Saturday, 18 October 2008
"It's Muslim Men we Must Modernise" by Kia Abdullah
Kia Abdullah's article appeared in the Guardian on Friday 17th October 2008
Having grown up in a patriarchal community, I revel in strong displays of female power. Imagine my delight then to discover the prospect of history being made as Professor Amina Wadud becomes the first woman to lead a mixed-gender congregation in the UK. Wadud, who led a mixed Friday prayer in New York three years ago, performed the service at a conference on Islam and feminism held at Oxford's Wolfson College today.
Of course, not all Muslims will greet the news with delight. Controversy is brewing among traditionalists with some claiming that the service flouted the laws of Islam.
Mokhtar Badri, vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain, is quoted by the BBC as saying:
"With all respect to sister Amina, prayer is something we perform in accordance to the teachings of our Lord… Women can lead prayers before other women but for this very specific point, in this situation before a congregation of men and women, a man must lead."
Like many things in Islam, the "ruling" is merely an interpretation made by men, which has no real backing in the Qur'an. IslamOnline, which runs an "Ask a scholar" service, states that "There is a consensus among Muslim jurists that a woman is not allowed to lead men in a mosque or congregation." However, it fails to cite a specific ruling directly supporting its claim, and even admits that the Prophet Muhammad asked a woman to lead her family in prayer.
The international support network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, explores the matter in more depth and concludes that women are indeed permitted to lead mixed-gender prayer. A sensible and objective person would reach the same conclusion having examined the evidence, so why is there so much resistance?
It boils down to the fact that many Muslim men are sexist. Some argue that Islam lends credence to sexism, but I believe Islam can indeed coexist with a society based on equality. We cannot change the words of the Qur'an, but we can change the men who follow those words.
Instead of tempering the verses of the Qur'an with good judgment, some men use them as a vehicle for controlling women. The fact that Islam allows room for this type of behaviour is a problem, yes, but rampant sexism is more a product of patriarchal ideology than religion itself. Men can practice Islam and treat women as equals – the two are not mutually exclusive.
Women like Wadud challenge the status quo. They force Muslims to question their actions and examine the evidence upon which they base their beliefs.
It could be argued that Wadud's actions are divisive. Libyan leader Muammar Gadafy has said that challenging male authority in this way "creates millions of bin Ladens".
I will concede that smaller, practical, changes like the new marriage contract may be more effective in cementing reform, but we do need women like Wadud who are willing to take dramatic action and face protest in order to change established practices.
Dr Taj Hargey, chair of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford and one of the organisers of the mixed-gender service, points out that "People thought it was a bad idea to give women the vote. When Emmeline Pankhurst chained herself to the railings in protest there was uproar, but things move on."
Maybe Islam is stuck in the past, but if we can't modernise the religion, we must modernise its men. And women like Wadud who deal in deeds, not words, can do exactly that.
Amina Wadud's Book, 'Inside the Gender Jihad', is a must read for all those who want to truly understand the vision of Professor Wadud.