicts around some aspects of identity. There is always going to be something, because identity is one of the big existential questions of our time. “Who am I? Why am I here?” Because we have not learned to live it, I am not one of those people who would promote it as a necessary criteria for how we grapple with identity.
How can ordinary Muslims today help combat extremist ideology?
Because of the most recent situation in Paris, I have allowed myself to feel more fully the frustration that these things just continue to occur and no matter how some of us might want to promote other ideas with regard to Islam, this keeps happening. Ziba Mir Husseini, working on gender issues and the birth of Islamic feminism, made an interesting point once—when you see these extreme expressions of Islam come out and claim the right to represent all of Islam for everyone, it actually helps people to think about “Well, what is Islam? How is Islam represented and what is my part in that representation?”
So when people are able to say “this is not my Islam,” it begins to allow for the complexity that naturally exists within the community to not be seen as threatening to the community. This way, we begin to accept that diversity. When we do so, we find that we are more adamant that these kinds of extremist manifestations don’t represent us. When we get clear on that, we marginalize these kinds of expressions to an extent that nobody this extreme will get any kind of favor from the community.
So eventually, there will be more people who will turn toward moderate expressions of Islam. This is like a wake-up call; because of something like this, people have to move beyond complacency, just getting along. It’s a horrible wake-up call—that is: who is representing Islam, and WHAT is the Islam that they are representing? And how do they represent YOU as a Muslim?
So I see this as a way for Muslims to actually examine the whole process, because I don’t believe that a terrorist is born one week before an event. The question becomes one of how do we look at the process of raising human beings to their own well-being and examining where we have gone short, not just in terms of religion or Islam, but also in terms of humanity at large. What is it that we are doing that we are creating serial killers and extremists in the domestic context, shooting guns when it is not war?
I am prayerful that some good will come out of it. I do not think—I am not the person to say—that you had to have something horrible happen in order for good to come. I think that we could have gone to the good and not had any innocent people hurt or killed. But it has happened, and out of my dissatisfaction of looking at these events and knowing that this comes from my own community, it does create in me a mandate to pay more attention to how I would like to promote a kind of inclusive Islam, and where I promote it. That is, not just amongst my own.
So the way that we need to keep that conversation going, even in ways that may not be that comfortable, in such a way that we do not allow for this kind of extremist expression to take shape and actually operate. So I am only hoping for the best possible outcome regarding it, that it is a learning tool.
Amina is the author of two books, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. She is currently a visiting scholar at Starr King School for the Ministry in Oakland, California.