Islamic reform

If you listen to NPR in any city but Chicago, you are missing an excellent weeklong series on Worldview about Islamic reform.  Fortunately it’s available on the web.  Twice today when I jumped in the car for an errand, I heard Jerome McDonnell’s most excellent  interview with Islamic scholar Amina Wadud, author of the book Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam.

Wadud (and you really do have to listen to her talk–this doesn’t do her justice):

What has happened in terms of our text and textual analysis is there are some people in this era–we call them neo-conservatives–that believe that at some point, 8th century, 9th century, 10th century, whatever, that somebody gave a perfect  understanding of everything in the text so all we have to do is follow what they did and not assume the agency, which is the mandate for us as human beings .  We are all agents from God.  So if I were to choose one text from the Koran it would be “ini ja ailun fee al-ardi khalifa” اني جاعل في الارض خليفة — “verily I am going to create on the earth a khalifa”–a khalifa is an agent– we are agents of God.  Not tenth century people were agents of God and then we’re agents of those people.  Not the Prophet was an agent of God and we’re agents of the Prophet.  We’re all agents of God, therefore our agency require of us to use our live reality, our known sciences, our information about the universe, our known awareness of social context, and to put all this together to be able to follow the divine trajectory which again is taoheed, unity, unity in diversity.


…in our tradition the mandate for  seeking knowledge is for both males and females; explicit.  The prophet said “seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave”. The prophet said “the seeking of knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim male and female”.  So we are required.  Yet the circumstances of history, especially following the Abbasid period, put women in a place where, yes there were learners, people who studied the Koran, women who memorized the Koran,  but the act of participation in the sciences of interpretation of the text left no record, not a single record, of women’s interpretation of the text.  Maybe they had some that was oral,  and we didn’t get it, I don’t know, but you can look back and see there’s no written record.

And as a consequence, men were reading the text for themselves as humans, which we as women share in humanity.  They were reading the text for themselves as men which we as women do not share.  But then they were also reading the text for us as women.  So the consequence, I used to say,  was that men were telling women how to be women without ever having been women themselves.


We have had an inadvertent emphasis on looking for Muslim women as victims.  So when we look at Muslim women who are empowered to be able to articulate their own identity, their own relationship with the law, their own understanding of what is Islam–it’s not as interesting to us, so we haven’t pursued it, we haven’t supported it. We are much happier to hear the stories of women in burkas and women who can’t get off to school or women get acid thrown on them–we are happy to hear that stuff.  But women empowering themselves to make change–we are unfortunately very, very much behind the curve.

Oooh, she’s good.

A teaser promises us something about the oud later in the week, but for now, here are links to the segments that are available so far:

Iran: Beyond the Veil
Vermont Public Radio’s Steve Zind traveled to Iran to explore how the tensions between tradition and modernity play out. This piece was provided by the Public Radio Exchange.
Muslim Women’s Leadership
Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Director of Islamic Chaplaincy at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. She was elected the first female President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in 2006.
Moroccan Morchidates
Independent reporter Sarah Kramer brings us the story of female preachers from Morocco. This peice was provided by the Public Radio Exchange.
Women in the Quran: Alternative Interpretations
Amina Wadud is an Islamic scholar and author of the book, “Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam.”

[Image:Photo by Nevit Dilmen (source). Woman looking at large writing of the word Allah in Arabic script at Edirne Old Mosque in Turkey.

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