Book Review: More Than a Prayer

Book Review: More Than a Prayer June 20, 2012

The title of Juliane Hammer’s new book American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer, refers to the much-publicised Friday prayer led by Amina Wadud in March 2005. As Hammer explains in the introduction to her book,

“The 2005 prayer, itself part of a larger trajectory of events, debates, and developments, focused and changed existing intra-Muslim discussions and reflections on issues ranging from women’s interpretation of the Qur’an, leadership, mosque space, and religious authority to gender activism and media representations.” (p. 1)

The book focuses on a body of texts that Hammer identifies as “books, journal articles, newspapers, websites, and documentaries produced by and about American Muslim women since the early 1980s” (p. 8). She acknowledges a “progressive” bent to many of the texts she examines, while recognising the complexities of such labels.  The women whose works are discussed in the book include Amina Wadud, Asra Nomani, Riffat Hassan, Aysha Hidayatullah, Kecia Ali, Asma Barlas, Laury Silvers, Azizah al-Hibri, Nimat Barazangi, Ingrid Mattson, Mohja Kahf, Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, Asma Gull Hasan, and Sumbul Ali-Karamali, among many others.

More Than a Prayer
Cover of American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer. Image via University of Texas Press.

Hammer uses the woman-led prayer from 2005 as a jumping-off point for mapping some of the debates and discussions in which American Muslim women writers and activists are engaged. The result is an intriguing, informative, and thoughtful look at some of the ways that gender roles and religious authority are being discussed and manifested within American Muslim communities. Although there were occasions where the descriptions of the 2005 prayer and its major players felt somewhat repetitive, Hammer’s focus on it is overall a unique and effective way of pinpointing and illustrating some of the issues that she raises.

The book’s first chapter is a description of the prayer and surrounding events. Although Hammer was not herself present, she combines media reports, interviews, written reflections of those involved, and what video footage does exist, creating a detailed portrait of the context of the prayer, the publicity announcing it, the press conference that preceded it, and the prayer itself, including a reproduction of a large part of Wadud’s sermon. As someone who was also not present at the prayer, and who heard about it only peripherally at the time, I found this immensely helpful as a way of understanding what went on and what each person’s role was. We also see reflections taken from writing after the fact, which demonstrate an interesting contrast between the jubilation expressed by organiser Asra Nomani and the “sober and at times even bitter” reflections of Wadud herself, who has written about feeling that the prayer was sensationalised, and that it has overshadowed some of her other work. The second chapter traces some of the broader media and online discussions that happened at the time of the prayer, debating whether or not it was Islamically permissible, what it meant in terms of gender justice, and whether it was sowing fitnah (chaos, disunity) within the Muslim community.

In the chapters that follow, Hammer examines the multiple dimensions of these debates in more detail, and expands her scope to look at these debates more broadly, and not only as they relate to the 2005 prayer. Here, she starts off by looking at exegesis of the Qur’an, and at the projects of reading scripture and hadith to find gender justice and equality. Next, she examines scholarly work that looks at historical precedents and Islamic law, and at the diverse ways that American women have tried to question or to re-frame religious law with regards to gender. Her following chapter looks at how authority is constructed within Muslim communities, both in terms of the authority attributed to certain texts and in terms of the education and experience seen as sufficient for scholars and leaders to have authority. Next, the book discusses issues of space, including questions of gender segregation and of women’s leadership and participation within mosques and religious communities more broadly. Following this, Hammer considers media representations of Muslim women, looking in detail at how Asra Nomani, Amina Wadud, and Mohja Kahf have been represented and have represented themselves.  Finally, she looks at memoirs and other personal narrative writing by Muslim women. The conclusion looks briefly at issues of hijab, race, academia, and the role of men.

Throughout these chapters, Hammer draws clear connections to the relevance of these debates for the Wadud-led prayer of 2005, but also traces the debates in areas far beyond the prayer itself. Her separation of the different dynamics of these discussions is very careful and clear, and helps separate a number of related threads that come together around issues of woman-led prayer, and around other issues of gender and women’s roles within American Muslim communities.

Hammer points out at the beginning of her conclusion that she has purposely avoided discussion of the headscarf (except for very brief mentions) throughout most of the book. Although she does follow this with some comments about hijab in the conclusion (particularly interesting is her examination of the overwhelming presence of headscarves on books written by American Muslim women), the focus on issues other than hijab for most of this book on Muslim women is incredibly refreshing. Hammer doesn’t simply point out how annoying the focus on hijab is; she also presents, with her book, an example of how to push that aside and truly talk past it.

One area where I would have been interested to see more is the question of how many converts are represented among the American women scholars and activists that Hammer discusses. I think that the book’s representation of who the major players are is accurate, so I’m not trying to argue that these women shouldn’t have been talked about, but the question remains: why are so many of the public faces of this work women who have become Muslim? I have my own thoughts on that question, but was hoping that Hammer would address it in her analysis of American Muslim women leaders. Along with that, it might have been interesting to read more about who all of the women are and where they come from, although given Hammer’s focus on texts, all of this is somewhat outside of her scope.

This book covers a lot of ground, and while there were some areas where I wanted the analysis to go deeper, the collection of texts that it brings together surely provide more than enough directions for further reading. In American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer, Hammer has provided an immensely valuable portrait of the many conversations happening around gender and Muslims in the U.S., both related to a specific woman-led Friday prayer many years ago, and also extending far beyond that moment.

Edit: A commenter on Facebook rightfully pointed out that “More Than a Prayer” is the subtitle, not the main title for the book.  This has now been corrected in the post, and I apologise for getting it wrong the first time around.

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