Amina Wadud - Reformed theology
Amina Wadud is a retired Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University with a progressive focus on Qur'an exegesis and an activist for gender equality
Few people combine solid academics with strong activism and gentle spirituality as smoothly as Amina Wadud. She’s the daughter of a Methodist minister but this feisty American woman converted to Islam when she was twenty. Some forty years later, after a noted academic career, she travels all over the world to support processes of emancipation in the Muslim world – specifically in issues related to gender inequality. As such she networks with the many women worldwide who are trying to transform some inequitable situations in their own countries.
“But I don’t only talk about women.” She tells me as we’re sitting in a hotel in Brussels. “I’m trying to envision a sort of ethical framework of what it means to be a human being.” In fact she’s visiting the capital of Europe to lecture during a three day conference on LGBT in Islam, organized by the Belgian grassroots organization Merhaba. “Most of my work”, she continues with her soft warm voice, “is in some way or another related to a sort of broad ‘moral thrust’. So I’ve been trying to challenge age-old ideas that certain inequalities would be part of Islam in various aspects of life.”
In a conversation I once had with Natacha Atlas, this famous singer told me she thought the world at this point in time was in a mounqaliba, a state of reversal. In other words, she sees signs of ‘devolution’ in our society. After all the work you’ve done and after having travelled all over the world to support many emancipatory efforts, do you have a more positive outlook or do you also think that, because of the expanding dichotomization of this world, were spiraling down into a problematic world?
I do see some heightened emphasis on the dichotomy but I’m much more optimistic. And particularly when it comes to women’s involvement in the reforms in their own lives. I’ve seen things come to fruition that I couldn’t have imagined ten years ago. And even as there are some challenges to this positive thrust forward, I see a greater connective force for Muslim women. And I love meeting young women who have just gotten engaged in the process because they make someone of sixty, like myself, even more hopeful that it will continue in a positive way. So despite some of the backlash I feel that we’re on the move and that the move is inevitable because the non-sustainability of the things we’re facing. And it is becoming clearer to many people that the gender inequality is one of those unsustainabilities of society. It’s almost as if time itself has proven the mandate of gender equality.
In what measure is Islam a force in this search for equality. Do most of the activists ‘happen to be Muslim’ while they get a wave of feminism going or is it a specific strand of Islam that they’re creating?
I think it’s a combination. There are some people that strongly believe that the way to be successful is to leave Islam out of the formula. In regards to gender issues particularly, they rely on certain human rights instruments. So there was a time where you could not have both Islam and human rights but that was simply because nobody interrogated what Islam really means and who decides. On the other side, some people never interrogated human rights and just supposed that these texts weren’t useful simply because they were constructed in the West. But over time many people have come to see that there is no problem to reconcile the different approaches. The two really aren’t mutually exclusive at all and that in the end you do not have to ‘chose’ one or the other. So there is no need to ‘prefer’ human rights over Islam and therefore throw away Islam. All we should do is ask ourselves the question ‘who decides about the way Islam should be lived?’ and then we should ask: ‘why would I not be able to question some of those authorities?’
Would you then propose some sort of ‘Islamic liberation theology’?
I myself do not use the term because, the way it manifested itself within Christianity, liberation theology was a force for those in a state of oppression. But I do not assume a state of oppression. Instead I assume a state of misrepresentation, misinterpretation and misappropriation. So there is nothing to be ‘liberated’ from. There is simply the need to reclaim the authenticity of Islam. And that’s an aspect of social, political, economic and spiritual transformation.
That’s why I prefer the term ‘reformed theology’. This is not the same as what is often called ‘liberal Islam’ because ‘liberal Islam’ looks at Islamic theology as well as other articulations of human well-being and liberation and then says: “why don’t we take up those understandings of liberation and move forward?”. But the methodology of a ‘reformed theology’ explicitly looks at the entire Islamic corpus. It specifically takes the responsibility for weighing the advantageous aspects of that classical legacy while at the same time challenging biases and misappropriations. It will question the intellectual and philosophical roots of injustices and will question the work that is done under the pervasive patriarchal thrust of human civilization – but from the sources, which means that a ‘reformed theology’ will make use of the Qur’an and the life of the prophet to attack aspects of misappropriation.
Let me give you a small example: I myself have been leading our local community in prayer. You will hear people who categorically say: “In Islam we women shouldn’t lead the Muslim community in prayer.” But the question must then be asked: “How do you come to those conclusions? What is your evidence?” And when you look back, you’ll not only see that Qur’an does not prohibit women from being imam or the lead of prayer but also never said they had to be male. Likewise, the prophet never prohibited women and never said it had to be a man. So if Qur’an and Sunna have no explicit confirmation of that opinion, we have to wonder how we came to that opinion. The answer is that it originated out of juridical interpretation. But if the primary sources do not advocate the conclusion of the juridical interpretation – to say nothing even of the diversity of opinions within the juridical interpretations – you have the right, and in fact even the mandate, to interrogate that finding and to challenge the notion that it is or isn’t Islamic.
I once read an article of yours that put forward Aisha, the prophets wife, as a female example to reinterpret the gender equations in Islam. The article didn’t go too far into the subject however. Yet to me, as a Christian, it seemed like a very good idea. From within my own tradition I’m used to having saints put forward as examples of how to handle certain issues from within our tradition and faith. Saint Francis is one of those examples. The Fransiscan inspiration is an immense legacy for the Christian tradition when we’re thinking about our faiths relation to ecology. Some sort of ‘Aishology’ would therefore make sense to me as an Islamic inspiration for the discussion on how to handle the equality of man and women.
The article you refer to is called “Aisha’s legacy”. But that title was given to me. I would never take a title like that myself as I have a problem with the use of precedents to ‘prove’ certain things. We for example don’t have a historical precedent of a women’s interpretation of the Qur’anic texts until the 20th century but that doesn’t mean women aren’t supposed to interpret Qur’an. The difficulty for women to pursue a scholarly career had nothing to do with divine sanction but was simply a matter of logistics. As a women alone you could not bundle up your possessions on the back of a camel and travel to Baghdad when you had some intellectual cravings. Today however, we have the internet and planes and all that kind of stuff, so there is no problem anymore for anyone to go and seek knowledge, get degrees and so on. Should we then not allow women to pursue more knowledge simply because they did not do it in the past?
As such I do not base arguments on precedent or specific examples. I argue on the basis of an example. It could be a female example that benefits man and it could be a male example that benefits women. In my Qur’anic exegesis I base this on the wording of the text in Surah 66 – At-Tahrim – where it says: “Allah gave an example to those who believe”. It is in the male plural because that is the only form which is inclusive. In Arabic it is only the female plural which is exclusive. So that means that the examples given, even though they are all female examples, apply to all believers and thus also to men.
I am therefore not interested in examples that serve only a specific group of people, but I look for examples that are able to help us achieve human excellence and that are able to help us fulfill our purpose in this creation. If it could be reached by a human being, then their example is for all human beings who are trying to achieve that excellence.