Middle East studies in the News
The Quiet Heretic [on Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University]
by Thomas Bartlett
Amina Wadud is awesome. Amina Wadud is a crazy woman who has never read the Koran. She is a courageous rebel, a role model, a pioneer. She is an embarrassment to the Muslim world, a heretic, and a blasphemer. She deserves our support. She should be diced to pieces.
The praise and the venom poured in from around the world, all of it directed at an associate professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who, on a Friday afternoon in March, did something revolutionary: She knelt on a small rug, folded her hands in her lap, and prayed.
What was remarkable wasn't the prayer itself but the fact that Amina Wadud had deliberately broken a centuries-old Islamic taboo against women leading men in prayer.
The event was designed to provoke strong emotions and that is exactly what it did -- stronger than perhaps its organizers or Ms. Wadud had expected. In the following weeks, she had to contend with hundreds of interview requests (she turned them all down) and an overwhelming number of e-mail messages from friends, colleagues, and strangers offering their hearty support or vigorous condemnation. She also faced death threats, some of which frightened university administrators into insisting she stay away from the campus for the rest of the semester. Her very presence, they believed, was a danger to students.
Even now, months later, Ms. Wadud, 52, is still coping with the aftermath. On a recent Tuesday afternoon she granted a rare interview. "I'm not interested in the media component," she says, smiling at the reporter in her living room. "I don't speak in sound bites." She wears a lime-green head scarf and pink slippers. Chapters of her next book -- titled Inside the Gender Jihad -- are spread out in small piles on the floor of her study.
Ms. Wadud speaks of events "before and after March 18" as if the prayer has divided her life in two. Among Muslim scholars, Ms. Wadud was already well known and respected for her writing about women and Islam. But even some of those who agree with her mission worry that the public prayer and the ensuing controversy did more harm than good. Ms. Wadud herself remains concerned that the event will come to define her, overshadowing decades of scholarship. While the professor says she has no regrets about leading the prayer, there are times when even she wonders: Was it worth it?
A Daughter's Advice
As Ms. Wadud likes to point out, her life did not begin with the March prayer. Born Mary Teasley, she grew up in Washington, D.C., one of eight children. Her father was a Methodist minister; everyone called him "The Rev." The family didn't have much money. When she was in middle school, a counselor noticed that, while her grades were mediocre, her standardized test scores were excellent. The counselor arranged for her to attend a better public school in Massachusetts, where she excelled academically and was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, becoming the first person in her family to attend college.
She converted to Islam as an undergraduate in the early 1970s. For Ms. Wadud, who is African-American, it was the emphasis on justice that she says first attracted her to the faith. She chose the name Amina after the mother of Muhammad and the last name Wadud, which means "loving."
Not long after her conversion, Ms. Wadud wrote her first paper on women and Islam, in which she concluded that "everything was hunky-dory," she recalls. She would later revise that assessment. By the time she entered graduate school at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor she had become deeply distressed at how the Muslim tradition often depicted women as inferior to men. She remembers, for example, hearing Muslims argue that women in Islam should not be allowed to drive. "Is that right?" she asked herself.
She turned to the Koran for answers. Before she began her research, she made herself a promise: If it was true that the Koran really did view women as inferior, she could no longer be a Muslim. She would abandon the religion. Instead, however, Ms. Wadud came to believe that the Koran "adapts to the modern woman as smoothly as it adapted to the original Muslim community 14 centuries ago." The product of her research was Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text From a Woman's Perspective (Oxford University Press), a short book, at just over a hundred pages, that continues to be influential and controversial more than a decade after it was published.
In the book, Ms. Wadud argues that verses in the Koran used to justify the subjugation of women have been taken out of context or otherwise misused. She writes that those who believe that men are superior to women have interpreted the Koran "in accordance with those assumptions." In other words, the prejudice can be found not in the Koran itself, but in the Koran's readers.
The book that saved her faith also established her scholarly reputation. She became sought after as an authority on gender and Islam. Among those who requested her guidance was Asra Q. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of the new book Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. The professor gave Ms. Nomani advice and suggested books for her to read. Ms. Wadud became "a sort of spiritual friend to me," Ms. Nomani says.
Then, late last year, Ms. Nomani asked Ms. Wadud to lead a mixed-congregational prayer in New York City. Contrary to news reports, Ms. Wadud had led men and women in prayer before. But those prayers were held in private. No cameras were present. No news conferences were called.
This time would be different. The prayer, as Ms. Nomani envisioned it, would be about making a bold statement. She saw it as a way to take back the identity of Islam from those who were trying to pervert it. "Osama bin Laden has masterfully seized and crafted the image of Islam," Ms. Nomani says. The prayer would be a way to counter that vision, to "not have Islam defined by hooded kidnappers."
She expected a backlash. In fact, several mosques and other venues refused to play host to the prayer because of security concerns. (The prayer ended up being held in a hall on the grounds of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, in Manhattan.) But Ms. Nomani, a friend and colleague of the slain journalist Daniel Pearl, thought the prayer was a risk worth taking. "We have to persevere in a way that is more intense than the extremists," she says.
Ms. Nomani says the professor agreed "without hesitation." In truth, Ms. Wadud had her reservations from the beginning. She knew she would be putting herself and her family (she is a divorced mother of five children, four of whom are grown) at the center of what was sure to be a major controversy. Ms. Wadud discussed all of that with her 15-year-old daughter. "Even if there are consequences," her daughter said, "think of all the good it will do for other people."
That convinced her.
Wave of Threats
In the days following the prayer, the head of the leading Sunni Muslim institution in Egypt issued a condemnation. In Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Abdul-Aziz al-Sheik accused Ms. Wadud of "trying to corrupt the community." A female Muslim scholar in Egypt said the professor was guilty of apostasy, which is punishable by death under Islamic law. Most people who spoke against the act argued that having a woman lead prayer made it impossible for men to keep their minds on God. They also cited centuries of Islamic tradition forbidding women from leading men in prayer (although women have traditionally been allowed to lead other women).
Newspapers in the Middle East called her "bad," "deviant," "crazy," and "dangerous." That was a cause for concern, of course, but it was the anonymous comments on certain Web sites that were the most troubling. "HEAVEN DOESN'T WANT YOU & HELL IS CALLING YOU," one person wrote. A Web site called the Jawa Report started an "Amina Wadud Death Watch." One post began ominously, "What do you bet Amina Wadud gets murdered?" An anonymous writer called on Osama bin Laden to issue a fatwa against her.
That, of course, attracted the attention of administrators at Virginia Commonwealth University, where Ms. Wadud has been a professor since 1992. After discussions with the FBI and telephone calls from upset parents, the university decided that Ms. Wadud's presence on the campus was putting students and other faculty members at risk. Figuring out how to respond was difficult, according to Robert D. Holsworth, interim dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences. "This is not something that comes up in your dean's training handbook," he says. "Look, you had people calling for fatwas against her. It's not quite the same as Salman Rushdie, but people were calling for it."
The university worried that canceling Ms. Wadud's courses would send the wrong message. "We didn't want to succumb to pressure," says Mr. Holsworth. "At the same time, it would have been irresponsible of us not to take this seriously." Eventually it was decided that Ms. Wadud would teach her courses from home using a video link.
It was not a solution that thrilled Ms. Wadud, but she is reluctant to criticize the university's handling of the matter. Her colleague, Cliff Edwards, a professor of religious studies, is not. "I think it was an overreaction," he says, although he is not sure what the appropriate response might be. "I think this is something that universities are still trying to figure out," he says.
As Ms. Wadud had feared, the prayer succeeded in turning her life upside-down. She was no longer allowed on the campus. Her phone would not stop ringing. And then there were the police officers parked nearby, writing down the license-plate numbers of every car that parked near her home on the corner of a quiet street in a Richmond suburb. She was worried, of course -- how could she not be? What's more, the precautions and restrictions made it difficult to lead a normal life.
Too Big a Step?
Along with the hysterical reactions, Ms. Wadud had to cope with criticism from more moderate sources. Sheik Ahmad Abdur-Rashid, a Sufi teacher whom Ms. Wadud considers one of her spiritual teachers, praises Ms. Wadud as "a great example of what a Muslim woman or any woman can achieve." Like her, he is concerned about the status of women in Islam. But he expressed his misgivings before the prayer. "Whether or not this was the right issue at the right time done in the right way is what I question," says Mr. Abdur-Rashid. "And that is what I have said to her." A more "step-by-step" approach, he says, would have been more effective.
Echoing that view is Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a professor of law at Emory University, who has known Ms. Wadud since the early 1990s. Improving the status of women "should be done through persuasion, not through sensationalizing the issue," he says. He goes a step further, arguing that the prayer was "counterproductive" and diverted attention from more pressing issues: "What impact is such an event likely to have on the rights of women in Pakistan or sub-Saharan Africa? Is this a priority? Is what happened going to help or hinder?" He pauses before answering his own question: "I think it will hinder."
One scholar who attended the prayer, but did not participate, is less sure about that. Leila Ahmed, who is the first professor of women's studies in religion at Harvard University's Divinity School, does have doubts about what motivated the prayer. "I think the prayer was very much a part of the launching of that book," Ms. Ahmed says, referring to Ms. Nomani's memoir. (For her part, Ms. Nomani says the prayer was "about selling ideas, not books.") That said, Ms. Ahmed, who studies Islam in the United States, believes the prayer was "probably a good thing" because it brought attention to the issue of women in Islam. She scoffs at the argument that this was the wrong time for a woman to lead a public prayer. "Every time women demand something they say, 'Oh, this isn't the right time,'" she says.
Another supporter, Ebrahim E.I. Moosa, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, calls the prayer a "wonderful move."
"I think it is absolutely justifiable in terms of Islamic law," he says. "I'm glad someone broke the ice."
Even with the death threats and the other fallout from the prayer, Ms. Wadud says she has no regrets. The reason critics of the prayer fail to cite the Koran or Islamic law for support of their position is "because there is none," she says -- though she also says that the "open-endness" of the Koran allows for conflicting interpretations. She disregarded the advice of friends and fellow academics and went ahead with the prayer because sometimes it is important to listen to "the fatwa of the heart."
"The bottom line is what speaks the clearest to my long-term objective to establish the full dignity of Muslim women," she says. "I definitely had my doubts at first. But I didn't after the statement my daughter made -- she balanced the consequences between loss and gain."
She is hopeful about being able to return to the campus in the fall (university officials say that should not be a problem). She is also looking forward to returning to the life of a "lonely scholar," as she puts it. But the professor makes clear that the furor over the prayer will not keep her from speaking out in the future. "Ideas and theology are not separate from action," she says. "The two go hand in hand."
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