Radical Pluralism: An interview with Dr. Amina Wadud

Amina Wadud handsWritten for Media Diversified:

This Friday 6th March, just ahead of International Women’s Day, the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI), a UK-based group who convene inclusive spaces for worship and community work, have invited Dr. Amina Wadud to lead their mixed-gender Friday prayer (Jummah).

It’s been 10 years since Dr. Wadud made headlines when she did the same thing in New York in 2005 and became the first woman to lead both men and women in prayer in the global North. Now IMI are continuing the process she started and potentially turning it up a notch. With their ardent approach to ensuring their events are accessible to disabled people and their eagerness to provide spaces where Muslims of all sects, all genders and all sexualities can meet as equals, their work raises questions about what a truly pluralistic Islam looks like today.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Wadud, author of Qur’an and Woman and Inside the Gender Jihad over Skype. She chats causally about her travels to the global south where she feels “indebted to women and oppressed people who take me to task for attempting to perfect an interpretation that might be irrelevant to people’s lives.” She laments the energy she spends in the US “eking out the space between the sort of apologetic neo-liberal articulation of Islam and the conservative projection of Islam. Neither one of which,” she tells me, “is going to push us forward the way we need to go.” I ask her about the liberation theology she’s been working on and what she calls “radical pluralism.” She explains: “the future of Islam means we need to be taking some spiritual-radical, liberal-radical turns at this time in history.”

On 6th March, the IMI are going to be opening up the congregational prayer space to everyone including people who have, perhaps, proactively avoided those spaces of ritual worship because historically, those spaces have excluded them for myriad reasons. Do you have any advice for them on reclaiming that space?

Yes. I like the way that you’ve formulated this question because you are expressing it from what I would describe as the base level upwards and I’ve been looking at it as far as reformist theory. One cannot wait to have ownership of Islam granted, one has to actually feel confident of the necessity for asserting that ownership especially when it is being neglected or deprived. So, the power lies at that basic level as well as at the top. There is a need to arrive at the confidence to be able accept that despite differences of opinion, despite outright obstacles and objections, one has to go forward with a sense of ownership. I think it’s a process of self-affirmation and transformation.

You know, when more ordinary Muslims arrive at that place, then the achievement of democratisation of authority will be met. I continue to work on what I call radical pluralism and that means that there is and has always been, a diversity of Islams in accordance to the people who live it. It means that every person who confesses to be Muslim has the right to say what the public understanding of Islam is and if there are different public understandings of Islam, great, ‘cause the more the merrier.

It’s likely that there will be an outer circle of attendees at the inclusive prayer. They’re going to be the Muslim allies of the people who are praying. Although those allies might not be taking those steps towards ownership themselves, they are going to be there. What message would you want to put across to those people who may not feel it’s okay to join in, but they’re still showing their support?

Alright. To them my message would be: get off the fence. I don’t feel that they’re helpful to themselves or to anyone by presuming that when such a thing as inclusive prayer gets the approval of whatever parties they are waiting to have approve it, only then can they openly participate. That is simply a form of hypocrisy and cowardice and it doesn’t do anyone any good to have them sit on the periphery, which they do on the basis of taking some efforts to preserve their I’m-still-a-good-Muslim-ness, according to other people’s expectations of what is a good Muslim.

I think a little more concern needs to be put on the honesty and integrity of their own hearts. If their heart is in support, then their body needs to be following suit.

In the fight for gender equality and inclusivity in religion, you’ll have come across people who feel that the reality of those who say they are excluded or marginalised is perhaps exaggerated or distracting from more so-called important issues. How do you bring people into awareness about anything that they believe is not their reality?

This really is more of a pedagogical issue. This is about the ways that we imagine knowledge can be explained. What does it take to build empathy in people so that they will respect that there are differences even in the perceptions of the same experience and that each of those different perceptions are equally important? I have seen a few mechanisms that work. I’m especially thinking about Toni Morrison’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for literature because one of the means is through storytelling. We need to cultivate the capacity to listen, to learn, to witness other stories as equally significant because they are, in fact, significant aspects of the total conversation of Islam in our day.

I think we need to multiply the number of stories that are told about Muslim realities and right now, we are on a repeat cycle for certain formulas and these formulas have outlived their utility. We have played out certain stories to such an extent that the people who are experiencing stories outside of those overplayed ones, do not realise how valuable their contributions are. We have not moved to a global awareness about Muslim diversity so our notion of, for example the hero, is still where it was many years ago. We still love the trope of the Muslim woman that needs to be saved by something. The something could be education, fashion etc. We love that story, we love that victim being made hero trope. We can move beyond that.

Which has been more difficult, getting men to see women differently or encouraging women to see themselves differently?

I have to say, personally, I put little attention into how men see women. They’re not my audience, they’re not who I aim at when I make certain statements because the historical record indicates that men have had undue privilege. So I think in a way, that they’re doing okay. I guess you could say that I’m working on women changing their minds about themselves. However, I find that articulation a little problematic because it seems to start from a place of disapproval. I’m not stressing so much that women change as much, as I’m stressing that women become greater in self-acceptance.

The language of change presumes that they have something wrong that needs to be corrected and I am trying to work philosophically on the grounds of: you’re okay just as you are. When I talk about change, I use that word in terms of transformation and I usually articulate it this way: the universe is always in motion and God himself is alive so if we are not continually moving then the universe will move on without us, so not paying attention to that transformation is not stagnation, it is in fact, regression. Because in order to keep up with the universe, we have to keep moving. But I don’t give a direction to that movement and I don’t give an evaluation to what I think would constitute a “proper” or “good” location within it. I just think we have to keep up with the universe.


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