Khaled Abou El Fadl
The author of this book became internationally famous as the woman who led a mixed gender congregation in prayers in March, 2005. As her act raised a firestorm of heated exchanges all over the Muslim and non-Muslim world, except for an appearance on Al Jazeera television channel, the author remained silent throughout the controversy. There is no exaggeration in saying that from Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the Ivory Coast to England, Italy, and China, hundreds of journals and television shows not only debated the permissibility of women leading men in prayer but also inappropriately analyzed or attacked the author’s character and motivation. For many Wahhabi spokesmen, slandering the author became a favored pastime, and the very influential Islamic activist, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, dedicated an hour-long episode of his semi-weekly program on Al Jazeera to attacking the author and branding her actions as clearly un-Islamic and thus, heretical. On the other hand, the Islamic scholar Gamal al-Banna, the young brother of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote a short book arguing that the author’s actions are well-supported by Islamic sources, and thus, entirely orthodox. Although I suspect the author is not all too happy about this, her act gained a symbolic value that, depending on one’s perspective, could be characterized as positive or negative.
Towards the end of her book, the author does address this incident but I think whether one supports or opposes the author’s position on women-led prayers, this ought not be the reason for reading this book. This book is about much more than that, and the author’s formidable intellectual output and her long history of thoughtful activism ultimately cannot be reduced to a single event or set of events regardless of how meaningful such events are or should be. The author has spent a lifetime waging a very courageous struggle against gender prejudice, and in part, this book should be read because it is an incisive condemnation of the various institutions of patriarchy within Islam. The title of this book indicates that it is about the gender jihad in Islam, and this is certainly true, but even this doesn’t quite describe it—this book is about more.
Readers of this book will be taken on an intellectually rigorous and a truly thrilling journey not just through the problems that confront Muslims today, or the many gender injustices that plague contemporary articulations of the Islamic faith, but also through the many forms of intolerable oppression including racism, bigotry, religious intolerance, and economic exploitation—all of which have become interminable causes of human suffering in our world. As I say intellectually rigorous, I hasten to add that this is an accessible book written to reach a broad audience and that it can be engaged by any serious reader who cares about Islam or simply human beings.
What makes this book particularly accessible is that it is semi-autobiographical—with remarkable candor and transparency the author walks the reader through her own intellectual and ethical struggles as a woman, as a mother, as an African-American, as an academic, as a Muslim, and most importantly, as a human being. Yet because of her awe inspiring honesty, this is one author who resists categorization or any form of reductionism. Professor Wadud cannot comfortably be fitted with a label such as: feminist, progressive, liberal, or Islamist. The author does wage a jihad against gender prejudices and other injustices, including what she describes as the erasure of human beings and their dignity. But with a level of frankness, conscientiousness, and self-consciousness that is rarely found, she is simultaneously critical not just of conservative or traditional Islam, but also of progressive Muslims, feminism, and even when need be herself. The author’s transparency and ability to engage and interrogate Islamic texts, and her fellow Muslims, as well as interrogate her own thought and intellectual development allows the reader to gain unique insight into the very real challenges that confront modern Muslims.
As a Muslim reading this book, I felt at different times variously engaged, enriched, enthralled, excited, upset, angered, and enraged. At times, I found myself strongly disagreeing with some of the author’s arguments about Islamic law, but at all times I could not but feel a deep sense of respect for the author’s integrity, courage, and honesty. This is hardly surprising in a book written by an author who does not mince words, engage in double-talk, or hide in ambiguities. But even more, I believe that this is an author who would not be happy with an uncritical and complacent reader, and would be flattered by disagreement if it were the result of a serious and engaged reading of her text. Professor Wadud is the living embodiment of someone who takes to heart the Qur’anic command to bear witness for God’s sake in justice even if it is against her loved ones or herself. In essence, this is a scholar who practices what she believes and preaches, and instead of theorizing from a cushiony ivory tower, she is down in the trenches fighting for what she believes and suffering enormously for it. Professor Wadud does share with the reader some of her experiences from the trenches, but she does not emphasize the extent to which she has consistently suffered, and has been ostracized, attacked, and even persecuted for taking her religion very seriously—in fact, more seriously than most Muslims. Consequently, the author is better positioned than most scholars to understand and explain the realities of Islam as it lived and experienced by its adherents. And indeed, Professor Wadud’s book avoids the essentialisms, stereotypes, prejudices, double-talk, apologetics, and sheer fantasies that fill so much of the literature on Islam that crowd the shelves of so many bookstores.
The author continues to wage a gender jihad from the trenches against an entrenched and stubborn patriarchy, and in part, this book is a faithful record of this moral struggle. But unlike so much of the sensationalistic, and at times Islamophobic, writings that are published these days, this is not a book about the trouble with Islam, what went wrong with Islam, why Islam is a problem, or why Islam is some-type of implicitly failed religion. Sadly, there are too many readers in the West today who hope to find a self-hating Muslim blathering or spewing venom about the countless evils inflicted upon the author’s poor suffering Muslim soul by a religion he or she supposedly chooses to follow. These types of ugly gyrations by self-declared Muslims who prostitute their own religious tradition in order to appease bigots or who clamor to serve certain vested political interests have become all too common. Of course, as to these self-hating confessional writers, one cannot help but wonder if Islam torments them so, why do they continue to associate themselves with the Islamic faith? Whatever their personal motivations, however, the reality is that there is a vast difference between those who gaze inwards while standing on a firm grounding of knowledge and those who do so while swimming in a sea of ignorance. There is also a vast difference between those who critically engage the Islamic tradition while believing that Islam is a problem and those who do so while believing that Islam is the solution. Unfortunately, particularly in the West, works by pretenders who pretentiously act out the role of reconstructionists have considerably obfuscated that critical line that differentiates learned reformers from ignorant sensationalists who are motivated by nothing more than the most prurient interests.
Those readers who are searching for the tormented soul of a self-hating Muslim or the gyrations of a sensationalist eager to please Islamophobes better leave this book alone. On the other hand, readers who are seeking to engage in a journey of conscientious struggle and learning will find this book nothing short of enlightening. For this author, it is Islam that nourishes her struggle for justice, that forces her to be uncompromising in her honesty with others and with herself, and ultimately, that motivates her to stand steadfastly in the trenches discharging her duties as a fully autonomous moral agent. Significantly, Professor Wadud does so in the context of critically analyzing Islamic theology and re-conceptualizing the relationship between a Muslim and her God. The author carefully constructs what she calls a Tawhidic paradigm—a paradigm not only of pure monotheism but of a sincere and total submission to God.
Per the author’s paradigm, a person who makes the commitment to surrender to God accepts a covenant of conscientious moral and autonomous agency. The divine covenant offered by God to human beings entails an unwavering commitment to justice, integrity, truthfulness, and resistance to all forms of dominance and oppression. Injustice as well as all forms of dominance and oppression undermine and at times completely obliterate a human being’s moral agency—they rob people of their autonomy—of their ability to be responsible before God for their own moral judgments and actions. Surrendering to God, however, is laden with challenges—meaningful surrender means that one must be vigilant in waging a relentless jihad against human weaknesses such as vanity, cowardliness, apathy, mindless conformity, self-deception, dishonesty, arrogance, and acquiescence in ignorance. Further complicating the challenge to surrender is the sheer magnanimity, limitlessness, and omnipotence of the Divine. The Divine cannot be constrained or fully represented by a text, a code of law, creation, or the actions or thoughts of created beings. In order for human agency to be a true exercise in autonomy and for the surrender to be meaningful, it is imperative that Muslims critically interrogate their texts, laws, customs, and thoughts. This critical stance vis-à-vis the divine text or law is not done for its own sake; it is an essential component of the Muslim covenant with God, as it is a critical part of the ongoing struggle to surrender meaningfully by gaining mastery and autonomy over oneself, and as it is a necessary part of the persistent quest for justice.
One cannot fully surrender what one does not own, but self-ownership, or more precisely, self-mastery has many impediments. Those impediments include everything that compromises the self and renders its surrender to God false, artificial, or spurious. Upon reflection, most Muslims will agree with the above statements, and they are likely to recall the oft-repeated Islamic polemic that only through sincere submission to God does one attain true liberty. But what is often over looked or intentionally ignored is the difficulty of this surrender. Consequently, Professor Wadud’s insightful and painfully honest discourse on the struggle to surrender is not just precisely the point but is also inspirational. What many Muslims fail to realize is the extent to which the exploitation of human beings, oppression, authoritarianism, and despotism are truly potent impediments—impediments that render the whole human dynamic with the Divine covenant plagued with falsehood, insincerity, and hypocrisy. As the author recognizes, despotism and oppression take many forms and are perpetuated under a variety of guises. From a theological point of view, the worst forms are when human beings usurp the role of God, and exploit the name of the Divine in the process of erasing the autonomy and will of other human beings. Professor Wadud perceptively describes the many ways by which the Divine authority, text, or law are transformed into instruments exploited by those in power in order to erase the other. This, in turn, brings us full circle to the necessity of interrogating the tools or instruments that are used to commit the religious and moral offense of erasing other human beings in God’s name.
This brings me to the most important contribution of this book. Unfortunately, an inordinate number of Muslim men, and also women, fail to recognize the many ways that patriarchy is an offense against morality and Islam. Too many Muslims and non-Muslims are not sufficiently sensitized to the fact that patriarchy is despotism and that it is a morally offensive condition. As an institution, patriarchy feeds on the eradication of women’s moral agency; it erases and marginalizes women; and most significantly, it negates the possibility of true surrender to God. Likewise, an inordinate number of Muslims fail to reflect upon the extent to which patriarchy exploits the instruments of religious authority but ends up displacing God’s authority altogether. Professor Wadud’s frank and generous narrative about the many ways in which Muslim women, including the author, experience erasure in their various respective communities is compelling evidence of this lack of sensitivity, reflection, and awareness. Often erasure is purposeful and sinister, as when it is the result of willful animosity to women, but what is more challenging and also endemic is when erasure is subtle, inconspicuous, and nearly imperceptible because it is the outcome of moral ambivalence, or a well-theorized and well-fortified act of self-deception. After all, what could be more potent and dangerous than the seemingly endless ability of human beings to deceive themselves into believing that those who are erased are actually being affirmed, that the oppressed are actually in process of being liberated, and that the marginalized are well-sheltered and protected, and that ultimately, they like it this way?
Centuries ago the Qur’an warned human beings against the psychology of ambivalence—the dealing with moral failures through escapist strategies of displacement, and projection. The Qur’an warned that the psychology of ambivalence creates people who are oblivious to the true nature of their conduct—such people corrupt the earth while insisting that they are good doers. Corrupting the earth is a Qur’anic expression that refers to conduct that fundamentally undermines and tears apart the fabric of God’s creation. The Qur’an gives several examples of such conduct including: oppression, exploitation, duress and compulsion (al-istid’af wa al-istibdad wa al-ikrah), destroying life in all its forms, the attempt to annihilate the richness and diversity of human societies and their ability to intercourse with one another and reach greater understanding (al-ta’aruf), impeding reflection and thought, and the pursuit of knowledge (al-tafakkur wa talab al-‘ilm), preventing people from worshipping and supplicating God each according to their particular way and shari’ah (likulin shir’atan wa minhaja), planting the seeds of acrimony, friction, and warfare, the destruction of places of worship including temples, churches, and mosques, the spreading of fear, insecurity and terror (al-khawf wa al-irhab), and robbing people of their sense of safety, serenity, and tranquility (al-aman wa al-mann wa al-salwa), and usurping people of their livelihood, and properties (al-ma’ash wa al-‘amlak). However, the quintessential act of corruption is, whether intentionally or obliviously, to perpetuate conditions that rob humans of their agency and thus, their ability to partake in God’s covenant in any meaningful way. A part of this corruption is to attempt to erase the Divine presence, to replace God’s role by usurping and claiming the authority of the Divine as one’s own, to arrogantly and pretentiously stand ready to issue judgments about God’s will without due diligence, critical moral reflection, or conscientious pursuit of learning. It is the psychology of ambivalence that is responsible for the virtual flood in self-designated so-called experts indulging in ijtihad-talk and simultaneously spewing a plethora of ill-informed fatwas. Speaking one’s mind is an exercise in autonomy and agency, but the practice of ijtihad has its own equally compelling ethics, the most essential and basic of which is well-embodied by the meaning of the word itself, which is: to exert and exhaust oneself in the pursuit of thought and knowledge in search of the Divine will. Without question, Muslims ought to be free to speak their minds, and voice their opinions, but it is a different thing altogether to pretend to speak the mind of the Divine, and instead of humbly voicing one’s opinions, presumptuously endowing oneself with the voice of God. I think the current state of affairs in the Muslim world is a living proof of the chaos and confusion that is borne when people lose their sense of self-respect, which is the only real barrier against people speaking out of ignorance. Perhaps it is this widespread condition of ambivalence that is responsible for the fact that so many Muslims have forgotten that learning, reflection, investigation, and invention is an integral part of the covenant to civilize the earth and spread justice throughout its corners. Perhaps it is this widespread condition of ambivalence that has made so many Muslims forget the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings about the nature of piety—piety as a struggle to understand, as the pursuit of learning, and as an ethic of humble reserve in which the process of seeking enlightenment is considered far more deserving of respect than the claim of having become enlightened. I suspect that it is the psychology of ambivalence that erased and marginalized the Prophet’s tradition that once uplifted Muslims into understanding that learning is a never ending process of jihad, and that taught that in the sight of God, it is far more honorable to read and think than to speak.
Ultimately, ambivalence does not only lead to a thoroughly compromised self, but also to the injustice of compromising others. Because of their moral offenses, the Qur’an likens people who allow themselves to slip into this condition to those who insist on forgetting God and so eventually God relinquishes them to their own charge—having forgotten God, ultimately God lets them forget themselves. In my view, it is this state of ethical and moral ambivalence, willful ignorance, well-fortified self-deceptions that preclude Muslims from critically confronting a whole host of dangerous challenges that haunt them today—evils such as patriarchy, despotism, fanaticism, puritanism, and the latest vintage brand of foreign domination and imperialism. I fear that both moral ambiguity and obliviousness before these evils, which grow from the widespread condition of moral ambivalence are directly responsible for the vastly compromised sense of dignity that so many Muslims feel. The very least than can be said about Professor Wadud’s work is that besides articulating a resounding wake up call, her integrity, thought, and methodology provide a much needed effective antidote to many problems that plague Muslims today. In his final pilgrimage and sermon, after reminding Muslims of their ethical and moral obligations, the Prophet, standing on a mountain top, called out: "God, bear witness that I have discharged my duties and warned my people!" The clear implication of the Prophet's sermon was that after Muslims have been duly warned, as fully autonomous agents it was now up to them to assume full responsibility for their own conduct and hopefully heed the Prophet's teachings. After Professor Wadud's valiant jihad in writing this insightful book, she has earned the right to say that she has discharged her duties, and may God bear witness that she has warned!