By Homa Khaleeli
13 April 2015
American professor Amina Wadud argues that male interpretations of Islam have lead to wildly discriminating laws against women around the world – and the rise of extremist groups proves they need to be challenged
With her warm manner, academic language and grey-tinged dreadlocks partially covered by a headscarf, Amina Wadud makes an unlikely rebel. But the 62-year-old African-American professor, the daughter of a Methodist minister, is one of Islam’s leading feminists. Ten years ago, she faced down a bomb threat in New York when she led Friday prayers to a mixed congregation of men and women – something many religious scholars argued was forbidden in Islam. Three years later, she defied protests from local groups to do the same in London. Not content with taking on the mosques, now she has her sights set on revolutionising sharia councils and the laws that underpin them.
Sharia, she points out, is a world view, “the divine order of the universe”. What she is interrogating is Fiqh, the Muslim legal tradition of man-made rules based on almost exclusively male interpretations of sacred texts. “When we are talking about laws, we are into talking about who is interpreting the laws, and what judicial methods they use,” she tells me. “The prophet made radical reforms but [Muslims] didn’t keep pace with that. If you start with that and no one else on the planet has it, you should be ahead of anyone else on the planet with regards to gender. But instead we let patriarchy to take over.”
Wadud is working with Musawah, an organisation campaigning for gender equality, and has contributed a chapter to its new book, Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, which focuses on just one verse in the Qur’an – (4:34) that the authors have called “the DNA of patriarchy”. It is this verse that scholars have used to insist that God has given men authority over women – leading to wildly discriminatory laws of which Saudi Arabia’s infamous guardianship system (which prevents women from having medical procedures, taking a job or getting an education without the permission of a male guardian) is just one example.
While much of the Qur’an speaks of justice and spiritual equality, the prominence given to the interpretation of this verse has led to discriminatory laws and, as Wadud points out, “completely patriarchal” Sharia councils. In the UK, hold power to dissolve marriages and have been criticised for discriminating against women.
“I have more optimism than I thought I would ever have before I died,” she says, pointing out that, even in countries such as Saudi Arabia, women have successfully campaigned to be able to stand for certain offices, vote in certain elections and increase the number of jobs they can do. “You have no place on the planet Earth where women are not on the move,” she says, firmly.
Even the terrifying rise of Isis doesn’t quell her hope. “The worst manifestation of Islam in our time is the so-called Islamic State,” she says, “but it might be our salvation. This is a powerful wake-up call: just because people say they are doing something in the name of Islam does not mean you have to agree with them. And as soon as you have the freedom not to agree with an interpretation of Islam, then the question of interpretation comes up and that’s my life right there – talking about how Islam has always been filtered through the interpretation of people who have the power.”
Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition is published by Oneworld at £15.00.
Homa Khaleeli is a staff feature writer for the Guardian