"The day I met Amina Wadud" – a critique

American scholar and thinker Amina Wadud

Any self-respecting news editor would know that significant, if not historical events require pretty polished reporting. The star-studded Musawah conference last February on Islamic family law reforms was one such significant event. Organised by Malaysia’s very own Sisters In Islam (SIS), it was something to be proud of. But reading Malaysian journalist Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi’s take on it and her “interview” with Amina Wadud gave me plenty to be embarrassed about. As if faced with a perilous task, she writes about her anti-Amina colleagues, warnings of Wadud’s “standoffish” character, the intimidating books she has to read prior to meeting the writer herself, and the “mouthful” title of Wadud’s conference paper (Beyond Patriarchy Through Gender Inclusive Qur’anic Analysis) – a subject, she describes as “too big to chew”, “unless one is a sociologist”.

Um. Yeah.

Her self-deprecating outlook aside, the article itself, published both in The News Straits Times and the SIS website, is pure fluff. Sadly, this is the kind of journalistic writing Malaysians love to read. Rather than focusing on what Wadud thinks about the future of Muslim women in Malaysia (like herself) or even WHY a Quranic scholar thinks that the Islamic family law reform is so important, the reporter asks about her time in Malaysia when she taught at the International Islamic University between 1989 and 1992, and of course the perennial question about local food:

She still craves fish head curry and roti canai. “The stalls here are the best,” she said. She enjoyed living in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in the early 1990s.

“I’m never one for loud and busy cities. I prefer a quiet neighbourhood. Taman Tun was perfect then. But recently my friend took me there and I discovered this huge shopping mall…” she gestured, quite overwhelmed by how much the area has developed.

Do internationally renowned people like Amina Wadud like Malaysia and Malaysian food? Yes!

In her efforts to present Amina Wadud as a ‘goodie’ – a champion of every Muslim woman’s interests, rather than a feminist revolutionary ‘baddie’, she sanitises her words and image. A quote, “I only led prayers when I was invited to” that accompanies her photos is an attempt to mitigate her status as a controversial figure. Why is that necessary? Just as problematic is the reporter’s relief upon meeting Wadud in the flesh that “she did not come across as someone bursting with self-righteousness, consumed by feminist ideals (emphasis mine)”. Thank goodness she’s not a hardcore feminist!

Not once during the interview did she refer to herself as an imam.

Lastly, on Wadud’s rigorous research before leading her (now infamous) mixed-gender congregation in 2005, Siti Nurbaiyah can only offer a non-committal non-opinion:

Do I subscribe to the idea? I can only say that I do not have the knowledge yet.

I have a problem with this vertebrae-challenged statement. In Malaysia, many Muslims are quite happy letting out-of-touch muftis distort the collective common sense. The recent fatwas on tomboys and yoga come to mind in this argument. Suddenly, a ban on performing yogic meditation and wearing one’s hair short makes sense because a tiny few with ‘the knowledge’ says so. An opinion, a critical one especially would be a step too far for the unlearned. Perhaps a dose of ijtihad would be in order for the general Malaysian-Muslim consciousness?

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.


  1. “Do I subscribe to the idea? I can only say that I do not have the knowledge yet.”

    So, do you subscribe to the idea then?

    1) Honestly speaking, what I think of SIS is this, they are a bunch of liberalist Muslims who are working (whether they realize or not) to materialize the agenda of the West (Novus Ordo Seclorum – New World Order agenda)

    2) I’m not against any form of feminism, but only those that support the agenda of the West against Islam.

    3) And according to what I read about the Musawah, some of the things which was discussed during the Musawah was not supposed to be discussed at all, for example the Faraid law. That is already in the Quran what Allah had ordained it, if you want equal rights then it is up to the siblings to discuss and distribute evenly if they choose to.

    4) Amina Wadud should only lead a congregation of women, not a mixed congregation. I thought that is the most basic knowledge in prayer that you should have?

    You might not understand why I mentioned “New World Order”…you can view a video about it here….The Wakeup Project (http://wakeupproject.com/VList.asp?Series=1). Watch mainly Part 35 onwards.

    Peace to you.

  2. @ Cycads – Ah, that’s the usual media’s representation of feminism! Either vilify feminism or paint it as unthreatening as possible. The writer objectified Amina Wadud, not sexually, but made her as if she’s something exotic. And like you, I’m wondering what’s up with the writer not doing some research about Amina’s works? Did the writer lack any intellectual ability to pick up a book? Articles like these do no justice to feminism, and in fact objectifies it as something foreign and hard to understand.

  3. garden,

    Yes, I do subscribe to the idea. As you know from reading the content of this blog, I’m all for equality. There are sources (hadith) saying that Umm Waraqa was instructed by the prophet himself (pbuh) to lead the prayers of those living in her dar (home, residence, village). As long as the prophet did not explicitly say that women aren’t allowed to do so, then this hadith would be valid. She was a powerful and educated woman and the prophet saw her as fit to be an imam. If a man of knowledge and wisdom can do it, a woman of a similar standing can too.

    and to answer each of your points:

    1) Anyone who believes in conspiracy theories should go out more.

    2) That’s reasonable enough.

    3) There is always something to discuss, even when things are set in stone. In this case, the Quran. Reading and talking about the hadith and sunnah that support the faraid law for example, especially the context in which it is mentioned, is important because such writings captures the practical issues that the Quranic word sometimes does not provide.

    4) Amina Wadud CAN lead a mixed-congregation, not only in her home but also in a masjid. Common sense should prevail if her credibility as a leader (in wisdom, knowledge, and experience) is worth two ordinary Muslim men (or more).


    I don’t want to sound like an intellectual snob (okay, maybe a little), but the writer does appear really incompetent. Well, yes, feminism is still an alien concept in overwhelmingly patriarchal Malaysia. Commentor garden above best exemplifies the kind of suspicion towards Muslim-feminist groups like SIS. Equality certainly rocks the boat, the status quo. It’s popular in the ‘West’, and it’s given birth to abortion rights (irony alert) and empowering pole dancing. So feminism must be bad! But what about women who just want to be equal in the eyes of the law (particularly an Islamic one) and society? and not treated as deficient by virtue of our bodies whilst neglecting our minds?

  4. you see sister,

    there’s two things you should always be very careful when dealing with hadith. whether it is of a strong with the complete sanad or whether it is of the weak ones. i have never come across such hadith that you mentioned above from the prophet. could you show me where you get that source of hadith, http link?

    what is said in the quran is not to be questioned. faraid law is clear…and like i said, between the siblings, you can decide if to share equally among yourselves, and not following the law. but faraid is faraid, should not be any questions about it at all. it is clear just as clear as hudud, the thing that was not mentioned might be the way it is implemented.

    i give u an example, my dad has 2 wives, i have 3 siblings with 1 sister, my other brother was the only son from the other wife. so when my father passed away, we divide by faraid. when it comes to my siblings, the 3 of us agreed that we want to divide equally among us so my sister will get the same amount. that is okay. it can be done that way. unfortunately some of us are greedy when it comes to money. that’s the sad part.

    p/s: the agenda of the west is not a conspiracy theory, those who does not know it, should take up history more.


  5. garden,

    I first learned about the hadith when I attended a conference on women and Islam (Amina Wadud was one of the speakers) some time ago, long after I *thought* (in my own mind) that women have the capacity, just as men do, to lead the prayers of both men and women. But that’s just heretical me.

    Here are some links.

    I think the faraid law is fair, and I’m not the least bit surprised that it’s become a popular way to avoid squabbles between family members. My mother and her brothers recently resolved their inheritance issues fairly peacefully after both my grandparents passed away, although my uncles DID insist on receiving a bigger share. Yes, even people you think you know and love can be greedy.

  6. …. *sigh* I guess I’m an intellectual snob too, because that article was poorly written, particularly by a so-called journalist. If she was writing for an entertainment magazine, or a blog, I could let it slide, but that doesn’t really give anyone much to chew on.

  7. garden:

    I understand your confusion/frustration, but I’m sure you’ll realize that what we consider “basic knowledge” in Islam is not always straightforward. I’m sure you have heard of al-Tabari, the great mufassir and arguably the greatest Islamic historian of all times. But you’ve probably never heard that his madhhab allowed women to lead prayers in mixed-gender congregations. Yes, there was a Tabari school of thought, as were many others besides the ones we know of today, but most of these madhhabs eventually did not survive.

    My only point being, Islamic thought is much more complex than most of us imagine, but sadly modernity has both flattened it as it has flattened our perception of it.

  8. rawi,

    i have to disagree with you. i understand what you meant by madhhab, and i have also went through the links which cycads had given earlier. unfortunately, there is none anywhere in there where it is mentioned “clearly” of such hadith. i was expecting to get the original arabic hadith. not the translation.

    and also, if you are well aware of islamic history, you should be well aware who the khawarij are. and in the link provided by cycads was mentioned the name. so, again i am not denying what the prophet had done during his time, but probably the understanding of the hadith itself was not correct, and probably-maybe it was only for a certain instance of event corresponding to that point in time.

    i’m sure you are a muslim, and being a muslim we have been praying in rows made up of men, kids and women and also “hermaphrodites” too. so, if the positions have been properly defined, how can we have mixed congregation? i understand in the madhhab hanafi, the wuduk is intact if in case a woman skin is in contact with a man, compared to madhhab shafie (correct me if i’m wrong).

    but sir, i disagree with you “Islamic thought is much more complex than most of us imagine…”, for i don’t see islam as being difficult to understand, it’s just us that always mixed things up and make it difficult.

    the very existence of madhhab is because the different interpretation of how the prophet (saw) carried out his duty as a muslim.

    well, God has a purpose for creating adam first, before he created eve. and the main purpose for eve was to be the companion to adam, eve will never be the same or have the same function to adam because if God had intended that way, he would have created adam and eve both at the same time. so at a certain point eve can be as good as adam if not better. and at some point eve is better than adam. but in all this what God intends eve to understand is, she will always need to be the companion of adam and help him anyway she can and had been created to do so.

  9. garden,

    I’m not answering on behalf of Rawi, but I have comments to make on yours.

    you said:

    … if you are well aware of islamic history, you should be well aware who the khawarij are. and in the link provided by cycads was mentioned the name. so, again i am not denying what the prophet had done during his time, but probably the understanding of the hadith itself was not correct, and probably-maybe it was only for a certain instance of event corresponding to that point in time.

    I’m not sure what you’re pontificating about here. In your last sentence you’re trying to disprove a hadith by simply saying “it was only for a certain instance of event corresponding to that point in time.”

    You’re clearly playing the devil’s advocate – but really, I don’t want to get into what can potentially be a long-winded and pointless argument with you so can you please be clear about what you mean by that? Some examples would help.

    I find this patronising and offensive:

    i’m sure you are a muslim, and being a muslim we have been praying in rows made up of men, kids and women and also “hermaphrodites” too. so, if the positions have been properly defined, how can we have mixed congregation?

    Starting a sentence with “I’m sure you are a Muslim and … therefore you should know and do this etc etc. (my interpretation)” assumes that all Muslims across the globe think and perform religious duties the way you do. That kind of didactic language stifles open and egalitarian dialogue. And putting inverted commas around the word hermaphrodite is offensive, because it looks like it’s meant in an ironic way. The term is also outdated and stigmatising. The more commonly-used term for individuals with secondary sexual characteristics that are neither conclusively female nor male is intersexed.

    but sir, i disagree with you “Islamic thought is much more complex than most of us imagine…”, for i don’t see islam as being difficult to understand, it’s just us that always mixed things up and make it difficult.

    Islam is definitely complex. It cannot exist in a vacuum, and it thrives in complex societies and cultures. Try bringing together believers from not just the different mazhabs, but different countries who speak different languages, cultures and levels of piety into the mix and I challenge you to find simplicity. Another thing I’d like to add: complexity does not mean difficult to understand.

  10. garden,

    i think you may have misunderstood my use of the phrase “mixed-gender congregation.” it simply means a congregation that includes people of multiple genders, regardless of where they stand. it does NOT mean that the women and men are all mixed-up and stand next to each other.

    the reason i even mentioned “mixed-gender congregation” is to emphasize the fact that the debate is about whether or not women can lead congregations including both men and women. there isn’t really much debate about whether women can lead other women in prayer — many madhhabs already accept that.

    in the (infamous) 2005 event in which Amina Wadud led the prayer, it was “mixed-gender” in the sense that there were men and women, and their areas were side-by-side. in other words, the rows of women weren’t at the back, but on the right side of the men. and there were some husbands and wives in the middle who were standing next to each other. none of this is novel, but already practiced in many mosques throughout the world. for e.g. i have stood and prayed next to my own mother in the middle of the jama`ah, at masjid al-haram many years ago.

    in any case, i don’t want to debate the permissibility of women leading prayer, because it’s not my area of research.

    my point was merely that we often take things for granted, but in reality things are usually far more complex. i don’t deny that islam is fairly easy to understand, but that doesn’t mean that islamic law or theology or etc aren’t “complex.” i realize that i may have caused confusion with the phrase “islamic thought” — what i meant by it were the various islamic sciences.

  11. Before i embraced Islam, 8 years ago, i asked a Muslimah, “why were there no Muslim females who took on authoritative positions in our society and more particularly our mosques.” She replied rather boldly “a women lecturing in a mosque, in a mosque full of men! That’s not Islam.” Little did she know….

    Most Muslims today are under the impression that it is only a man who has authority to lecture in a mosque with a mixed gender congregation. Society has been forced into thinking that men are superior to women when it comes to Islamic knowledge, issues over jurisprudence and being active in society. Like my dear friend, most young women believe that they cannot grow up with the dream of becoming a great Hadith scholar or an influential jurist. They grow up confining themselves to their homes or careers that are accepted for a Muslim women to embark on. Are they even aware of the greatest women ever lived?

    The Prophet (s.a.w) demonstrated that women possess independent religious responsibility that has no connection to gender.

    There are many female scholars in our history, especially in Hadith. Both men and women could learn directly from these female scholars without any questions being raised. Imam Hakim states that 1/4 of Islam depends on the narrations of these women. If we did not have that 1/4 we would lose Islam. There is no single Hadith that has been rejected from a women on account of her being a fabricating liar. This is something that is truly astounding when one compares this to the number of men who have fabricated Hadith. This clearly shows us that women have always been truthful conveyors of knowledge.

    – Ribyah bint Muawidh, whose family dies in the battle of Uhud. She taught many students who were actually in fact family of the beloved Prophet Muhammed (s.a.w). She was one of the greatest experts on Hadith relating to wudhu. People would rather go to her to be taught Hadith, even though Abu Bakr and Umar were in Medina.

    – Amrah Bint Abdur Rahman; she was a great female successor. She was a jurist, mufti and Hadith specialist. The great Caliphs would encourage people to learn Hadith from her.

    – Umm Darda, who was a wife of the Sahabi Abu al-Dard. She taught in the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem. Her classes were attended by Imams, Muftis and Jurists.

    – Zaynab bint Sulayman, who was a princess by birth, gained the reputation of one of the most distinguished scholars of Hadith. She too, taught many powerful and influential men.

    And these are just to name a few. The fact that these women taught men, who were also regarded as great Islamic Scholars, indicates their respect and status earned. These women were allowed to teach in mosques and in a todays society the debate as to whether women are actually allowed to enter a mosque still exists. This is how ignorant some Muslims still are. If you start learning about Islamic History, you will see that women were allowed to give binding verdicts about religion and even if they differed with the male scholars, there was never any objections concerning her judgment. Her faith was never questioned not were any sanctions issued against her and they didn’t prevent her form narrating Hadith. This shows you how important women were in the times of the Prophet (s.a.w) and after.

    Women are not inferior to men and nor are they superior. The Prophet (s.a.w) brought a message that says women are equal to men in their value. The Quran says that the person who is the most noble in the eyes of God is the one who has the most awareness of God, this can be gained by both men and women. Your gender has nothing to do with whether you can submit yourself to God. Both men and women have a direct connection to God. As Muslims, we should not see one gender as being superior over the other, the most valuable people in Islam are the ones who submit themselves to God and who have the highest Imaan.

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