I was listening to an incredibly frustrating episode on the Mad Mamluks podcast yesterday, but it inspired me to write this, so I guess my time wasn’t wasted. (I listened in support of the two women on there, both of whom I respect greatly.) The discussion was on Islamic feminism, and the men just kept coming back to Amina Wadud: But why won’t you condemn her, they asked. She led a mixed prayer! Haraam! Astaghfs! Everyone knows all the scholars of all of Islamic history agreed women can’t do that, how dare she, they claimed. “And her comment about Sayyidna Ibrahim! Astaghfs! She called him a deadbeat dad! This is a prophet, for God’s sake,” they challenged. It’s your job to distance your feminism from her, it’s your job to condemn her publicly so we know you don’t support her so that we can support you, they said.
ijma’ and female-led prayer
Like, first of all, on female-led prayer, even the patriarchal Jonathan Brown concluded in his book Misquoting Muhammad that women are in fact allowed in Islam to lead mixed prayer. (Women knew this long before – Amina Wadud has said in plenty interviews and writings that she never found any evidence against female-led communal prayers, but, hey, we know it’s not true unless a white male convert repeats it, or any man, really.) You can read here for more on this. The whole “consensus/ijmaa'”” issue needs to be challenged repeatedly, and it gets exhausting, Patriarchy, having a “dialogue” with you about this, but just a reminder: stop pretending there’s a clear “consensus” on anything. Sure, it doesn’t mean “all the scholars of all time” and it just means “the majority,” but a) the majority has often been wrong historically! The consensus on child marriage historically in Islam is that it’s totes valid, as is slavery. b) what constitutes the ijma’? How many scholars? Of which time period? Just the ones who wrote their opinions down that we have access to? Well, that’s a problem, no? c) if the ijma’ has anything to do with the legal schools – and it does – then what does it mean that two of these legal schools (Hanafi and Maliki) didn’t allow women to lead even other women in prayer–and for no other reason than because of their gender, and the assumption that women cannot have authority over others no matter what? Yet, these same Muslims who don’t support mixed female-led prayers think somehow the ijma’ allows women to lead other women in prayer. It doesn’t.
We also need to critically evaluate the reasons for why woman-led prayer weren’t okay according to some Muslim men in the past. Those reasons are actually disturbing, and we need to know what they are before pretending like everything the scholars said is a done deal and we can’t re-evaluate it in today’s time.
Muslims don’t uncritically follow the ijma’ like “Hey, we’re gonna accept this because all the (sunni) schools agree on this.” There’s ijma’ on very problematic, unethical things (child marriage, slavery, etc.), and just as that’s been and being challenged by scholars today, we need to recognize that we need room for other Muslims/scholars to challenge the presumed ijma’ on female-led prayer as well.
These guys on Mad Mamluks pretended like the “ruling” on female-led prayer is a ruling from Allah. It’s not. It’s not in the Qur’an, where rulings from Allah should be found, and it’s not even in the hadiths! If you’re gonna use a certain hadith where the Prophet says, “Prays as you see me praying,” then do you not realize that if you’re going to interpret that literally to mean “pray with me as your leader, the men behind me, the children after the men, and the women behind the men,” then the only person who can lead the prayer is the Prophet himself? How absurd is this.
I also found it so troubling that they kept thinking of female-led prayer as a principle. They were like, “We don’t have a problem with you women wanting rights and we support that, but if you want to be able to lead prayer, we don’t support that. The rights you want should be within the principles of Islam” (not verbatim). Um, wait, the “ruling” on female-led prayer is not a principle in Islam! Who came up with this idea that so many men and women keep repeating? The principles that ALL Muslims agree on in Islam are the belief in Allah, absolutely and unconditionally and unequivocally one, and the belief in the Prophet s. And maybe the five pillars, which some Muslims believe are six. Everything else, and even interpretations of belief in Allah and the Prophet s., are all negotiable; everything else has been debated for centuries. I will not apologize for refusing to accept exclusion as a principle of my faith. It’s not.
Amina Wadud and her “deadbeat dad” comment – and what about her comment about Sarah?
The word “deadbeat dad” means a dad who abandons his family/wife/children. Ibrahim abandoned Hajera with infant Isma’il (God be pleased with them both) in the desert – because God told him to, the tradition tells us. Whatever his reasons were, he did leave his concubine/wife and infant all alone to fend for themselves. God protected them, and God took care of them, and God didn’t abandon them.
Amina Wadud is interpreting this story in today’s context, in a racial, anti-black context. If anyone did today what Ibrahim did, we’d objectively consider him an abandoner of his family.
So Amina Wadud’s comment actually isn’t false. Ibrahim did abandon Hajera and tiny, tiny Isma’il.
I get that some people are insulted by this. But it’s not a “Muslim” thing to be insulted by this. Plenty of other Muslims don’t find this comment insulting.
What I actually find insulting in Amina Wadud’s discussion of Ibrahim, Isma’il, and Hajera is her comment about Sarah, Ibrahim’s wife, because, Wadud, believes, it was Sarah who pressured Ibrahim to abandon Hajera and Isma’il. Actually, though, that’s the Judeo-Christian view. It’s not an Islamic view. In the Biblical telling of the story of Ibrahim, Sarah and Hajera have a terrible relationship, Sarah is portrayed as a jealous, malicious woman who wants Hajera out of Ibrahim’s life, who doesn’t want her son Isaac to be playing or hanging out with Isma’il. In the Qur’anic version of the story, however, Sarah doesn’t play this role. Sarah isn’t the one who forces or influences Ibrahim to drive out Hajera and Isma’il. It’s God who puts him to that test.
So I disagree with Wadud’s reading of Sarah’s role in the story and the words she used to describe Sarah, I find offensive.
I don’t appreciate that no one who’s called out Amina Wadud on her comment on Ibrahim has noted at all that what she calls Sarah is actually worse. But this isn’t the point, and the idea isn’t to attack Wadud further or dismiss her Islam or Muslim identity because she said something I personally found offensive.
what about when Muslim male scholars insulted women – like declaring Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba, “half human and half demon/jinn”?
Here’s the thing. I don’t appreciate this selective condemnation, especially because of how gendered it is. A woman says something against a person important to your faith, and flip out, but literally most Muslim male scholars of the past have said terribly insulting things about women – and even of Qur’anic figures, like Bilqis, Solomon’s wife – because they couldn’t imagine women to be, you know, complete human beings and capable of any agency and sense of self and authority and power. They couldn’t imagine a woman being a ruler, having any kind of rulership over men, so they decided she has to be have been non-human, she has to have been at least part-jinn! They literally demonized her. (They actually called her an iljatu, a derogatory term that means “donkey” or “disbeliever.”)
How is that not offensive? How’s that in any way acceptable, especially for a scholar of Islam, to say? How am I supposed to take these scholars seriously after they’ve made such ridiculous comments?
So if you’re gonna dismiss a Muslim woman scholar in the 21st century as a legit Muslim and scholar just because she called Ibrahim something you’re not comfortable with, I better see you condemning other scholars for calling women such dehumanizing things, for literally dehumanizing women! And don’t get me started on all the times Muslim male scholars/jurists/exegetes declared women inferior to men mentally and intellectually and otherwise. And not just scholars after the Prophet s. but sahaba during his time who were personally offended that women were now granted the right to inheritance and begged the Prophet to take those verses back (see Tabari’s commentary on the inheritance verses for more details).
Read Aysha Geissinger’s book Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority: A Rereading of the Classical Genre of Qur’an Commentary for more on how gendered interpretations of the qur’an have historically been – and even how they dismissed Aisha’s interpretations of the Qur’an on certain passages because – and this may shock you – because of her gender, solely.
So was there a “conspiracy against women,” as the guys on Mad Mamluks put it, that early Muslim scholars should be accused of that they think Amain Wadud should be condemned for accusing them for? (This sentence makes sense in my head. I’ll fix it later.) Depends on what you mean a conspiracy. We know, objectively, that men have dominated the Islamic tradition – and every other tradition in history, religious or otherwise, in all communities, Muslim or non. But I have to say, given how many Muslim male scholars have historically said unacceptable things about women, things that were never true and are still not true, I am not going to defend them – those men don’t deserve my defending. There’s no such thing as, “Oh back then, things were different.” For whom were they different? We realize, right, that for things to have gotten to where we are, where women have equal access theoretically and some equal rights, or at least the language we use now to talk about women’s rights has drastically changed from what we used to speak of women in the past, women had to fight! Women had to fight to get us to where were now. Women had to die. Women had to be killed for saying what they said.