The Day I Met Amina Wadud – a Critique

Salam waleykum, readers! I’m traveling, and so I didn’t have time to put together Friday Links this week. In their place, I’m sharing this great critique with you. It was written by Cycads and originally appeared on her blog. Next week, our regularly scheduled programming will resume, so stay tuned.

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. Organized 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. 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 sanitizes 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!

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” say 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?

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    I met Amina Wadud, thought she was nice… nothing really to write an article about.

  • Broomstick

    ugh. what an insult, patronizing article, Dr Wadud deserves better than that.

  • Samira

    Maybe I’m just oblivious-but I do not see the article as insulting or patronizing. Instead I read it as a type of human interest feature with a reporter getting to know a subject beyond the controversies that surround her.

    In fact, I appreciate the honesty of the author’s “not knowing” rather than feigning a full acceptance of Wadud’s scholarship or a superficial embrace of her politics.

    I also am a person who would like to understand more about women led prayer-does this mean that I don’t have a backbone? I am not saying that other women and men who have embraced and accept the idea without long deliberation don’t have the grounds to do so- what I am saying is that for many people their may exists a longer process to making revisions and revolts against practices that they hold dear.

    If I’m correct Wadud went from being a niquabi to presenting a cultural critique of hijab. As a young woman she moved in more conservative circles (as I know many of these people in her early Philadelphia community) and it is AFTER her studies that she came to the positions that many of us know her for.

    Like I’ve said before-female led prayer should not be the litmus test for how radical, feminist or with it a sister or brother is. Along the same lines, we should give people the space to learn and speak freely about things that are unsure of-rather than accuse them of being silly.

  • http://rawi.wordpress.com rawi

    Even as a fan, I have to admit that Amina Wadud can be somewhat inconsistent. I had a brief, nice encounter with her when I got her to sign my copy of her book sometime ago, but at another conference last summer at the Radcliffe Institute, her response to some questions (or rather, her dismissal of the questions altogether) really threw off the audience and even her panel moderator, a respected senior scholar. I think a friend of mine was saying that understandably, her occasional “standoffish” attitude (if that’s what it is) may be partly due to all the unnecessary sh_t that she has had to deal with.

    That said, Wadud is probably a far more complex personality than either her critics or her admirers can see. At an “Islamic Feminist” conference where I met her, she openly reasserted her refusal to identify herself with the “feminist” label. Not so surprising then, that interviewers like the one critiqued above misread her so badly — not to mention that that article probbaly reveals more about the interviewer herself and her problems, than about Wadud.

  • Phil

    A bit ironic that in an article criticizing an article for being patronizing to a ‘scholar’, this article in fact managed to demean the fatwah council of a whole country and the general population of that country.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Phil: this article in fact managed to demean the fatwah council of a whole country and the general population of that country.

    How so? Please explain.

  • Phil

    Last paragraph of the article.

  • http://www.muslimahcomments.wordpress.com Muslimahcomments

    Fatemeh,

    I cannot speak for Phil but I felt a similar uneasiness about this 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” say so.

    Why should this particular writer, simply because she is Malaysian, have to be linked with these fatwas? How are we to know if she embraces them or their knowledge? To what extent are Muslim populations responsible for or somehow guilty by association with what particular regimes of power say/do?

    The reason why I have listed this succession of questions is because I am intrigued by the way in which Muslims (in this contemporary moment) are often subjected to collective guilt and expected to speak for/against what other Muslims say or do at all times.

  • http://cycads.wordpress.com cycads

    Phil,

    From what little you can pick up from those short five sentences was simply a summary of my experience of talking about the recent fatwas with fellow Malaysians, but demeaning the majority of the country was never my intention. All I suggested was simply to challenge the fatwa council and its ridiculous edicts, but perhaps I did not make that clear enough. I wrote that paragraph after online battles with Malaysians who are intolerant of homosexuality and highly suspicious of a form of exercise associated with Hinduism but long mainstreamed that its religious elements have been diluted out. And while I know that they are definitely not representative of the entire Malay community, both the refusal to discuss such ridiculousness and unquestionable support for the fatwa council are worth considering.


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