Interview with Amina Wadud *
What are the conditions for this worldwide resurgence of Islam that we're seeing today?
I guess I don't see that the resurgence of Islam is as recent as it has been popularized in the context of America. I actually see it as part of a continuum throughout Islamic history, where Islam has contracted and expanded at different times in response to a number of factors internal to Islam and external.
Obviously, this most recent resurgent movement has a strong relationship to the liberation from colonialism. And so that doesn't place it as [a] recent event in history, but somewhere in the last 50 to 70 years. ... So that would mean that, although there have been elements of this resurgence for at least 50 to 70 years, it has become more obvious globally in the last 30 to 40 years.
And to what do we attribute that?
I think the globalization of the economy, as an aftermath of colonialism, has pretty much universalized capitalism. The way to negotiate one's relationship to the overall economic structure has been to identify one's political agenda to either be with or against that overall globalization of economy. And the democratic systems have shown themselves to be the most amenable to that.
The question of Islam and democracy has been a very strong component of the resurgence, articulation of Islam. That is also one of the reasons why it's deemed to be a political resurgence, even though I think that the stronger components have to do more with sort of a psychospiritual re-identification of the Muslim self in the context of modernity. Modernity means politics, as well as economics. But also it has to do with the basic definition of what it means to be human.
And the notion of modernity comes because of the increased communications planet-wide? How does modernity fit into this?
I think the historians clock modernity over a period of 200 years. So it's a little hard to just encapsulate it into our current usage. ... I myself am a postmodernist, so I tend to say this is a postmodernist resurgence, in that all of postmodernity has been about rethinking or reconfiguring the past so that it's commensurate with a much more pluralistic and dynamic future. And I think that Islam and Muslims have been participating in that. Whether or not they have consciously identified it as postmodern is beside the point.
She is professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. An internationally known scholar on the subject of women in Islam, Dr. Wadud is also an expert on influences of Islam in America. She has spoken about these issues on television broadcasts internationally and is fluent in Arabic. This interview was conducted in March 2002.
”that people will take aspects of Quranic statements ”and disregard overall Quranic intent with regard to justice and equality, is one of the problems we are grappling with in modernity.
I think postmodernity is really part of the reconfiguration of the idea of unity across the planet ... meaning a greater homogeneity. Postmodernism has allowed us to understand that unity across the planet will be much more diverse -- and that includes Islamic diversities. So the more recent manifestations of Islamic resurgence is very intimately tied to reconfigurations of identity, not only among Muslims, but across others.
That's why I say that it dovetails very well with a reformation of what it means to be [a] human being. And therefore, it relates to issues like human rights, because now we are questioning, "Well, what does it mean to be human? And therefore, how do we ascertain what are human rights?" Then Muslims have to ask, "Are these human rights commensurate with our own tradition? Are they in contradiction to our tradition, et cetera?" So the basic identity of a Muslim now is being aligned with rethinking what it means to be a human being in modernity.
You have talked about "progressive Muslim" -- I forget exactly the term you used. What do you mean by "progressive?"
There is a very strong articulation among a select body of Muslim intellectuals and activists to literally progress Islam from some of the places where its thinking and its vitality have been throttled from the dynamism that I think is inherent in Islam. I think Islam itself is a progression. I think it progresses, in one sense, metaphysically, before the beginning of historical Islam, but certainly, in a radical way, with the first revelation to the prophet Muhammad.
The idea of that progression being arrested by a number of disruptions, like colonialism, has caused what we in the West have sometimes identified as a resurgence. But actually, in a sense, it has just been a reclaiming of our own trajectory. Our trajectory is to continue to move towards the betterment of our own humanity, as representatives or trustees or agents of the divine.
There are times when we have lost sight of that. And as a consequence, we have simply mimicked that which we have brought from the past or that which we have seen so palpably around us, and have not grappled intellectually with the ways in which our heritage has actually thwarted our possibility of moving forward in the continued trajectory that I think is part of the dynamic of Islam.
... There are thinkers who will intentionally grapple with the complexity of preserving the integrity of the Islamic tradition ... combining it in a dynamic way with what it means to encounter all of these complexities of modernity or postmodernity. I consider these people to be progressive intellectuals, and I consider that their articulations have many common features and that their goals are very similar, in that they are trying to preserve Islam. But they're not trying to preserve a singular understanding of Islam that came from, say, the Medina time of the prophet.
So how do you both sustain the integrity but allow for, and in fact promote, dynamism? That's progressive Islamic thought.
How have women specifically contributed to this revitalized thinking?
I think the question of women's participation in the active reformation of Islamic identity is important now, simply because there are more women who are involved in the process. ... I think that something about the coincidences of modernity itself have made it a mandate upon women to step up to the plate, and recognize their responsibility for the sake of their own identity development and for the welfare of all of humanity, that the distortion that has characterized patriarchy....
... My contention is that patriarchy is one way of survival, but that its time has ended; that it is no longer possible for us to save the planet, to sustain our lives on the planet, to be able to have healthy relations, whether in families or in communities at large or between nations, if we maintain our projection on a patriarchal framework. We need one which is a lot more cooperative. I think that this is one of the reasons why it has been palpable that more women have been involved in many areas of progression, not just in terms of Islam, but also coincidentally in terms of Islam.
Islam, its original articulation, is very patriarchal. There are aspects of Quranic articulation that corroborate the patriarchy of the time. Yet I do [not think] that patriarchy is an aspect of Islam's universality. I think it is a functional displacement, which allowed for it to fit into the time. ...
So it has something to do really with the culture in which it finds itself?
Yes. It is a time-space displacement. For religion to be understandable -- let alone implementable, which is the intention of Islam, to be a living reality -- then the articulation of the religion takes a shape that is very common to its context. The question about whether or not that context is universal, however, I think is an important part of what we're asking in progressive Islamic thought.
And the conclusion has been that the context of the revelation of Islam in that its historical beginning was indeed very patriarchal. However, that context does not encapsulate the full breadth of the potential for Islam. It is just one manifestation, and from it we may get clues, but in it we should not be stuck.
But there are places in the world where patriarchy is indeed deeply culturally embedded, and is using Islam as its bolster. I'm thinking about patriarchy in Malaysia, in Nigeria, and in Egypt.
The idea that patriarchy has a grip on human development is not unique to Islam. And certainly the way in which this grip has been abused -- that is, the way in which it has been utilized in order to justify abuse -- I think the idea of a link between Islam and patriarchy is not inherent in Islam itself, but inherent in the context of Islamic origin. So it is very easy to go back in Islamic history or tradition, or even in [Islamic] intellectual development, and find justification for maintaining patriarchy and giving it an Islamic slant.
The question is -- and I certainly think that the most important work that is before us in terms of progressive Islamic thought -- is to wrestle the eternal system away from its contextual foundation. And that foundation is a time-space reality, that is, Islam had to come into being into the mundane world, but it is not the universal. In order to be able to cast the universal into its many, or say, its pluralistic guises, we have to be able to determine that patriarchy is in fact a limitation, it's not a liberation.
With regard to women, is there a gender bias against women inherent in Islamic law, or Sharia, as is perceived in the West?
From my perspective, Sharia is thoroughly patriarchal. ... You cannot legislate with regard to the well-being of women without women as agents of their own definition. And Sharia was not concerned with that construction. Sharia was happy to legislate for women, even to define what is the proper role of women, and to do so without women as participants. So obviously that is a major flaw. And the only way for that aspect of Sharia to be corrected would be a radical reform in the way in which it is thought.
So in countries like Malaysia, where there is a call to re-institutionalize Islam and Sharia, at least for the Muslims of Malaysia, there could be dire consequences for the women?
And there have been dire consequences wherever Sharia has been implemented, unless the very idea of Sharia itself has also been interrogated. If Sharia is the way in which we utilize our sources and our tradition -- that would mean the Sharia tradition itself -- the way that we utilize these traditions in order to come up with just and fair articulations of the divine will in our context, has to be a part of the re-implementation of Sharia.
Unfortunately, the majority of the places that talk about re-implementing Sharia means to literally pick up a system from before -- its decisions, its conclusions, its codes -- and apply those in situations that are absolutely incongruent with the original circumstance in which they were made. So it's a little bit easier to assume that, well, let's put it this way: Islam is not singularly a correct thought or orthodoxical system. It isn't just satisfied with right ideas about belief. It is necessary to have orthopraxis. It is necessary to have right actions. The idea, then, behind Sharia originally was how do we arrive at those right actions? That idea is still good and necessary.
It is true, however, we were not always able to promote right actions for all time and all places by our efforts in earlier centuries or in diverse circumstances. So we need to have a dynamic notion of Sharia, which includes past jurisprudence; obviously includes our primary sources; but includes all of these things, with radical reformation in thought, so that they are interrogated as to their applicability in our new circumstances.
Are you a voice in the wilderness about this?
No. In fact, this is not my strong point, because my area is really theology. As the Quran is one of the sources of Islamic law, I am advocating the need for reinterpreting the Quran in order to help to develop more inclusive, generally equitable laws. But the idea of law formation is a weak point for me.
However, this is one of the strongest aspects of Islamic reformist thought with regard to progressive Islam. And there are women who have been engaged in Islamic reform whose avenue of approach has been almost 100 percent the Sharia reform methodology. So I am in support of that voice.
Are there men who are on that bandwagon too?
Absolutely. And there's been a very poor link between the commonality of progressive Islamic discourse with regard to men's work on a variety of areas and women's work, in that the two need to be articulated as simultaneous dimensions of the same reality. One of the ways in which we are representing reform in Islam is by our ability to be able to make it meaningful to women and men equally.
In your view, is there justification, Islamically, Quranically, for committing what I would call criminal acts, killing innocents, and perpetuating here in this country a notion of Muslims as terrorists?
The idea of terrorism and Islam I think has been broken apart, very clearly, with regard to the works of many Muslims since the horrific events on Sept. 11. In fact, Muslims, I think, have stepped forward to make that articulation loud and accurately, pinpointing the idea that its origin is anything but the text or the heart or the spirit or the soul of Islam. That that voice has not necessarily been as coherent, in terms of the public discourse in America, where Islam still gets to be equated with terrorism -- I think too much -- is unfortunate.
But there is no lack of work that's being done to demonstrate that there are explicit prohibitions against the actions of killing innocents in the Quran, and there is in fact an entire Quranic ethos about the value of all human life and the responsibility to support that life, and the responsibility to [r]age against evil -- primarily within our own selves -- as our primary struggle or jihad. So there is no relationship between terrorism and Islamic sources.
But are there not also statements in the Quran about fighting those who fight you, for example? And that could be taken in a very allegorical way. There are also, there is also the example of the prophet -- who was a warrior, who led armies.
Certainly, the history of Islam includes periods of time where Islam, as a minority community, was up against considerable odds. And the responsibility for actual armed struggle in order to survive and in order to preserve itself was legitimated and it was legitimated in the text. Again, we have the understanding that the text has both a context and a universal objective. So my critical ideas about textual analysis include being aware, when a passage or a concept or an idea is an idea whose time is not eternal, but rather whose time is immediate.
In other words, yes, there were commandments to fight. And these were commandments relative only to an immediate circumstance. That circumstance has to be understood in order to even make an application of that verse. We do not have similar circumstances in a pluralistic world. And so it is not possible to seek guidance from aspects of text which are not universal in their own intent.
But are there not Muslims who would say, "That's your interpretation?"
Yes. Absolutely. I am advocating the need for reinterpreting the Quran in order to help to develop more inclusive, generally equitable laws. That people will take things out of context from the text, and that people will take aspects of Quranic articulation or statements or passages and disregard overall Quranic intent with regard to justice and equality, human well-being and human dignity, is unfortunately one of the problems we are grappling with in modernity.
America is a good example of people from all over the world coming together and suddenly facing each other and finding out that the Islam that one was practicing has so many cultural aspects to it that are not in common with other Muslims from Pakistan or from Chicago. Let's talk about Islam in America.
Certainly Islam in America represents a very significant alternative to our understanding of Islam in the past. One, because you have the advantage of certain civil liberties that guarantee the right to full practice of your religion. But, two, you have an ethos which has presumed that religions, in the sense of pluralist practice, were going to basically be Judaic and Christian. So the idea of truly practicing plural religions -- Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Bahaism and Islam -- has, in some ways, been disruptive of the very ideas of the freedom of religion that we're guaranteed. Yet Muslims have been more free to practice here than in their own countries, in some instances.
So again, you have in the U.S. a situation a set of complexities that means that, in some ways, you can understand better, what is the nature of the struggle of Islam in modernity? The nature of the struggle of Islam in modernity is to be able to preserve its own identity and yet to parallel its integrity as Muslims as human beings, to parallel that integrity commensurate with all other peoples.
So you have, at one and the same time, people who are American and Muslim, combining those two things in ways that involve their cultural backgrounds and their spiritual motivations. The two are not always one and the same.
It is possible that Muslim cultures, in the past and in the present, have been reflections of the Islamic worldview or Islamic spiritual objectives. But it also possible that those cultures have had slight variations that give them their own cultural breadth and reality and beauty, but are not necessarily exclusive to Islam.
So the idea of bringing all of this to the American front, including a large population of people who embrace Islam by choice -- unencumbered by a cultural connection, but yet members of a culture themselves -- means that here in America we grapple more with what aspect of Islam is cultural and what aspect of Islam in fact transcends or shapes or develops culture. These are not always one and the same, and they are also not something that everybody agrees on, in all of its various manifestations.
What does the African-American Muslim community add in its own separate distinctive way to this discussion?
I think the African-American Muslim situation is also complex and also diverse. African-Americans were the single ethnic group that joined the American ranks without choice -- in other words, we were brought to this shore by force -- in some ways [that] stamps us with an identity as Americans in a way that we cannot ever shed.
It doesn't mean, however, that we have always been in agreement with all aspects of mainstream American ideology, especially American policy, and certainly American racist perspectives. So therefore, we have been, at one and the same time, American and at odds with the mainstream American culture.
To choose Islam -- whether it be of our parents' generation or to choose Islam in my generation or to choose Islam as younger people are choosing -- to choose Islam is no stranger than to be African-American for us. Because it says identity is a question of your assertion of self with regard to the outer world, and that the motivation for your identity is your inner world, that is, your perspective on God and humanity.
African-Americans articulate that in their living experience of Islam, but it is not always singularly a manifestation of culture. And that's where cultural Islamics that combine to enhance their own identity of culture in a Muslim way sometimes are at odd with African-American Muslims who are not binded by a singular cultural expression or see that Islam is culture itself.
Some might say it must be hard enough to be African-American in U.S. society; why add Islam as an additional oddity or difficulty or burden?
We have not had the expectation that the affirmation of our identity rest in our home environment. We have always had the expectation that the affirmation of our identity rests in the stability of our development of our own self. And therefore Islam is the penultimate mechanism for developing ourselves with regard to our human identity in relationship to the divine.
So in fact, Islam enhances our chances or our opportunities to survive in the context of the West, particularly in the context of America. Islam facilitates our struggle as African-Americans. And many people in the community have understood this. African-Americans who will not ever enter fully into orthodox Islam and engage in all of its practices actually support a lot of basic ideas that are Islamic. So there is sort of a harmony between being African-American and being Muslim, even when African-Americans don't become Muslim. There is no incongruence between Islam [that's seen], and there's no idea that this is something outside of their culture.
And what about African-Americans as the host Muslim community here, and the immigrant Muslim community coming in?
I have always thought that the African-American Muslim community did not service the post of host very well. And the reason may be because we are still struggling for our full rights in the context of the American civil liberties. So we were not situated.
In America, when Muslim immigration began in earnest some time at the end of the nineteenth century, we [were] still struggling to gain our right position as full Americans in this country. To then take the responsibility of caring for others that have come has meant that we haven't been in the best position to do that. And I think that the experience of host has been assumed for us, whereas we have not been able to assume it.
I've heard that there were some tensions between these communities.
I think there are tensions between African-Americans and immigrant Muslims. But I do not think that the sole cause of those tensions is because African-Americans have not been host to immigrant Muslims. We have been those people who were here before, but not necessarily in the active role of host.
I think the tensions also arise because African-Americans are very astute to practices of racism and discrimination; it is our history. Immigrant Muslims will come to this country aimed at mainstreaming themselves with regard to American privilege. [This] has sometimes meant, as with other immigrants, that they have assumed the mainstream ideology regarding rights and privileges. They have therefore imbibed some of the prejudices or the stereotypes with regard to oppressed peoples in this country. And instead of alleviating them, especially with Islam as the cause of their alleviation, they have perpetuated them.
And so African-American Muslims collectively have been very sensitive to discrimination from different ethnic groups who are Muslim. ...
Which would be un-Islamic, wouldn't it?
Which would be un-Islamic in the core. And African-American Muslims definitely have been attracted to Islam's equality, especially racial equality, economic equality. And, at least in new ways, we were understanding its gender equality.
But the idea that there has been inequality in treatment between various Muslim groups means that African-Americas are less forgiving of racial prejudice among Muslims than they might be from people who have no guidance, i.e., from people who are not Muslim.
Could you talk about the search for identity and its consequences?
I think at any place where one feels a loss of identity, the tendency to be able to go within one's past, one's culture and one's historical intellectual tradition, say, in the case of Islam, offers a certain amount of solace. In fact, you will notice that the neo-conservative Islam will often say, Islam has given women its rights 1400 years ago. And by making that assertion, that is, by claiming a priority in women's rights, it is no longer necessary to struggle with new articulations of women's rights. It offers a safety net and a cushion.
So I find it quite understandable that, for many Muslims whose identity is being challenged by all of the movements in modernity in terms of colonialism and the end of colonialism, in terms of the globalization of economy and the globalization of democracy and also the globalization of a single articulation of democracy, that Muslims have gone to that which is their historical strength.
That is a very sort of pristine articulation of Islam. And the beauty of that pristine articulation is that it is a coherent system that claims and fulfills its promise of completion. However, the completion, in one time, is not the completion in all times. So what they fail to do is be able to grapple with what in fact is a dynamic completion of Islam in our time. They simply take advantage of the experiences of Islam, a cohesion from the past. ...
With this neo-conservatism, what does that look like in social and political terms?
In social terms, the manifestations of neo-conservative Islam are an enhancement of Islamic symbols: external symbols of dress, and a certain uniformity in dress has come about in the last 30 years, that is unlike any time in Muslim history. And the idea that that uniformity in dress is in fact Islamic through and through, as opposed to a cultural and historical specific form of dress, is incredible, if you think about it. Because cultures are losing their own indigenous expression of modesty and all adopting the singular, homogenized form of dress.
But certainly, on the political arena, the idea of neo-conservative Islam has been very problematic. Because there is where political theory has to grapple with the reality of the nation-state. And an Islamic empire is not an Islamic state, although now, Muslim nation-states are on-the-ground realities. So it creates a great deal of conflict in terms of what is the political articulation of Islam.
Muslims will, in a neo-conservative sense, grapple with foundational ideas about sovereignty belongs to God, and not know how to implement them into active systems in modernity. And so they will thwart the possibility of other systems arriving at sort of a new, indigenous articulation, and in fact prevent that, and implement more totalitarian political regimes, and then say, this is one of the mechanisms for protecting or preserving pristine Islam.
So in the political sense, I think it wreaks havoc. On the social sense, I think it sort of lends itself towards symbols -- our tendency to be able to make those symbols seem as concrete manifestations of the full breadth and reality of Islam.
It seems that the head scarf means something different everywhere you go. I'm just wondering if this is about the evolution of the head scarf from some sense of modesty now to some sense of identity and a statement of identity. Is that what's been happening?
I think that Islamic codes of dress, particularly the most common identified feature of Islamic dress for women, which is the head covering or the hijab, is a strong symbol that many factions of Islamic society will revolve itself around with many different intentions and with many different expectations. If the overall thrust of Islam with regard to social decorum is one of modesty, the idea that you can associate modesty with any singular item of dress is ludicrous. Nevertheless, as symbols go, the idea of the hijab as a symbol representing a particular kind of Islamic modesty is very much in vogue. And if it is both Islamic and modest, then people will attach themselves to it. Both women and men will attach themselves to it as, in fact, real.
The symbol has become justification of itself, whereas before it was supposed to be a manifestation of modesty. And the idea that it's become uniform is also one of the ways at which we simultaneously use it as a symbol of identity, but at the same time are simultaneously locked into restrictions of our identity development, with the assumption that again, that this is the right way to do it. Therefore, it implies that any other way to do it is in fact wrong. And one does not want to confess to being wrong.
So the idea of struggling with modesty is in fact the element that is Islamic. And that the hijab might be one of the ways in which this modesty has manifest itself does not mean that modesty is equal to the hijab. The hijab has no hierarchy over the concept of modesty. So it is at one and the same time a mixed symbol that people will identify for the sake of religion, but also for the sake of personal identity with that religion, even though in and of itself, has no religious meaning.
This is a paradox, because it's seen also as sometimes a symbol of oppression, and sometimes a symbol of liberation.
The head covering as a form of oppression comes to the end of whether or not a person or a collective of people in one cultural context has the right to choose. And when it is taken as a manifestation of correct Islamic modesty, there is no choice that you can have. You cannot be Islamic and modest unless you wear this form. And so it will be enforced, not only from outside, but also enforced from within. People will assume, women will assume, that they have to dress this way in order to be Islamic. And from the outside, governments and/or social groups will enforce it as a manifestation of Islam: this is the way to present yourself as Islamic.
If we understand modesty as something that is not fixed in time, but is the primary principle that is being promoted within the Quran, for example, then we will recognize that there are many ways to symbolize this. And that the choice, to be able to adopt this particular one, or to reject this particular one, is in fact of equal merit. But the idea of attaining to the reality of modesty cannot be fixed in any one particular item. That's very hard for Muslims to grapple with, because again, the whole idea of identity reformation is being contested; not only from within Islam but from without as well.
How would you analyze the changing meaning of the head scarf in Turkey over the last 10 years?
The Turkish situation is fabulous in terms of showing the complexity. Because some form of Islamic head covering has always been a feature of Turkish life, even in the massive modernization movements that were part of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, because women in the villages still retained some form of Islamic head covering. With the urbanization of many cultures because of new economies, the idea of that dress became backwards and it represented the old ways of thinking and the village ways of thinking, and not quite being modern.
Certainly, the Islamic resurgent movement in its global aspect included a resurgence of ideas that were clustered around certain symbols; that actually gravitated towards those symbols. The idea of Islamic head covering then became a marked separation between those within Turkish society and government who wanted to claim secularism as a basis of their identity as Muslims and as moderns, and there were Muslims, women and men, who said, our identity as Muslim is not in contestation with modernity, there is no need to become secular; and again the head scarf or the hijab becomes a symbol of that contestation.
And how would you analyze the evolution of the head scarf in Iran over the last 20 years?
The situation with Iran is also a different dynamic, that includes a crossroads with some of these similar uses of symbols, because the women gravitated towards the chador during the revolution as a way to distinguish themselves from secularism and from Westernism, which had become embedded in some notions of modernity.
So when they adopted the hijab as a form of revolution against these ideas, it then became a feature of Iranian Islamic articulation. Whether or not the women ever intended it to be, again, eternal, there became no choice. The new Islamic regime decided that it was mandatory, and therefore people had to sustain it.
Women did, however, also find that it simultaneously liberated them into the opportunities to present their ideas and their concerns in the public forum, and to be able to address the idea of genuine reform with regard to women's rights. So this is again one of the ways in which we see that nothing is ever simple. Everything is very complex with regard to Islam and modernity.
What do you see as the key lessons that women like yourself in America could send back out to the Muslim world, the key rethinkings, reappraisals, that could take place?
We have certain religious rights in America which means that it is possible within the context of civil society to assume responsibility as an agent before Allah -- and not to have men, Muslims, non-Muslims, people of different ethnic origins, determine for us what it means to be Muslim. We have the full choice -- not only to decide for ourselves -- but also to implement it in our lives, and to make it a part of a collective expression that we can use to promote a universal understanding of the right to be human and the right to be able to come to our own identity.
Malaysia. I was wondering if you could talk through the process that you took Sisters in Islam through, from their formation in the late 1980s. ...
My experiences with Sisters in Islam was, I think, one of the most unique and fortuitous opportunities of my life. It happened to come at the end of my graduate studies, which was particularly focused on the issue of Quran and gender. When I came to Malaysia, within one month I had met members of Sisters In Islam and been invited to the group. And the group was grappling with what would be our method of reform for Muslim women; not only in the context of their own Malaysian society, but in the context of Islam and modernity.
And one of the things that I presented to them was the origins of the idea of women's equality and liberation in our primary sources. Once armed with this authority, it is possible then to contest a number of voices which try to return women to lives that are very narrow and restricted, and then to define these narrow and restricted lives as Islamic. It was no longer possible for a whole set of external articulations of Islam to determine for us what it means to be Muslim. And to move forward as Muslims in the search for Muslim dignity was an aspect of Sisters In Islam, which was unique in that environment. Before, searching for women's rights took on a very secular guise, or searching for Islam took on a very conservative guise.
So the idea of the two things -- that is, a progressive Islamic identity as part of what it means to be Muslim, and therefore not causing us to go outside of our religion, but rather something we draw from our religion and that we draw as not only our right but our obligation as Muslims, empowered us, as a group, to be able to act in specific ways with regard to policy reforms, domestic violence issues, the issue of equality, and international networking on issues of law and women's integrity as Muslims.
... And what was the actual process of work?
What I encouraged them to do actively, was to reread the Quran, to do a careful reading, and in doing that reading, to come to understand the very hermeneutics of meaning. How do we derive a certain understanding from the Quran? And in this case, I challenged patriarchy as only one, and not necessarily the best, means of reading and understanding the Quran.
It was very simple after that to actually go to the Quran and interrogate its verses. Because you see the possibilities of liberation, the ideas of women's equality, laid down, sometimes in explicit terms, in the text. But you also see places where these can be decontextualized, distorted, or disrupted, in order to be able to sustain that patriarchal interpretation.
So once I encouraged them towards this kind of methodology, it sort of became our modus operandi, that we said justice is mandatory in the Quran, and that until and unless we are experiencing justice in our lives as Muslim women, then we have not been following the Quranic mandate.
Were you looking for a message you wanted to find though?
I personally began my research, in terms of Quranic studies, simply to determine whether or not the experiences of Muslim women in all parts of the world as I had traveled were in fact the experiences of Islam towards women. In other words, I looked for a source that would most closely point me to, what was the divine intention towards women? If the divine intention was backwardness, prohibitions, narrow confines and subservience, then that was truly Islam, and I personally [did] not want to have anything to do with it.
But if the true articulation was more than that, then Islam became something even more meaningful for me. So for me, the more I studied in the Quran, the more liberated I became, and the more affirmed I became as a Muslim.
Wadud is professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. An internationally known scholar on the subject of women in Islam, Dr. Wadud is also an expert on influences of Islam in America. She has spoken about these issues on television broadcasts internationally and is fluent in Arabic. This interview was conducted in March 2002.