The First American Woman Imam Explains the Rise of Islamic Feminism
Since Dr. amina wadud led her first public sermon 25 years ago, Islamic feminism has taken root and sprouted globally.
LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images
From the way we see ourselves to the way we are seen, being Muslim means so many different things to individual women across the world. In honor of Muslim Women’s Day this year, we’re focusing on the way Muslim identity presents itself differently—in our personal relationships, our professional endeavors, and more—and how no one experience can speak for us all.
Twenty-five years ago, I was on a two-week lecture tour in South Africa. It coincided with the first one-hundred days of Nelson Mandela’s presidency; equality and justice were in the air. I accepted an invitation to deliver a sermon (khutbah) in front of the Friday congregation at the Claremont Main Road Mosque. It was my first major experience of embodied ethics, when just words are not enough. In August 1994, gender equality in Islamic ritual worship was beyond my imagination. Since then, a quarter of a century has passed, and more of the unimaginable regarding Muslim women’s religious authority has taken root—and sprouted.
Like those of other great religions, Islam’s fundamental canons were established by only the voices of men. As the centuries passed, men’s disproportionate privilege gave them the exclusive right to act as leaders for the sacred rites and rituals obligatory upon all Muslims. Women were consigned to silent participation in supporting roles.
Religious authority in Islam starts with the Qur’an as sacred text and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as exemplar. Although there is no text in the Qur’an and no statement of the Prophet ( hadith) restricting women from fulfilling the role of Imam, religious leaders and scholars arrived at a near unanimous opinion that only men should be imams. While all source texts confirm that women have full spiritual agency in Islam, that truth was rendered invisible.
A critical analysis of the way these scholars arrived at the male-only conclusion unveils the same foundation of patriarchy as it is practiced around the world. Only when women began to analyze this history as full intellectual agents—as mandated by both the Qur’an and the Prophet—did its logic come undone. Pro-faith or Islamic feminism tackled the methods of textual interpretations, re-examined the canonical sources, created new interpretive methods, and constructed new knowledge.
Islamic feminism uses the lived realities of Muslim women to inform the way we establish authority, responsibility, and well-being. In the past 20 years, Muslim women reached a critical mass in reclaiming their agency and responsibilities. In every country, at every economic and educational level, in the arenas of politics, law, art, civic society and of course, in sacred public ritual, we have tackled the biased assumption of authority belonging exclusively to Muslim men.
Islamic feminists like the Musawah network have demonstrated there can be no justice without reciprocal equality. Using gender as an analytical lens, we re-examine the underlying assumptions in patriarchal interpretations of the sacred texts and devise more egalitarian conclusions. Among the more well-known Islamic feminist thinkers in the West are its first-generation: scholars like Fatima Mernissi, Rifaat Hassan, and Leila Ahmed; the second generation: Kecia Ali, Sa’diyya Shaykh, Asmaa Barlas; a whole new generation, including Jerusha Lamptey and Aishah Hidayyatullah. Their scholarship has led the way in challenging entrenched and persistent double standards in all aspects of women’s lives.
We have tackled the biased assumption of authority belonging exclusively to Muslim men.
More than a decade after my first major experience of embodied ethics for gender equality, a mixed-gender congregational prayer was organized at the community level in a highly publicized event in New York City in 2005. I was invited to deliver the sermon and lead the prayer. The unimaginable was becoming part of our communal identity. In the decade that followed that sermon, queer Muslims began their own Inclusive Mosque Initiatives, and Muslim women started their Women’s Mosque movement.
A future is unfolding where such a dichotomy between male and female devotees will not survive. Muslim women advocate on their own behalf, and they create their own sacred spaces—permanent or temporary—and perform the full spectrum of ritual observation. While staying in accord of the mandates of our faith, we have moved beyond the confines previously placed upon us by those who maintained dominion over patriarchal spaces in the name of Islam. In other words: Women are no longer waiting for approval from the very ones who restricted us in the first place. While once I could not imagine that, now it is part of our modern Islamic legacy. I look forward to the next 25 years, when women and men’s equal spiritual devotion is presented in every sacred place.