April Issue 2005
Interview: Asra Nomani
“There is a fundamental flaw in interpretations of sharia that say a woman or man should be punished for sex outside of marriage”
-Asra Nomani, author and journalist
Q: You organised the first ever Muslim Friday prayer service of a mixed congregation led by a female Imam, Dr Amina Wadud, at Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal church in Manhattan. Why was a church chosen for this historic occasion?
A: When the art gallery had to back out because of fears of a bomb threat, I searched the city for an alternative venue. St. John the Divine is known as a place of worship that respects people of all faiths. They even have a Muslim prayer rug in their main sanctuary. When I called a coordinator there, she said she could offer the spacious Synod House. I asked: “Why are you helping us?” She answered: “Why not?”And that is truly the attitude we need to embrace in order to overcome fear and advance as a Muslim world.
Q: You have recently written ‘Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.’ A recent CNN report states that “Some critics have accused Nomani of using the [mixed gender, woman-led namaaz] event to publicise a book she has written about women and Islam.” How do you respond?
A: I am proud of my book as a platform from which I can proclaim loud and clear the rights of women that Islam gave women in the 7th century.
Q: While you profess devotion to the traditions of Islam, you go against the conventional interpretation of the Quran and indeed, all monotheistic religions, when you state in your book that sex outside of marriage is not a sin. Do you believe that the Quran is flawed or that it needs reinterpretation?
A: As it has been said: Let those without sin, cast the first stone. I respect the right of people to make moral decisions about sin, but God is the judge. Man is not the judge. Yet, too many people are ready to throw a whip across a woman’s back for being an unwed mother or pummel her with stones. I challenge something very clearly: the punishment of women, because it is usually women who are punished, for zina, or illegal sex. There is a fundamental flaw in interpretations of sharia that say a woman — and for that matter, men — should be punished for sex outside of marriage. We assign divine creed to manmade laws. The Hudood laws in Pakistan are manmade. We need to define our communities with compassion and inspiration not criminalisation and repression.
Q: You travelled through Asia writing a book on the Hindu erotic philosophy, tantra. You also gained an informal reputation as the Wall Street Journal’s sex-reporter with beats on the mile high club. You seem fascinated with sex and its relationship to religion…
A: I have seen that issues of sex are very much a taboo topic in this world. And yet they have a huge impact in defining our world and, in particular, the lives of women. I have looked at the intersection of issues of sexuality with religion. It has become clear to me that women’s bodies are used as the vehicles for their imprisonment in manmade rules that control us, from the way we dress to where we are allowed to travel. The Prophet did not have women live in a repressive society in the 7th century. He was healthy and realistic about issues of sexuality. We need to do the same.
Q: You have been very candid about your personal life in your book. You fell in love with a Pakistani man and conceived a child here. Why did you choose to make your story public ?
A: I have been honest about my baby’s conception because I want to encourage all people — women and men — to live truthfully. When I told my boyfriend that I was pregnant, he said that he could not marry me because people would do the math and know that we were not married when we conceived. I spent virtually every day of my nine months of pregnancy battling the despair that comes with living with lies, deceit, and shame. When my son lay in my arms for the first time, beautiful and perfect, on Oct. 16, 2002, I saw that he was not scarred by the tears that I had swallowed while pregnant. My son gave me a second chance. I write more about this in Tantrika.
Q: Why have you chosen to hide your son’s father’s identity?
A: Ultimately, we are all accountable to only one being for our actions on this earth. I am not that being. I pray only that he will be able to live as peacefully as I do, having accepted the responsibility God gave me for my beautiful son.
Q: Did your being an unwed mother contribute to your becoming the very vocal activist for women’s rights in Islam that you have become, in your defence of Amina Lawal, the Nigerian unwed mother who had been sentenced to stoning by death, and in your recent campaign to reclaim women’s rights in mosques?
A: The murder of my friend Danny and the birth of my son Shibli forced me to come face-to-face with the horrors of narrowmindedness, judgmentalism, and even cruelty that are expressed in the name of Islam. When I went on the Hajj to Mecca in February 2003 with my son, just three months old, I saw the beauty that can be Islam. These three experiences greatly influenced me. I chose after a year of thought to raise my son as a Muslim, and from that day I knew I had to fight for the way Islam is expressed in the world. I wrote my second book, Standing Alone in Mecca, as a call to action to all women and moderates within Islam to stand up to extremists. I have created an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques and an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom. The second-class citizenship of women is not Islamic. I am not going to win any popularity contests in my local community, but that does not disturb me.
Q: You have personally led the second mixed congregation in America, in the hope that “Muslim women will challenge the status quo.” Putting aside gender for a moment, given your history, do you feel you fit the strict criteria required for an imam?
A: I have sat in congregations where men who are supposedly knowledgeable about Islam spew hate toward women, Jews, Christians, the west and any Muslims who don’t agree with them. I have prayed behind imams who preach that the Quran permits men to beat their wives. Our definition about “knowledge” has become very skewed in our Muslim world, and I stand strong as a woman who is very firmly grounded in the most essential teachings of our religion for peace, love, and tolerance. The luxury of my life as a writer, journalist and researcher has allowed me to seek knowledge about a beautiful Islam that has been lost in the sedimentation of man-made rules. We accept all sorts of arbitrary litmus tests meant to disqualify women — and for that matter, men — and we devalue the inspiration of simple human beings, such as our grandmothers, our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, who have mastered an understanding of Islam deeper than many of the great sheikhs and mullahs of the world.
Q: Your movement has been criticised not just by traditional vanguards of Muslim faith in the Middle East, but also by American Islamic scholars themselves. Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, for example, says that “the service goes against Islam’s traditions” and that in a vacuum of acceptable Muslim leadership, new leaders who fancy themselves as the voice of change “can get away with anything.” How do you respond?
A:Social justice is not an issue of popularity contests. We are challenging an assumption in the Muslim world that men are the God-given leaders in our society. I don’t blame men and women who oppose this change because, yes, change is frightening. But we have to acknowledge that we have a serious vacuum of leadership in our Muslim world. It’s time that women take their rightful place as spiritual equals to men and stand up as leaders defining Islam in the public space. Look what a mess we are in.
Q: You say that the prayer was meant “to draw attention to the inequality for women in Muslim spiritual life and Muslim life in general.” Why choose to highlight a negative spin rather than the positive step which has been achieved — that of a Muslim woman reclaiming her religion?
A: My thinking is very much two-pronged. We challenge inequities. We create new realities that reclaim the rights Islam granted women in the 7th century.
Q: If the woman-led namaaz wasn’t meant as a protest against Muslim traditions, why then did the woman Muazzin, el-Attar, proclaim the Azan without a headcovering, traditionally considered a symbol of respect for both men and women when in presence of the divine?
A: I also did not wear my hijab standing in the front row. In creating dogma, we have forgotten an essential principle in the Quran: “There is no compulsion in religion.” The hijab has become a political symbol that has become yet another litmus test for a woman’s decency and piety. As long as we don’t hurt another human being with violent action, we must respect the rights of all people to choice in this world. Allow each one of us to be judged by divine powers, not by man.
Q: If Dr Wadud and yourself were not the first women to lead Muslim prayers, why do you believe this event was so widely-publicised over the world?
A: Dr Wadud was the first one in the modern day to proclaim loud and clear: women have a right to lead prayer of men and women. This has not been done since the 7th century. Dr Wadud took the courageous act of connecting us in the 21st century to the rights women received in the 7th century, reclaiming rights denied as a result of centuries of man-made rules. That is why the prayer of March 18, 2005, was truly historic.
Q: You say “this single act [of a woman leading an unsegregated service,] is symbolic of the possibilities within Islam.”What precedent is there for a woman imam leading a mixed congregation?
A: The precedent is Umm Waraqa, who was recorded in every Islamic history book as leading a mixed gender prayer. There are many caveats that the detractors try to put on her prayer. Some like to say that she led only people of her household. That there were only relatives in her congregation. The bottomline is this: as a woman, she led men and women in prayer. There are documented accounts that state that men did pray beside women in the 7th century in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. It’s commonly assumed that women have to pray behind men. Quite frankly, clothing at the time of the Prophet didn’t allow for the type of modesty that we can have today. Just look at Mecca. I prayed beside my father. Other men and women prayed beside each other. There was a very healthy distribution of people in the congregation. Women who wanted to pray together did. Men who wanted to pray together did. Families who wanted to pray together did. I saw a woman from the North West Frontier jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with men. A lightning bolt did not strike her. As long as we rely upon man-made rules to segregate, we will never have a healthy society. The society may seem better controlled, but repression simply breeds quiet rebellions.
Q: But is there a justification in the Quran for a mixed congregation to be led by a woman?
A: The Quran does not ban women from leading mixed gender congregations. The Sunnah supports it. To deny women this right is “bidda,” or an “innovation.”
Q: This month, you launched the Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour, a campaign for religious equity and justice for women in Muslim communities. Can Muslim American women activists make a difference in the lives of their counterparts around the globe?
A: I hope to educate women about the rights Islam granted us in the 7th
century and empower them to reclaim those rights in the 21st century. I know that we can be a part of solving pressing global issues after we liberate ourselves fully from centuries of traditions that try to silence us and subjugate us in the Muslim public sphere. I hope that we can be an inspiration to our sisters around the globe as they have been an inspiration to me personally. On March 1, 2005, I launched the Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour and posted the 99 precepts and the bill of rights on the front door of my mosque in Morgantown, where the men at my mosque have put me on trial for daring to stand up for women’s rights and tolerance. The punishment that I face: banishment. But there is one fate they will never be able to impose upon me: silence.