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.

Female Leadership in Prayers – Challenging Islamic Male Privilege

Ten years ago, Amina Wadud Muhsin, a Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University, led Friday prayers with a mixed congregation. I can still remember the reverberations in the Muslim world as well as in the then embryonic social media. Conservative Traditional Muslims, guardians of the male privilege in Islam, were up in arms at this affront to Islamic male privilege. When social media became popular, the now notorious picture of a female-led prayer organised by the MPV became viral and not in a good way. The picture was smeared with hate rhetoric, calling them all sorts of hateful names. The Muslim world, it seems, is very resistant to such a big change. Last night, I attended a film screening of The Noble Struggle at the London School of Economics, a documentary about Amina Wadud’s struggle during those early days. There was a massive support of course , since the screening was attended by members of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (of which I am a member) and LSE’s Feminist Society. However, there was a question raised by a member of the audience which I feel doesn’t quite grasp the implications of female leadership in prayers. In Traditional Islam, to understand if something is valid or otherwise, one must recourse to the massive tradition of knowledge (turath). It is true in the Quran and the hadith, there is no explicit prohibition against women led prayers. Scant hadiths are quoted with some logical gymnastics but this is missing the point completely. The opponents of the female-led prayer give one seemingly unassailable point and that is, in the Sunnah (practises of the Prophet and of the Salaf, the earliest community) , there was no female leadership in prayers in a mixed congregation. This point is irrefutable and there must be confronted and overturned by stepping out of the paradigm of Islamic knowledge tradition. The question we need to ask at this point is – how much was Prophet Muhammad a cultural being? In other words, how much of his activity can be attributed to direct inspiration from Allah and consequently to his interactions with his cultural situation? Being a Quranist, the answer simple is for me – everything outside the Quran is culture. It’s such a clear demarcation. However, I appreciate my fellow Muslims would like to use extra-Quranic material. In this case, I urge them to consider the following arguments. Prophet Muhammad engaged in some spiritual practices including the ritual prayers. These prayers were recited in Arabic. If the Prophet was Chinese, Muslims would be praying in Chinese today. This is also true for the ritual itself. The ritual was already being practised in Makkah hence its inclusion with some modifications in the Islamic framework . It is culturally incidental and thus appropriated by the Prophet, historically speaking. Following this, it was probably not a cultural practice for Arabs to have female leadership in prayers. Prophet Muhammad, for reasons of his own, did not contravene this norm. It’s really as simple as that – he was a cultural being and reacting to his own cultural situations. Muslims have no problem adapting to technology. The ultra-conservative Salafees, literalists to the core, have a tremendous web presence despite their dislike of innovation (bid’ah). Ask them about this contradiction and they will tell you, they only dislike innovation for religious matters. Well aren’t religious discussions and preachings religious matters? Of course they are and perhaps the Prophet favoured direct interaction because it was ‘inspired by Allah’. Whatever the case, Salafees have turned a blind eye to this conundrum simply because they have to survive in the postmodern world. In the same way, female leadership is something which challenges them so they redrew the delineations between religion and worldly matters to exclude such a practice. In conclusion, female leadership in prayers is not unIslamic. It is simply an affront to the male-privileged Conservative Traditional Islam that the world knows. I think it is about time for such an affront. The Islamic prayer, being a ubiquitous symbol of the religion needs to be appropriated by women as well. This is simply a first step in overturning the oppression of Sharia law against women. Hail Amina Wadud and those with her!