Read Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam Online

Authors: Amina Wadud

Tags: #Religion, #Islam, #General, #Social Science, #Feminism & Feminist Theory, #Women's Studies, #Sexuality & Gender Studies, #Islamic Studies

Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam (6 page)

BOOK: Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam
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What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name?

That which we call a rose,

by any other name would smell as sweet.

– Shakespeare,
Romeo and Juliet
, II.ii.1–2

My interest in language grew from my childhood love of reading. “I was not [then] fascinated so much with the story lines: saved damsels and handsome heroes, as I was intrigued with words which could unfold images and meaning. Worlds of words. Meanings through naming.”
Throughout this book, several key theoretical or conceptual ideals continually surface. Here they are defined in detail as foundational to a paradigm shift in the movement to attain social justice for all Muslims. In addition, these defini- tions are critical for understanding and appropriately applying them as they are referred to in this book. The definitions themselves were drawn directly from female-inclusive readings, especially of fundamental Qur’anic themes like
(the unicity of God),
(moral agent), and
(moral consciousness). In my earliest research, Fazlur Rahman’s scholarship inspired me to consider terms and their relationships to a Qur’anic worldview. He insisted that “There is no doubt that a central aim of the Qur’an is to establish a viable social order on earth that will be just and ethically based.”
Later, I would use these terms in transforming and recon- structing an understanding of human nature in Islam. I conclude that the notion of what it means to be human is built upon a dynamic relationship between
is essential to the moral

inside the gender jihad

attitude of the agent both as an individual and also as a member of society in Islam. Activating the
principle as a matter of personal practice and in the definitions, establishment, and sustenance of a just social order – the primary responsibility of being human – is the means for practicing a more egalitarian, humanistic, and pluralist Islam today. Injustice (
), on the other hand, signals neglect of these conceptual developments. Such
has been directed toward women not only throughout Islamic history, but also with new and more vicious consequences today.

Whether ultimately it is the individual that is significant and society merely the instrument of his [
] creation or vice versa is academic, for individual and society appear to be correlates. There is no such thing as a society-less individual. Certainly the concepts of human action we have discussed, particularly that of
, are meaningful only within a social context.

Despite the utility of
as fundamental aspects of social justice
I admit that theory alone is insufficient to end patriarchy and gender asymmetry.
To acknowledge a crucial interplay between theory and praxis, however, emphasizes the belief in certain ideals, principles, and values as they lead to practical implementation of gender justice. Advocating the inclusion of female experiences to alternative Qur’anic interpretation was one of the first radical yet simple justifications demonstrating the facility and necessity of gender mainstreaming within intra-Islamic theory as fundamental to the means and methods of actually implementing that justice. Admittedly, we achieve little or nothing from the Qur’an alone except in the pragmatic sense of those who claim allegiance to its mandates, values, and virtues to implement justice. These Qur’anic values and virtues inspire persistence in the struggle and resistance to the limitations put on women’s full human dignity. Too many claim authority and legitimacy on the basis of literal, narrow, reductionist, and static interpretations of justice, Islam, Islamic sources, and gender. As much as this was pervasive in the patriarchal history of Muslim society, the proactive inclusion of women’s experiences and interpretations is crucial to transforming gender status toward its higher egalitarian potential.


Although it may seem simple enough to challenge patriarchal perspectives by re-reading and radically interpreting the same sources to which Muslim

What’s in a Name?

neo-conservatives refer as authorities, only in the last two decades have Muslim women most effectively used this particular strategy for partici- pating in practical reforms at a comprehensive level. As early as the first century of Islam one might find random references to women who disputed on a Qur’anic basis, but this was not the norm. The development of a female-inclusive theory based on interpretative authority as central to a basic paradigmatic core of what is considered “Islam” began only in the latter part of the twentieth century. Its efficacy as a form of legitimacy has helped reconstruct the exclusively male control over who determines what “Islam” means. It was also not developed initially as a direct consequence of already existing discourse over Qur’anic interpretation by male liberal and reformist scholars.

This chapter does not intend to overlook what this book demonstrates throughout; the challenge to women’s full human dignity is not limited to mere rhetorical debates over theory and interpretation. The ultimate intention is to achieve living experiences of justice for as many Muslim women and men as possible, as part of what it means to be human. The premise of my preoccupation with the development of theoretical consider- ations and analysis of intra-Islamic ideas is that a theory is only as good as its practical implementation. Furthermore, my motivation has always been pro-faith in perspective. Any comparative analysis with secular Western theories or strategies for mainstreaming women in all aspects of human development and governance is coincidental and secondary. I have recog- nized how essential it is to construct underlying theoretical frameworks through many opportunities to work with women and men on the real experiences of lived Islam – from personal faith, to family structures, in the context of conflicts and resolution, and onto the larger arena of policy and legal reforms in national and international political and economic environ- ments. Examining the terms as I have expressed these definitions and nuances inclines one toward potential pragmatic goals. Semantics is part of developing liberative theory. It contributes to a paradigm shift that can help Muslims build a theology of care, or an ethics of compassion, where nurturing and compassion are ultimate determining characteristics of true “Islam.” As it stands, women in families are the best exemplars of this care. This is why my definitions emphasize female inclusion in reading Islamic primary sources and in defining certain key terms. These definitions and ideas demonstrate their utility in creating actual change in Muslim societies while yielding mechanisms to integrate lived Islam into global pluralism.

Izutsu makes a

technical distinction between . . .

‘basic’ meaning

16 inside the gender jihad

and ‘relational’ meaning, as one major methodological

concept of

semantics . . . Each individual word, taken separately, has its own basic meaning or conceptual content on which it will keep its hold even if we take the word out of its Koranic [
] context.” He does not assert that this will “exhaust the meaning of the word.” In the Qur’anic context, words assume an “unusual importance as the sign of a very particular religious concept surrounded by a halo of sanctity . . . In this context, the word stands in a very close relationship to Divine revelation” and “acquires a lot of new semantic elements arising out of this particular situation, and also out of the various relations it is made to bear to other major concepts of that system . . . The new elements tend gravely to affect and even modify essen- tially the original meaning structure of the word.” Concepts “do not stand alone and in isolation but are always highly organized into a system or systems.”
Part of my discussion helps organize a structure or system of social justice for Islam – especially inclusive of the full range of women’s lives and potentialities as contributors – relevant to today’s global plural- istic complexities. It is a partial attempt to establish a modern universal understanding of human rights that can be fairly and uniformly imple- mented across various cultural and historical differences.


Of all the terms in this chapter, the multiple and complex use of the word “Islam” as offered by various participants in public discourse requires first review. The following list refers to many of the definitions commonly used (in no particular order).

  1. Islam is everything.

  2. Islam means engaged surrender: consciously agreeing to surrender to the will of Allah as an exemplification of the human status as both agent (
    ) and servant (

  3. Islam means peace: from its S-L-M root form, and as a reflection of the peace achieved when one lives in harmony with the greater cosmic or divine order.

  4. Islam means terrorism and, conversely, terrorism means Islam.

  5. Islam is the name of a religious tradition.

  6. Islam is whatever any Muslim does, no matter how extreme or how mainstream.

  7. Islam is a reflection of the primary sources: Qur’an and

    What’s in a Name?

  8. Islam is the most recent descendent of the three Abrahamic faiths.

  9. Islam means following the
    , usually said without distinction from
    , historical jurisprudence. (In other words,
    itself has more than one definition.)

  10. Islam is culture.

  11. Islam is used to delineate one of many cultures, with the notable exclusion of Western cultures.

  12. Islam is the history, culture, esthetics, and the political, intellectual, and spiritual developments of Muslims.

  13. Islam is a set of fixed prescriptions or codes.

  14. Islam is whatever I do or my culture does.

  15. Islam is in the heart.

  16. Islam is an Arab religion pre-eminent and exclusive to Arabic culture and history.

  17. Islam is
    “a way of life.”

  18. Islam is “other,” deviant, an aberration of true religion.

  19. Islam is irrelevant to anything in the real world.

In the politics of working to reform Islam, some definitions can be used to limit gender justice and others to liberate. Definitions are the heart of interpretation and part of the path for gender-inclusive implementation. Therefore, the use and abuse of the word “Islam” is politically charged. People attach the word “Islam” onto their arguments to acquire definitive authority and to authoritatively construct limits on discourse. Abou El

gives an example of this using the Qur’anic passage “
No one can

the soldiers of God except God” (74:31) (emphasis mine). After elaborating on some interpretations given to this passage, he admits: “I have always understood this Qur’anic verse to be a negation of the authori- tarian –
it denied any human being the claim
that he or she is a soldier of God endowed with God’s authority” (emphasis mine). Despite this, such claims are pervasive and persuasive.

In particular, interpretations of Islam’s primary sources, or even the very claim that what one is espousing
“Islam,” continues to be one of the most effective tools to silence oppositional voices, inhibiting a large majority of Muslims in their intent and claim to honor the Islamic tradition, either with an obscure, reductionist, out of context quotation or without reference to a specific source text in defense of their arguments. At another level, discourse between those more familiar with the Islamic intellectual tradition and sources of the debates becomes more elaborate in the use of

inside the gender jihad

“Islam,” but the meaning and use of the word is indispensable to the conclusions drawn, sometimes despite consensus over other definitions. Finally, political regimes or opposing political parties corroborate with certain definitions provided by their own experts incorporated in ministries, advisory councils, or think tanks specifically set up to determine religious legitimacy. Many Muslim governments support these specific usages of the term “Islam” and the users have the coercive legal force to threaten and restrict discourse and disqualify certain discussants. Hopefully greater freedom from authoritative abuses will result from a general rise in education and institutions of learning. Unfortunately, even in higher learning only fragmented concepts are provided, depending upon larger agendas and ulterior motives of control and authority. This again points to manipulative intents in using the word “Islam” or its derivatives to narrow the space for genuinely free and open dialogue. There are endless implica- tions behind multiple ways Muslims and non-Muslims consistently or inconsistently use the term “Islam.”

Anyone writing, reading, or speaking about “Islam” has some meaning in mind. Clear articulation about meaning(s) is therefore an imperative prerequisite to the clarity of discussion. Likewise, it is obligatory that there is consistency between stated definitions and subsequent uses. Confusion arises when multiple meanings are used in the absence of clear definitions, or when using meanings that differ from the one initially provided. There does not have to be a single or consistent meaning throughout one’s discussion, but at the very least, if an author begins by defining a particular meaning, he or she must either supply new ones wherever the term is used differently, or remain consistent to that initial definition.

Some definitions seem impartial, like using “Islam” as one of three Abra- hamic traditions. It merely distinguishes it from the history, development, and dogma of the other traditions, especially considering the unlimited distinctions and similarities between them. This is Islam as a historically based faith movement. Its utility is best demonstrated when teaching at the undergraduate level. To even engage those distinctions and similarities requires a handle term to indicate the reference to Islam in particular. Islam is the name of a religion, which students in that course will be considering through a complete learning process.

BOOK: Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam
12.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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