In 2005, Amina Wadud stepped in front of a crowd of one hundred Muslims, women and men, to offer a sermon and lead them in prayer — something previously unheard of for a woman to do.
Wadud has been vocal about gender equality in Islam for decades. She is a prominent speaker, writer, and scholar of Islamic studies.
But I didn’t know of her until my senior year of college. In my last class as an undergraduate student, I decided to take a class on Islam. I was intrigued by our reading list at the beginning of the semester, but Amina Wadud and her book, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, were just words on my syllabus.
By the end of the semester, her book had a prime location on my bookshelf. The margins of the pages were filled with notes, stars, and exclamation points. (Yes, I’m one of those people who writes in her books.) Corners of particularly insightful chapters were folded down. This book had not only given me a solid basis for understanding Islam — it had also taught me innumerable truths.
Three truths stick out in my mind about what it means to be a woman concerned with equality in religion:
1. It’s feminism and religion, not feminism or religion.
As a scholar of the Quran, Wadud uses Scripture to show how feminism does not need to be brought to Islam. Instead, the possibility for equality rests within the sacred literature. She, like many other religious feminists, asserts that her belief in gender justice does not come from outside of her faith, but is an essential part of how she views Islam.
Feminism has rightly been critiqued for its poor interaction with religion. As a movement that originated for white middle-class American women, it often fails to see the ways feminist beliefs and practices are already a part of a culture that is not their own. While some strains of feminism will label all religion as antithetical to women’s rights, Wadud refuses to give up any part of her identity in search of justice and spiritual fulfillment.
This is an important lesson for feminism especially when it interacts with religion. When religion is seen as oppositional to feminism, those who live within that intersection of the two are left out of the conversation. It’s especially apparent when we consider more intersections such as race, class, and sexuality.
The bedrock of my Christian faith is that, as children of God, all of who we are is valued. And though I turn to different texts than Wadud, her conviction in finding all parts of herself in her religion and in her feminism is yet another reminder that all our intersections are sacred.
2. It’s important to recognize different interpretations of faith, even if you disagree with them.
How do we respond when people we disagree with share our religion? What do I say when the Westboro Baptist Church protests yet another funeral with signs scrawled with profanities, all in the name of Christianity? My first reaction is to deny that they are real Christians and to say, “No, these people don’t have anything to do with me.”
And while that reaction is natural, it’s one I try to work against — in part because of Amina Wadud.
When violent extremism is perpetuated by Muslims — just as it can happen by Christians — Wadud rejects the violence, but doesn’t deny that extremists are working within one interpretation of Islam. Wadud does not dismiss the extremists’ identifier “Muslim,” nor does she reject the label for herself. To do either would be a disservice to the complexity and nuance that Islam holds.
In Inside the Gender Jihad, Wadud declares,
“I do not identify with suicide bombers or acts of violence, [but] I cannot ignore that they occur within the ranks of that vast community of Islam. Despite their presence among us, I still care deeply to be Muslim.”
Wadud is always forthright in her opinion and is unafraid to say what she believes, but she reminds me that I cannot ignore the parts of my religion that I find particularly offensive. If I am to be an advocate for equality within Christianity, just as Wadud is in Islam, I cannot push away the pieces I don’t like. I cannot pretend that extremism does not also exist within the bounds of Christian practice.
3. It’s okay to never stop wrestling with these things.
It’s been a year since I first read Wadud’s book, and what has stuck with me is her willingness to continuously engage with questions that have no easy answers. Instead of seeing justice and gender as unchanging nouns, she recognizes them as vibrant and adaptable.
“From both its successes and failures,” she writes, “we learn that neither justice nor Islam is static.”
Rather, faith and justice are both processes — processes Wadud has engaged in for more than 30 years. As someone who has not yet lived 30 years, it is extremely comforting to know that there are others — both from my own tradition and outside of it — who are not content with simple answers about gender and religion.
In the face of daunting questions, I have come to seek out people who can offer me stories of their own experiences, whether they know it or not. They are people who have given voice to some of my deepest passions and fears about the struggle of faith. They are like signs along a road. And as someone who likes directions, I’ll take any signpost I can get.
When my class ended, I chose to keep Inside the Gender Jihad rather than sell it back to the bookstore. It sits on my bookshelf as one of those signposts. It reminds me of the lessons it taught me about Islam, my own Christian tradition, and about the matrix of faith, justice, and gender.
It also poses a challenge to me: I have so much more to learn.