Dr Amina Wadud to SHAFAQNA: Feminism in Islam – inside the mind of a progressist

SHAFAQNA- Labelled as oppressive and repressive by those who fail to grasp its true meaning, Islam has, contrary to western belief stood and professed women rights; long before the very notion of civil liberties ever graced the shores of Europe and North America.

The issue of women in Islam is a topic of great misunderstanding and distortion due partly to a lack of objectivity on the part of western society, but also Muslims ‘own lagging and lacking in abiding by God’s laws.

To better understand and cover such a controversial topic, Shafaqna turned to Dr Amina Wadud, a prominent American scholar, professor of Islamic Studies and writer.

An Islamic scholar, author and activist, Dr Amina Wadud,  started life as Mary in the Southern State of Maryland in 1952, at a time when being black in America meant living under the shackles of racial hatred and social inequalities.

An inquisitive teenager, Dr Wadud said to have been pulled toward religion and philosophy from a tender age, so keen she was on making sense of the world around her.
“I was closer to my father than my mother. I got a lot of inspiration from him on the sacred. I was a seeker and practiced Buddhism for a year, then I started reading about Islam and that’s where I am now,” she said.

A progressist, Dr Wadud has dedicated her life work to defending and promoting women rights within the perimeters of Islamic law.

Her books, Qur‘an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, and its sequel, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, have been seen as definitive texts in progressive Islamic thought on the role of women in Islam.

As a Muslim woman, a Muslim scholar and a writer, where do you position yourself vis a vis gender bias in the Islamic world? Do you believe it to be a cultural issue or a spiritual one?

From my perspective, Sharia is thoroughly patriarchal. … You cannot legislate with regard to the well-being of women without women as agents of their own definition. And Sharia was not concerned with that construction. Sharia was happy to legislate for women, even to define what is the proper role of women, and to do so without women as participants. So obviously that is a major flaw. And the only way for that aspect of Sharia to be corrected would be a radical reform in the way in which it is thought.

Islam is not singularly a correct thought or orthodoxical system. It isn’t just satisfied with right ideas about belief. It is necessary to have orthopraxis [the belief that right action is as important as religious faith]. It is necessary to have right actions. The idea, then, behind Sharia originally was how do we arrive at those right actions? That idea is still good and necessary.

It is true, however, we were not always able to promote right actions for all time and all places by our efforts in earlier centuries or in diverse circumstances. So we need to have a dynamic notion of Sharia, which includes past jurisprudence; obviously includes our primary sources; but includes all of these things, with radical reformation in thought, so that they are interrogated as to their applicability in our new circumstances.

In my books, I’m talking about the subtleties of reforming the [Islamic] laws for equality and justice, not just for today but forever. My first book is on the Koran and attempts to address the tension in certain Koranic passages, of justice – the interpretation of justice, or Musawah.

That dedication to researching the traditions of Islam to achieve a progressive Islam which is a wedding of traditional Islamic thought and postmodern thinking, allows for the reformation of Islamic laws to achieve greater justice and equality for women and children.

Shafaqna – Can you articulate the emergence in western media and society of this ideological debate on political Islam?

I don’t actually understand the resurgence of Islam as something out of the ordinary. It has been popularized this way but it is instead part of a historical continuum. Islam throughout history has contracted and expanded at different times in response to a number of internal and external factors.

We live in a post-colonial globalized society where everything has become an expression of the politics. Capitalism has played a key role in reforming how people relate to one another, each other and the state.

The question of Islam and democracy has been a very strong component of the resurgence, articulation of Islam. That is also one of the reasons why it’s deemed to be a political resurgence, even though I think that the stronger components have to do more with sort of a psycho-spiritual re-identification of the Muslim self in the context of modernity. Modernity means politics, as well as economics. But also it has to do with the basic definition of what it means to be human.

Shafaqna – You have often called for a more “progressive view” on Islam. What is progressive Islam? And does such a philosophy can be reconciled within the pre-determined perimeters of Islam?

There is a very strong articulation among a select body of Muslim intellectuals and activists to literally progress Islam from some of the places where its thinking and its vitality have been throttled from the dynamism that I think is inherent in Islam. I think Islam itself is a progression. I think it progresses, in one sense, metaphysically, before the beginning of historical Islam, but certainly, in a radical way, with the first revelation to prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

The idea of that progression being arrested by a number of disruptions, like colonialism, has caused what we in the West have sometimes identified as a resurgence. But actually, in a sense, it has just been a reclaiming of our own trajectory. Our trajectory is to continue to move towards the betterment of our own humanity, as representatives or trustees or agents of the divine.

There are times when we have lost sight of that. And as a consequence, we have simply mimicked that which we have brought from the past or that which we have seen so palpably around us, and have not grappled intellectually with the ways in which our heritage has actually thwarted our possibility of moving forward in the continued trajectory that I think is part of the dynamic of Islam.

… There are thinkers who will intentionally grapple with the complexity of preserving the integrity of the Islamic tradition … combining it in a dynamic way with what it means to encounter all of these complexities of modernity or postmodernity. I consider these people to be progressive intellectuals, and I consider that their articulations have many common features and that their goals are very similar, in that they are trying to preserve Islam. But they’re not trying to preserve a singular understanding of Islam that came from, say, the Medina time of the prophet.

So how do you both sustain the integrity but allow for, and in fact promote, dynamism? That’s progressive Islamic thought.

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