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Islam and Gender

General Assembly 2007 Event 3014
Speaker: Dr. Amina Wadud, professor, Islamic Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University

Dr. Amina Wadud began her talk titled "Islam and Gender: The Slippery Slope of Interfaith Dialogues" by offering a prayer in Arabic. "I always begin in the name of Allah," she said. "It's especially important to seek the grace of God in these and in all matters."

Wadud is currently professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and is known for her feminist interpretations of Islam. Wadud has even led Friday prayers at a prominent mosque in New York. When Rev. Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King School for the Ministry, introduced Wadud, Parker noted that, "Dr. Wadud has often had to arrive at public speaking engagements in armed cars with bodyguards." The audience greeted Wadud with a standing ovation.

"The word 'Islam' is used in many ways," Wadud said, and while there may be validity in all uses of the word, there can be deficiencies in some of the ways the word is used. For example, "there is a tendency to reduce Islam to whatever the culture" of the person speaking, and then insisting that everyone else adhere to the speaker's definition regardless of cultural differences.

However, Wadud said, "the tendency with regard to the definitions that come from outside, which are really problematic" is that outsiders, i.e., non-Muslims, tend to emphasize violence, repression, and other negative images of Islam. "You can't reduce Islam to its worst elements," she said, adding, "I don't want to be straightjacketed by the outside or the inside definitions of Islam."

Wadud prefers a different, more universal definition: "Islam as engaged surrender." By "surrender," Wadud said she does not mean submission. "We are agents of God as well as servants. The emphasis on being servants means we are supposed to be reflecting God in our actions, and in our God consciousness." Outsiders emphasize what they think Muslims cannot do, but this is an incorrect way of understanding "surrender."

"We are required as humans to consciously surrender," Wadud said. "And conscious surrender is a lovely paradox. You don't just give up into surrender. You actually voluntarily participate in the surrender." She stated that, from an Islamic point of view, humans were created on earth as agents or a trustees of God, and therefore "it is our responsibility to act in way that shows our constant remembrance of God in our lives and our responsibility towards recognizing that our ultimate destiny and judgment does not rest with individuals alone," but rather with collective humanity, and with the creator.

The concept of agency, that human beings are agents, has implications for feminist interpretations of Islamic law. For much of Islamic history, women were subjects not agents. But Wadud pointed out that the Qur’an does not distinguish between the creation of women and the creation of men. Thus, while patriarchy subjugated women, Wadud stated that such subjugation "is not valid when you look at the text" of the Qur'an.

Turning to another basic tenet of Islam, Wadud cleared up misconceptions about Islamic understandings of monotheism. Considering the linguistic derivation of the Arabic word, it is a dynamic term. "God is not only one," she said, "but God is unique and God unites all things in creation." To capture this dynamic quality, Wadud said she prefers "unicity" to the usual English term of "monotheism." She stated that, considered from the perspective of gender, it is not possible to sustain the unicity paradigm and to sustain gender inequality.

"If God creates humans and affirms for us an equal participation," she said, "then there is no role that can be made exclusive to one or the other," either to men or to women. She excluded basic biological functions, as biology does not necessarily determine social roles.

According to Wadud, the principle of reciprocity was based on the principle of God's oneness. That is, when human beings are considered in relation to God, all human beings exist on the same level. She called this "horizontal thinking." However, the early history of Islamic culture allowed "hierarchical thinking" to creep in.

Wadud said that it has been "difficult" for some Muslim men to let go of their privileged position. "But if Allah is akbar," she said, i.e., if God is supreme, "then any person who puts themselves above another person" has violated the principle that Allah is akbar.

Wadud then turned to possibilities of constructive interfaith dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. She said "the idea of commodification of Islam and gender versus what I call constructive interfaith dialogue" has become problematic. "More money and material resources has been put into this most sensitive topic," the topic of Islam and gender, than seems possible.

She said that the money and resources are being generated from two main sources. On the one hand, there are "neo-conservative extremist" Muslims who are very wealthy, and who are "seeking to control Muslim women but also the discourse on women." On the other hand, there are wealthy and well-organized "Islamophobes." Wadud said that these two groups are mutually reinforcing each other in their efforts to promote a vision of Islam that denigrates women.

"I'm not shy to say that I have no tolerance for either group," Wadud stated. She said that each of these two groups would like to silence people like her who assert that Islam does, in fact, promote the essential equality of men and women.

"The best they can do is to deny me their money, which is in agreement with my basic principles," Wadud said. Nonetheless, "the slippery slope of commodification" has become "a major concern for the integrity of my work" as a feminist Islamic scholar.

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.