Amina Wadud on Justice, Gender and Islam

For more than three decades now, I have given these three words a great deal of earnest consideration: Islam, Gender and Justice, writes Amina Wadud. I have also organised these three words in accordance to whatever priority I felt was most impelling at the time. Because of my enduring love for Islam as a member of the faith by volition, a convert in the 1970’s, the emphasis on Islam as the priority remained constant for the better part of my first 25 years in the gender struggle. Recently, however, the question has been radically reshaped in the form of “whose Islam?”

For “Islam” is not a monolith. It is difficult to articulate a single, simple form of what Islam is even with references to the Qur’an, the most sacred of our own primary sources, or the Sunnah, the second primary source. Rather they both and Muslims, collectively, throughout our history and in the present, participate in multiple meanings of Islam. Indeed it is unfathomable to think Islam could have remained static throughout its 14 centuries, or across its more than one billion followers. Consequently, I now waver between ideas about “gender justice” in Islam or I simply question the notion of justice and the polemics of its applications or misapplications in the context of gender.

Ultimately, my notion of Allah, Lord of all the worlds: inward and outward, upholds only the truth of unconditional justice for all. To transform those practices and ideas in Muslim history and throughout its sapient traditions that have not privileged the status to any human being over another is to acknowledge the very notion of the sacred that I believe is essential to “my” Islam. I willingly accept and respect that my interpretations of Islam are born out of my lived experiences, and that they can correspond or distinguish themselves from other lived experiences of Islam. In this respect, I enter discourses over Islam, justice and gender through the variety of interpretive perspectives that yielded distinct consequences over both the meaning of Islam and its applications in the context of gender.

I published Qur’an and Woman1 after my graduate studies on the absence of sex-role stereotyping in the holy text. I emphasised three main points. The first point is that interpretation of the text is an enduring yet constantly evolving dynamic of the history, faith and praxis of Islam and Muslims. In order for the Qur’an’s “guidance for humanity” to be transformed and remain pertinent, Muslims as makers of new histories in contemporary circumstances must continually engage in textual analysis and the means of applying that analysis.

Qur’anic interpretation is necessarily an on-going process that sustains Qur’anic principles and guidance in their relevance to each historical reality. This also implies that the realities of the historical, cultural and epistemological context of the Qur’an’s revelation in 7th century Arabia are unique to that circumstance. What we must do in order to follow the precedent established by the Prophet’s first community in Madinah is to live the realities of our collective experiences and to apply the interpretive ideas that result from our reading of the text, its interpretive legacy and those realities.

It is not a goal to relive the realities of the Prophet’s Madinah by rote. They can never be duplicated. Rather, the realities of contemporary history, culture, and epistemology must be taken into full consideration for Qur’anic interpretation. If these realities are not a part of our textual analysis and application, it could render the sacred text irrelevant such that it would fail to fulfill its role as guidance. As a believer, I find the irrelevance of the Qur’an impossible. I can, however find many aspects of interpretations and application irrelevant without the active intervention of the contemporary community of Muslims.

The second point of my interpretative considerations emphasised the effects of an historical absence of female voices in the interpretive process for most of our intellectual legacy. Some have erroneously taken this absence to mean irrelevance of female voices or experiences in determining meaning and application. Just as women and men are seen as distinct within the Qur’an and within Muslim cultures, then women’s perspectives might be distinct as well. One way to bring about a more complete human articulation of textual meaning would be to include women’s voices and perspectives within the interpretive process and to sustain those perspectives as integral to our intellectual legacy. It was a simple task to demonstrate the female inclusive nature of the Qur’an.

The third major point of my interpretive work synthesizes the first two towards a more liberating theological dynamic of practical importance. It is here that I place my ideas about strategies and implications of female inclusive articulations of the traditions in concert with their experiences.

I do so by an insistent reiteration of my own faith based perspective on religion and society. Humans are in a special position to determine textual meaning as well as the very notion of the divine author of the Qur’anic text, Allah. Women’s experiences are part of what it means to be human. Throughout Muslim history however, men have dominated the construction of Islamic thought yielding certain perspectives on the notion of the divine. Their perspectives have acquired an authoritative force equal to what should be preserved to Allah alone. Men speak for the divine, and Muslims, male and female, are held accountable for these male perspectives.

It is blatantly apparent that the results of male domination over the very meanings of Allah and text have been a major determinant of women’s inferior status within Muslim histories and cultures. Women have been silenced, shunned, mutilated and even killed, following these primarily andocentric interpretations and applications. They are disempowered as individuals, members of family and community, as well as in their primary responsibility as khalifah, or agent before Allah.

To correct this injustice it is necessary to include women’s perspectives and experiences in analysis and application of textual meaning. On the practical level this means that women must also be empowered to participate in all levels of Muslim governance and culture. Empowering women to participate in the structural development of government, as well as in implications and applications on social roles in relevant cultures, means women’s full rights in terms of policy and development, and women’s full rights to self determine their role in the family and the society at large.

At the present time, it is painfully clear that women’s roles are presumed to be fixed and static and the best a woman can do to have a meaningful experience is to carve out that meaning in the margins of a prescribed and perpetually sustained cultural prison of male privilege. I do not anticipate this radical reform and paradigmatic shift will occur in my lifetime. However, because I do think it is possible, then I am inclined to continue to promote the ideas that can help towards such a reconstruction.

The way Muslims think about Allah bears important consequences on the way we think about ourselves as human beings. The way we think of humanity as a whole implies something about our notion of Allah. To do so on the basis of a Qur’anic inspired ideal, Muslims should acknowledge both our position as servant (‘abd) and as agent (khalifah) before Allah.

Service - which results in the kinds of social, political and economic constructs we apply to our daily lives cannot be completed unless agency - full and active participation in human civilisational structures is seen as mutually significant in the make-up of a complete human being. I have been inspired by an intimate relationship with the Qur’an for more than three decades to conclude unconditionally the need for progressive reforms over women’s and men’s equal partnership towards creating sustained development of ideas, structures and spiritual well being in the context of Muslim affairs and cultures.

Amina Wadud (PhD) Professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Qur’an and Women: Rereading The Sacred Text From a Woman’s perspective

This article was originally published in IFID-Friday Note Programme-parts 3 & 4-London, 2005

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