Amina Wadud: Gender in the Quran

Today I followed a Twitter seminar on the topic “Reading for Gender from the Quran” based on the teachings of the Islamic Scholar Amina Wadud. This was a lecture delivered by Tweets – you followed the hashtag #femquran — on Islamic feminism, reading for gender in the Qur’an and other valuable lessons. The lecture was based on a workshop on the same topic held in May 2013 in Kuala Lumpur.

I’ve always been fascinated with studying the Quran in terms of how the original verses compare with the translations and interpretations that have emerged, most of them with a distinctly chauvinist flavor. There are several prominent female scholars of the Quran who are taking the Quran back, as it were, and reinterpreting those verses truer to the original intent of the Quran to give men and women equal status. One of those women is Professor Wadud; another is Laleh Bakhtiar, whose “Sublime Quran” I have ordered from Amazon and can’t wait to read.

I’m also particularly excited about the field of Islamic feminism: women interpreting the Quran for a more balanced perspective about how the Quran applies to us. I think reclaiming the Quran in this manner is the only way for Muslim women to truly achieve the equality we have been denied for so long by men who do not want us to step out of our second-class standing because it suits them to have a slave class sanctioned by religious text.

Professor Wadud is a Muslim scholar of long standing, and has addressed mixed-sex congregations in Cape Town and led prayers in 2005 at a US mosque – something women traditionally are never allowed to do; her brand of Islamic feminism argues that women can be imams. For Pakistanis, it’s good to know that the Pakistani scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi supports her stance, as well as other progressive Islamic scholars around the world.

She was most recently the source of controversy because when she went to India, fundamentalist Muslims in Tamil Nadu protested her presence and her lecture there was canceled. She posted a short essay called “Why I Try to Stay Away From The Media” saying that the media had made a huge deal about the protest in Tamil Nadu, ignoring the entire year of work she’d done without problem all over India.

Beginning her lecture, Dr. Wadud said, “Part of taking agency with our own belief is engaging with Qur’an. This is an eternal relationship with the Divine.” And she assured those of us following her lecture that nobody would be able to use the words of the Quran against us (as women). In fact, she said, women need to claim their own authority in order to add to the understanding of our tradition, and of Allah.

She recommended the book ‘Ulum Al-Quran’ as a very good introduction to Quranic exegisis, then noted that the Quran continuously chastises 7th century Arabia, the time and place that the Prophet, an ordinary person with extraordinary experience, lived. “Might it not be possible that Quran addresses that culture?” she asked.

She went on to give some background into the history of the Quran: “Within one year of the Prophet’s death, the revelations were compiled into one large manuscript with the leadership of Abu Bakr. The manuscript went to Umar, next Caliph, and on to Hafsa bint Umar (Hafsa the daughter of Umar), and then to Uthman, the next Caliph after Umar. And what we have today is the perfect revealed text – the original text is as it is. It is the primary source of Islam”

Dr. Wadud warned her listeners: “Just because you grew up speaking Arabic does not mean you can give an authentic interpretation of the Quran. Just because you are a ‘Quran specialist’ does not mean you are the only one who has the understanding.” (These are the usual excuses many male Islamic scholars give when excluding women from the discourse on religion and the Quran). Arabic is a prerequisite science to understanding the Quran, said Dr. Wadud. “But it is a classical Arabic that nobody speaks.”

She also explained Sunnah as the normative behaviour of Prophet is related to the 7th century context, not just in his relationship with Allah. Therefore we can consider Sunnah as the living embodiment of Islam.

Then came more explication about how the Quran’s language works: “God speaks in meta language, through the stories in the Quran. Metaphors are used to communicate the revelatory experience.”

Earlier verses of Makkah period are emphatic about the Oneness of God, of the Divine (the concept of Tawhid that all Muslims are familiar with), while the later verses of Madinah period are more practical, and meant for 7th century Arabia. According to Dr. Wadud the idea that Madinah verses have more authority than Makkah verses has been refuted. In fact, the earlier verses are more universal – and this adds weight to their importance and timelessness, whereas the Madini verses are more practical, and addressed Arabs living in the 7th century.

(And the major mistake we make as Muslims today is taking those verses out of context and trying to apply them to our lives today – slaves and concubines, for example, do not exist in modern life, but in 7th century Arabia they were a reality, and so had to be addressed. This does not mean that Muslims today can take slaves and concubines, though – and you’d be amazed how many people come to my blog with the keyword search “Can I have a concubine in Islam?”)

Dr. Wadud then turned to the issue of gender in the Quran. “In the Quran, the use of gender-neutral language is virtually impossible because the Arabic language has gender markers.” Moving from these gender markers is a real challenge. Amazingly, in the Quran, Allah refers to Himself, Herself and in the plural (that blew me away when I read it!). And according to Dr. Wadud, “Grammar is literal, not an ideology.” In other words, if Allah refers to Himself, or in the plural, it is not meant to be taken literally – as Allah has no gender and is only One.

Addressing the issue of how women have been squeezed out of the religious conversation, Dr. Wadud asked, “Doesn’t the female have a relationship with God? There are consequences to leaving the female out. We need to interrogate this.” She added that nowhere in Quran nor does the Prophet say that the leader of prayer has to be male. “Where does that come from? We have been duped.”

The Quran, said Wadud, mentioned 35 prophets by name but there were thousands of other prophets. “The thousands of other prophets could have included women. Why can’t we imagine this to be a possibility?”

Dr. Wadud said that Quranic language ascribes the masculine form neutrality, and called this a matter of linguistic convenience, not gender privilege. “When someone says this is what the text means, you have to ask how they came to know that. It is your job to question.”

Here is one of Dr. Wadud’s most important points: All gender inequalities in the text refer to 7th century Arabia and what Quran was trying to achieve at that time. Justice is relative. And when it comes to resolving contradictions between verses, Dr. Wadud recommends that we resolve on the side of justice – “then you’ll be an active participant in meaning-making.”

According to Dr. Wadud, “Accept contradictions in the Text. They are context-specific. They are not universal, not intra-Quranic, and not Divine.”

Dr. Wadud exhorted us to “Be dynamic, be passionate. Be an active participant in meaning-making. Consider all angles, all nuances. You are relating with the Divine.” The Quran is a revolutionary text. There’s more text about social justice and women than any other. But “We let it fall behind, to dis-use.” A living, dynamic eternal text, the Quran’s trajectory is towards greater and greater social justice, said Dr. Wadud.

The Quran is not a conditional text. It does not give conditions. It is jurists that imposed conditions through law. (No prize for guessing which gender those jurists have been throughout time).

Turning to some of the more troublesome aspects of gender in the Quran, Dr. Wadud addressed the issue of whether or not the Quran sanctioned wife-beating (as so many use 4:34 to argue that it does). “Men don’t hit women because there is a verse in Quran,” said Dr. Wadud. “Men hit women because they have issues with self-control and violence.”  The problems begin when men who hit women go back to Quran to justify their actions. Whither the intrinsic spirit of justice in Quran?

“We need to look at not just Quranic tafsir but also at fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) to understand what certain terms in the Text mean. Fiqh is man-made.”

There are many meanings to the term ‘darab’, Dr. Wadud pointed out. “Laleh Bakhtiar found over 30 meanings to ‘darab’. Who actually decides what meaning, what impact?” (‘Darab’ is the word in 4:34 which has been traditionally translated as ‘beat’ but Islamic feminist scholars translate it as ‘separate’).

Instead of going with what’s been traditionally told is the correct way to interpret the Quran, Wadud exhorted us to “take a ‘conscientious pause’ (first coined by Khaled Abu El Fadl). It is a requirement of true faith, a moral responsibility.”

“If you hear or see anything and cannot in your heart keep faith in Allah, you must observe a conscientious pause. If you feel you are not comfortable with something in your faith, observe a conscientious pause. It is not lazy, not an excuse. You don’t get to say ‘I don’t like that!’. An emotional response is not what is being sought, but a moral response.” And Wadud said that a conscientious pause was a moral phase because “you are going to actively seek a greater, fuller understanding.”

On feminism, Dr. Wadud had this to say: “Feminism may be historically rooted in the West, but it had its limits. It faced many challenges inevitably. Diverse global cultural contexts required a redefinition, even debunking of accepted version of feminism introduced by the West. So we see this historical trajectory, and that is Islamism –> secularism –> Islamic feminism.”

There are many people who say there is no such thing as Islamic feminism, or that Islam and feminism are contradictory terms, but Dr. Wadud believes otherwise. “Islamic feminism is a modern innovation. It came to us in late 1990s. It is modern, it is now because we are living in the now.” According to her, Islamic feminism uses gender as a category of thought, as a tool to interrogate ideas, concepts, goals, etc to decipher truth.

Dr. Wadud went on to question how we define ‘the human being’, saying that it must be true for all human beings. “To define ‘the human being’ as ‘male’ is problematic. To define the human being as male is to exclude women or make them somehow deficient, be an ‘other’, be deviant. To define the human being as male is to make women out to be other than fully human.”

The process of including everybody when making a definition becomes problematic. There are inevitable consequences, said Dr. Wadud. For example, “If you understand the Prophet to be receiver of knowledge and therefore the parameter, how to deal with issues of menstruation?”

Whether conscious or unconscious, blanket definitions are problematic, exclude, divide, have consequences that are dangerous. Such definitions should say something to you about the speaker. Such definitions are not ultimate human reality/realities.

Dr. Wadud addressed women specifically when she said, “Your life is an ultimate source of reality. Your biology is an ultimate source of reality. Nature is an ultimate source of reality.”  And that what the Quran says about the Creator is unique, not gendered. “What Quran says about the ultimate human being – all levels of existence occur in duality, i.e. yin yang. There is no [gender] hierarchy. “ She repeated: “What our Sacred Text says about the Ultimate Human Being: there is no [gender][hierarchy.”

Instead, the ultimate human being is both male and female (min kulli shay’in khalaqnaa zawjayn). “As a man or a woman, we are trustees of the Divine Will. As a human being, you become a moral agent on earth.”

Addressing the question of whether or not Islam is a fair religion, she stated: “Islam is about upholding ethics, justice. And that consciousness (taqwa) leads to a certain type of behaviour judged only by Allah.”

According to Dr. Wadud, the Quran is explicitly gender-inclusive in all stages of life, death and the afterlife. The umbrella term to encompass all this is Tawhid.

“Tawhid therefore includes elements of oneness, unity, uniqueness. Tawhid is not a method. It is the foundation of social justice. If Tawhid is the theological basis, then a system of ethics (Maqasid of Shari’ah) becomes the methodological basis.

“Islam is emphatic that there is NO intermediary between Allah and you (woman or man). Islam is emphatic about the fact that there is horizontal reciprocity between woman and man,” said Dr. Wadud. And she claims that “It is strategic, it is wise to decide on a case by case, issue by issue, nation by nation, etc basis.”

All citizens have same rights with respect to implementation of any law.  All citizens have same rights with respect to the reform of any policy that denies, prohibits or limits equality. And the “Buddhist principle of transcendence will also help understand Tawhid. We can understand this through other faiths.”

Today, reasoned Dr. Wadud, there are many who claim women’s roles at home (private sphere) are equally important as men’s as leaders (public sphere) But if women’s roles in the home are so important, why isn’t everyone clamoring for that role? Why isn’t there more competitiveness? Dr. Wadud rejects this “complementary” model of gender roles, saying, “The complementarity model is unequal. It is vertical, cannot be exchanged, people’s roles become fixed.”

“Equality isn’t about sameness,” continued Dr. Wadud. And the last word?  Islam does not advocate gender hierarchy.