There’s “Muslim,” and Then There’s “Muslim-Born”…

The Independent recently published an article by Jerome Taylor, titled “First woman to lead Friday prayers in the UK,” talking about the mixed-congregation Friday prayers that Canadian Raheel Raza was to lead the following day.  I read it, feeling confused: didn’t Amina Wadud do this already?

Well, yes, she did.  The beginning of the article clarifies that Raza is the first Muslim-born woman to do so:

A Canadian author will become the first Muslim-born woman to lead a mixed-gender British congregation through Friday prayers tomorrow in a highly controversial move that will attempt to spark a debate about the role of female leadership within Islam.

Raheel Raza leading prayers. Image via Deborah Baic.

Wadud’s role as the first woman to do this is only mentioned towards the end of the piece.  Other articles from the BBC, Sify, and the Oxford Times, echo this language about Raza being the first “Muslim-born” woman to lead Friday prayers in the U.K.  (The BBC link also includes a radio interview with Raza. At one point, the interviewer says about Wadud, “She wasn’t actually Muslim-born; she was a convert.”  Raza’s response is “Yes,” without correcting the interviewer or questioning what it means to make that point.)   A Comment is Free piece in the Guardian acknowledged Wadud as the first woman to lead mixed prayers in the U.K., but only after identifying her first as an “African-American convert.”

I cannot think of any other examples of such a strong emphasis being placed on someone’s status as “Muslim-born.”   If people want to highlight what Raza is doing, why not just talk about her as the second woman to lead prayers in the U.K., or the first to do it since Wadud did in 2008?

Aside from the personal angst that the repetition of this “Muslim-born” label is causing me (are those of us who are not Muslim-born destined to forever be seen as less legitimate Muslims?), what really aggravates me is the way that this portrays Wadud.  The implication seems to be that Wadud isn’t quite as Muslim as Raza, particularly when the headline simplifies the issue (to the point of inaccuracy) by saying that she’s the “first woman” to do this.  Think what you want about Wadud’s politics, but the suggestion that she is a lesser Muslim by not being Muslim-born is offensive.  Raza’s failure to respond more strongly to the BBC interviewer’s mention of this point is also deeply disturbing.

Writing for Pulse Media, Huma Dar makes a similar point:

Taylor’s differentiation between “American-born convert” and “Muslim-born woman” and labeling of the latter as the “first woman” in the headline creates a false hierarchy and subtly delegitimizes Dr. Wadud, a leading Muslim scholar and author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, a path-breaking text in the study of gender and Islam.  Taylor’s late admission of “repeat” after the (mis)leading announcement of “First” in the bold headline does not quite cover up for the critical sins of omission and commission, especially as Raheel Raza, the Pakistani-Canadian woman leading the prayer at Oxford, is neither an ‘Alima or a scholar of Islam nor is she known for her advocacy of Muslims at large.

I can’t figure out why the “Muslim-born” thing matters in this situation, and who is giving it value.  Is it Muslims who see this as significant, in contrast to the predominance of so many people who have become Muslim within the leadership or scholarship of a lot of Western institutions?* Is it non-Muslims, who see this as a more authentic illustration of changes within Muslim communities than Wadud was seen to represent?  (Never mind that Raza has very little credibility among any mainstream Muslim communities; we’ve written about her before on MMW.)  Is it everybody, having trouble seeing an African-American woman as fully Muslim?  (I’m not sure how this would play out if Wadud was a different race, but it’s hard to imagine that race is entirely irrelevant here.)

Can anyone else help me understand why this point was so emphasized?

(Note that the comment section here is not a place to debate whether women should or should not be leading prayer.  Please stick to the media representation and the particular issues that I raised in this post.)

*It’s true that many scholars who have become Muslim get put on a pedestal and can have certain kinds of privilege and authority that people who were raised Muslim don’t always have access to – there might even be some situations where it would be significant to note that someone raised Muslim was occupying a certain role that had previously been done only by people who had become Muslim later in life. But first of all, I don’t think that Wadud is really in the same position of privilege that a lot of the white and/or male scholars are, and secondly, I don’t think that this counts as one of those cases.

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  • Jane

    I thought Islam was a leveller, a community where all are welcome and equal–moreover, that we are all Muslims who simply ‘revert’ if we are not ‘Muslim-born.’ To differentiate between different ‘levels’ of Muslimhood seems to me to echo the experience of what a lot of reverts tell me–that they are not considered really ‘Muslim’ because they converted…why buy into that? Totally agree with the article…

  • Person

    I think there may be an undercurrent of sensationalism and slight “ohhh, it makes sense for an Afr.-Am. to do such a thing b/c she wasn’t born into such a woman-bashing culture. The Afr.-Am. convert is just taking her sense of independence into her practices as a Muslim. The ‘Muslim-born’ woman on the other hand, must really be bucking convention.” Also, as the writer said, a lot to do with Raza being Pakistani-Canadian and therefore seen as more “authentic.” The pieces defiantly seem, in my opinion, to imply that Raza leading prayers is more of a progressive leap, and that she marks a greater level of acceptance and her actions are more defiant and sensational because of what ME/SA women born into Muslim families are expected to be like.

    And I think the race perspective is defiantly interesting. I think they would play up Raza as the first “Muslim-born” woman to lead prayers regardless, but I don’t think they would be as dismissive of a white convert. The conversation would probably be clear that Raza is the first Muslim-born to do so, and only the second woman to do so after hypothetical white convert in 2008.

  • JihadPunk77

    It’s not physics. Yes, “Muslim-born” is very diferrent from a Muslim convert, because a convert actually made the CHOICE to study Islam and become a Muslim.

    I was born a Muslim and raised in a Muslim family. I didn’t have a say or choice whether I wanted to be Muslim but the fact remains is that I’m a “Muslim” today for cultural reasons, even though I am not religious.

    so, yes, I do think it is a HUGE difference that a Muslim-born Muslimah is leading mixed prayers than from a Muslimah convert. Makes me curious what kind of upbringing she had, if she came from a family of modern, open minded Muslims.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • Humayra

    “are those of us who are not Muslim-born destined to forever be seen as less legitimate Muslims?”

    Yup. ‘Fraid so. Might as well get used to it. Just part of the fine print most folks don’t read when they convert. :-(

    Converts never get to be anything except converts, whether by Muslims or non-Muslims. Just look at all the press coverage (“mainstream” or Muslim) of people like Yusuf Islam for instance. Or the obituaries Muslims wrote from Amina As-Silmy. Etc.

    I read the emphasis on Amina Wadud being a convert as a type of disavowal which is all too common. When converts do something which “born Muslims” see as controversial, they dismiss it as just the actions of someone who (it is implied) “doesn’t really know Islam.” Especially if the convert in question is a Western woman. Especially if she is black.

    Non-Muslims engage in this sort of thing too. Converts (especially Western women) aren’t “real Muslims” for them either, so when Amina Wadud led the prayer, it seems that a lot of non-Muslims understood this as possible because she hadn’t received a “Muslim upbringing,” so she (supposedly unlike a “born Muslim” woman) developed her own personality and can think independently. Or, that because she’s a convert, she didn’t have Muslim male relatives or an extended family telling her she couldn’t do it. Or because she was raised in a society which at least pays lip service to gender equality, and where most churches allow women to play active roles in public worship, even if they don’t allow women’s ordination.

  • Rochelle

    This is truly unfortunate and, really, very weird.

    But I think the reason for this representation is that the media likes to put the ‘first’ in every story, regardless of whether it really was the first, in order to communicate that something ground-breaking is happening.

    If another Black man gets elected president in the US, they’ll call him “the first African-American President from the South” and then “the first African-American President from Oklahoma” and then “the first African-American President from Oklahoma with a cleft earlobe” so on and so forth.

    I see this all the time in the media with a range of issues. They want to show that a woman leading prayers is unconventional, and don’t know how to do that without putting the historic ‘first’ in the title.

  • justmuslim

    that is totally ridiculous! i thought it was just the media trying to make it sound as exxxxxtreme as possible, but the fact that this woman herself made the comment… maybe she thinks she’s extra revolutionary just because she’s bucking her muslim family’s culture? she sounds desperate at best. bigoted at worst.

  • Alicia

    This raises some really important questions that I’ve always taken for granted. Surely there is NO difference between a Muslim-born and a convert? What makes the religious commitment of a Muslim born more legitimate than a convert? This seems to be an unnecessarily touchy issue, but perhaps I’m just talking from a position of Muslim-born privilege.

    It makes me wonder why differentiating Wadud from Raza based on the religion assigned at birth is so important in these reports. Perhaps for people outside Islam, it matters. Perhaps being born Muslim suggests a level of conservatism and for a woman to decide to lead a mixed-sex congregation from such a background is remarkable. These are just wild speculations from me, because this issue so very weird.

  • Sameera

    Sorry sister, you just have to except the fact that some of us are Muslim-born and some of us are “converts”. Me, I’m Muslim-born, Al-hamdu lil-lah.

    But this has been something we’ve seen throughout the history of Islam, right? The likes of Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Abu Sufyan, Bilal (think adhan)**, all “converts”. Their “conversions” are well published. What can be said to that?

    ALLAH Speaks the Truth:
    SURAH 7: AL A`RAF (The Heights)
    In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

    172 When your Lord drew forth from the loins of the children of Adam their descendants, and made them testify of themselves, saying: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes, we testify. Lest you should say on the day of judgment: of this we were never mindful

    173 Or lest you should say: our fathers before us may have taken false gods, but we are their descendants: will you then destroy us because of the deeds of men who were futile?

    174 Thus do we explain the signs in detail; and perhaps they may turn.

    ** May ALLAH shower HIS Blessings and Mercy upon His Prophet Muhammad and all of the companions of The Prophet Muhammad. Ameen.

    It seems to to me those who need that distinction are looking for whatever they believe will make them appear “better” in Islam. What it actually does it highlight some weakness. A useless endeavor.

    May ALLAH Bless us, hide our shame, raise us up in this world and the Hereafter. And be Pleased with us. Ameen.

  • rawi

    I agree with the points made above. I think this kind of a cultural fetish for ‘authenticity’ pervades both inside and outside the community. As far as media-analysis goes, I also wonder if, and to what extent, this is also a reflection of a tendency to conflate religious identities with ethnic, national or other such identities–in part because the latter are more legible and comprehensible to the secular-liberal perspective (No doubt this is nowadays more true of Muslims than of other people). As such, no matter how Muslim Amina Wadud may be, she is probably thought of as more of an African-American, whereas someone like Raheel Raza is thought of as a brown immigrant and who therefore “makes more sense” as a Muslim.

    @JihadPunk77: I’m not sure if it makes that much of a difference. Based on my experience of the Wadud event and its reception (especially outside the US, where many people regarded it as the unsurprising ‘deviation’ of some American/Western Muslims), I suspect that it would make more of a difference if someone of a Muslim-majority country does it in her own homeland. As for the question of “choice” as the defining factor in distinguishing converts from born-Muslims, I disagree with you insofar as I think human agency is a much more complex thing and to some extent, whoever we are, whatever we do, etc are all constructed.

  • JihadPunk77

    I can’t believe my comment was edited. You guys pretty much took out my point for arguing why born-Muslims are different from Muslim converts. Why, thanks.

  • Margari Aziza

    Salaam alaikum Krista,
    Thank you for writing this, it is a great piece. I’ve also had my Islam questioned, while someone born into a Muslim family is default Muslim even if they don’t believe that Muhammad is a Prophet and that the Qur’an is the last revelation. According to Islam, everyone is born a Muslim, we are just raised to be in different religions. The idea of born Muslim is more about legal status, according to Islamic law, not faith. Being born into a Muslim family does not guarantee what you believe. The primary difference between born Muslims and converts is education. Did your parents educate you about the basics of faith? Did you go to Islamic studies classes? One still has to take Shahadah, just like us converts. So, my question for all “cultural Muslims” when did you you take shahada? I took Shahadah 17 years ago. But yet, I’m called a new Muslim.

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  • Krista

    I’m out of town right now, so I might have more to say in a few days, but a few things for now:

    Just to be clear, I definitely do think that there are differences in experiences between being raised Muslim and becoming Muslim later on (although there are also huge differences within these categories) – I wouldn’t be one to pretend that there’s no point at all in ever acknowledging the different ways that we come to this religion/identity/whatever. Having said that, I still don’t think that it’s relevant to point out Raza’s Muslim-born-ness (especially at the expense of Wadud) in this situation.

    JihadPunk77: I didn’t see your original comment, so it sounds like there are some things from your argument that I’m missing. I guess I can follow your point that someone who’s “Muslim-born” could potentially be fighting against greater previous conditioning than someone who wasn’t (is that a fair understanding of what you were trying to say?), but I also feel like this simplifies a lot of people’s experiences. Wadud, for example, has been Muslim for a long time, and has spent a lot of time studying Islam – it’s hard to say that she’s necessarily less conditioned to believe certain things than someone who was raised Muslim (considering the diversity of Muslim families out there.)

    I’d also challenge your comment about people who becoming Muslim “[making] the CHOICE to study Islam and become a Muslim” – I would say this is true also for a lot of Muslims I know who did grow up in Muslim families – this comes from an active choice, and in some cases, their beliefs and practices ended up being hugely different from those of their families. I hear what you’re saying about your own experiences, and those of others who experience “Muslim” primarily as a cultural identity, resulting from their upbringing and environment, and maybe this is just an issue of semantics, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of “choice” being applied only to those who didn’t start off Muslim.

    I don’t think I’m being as clear as I’d like to – I’ll try to elaborate later. I think the other problem I had with it is the way that the “Muslim-born” thing worked in so many of the articles/interviews to devalue Wadud’s Muslim-ness. Maybe there would have been a way to highlight Raza being Muslim-born without doing this, but this wasn’t it.

    @ Rochelle: Yeah, I thought that too about the “first” thing. But even so, this is the only time I can think of that I have EVER seen the “first Muslim-born” thing specified like this. There are a lot of other ways that Raza could have been the “first” – first woman of Pakistani background, first Canadian, etc. (Okay, they don’t sound as exciting, but I’m sure the journalists could have come up with something.)

  • Rahat Kurd

    dear Krista,

    Salams and thanks for writing this & for tracking all the different news sources where Raza was described (and must have described herself) as ‘Muslim-born’. Your work is intrepid, and it shows your acute perception of how language can shift the balance of power to the disadvantage of certain individuals or groups – a worthy subject indeed.

    It reads to me as if Raheel Raza needed to distinguish herself in some way to warrant media attention and that she resorted – cravenly – to the only quality she could claim – the accident of birth – that might appeal to lazy newsmakers. I see the dynamic here as being primarily reflective of the ethically fraught relationship between Muslims who seek a public profile and the news establishments who need stories. Reading on that level, and speaking as someone who helped bring Amina Wadud to Toronto for a conference the same year her premier work “Qur’an and Woman” was published, *and* as a ‘Muslim-born’ woman who can never repay Amina Wadud for what I’ve learned from her, I see Raheel Raza’s bid for status above her as petty and contemptible, and not worth a flicker of your concern personally. Raza should have humbly said she was following Wadud’s lead.

    But I think you are right to ask why there was such an obedient falling into line with Raza’s claim of “muslim-born”, among all the news outlets which covered the prayer event. I do see the reporters being just as culpable as Raza in this case. It’s a phenomenon we see far too often: the self-proclaimed Professional Expert meets no challenge, no critical inquiry, from meek news reporters who are likely only just grateful to her for giving them something – no matter how ridiculous or flimsy – they can hang a headline on. They deserve to be ridiculed for every instance of this laziness.

    I also want to suggest that you think about other language we’ve seen in the mainstream media in the past several years since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, terms such as ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’ which we rarely saw in print before US and UK soldiers began invading, occupying and killing in Muslim countries almost nine years ago. When reporters were still bothering to cover the fighting inside Iraq, I got the impression that they were actually giddy with relief to be able to report that “Sunni militias” were bombing “Shia neighbourhoods” and so on, because using those labels allowed them to gloss over the larger catastrophe the US-led invasion had created, and – most nefariously – to create an illusion of delivering in-depth, “expert” news about Muslims: they have two groups! they’re called Sunnis and Shias! They hate each other! You heard it here first! The news media’s uncritical acceptance and re-use of sectarian labels struck me then as pure mischief, and this rubbishy “Muslim-born” label raises my ire in much the same way.

    With peace and best wishes.

  • Laura

    Salam all,

    This article really resonated with me, so thank you for writing it. I converted to Islam three years ago and I think this issue speaks of a confluence of ingrained prejudices. While I have seen male converts lovingly accepted in my community, I find myself constantly reminded of my “newness” sometimes when I am put on display (“This is Laura, she’s a convert”… read “This is Laura. She’s a woman and she wanted to be Muslim. See? We don’t have women problems!”), and in the constant “corrections” I receive, which usually come when my actions do not jive with the image of submissive woman-hood my community expects (i.e. when I recently suggested our MSA allow women to make announcements after prayer, one of the brothers told me we had to ask a sheikh, then explained that “as Muslims (people who have submitted to the commandments of Allah), we have to make sure that our actions are sound from an Islamic perspective,” or when people notice my lack of hijab and explain for the umpteenth time why the hijab is fard).

    I am tolerated because the understanding is that my actions are not reflective of Islam or the community as a whole; they are merely the result of my “Western,” “feminist” up-bring. They will have to accept me as a less-good Muslim, but do not have to take seriously my suggestions. My un-Islamic actions are the result of my non-Muslim bits and can therefore be disregarded. Female converts are required to give up freedoms in order to be accepted and be content with taking a back seat in the community.

    Male converts, on the other hand, do not find their privileges curtailed or their role minimized and are accepted by the community as full members. Their behaviour, dress, presence, free movement do not conflict with the male-dominated Muslim community. They are ushered into a world of un-acknowledged privilege. Their gender is invisibilized. Their gendered behaviour does not mark them as “convert.”

    I think this has a lot to do with the way Wadud’s actions are being minimized. She was “just a convert” who doesn’t understand the role of women. She has non-muslim bits, so we have to expect her to do things like this every once in a while, but we don’t have to take it seriously. We can disregard the stuff we don’t like as leftovers from her years without Islam. But if one of our own, “muslim-born” women is breaking the rules, we better worry. Where could she possibly have gotten the idea something like this is acceptable? God forbid she’s thinking of herself! Or posing a serious challenge to the gender status-quo!

    In this way, the actions and ideas of converts, especially female converts in relation to gender issues, are accepted when it’s convenient and easy while the rest is selectively disregarded as “our non-muslim baggage.”

  • sam

    I agree with jihad punk — there IS a difference between a convert and someone who grew up muslim (however willingly — but that is another discussion for another time). However, the notion that this is somehow significant in the eyes of the white people (& i use that term to describe a sort of “unmarked not-other,” because it’s convenient) who wrote/published and are the intended consumers…THAT is what makes me uncomfortable. it says to me:

    a) that WP have an investment in fetishized “authenticity” and that they get to decide what that is based on their own perceptions of who muslims are (not black, not american, not scholars, not feminists, not “by choice,” apparently?) and
    b) that they’re dumbfounded the possibility of change coming from (what they imagine to be) within. nothing new there — the western world has been ignoring, misconstruing, and misrepresenting feminist movements in the muslim world for over a century now.