Confronting Our Ignorance: As Americans, As Muslims, and As Women
**This week we’re reposting some of our favorite articles from the past year. Our interview with Amina Wadud was one of our most popular postings, and in it Amina shares with us her personal journey as an African American Muslim woman in America, and the evolution of her identity and activism. We chose to repost this interview because of the insights Amina offers on how to create a space that includes the voices of women as scholars of Islam.**
Amina Wadud is an internationally acclaimed scholar, human rights activist, and educator. Her recent publications include Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam and articles such as “Islam and Patriarchy,” “Muslim Women: Between Citizenship and Faith,” and “Qur’an, Gender, and Interpretive Possibilities.”
What drew you to Islam?
I was raised in a house with a father who was a Methodist minister, so there was an intense level of religiosity in our household that centered on sacred conversations, rituals, and practices. But it wasn’t until I was in college that I became interested in religious diversity and in how people practice other faiths. It was then that I found out about Islam.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1972, I went to a mosque in an African-American neighborhood in Washington, DC where my mother lived. That day, I took the declaration of faith (el Shahada) and became a Muslim.
I began the practices, especially the prayers (Salat) and several months later, someone from the mosque in Washington DC gave me a Qur’an. Once I began reading the Qur’an my conviction became even stronger. The Qur’an became a way of viewing the world that resonated with me.
I decided that I wanted to understand the Qur’an more directly and not with just interpretation. It took a long time to get there; it didn’t happen in a day. I began studying Arabic and pursued that for the next 10 years, including living in Arabic-speaking countries. Eventually I did a Ph.D. in Islamic studies and Arabic.
Specifically as an African American woman, did you face any challenges in the process of becoming a religious Muslim?
At the time I became Muslim and for the next 25 years, Islam was very much talked about in the African American community, so there was very little shock or surprise.
There was specifically a lot of conversation about the Nation of Islam at the time. It is worth clarifying here between the Nation of Islam and global Islam. I don’t adhere to the notion that there is one place where there is some kind of a real Islam. I believe that Islam has a global manifestation—it has a history in many cultures and is practiced globally. The Nation of Islam, at that time, did not adhere to the notion of a global Islamic dogma. Instead, the Nation of Islam movement is an indigenous movement that was born in the US and specifically addresses politics, spirituality, and culture in the US. I was never a member of the Nation.
Were you accepted among white communities the same as among African American communities when you were first converting to Islam?
In the white community, they were a bit intimidated by Islam and Muslims during the ’70s. They didn’t know what Islam was unless they had traveled to certain parts of Asia, Africa or the Middle East and they had encountered Muslims. That changed in the ’80s and conversions among white Americans have grown steadily since then.
And how did you find yourself dealing with it?
I dealt with it the same way I dealt with being black in America: that it was not my job to inform others. I felt that I was just one person trying to understand my own faith; I was not an instructor trying to get other people to understand. I experienced people looking at me and assuming that I came from another country and at that time I didn’t feel like dealing with their ignorance.
This ignorance still exists. Do you deal with it differently now?
I definitely deal with it differently. I am more willing to address situations on the spot. For example, if a child in the supermarket asks, “Why is she dressed like that?” I will turn and say, “Because I am a Muslim and we believe that you should wear a certain kind of dress in public.”
I was 20 years old when I became Muslim and as a young person I didn’t know how to respond in situations like that. But now I am actively involved in dealing with the ignorance.
And how was it when you lived in the Arab world? How did people interact with you? Was there a difference for you as a woman coming from the African American community?
I lived in the Arab world twice—at two different times and under two different circumstances.
The first time I was in Libya. I went as a partner to my husband who was there to study Islam. I was a wife and I didn’t have much of a public role. It was three years after I converted to Islam. I was mostly just interested in living in a Muslim majority culture and using the Arabic that I had learned in a classroom.
And when was the second time you lived in an Arab country?
The second time was in 1982. I lived in Egypt for over a year, including the year that Saddat was assassinated. It was the beginning of the Mubarak regime. I went by myself. I was divorced by that time and although I had kids I didn’t take my kids—I was there for an intensive advanced Arabic program.
It was then that I became particularly interested in learning how to read the Qur’an without somebody else’s interpretation.
While I was studying in Egypt, at one point one of my instructors was discussing a verse in the Qur’an that talks about female slaves. The verse says that you can’t force female slaves against their will. My instructor said that this means “Don’t put them into prostitution to other men, but you, as the slave holder, can do whatever you want to them.” I asked him, “How can it mean ‘Do whatever you want to them,’ yet the language says ‘Don’t force them against their will’?”
The only way my instructor knew to respond was to say, “After studying the Qur’an for so many years I know what the Qur’an means.” I kept asking him, “But how do you know?” And he couldn’t answer me.
That question became an important part of my research. How is it that the interpreters can say certain things about women and say those things are in the text? If the text doesn’t say it, how do they come up with it?
What is it that makes you question things and not accept them as is? Is it a cultural thing?
I left my home when I was 14 for educational purposes, so I could no longer rely on somebody telling me: This is the right thing to do. I had to start learning for myself. I think it is partly American culture. I grew up in a white community, and as an African American woman, this experience taught me to question things.
I finished my Ph.D. in 1988 and applied for a job at the International Islamic University in Malaysia. I got the job and started teaching the Qur’an. At the same time I started meeting with other women who were interested in focusing on the differences between what they believed was Islam and what they were experiencing in their lives. That group is now known as Sisters in Islam.
I met with this group monthly to talk about women`s issues. We had readings by Fatema Mernissi and other feminist scholars. From the beginning, I tried to convince the other women in the group that we should read the Qur’an. It took about a year and a half before they took my advice and we started reading the Qur’an.
I was one of the first people to propose the idea of studying the Qur’an as part of an agenda for gender reform. It was that idea that began my work as an activist.
So your activism is about gender issues in relation to Islam?
My activism is about including the female voice in everything that pertains to her: in religion, in policy, and in access to resources.
I read that you led a prayer in NYC. I remember that I shared this information about women leading prayers as Imams with my parents, who are Muslims, and they were against it—saying that it is against Islamic laws. How do you deal with objections and criticisms like this?
The understanding of most people who believe in Islam is that they know what the religion says about certain issues and they don’t question this assumption. They don’t actually know what is written in their own book and they don’t know what the methods of interpretation are; they just assume that somebody, somewhere said this and that is what must be true.
That is the advantage—or the disadvantage—of not being Muslim by birth. You are not afraid to do your own research to fully understand the Qur’an, instead of only relying on other people`s opinions. Furthermore, I had to have an honest relationship with Allah; I couldn’t pretend by doing something that I didn’t believe in.
What do you think are the challenges facing Muslim people in these modern times?
I think the biggest challenge we face about Islam today is ignorance. In the US context, we need much more dynamic education to address Islamophobia. As Muslims, we need to stop hiding behind our own ignorance and saying “This is just what I was taught.” We need to understand more dynamically what the Qur’an and Sunnah says and be able to apply it to our own situations.
In 2007 Amina Wadud received the Danish Democracy Prize. She was selected for the 2009 Library of Congress “Women Who Dare” book series.