January issue 2010
The Female Imam
Amina Wadud will never forget the ordeal she had endured in Cape Town the first time she stood before a mixed gathering as imama.
“Years of slander followed that prayer,” she says. “I was branded a bad Muslim [all over the Internet].”
Wadud says she knows now the Cape Town organisers manipulated her. They told her they needed her help in breaking gender stereotypes, and that the imam would let her know what he needed her to do when she arrived. Later, she realised it was not a last-minute decision: fliers advertising her as imama had been posted all over the city.
Every extremist and conservative had come crawling out of the woodwork to condemn the female-led prayer. They had weeks to prepare for the confrontation. But Wadud was unprepared for the firestorm of insults that followed the prayer.
“People were so excited about having a woman stand there, they didn’t listen to what was being said or appreciate what was happening,” she says. “A woman needs to have equal agency in what kind of decision these ‘brave brothers’ planned to break gender stereotypes. But without my participation, my female form was put on the podium. I accused them of choosing form over substance.”
“Since the adventure in Cape Town, I have been hesitant to accept the role of khatiba or imama in mixed settings. In Cape Town, I felt my ego was not directed entirely at the worship of Allah. Too many experiences had warped my sincerity.”
Then, she was heckled off stage at the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto in February, 2003. The centre was careful not to advertise her lecture to the media. Still, the auditorium was crammed with Muslims eager to listen to the professor speak. She told them, “You can’t hit your wife and use the Quran as justification. You have to use common sense. You have to take responsibility for your actions.”
She explained how discussion about Islam needed to be grounded in debate, or ijtehad, rather than literal adaptation. “If there is something in the Quran that allows for the punishment of women, then I have to go against that,” she said, and the murmurs in the crowd grew louder. “It is not that I disobey the Quran, in fact I go along with the teachings of Islam; it is the Quran that encourages me to question.”
A spattering of claps and some agreement rippled through the crowd. A few men began to heckle at her without rising from their seats. They made their cowardly comments shrouded in anonymity, while the speaker stood exposed at the podium. “Whore.” “Negro.” “CIA agent.” “Liar.” “Donkey woman.”
Wadud inhaled, steadying herself against the podium.
Someone shouted out: “You’re cherry-picking from the Quran.” Someone else in the audience said: “Let the woman talk.”
She continued: “We, who do not agree with extremists’ ideas, must speak now. It is our responsibility to say no to the abuse of women, to say I don’t agree with men who fly into buildings. We must condemn extremism or we are bound to reproduce it.”
Arabs in the audience questioned her understanding of Quranic verses given that Arabic was not her native tongue. Wadud couldn’t help feeling the sting of bigotry in the remarks.
“Your response is not new to me,” Wadud replied. “When I wear a hijab, I pass for South Asian and my words are measured with politeness; however, when my hijab is not covering my hair, I become black and my words lose all value. I am a nigger, you will just have to deal with it.”
Wadud continued to field questions and comments from the crowd.
A Pakistani woman said: “I grew up thinking the Quran is what it is. You tend to believe blindly in it and it is confusing for me to hear you say, ‘I am Muslim but I don’t agree with every word in the Quran.’”
Another Muslim took the mike to ask: “What is it that inspires you to follow your path? To change the Quran? The Quran is unchangeable.”
Wadud thanked him for his question. She explained that at the pinnacle of her frustration with the extremist ideas controlling the practice of Islam, she had attempted to ignore her Muslim existence. “I tried not to be Muslim, but for some reason Allah won’t let me out. I really am who I am: a Muslim woman hoping to make a contribution by way of her scholarly work in the service of women who are abused in the name of Islam.” She continued, “You don’t know what it is like to stand here and have people shout at you and have people walk out because they don’t like what you have to say,” she said, sounding resigned.
Another man asked, “How about the interpretive possibilities in the Quran of women as imams?”
Wadud smiled, finally able to address an issue she wanted to talk about. “If we are all equal before Allah and are all here to serve Allah, then we don’t become unequal when we exchange the position of prayer leader and follower. I call it horizontal reciprocity. Where between men and women there is an equal status, that of the servants of Allah, bowing before Allah, it is fine for women to lead a prayer.”
She looked exhausted as she relinquished the podium. But months later, she finally stood before a friendly congregation in New York City. Organisers — among them fiery activist and author Asra Nomani — had approached, and been rejected, by three mosques on the grounds that the prayer service violated Islamic conventions. An art gallery agreed to house the progressive prayer, but a bomb threat thwarted that idea. The prayer was then moved to a church.
Wadud stood before the gathering in New York at Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal church in Manhattan, confident in the knowledge that these people had answered a call to a progressive prayer. None of her detractors could reach her: all they could do was hurl scathing remarks impotently from outside the building.
“The issue of gender equality is a very important one in Islam, and Muslims have unfortunately used highly restrictive interpretations of history to move backward,” Wadud said before the service started. “With this prayer service we are moving forward. This single act is symbolic of the possibilities within Islam.” Asked how she felt about delivering a sermon and leading a progressive prayer, she says, simply: “Alhamdulillah, it is done.”
For Amina Wadud the battle has just begun. The academic, activist, author and imama hopes to reclaim the peaceful spirit of Islam as it goes through the challenges Christianity dealt with during the Reformation.
Related articles from the January 2010 issue.