Men in Charge? Not Today!

I was very privileged having been extended an invitation to attend a conference last Saturday entitled ‘Men in Charge?’ at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. The eponymous question is obviously rhetorical and the answer was a resounding NO. That is what Musawah, the conference’s organizer is all about, redressing the imbalance of power.

Islamic Feminism which seeks to redress this imbalance is often condemned by Conservative Traditional Islam as being influenced by the West. I strongly disagree with this. The only reason Islam can seems so patriarchal and misogynistic is by ignoring the Quran and interpreting the Sunnah in ways which favours the male.

Here is where Musawah comes in. The etymology of the very word ‘musawah’ is related to equality and thus justice. Musawah engages with the prevailing discourse of Conservative Traditional Islam in order to produce a fairer and more balanced Fiqh (literally ‘understanding’ but connotatively human engagement with Shari’a to produce legal norms). Fiqh is invariably human in nature and thus will reflect the socio-cultural milieu from which it operates. There is no real ‘divine law’, only the ideal of one as conveyed by the term ‘Shari’a’ whose deep meaning is ‘a watering source where the water is flowing’.

Musawah’s first conference last Saturday was amazingly organized. The layout of the day’s proceedings engaged with the myth of male authority from a variety of angles. These angles helped us understand that although Islamic law is derived from Islamic texts, they also must operate in what are lived realities. This is one thing to which Conservative Traditional Islam turns a blind eye, the reality of the results of its legal norms

The morning began with an introduction by three speakers. I was very familiar with Zainah Anwar (pic) and have been for over two decades. She is a hero for Malaysian Reformist Muslims. A founding member of the famous (and for some ‘infamous’) Sisters in Islam, she is also a director of Musawah. You can see from my cheesy grin how delighted I was to finally meet her in the flesh.

The focus of the seminar can be summarized as what was called the ‘gender contract’ which is essentially how husbands and wives should behave towards one another in Islam. This is based on the Traditionalists’ interpretation of the Quran Ch 4 Verse 34 (yes, the infamous so-called ‘Wife-Beating’ verse!). Based on this verse, husbands are said to be in a state of qiwamah (understood to mean authority) over wives. Besides this, there are also edicts from the sunnah that male family members wilayah (guardianship) over female members. These two questionable principles have expanded into an entire system of oppression!

The gender contract was approached from a variety of angles in this conference. There was a conceptual angle by Dr Ziba Mir Hosseini which outlined the qiwamah and wilayah concepts effectively. This was balanced off well by Dr Mulki Al-Sharmani who presented to us on the lived realities of these concepts which was presented in the self-explanatorily titled ‘Global Life Stories’ project.

The highlight of the morning session for me was when Prof Wadud herself did her usual thing – linking theology with ethics. Being a novice theologian myself, I appreciated how she used the principle of tawheed to be the basis of Islamic ethics. Tawheed for her, not just being the unity of Allah, also implies the unification of the human race. This then should be the guiding principle of the Islamic ethos. I wholeheartedly agree as the Quran itself describes ‘an-naas’ (humankind) as ideally ‘ummatan wahida’ (a unified ummah) in Chapter 2 Verse 213. How can the unification happen when women are subject to the Traditionally understood qiwamah and wilayah?

The afternoon proceeded with a panel approaching male authority from a variety of legal angles. Professor Lynn Welchman approach qiwamah as a legal postulate and how this manifests. Marwa Sharafeldin on the interactions of human rights and Islamic law (potentially an explosive meet there. Lena Larsen on fatwas on spousal roles and rights which are how imams and muftis interact with specific situations. Finally we had Mussurut Zia who told us a tragic story on how family pride was used to perpetuate abuse.


The final panel kept me wide awake even after the proceedings of a long day. We had Omaima Abou Bakr explain how qiwamah was an exegetical construct which essentially is how this concept was perpetuated and developed by jurists to ratify dominance over women. Ayesha Choudhury then presented on the issues in hadith with respect to wilayah. I particularly enjoyed the final panelist’s, Asma Lamrabet, presentation which showed the ethical basis of equality in the Quran which is typically ignored to press the partriarchal agenda.


With this conference, Musawah has now a powerful course to chart. I feel that it should continue investistigations into the link between tawheed and fundamental ethical ideas and the very semantics of gender. The Quran has a wide technical vocabulary related to gender and this is often ignored (I have explored possibilities of such meaning here) . Apart from that, perhaps they should explore the given Traditionalist maxims such as the division between ‘ibadat’ (ritualistic worship) and ‘mu’amalat’ (social relationships). The Quran does not have such divisions. Ibadat is total and this has wide implications. Lastly, they did emphasize the role of context in interpretation and if I understood this correctly to mean socio-cultural context, I would be cautious about using sources which are so clearly biased in favour of patriarchy. Changing strategy while playing the same game isn’t enough. We have to change the game itself since the rules were created by those we challenge. After all, the concept of wilayah as Traditionally understood is nowhere to be found in the Quran. We need to excise it once and for all.


Having said the above, I do feel Musawah poses a tremendous challenge to the hegemony to the patriarchal, misogynistic Conservative Traditional Islam. Musawah will take us a long way along the path of Islamic Reform and that’s what matters.


Please buy the book ‘Men In Charge?’ and support our cause. You may do so here

The Theology of Inclusivity – A Jumma Prayer with Amina Wadud

amina and farouk me tell you something about the Islamic Reform movement. We don’t have many people. We don’t have much money (petrodollars? We don’t have steam engine dollars!). We don’t have any permanent spaces (just ‘pop up’ spaces for now). But we do have it where it counts – the heart. We have a bunch of people have sincere hearts and that was what made today’s event a runaway success.

I had been reading the work of Professor Amina Wadud since my late teens. I actually own an original copy of Quran and Woman published in Malaysia (from whence I came). Ten years ago, when Amina led a mixed congregation in Friday prayers, I silently cheered. This ground breaking , earth shattering act by Amina was an affront to the dominance of Conservative Traditional Islam who styled themselves as the ‘true’ form of Islam. The entire Muslim world reverberated with this quake and condemnations and threats were abound. But Amina kept on. And people followed.

Ten years on, I see more supporters and less negative responses. Not quite the end-game I would like but still tremendous progress. Today, Amina graciously accepted to lead the Jumma prayers organized by the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI) at St John’s Church in Waterloo, London.

As I said, we don’t have much financial support but that did not affect today’s proceedings one iota. We had a set of willing volunteers who organised the church hall in minutes. It was really a matter of the intention to help out. That really was what made things happen. When Amina came in, there was a silence. It was a ‘omg – she’s here’ type moment. We couldn’t keep ‘fear of a notable figure’ type feeling for long though. Amina was simply too down to earth. She spoke to well wishers calmly. This was a woman who just flew in yesterday and had travelled to Bristol and back! I am two-thirds her age and that type of schedule would have knackered me!

I found myself in one of the back rows when the khutba started. That suited me fine as I couldn’t be tweeting right in front of her which I had to do. Not without looking very impertinent anyway. I loved her opening comment straight away – when she translated yawm al-jum’ah as ‘day of gathering’ rather than simply Friday. I believe this translation far suited the universal nature of the Quran.

Today, Amina spoke about one of the shortest yet most powerful chapters of the Quran – Chapter 103 (Al-Asr). The wisdom of this chapter is obvious. It starts out by mentioning time and how we are at a loss as time marches on. This is unless we devote ourselves to the correct endeavours.

Dr Wadud opened up far greater depths than this. She called the first two verses ‘negative theology’. I understood this to mean that it was an understanding of Allah which gives a pessimistic view of life. Who can fight time, after all? However, it does not end there. If time was utilised in the correct manner, then it may bring us the benefit which the Quran promises.

Dr Wadud then went into a detailed breakdown of the third and final aya. She pointed out that the form in which the word ‘to enjoin’ (tawasau) is in the form of mutuality and reciprocity. We are to enjoin each other with the truth and with endurance. Dr Wadud tells us that the truth (al-haqq) here is absolute rather than relative truth. I am not sure about this because as subjective beings, whatever engagement we have with the Absolute will be our versions thereof. Therefore, I feel that it is a shared truth rather than an absolute one.

However, the ‘enjoining with endurance’ (tawasau bis sabr) was what blew me away. While the usual exegeses normally see this phrase as an ethical precept, Dr Wadud saw took it to the metaphysical dimension. She saw ‘sabr’ as a a constant endeavour. Not just by us but by our interaction with Allah!

This then implied that Allah was in constant interaction with everyone. His presence therefore is everywhere (not His essence but presence, it must be emphasized) and not just in mosques. This directly implies inclusivity. Everywhere, everywhen, it is God’s activity at play. There are no exclusive spaces. Inclusivity, it seems, is built in to the metaphysic of the universe.

In all my life, I had not heard such a mind blowing Friday sermon. The sermons around London were so repetitive, parochial and Islamofascist that I deliberately attend a mosque in which the sermons are in a language I cannot understand! Dr Wadud brought the spirit of Jumma back for me and I thank her for that.

The atmosphere after the Jumma was just as great. Everyone was so warm and friendly and helpful. Few, if any rushed out the way people do after standard Jummas. This was more like Eid rather than Jumma. And in a way, thanks to Dr Wadud, it was.