Struggle for the Soul of Islam

My father helped build a new mosque in my hometown, Morgantown, West Virginia. On the night of its inauguration in 2003, I went to the mosque’s front door carrying my young son. I wore the same flowing white head covering that I had worn when I made my pilgrimage to Mecca. I had experienced full and unfettered access to the holy mosque in Mecca. I was an active and vocal participant in mixed-gender study sessions. I was fully equal.

Yet in Morgantown the president of the mosque board barked at me: "Sister! Take the back door!" Stunned, I proceeded through the front door but didn’t dare go into the main hall. Instead, I climbed the back stairwell into a secluded balcony where women were supposed to pray, shut off from the lectures, prayers, and community meetings held on the main floor below. I felt sick to my stomach.

For the first 10 days of that Ramadan, I wondered if I could overcome my fears and enter the main hall. I was getting messages to be silent from those around me. One mosque leader declared: "A woman’s voice is not to be heard in the mosque." Though I had crossed the globe as an author and staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal and interviewed the Taliban, corporate titans, and political leaders, I didn’t dare peek over the edge of the balcony in my own mosque.

On the eleventh evening of Ramadan, I battled my doubts, searching for inspiration. Three historical figures gave me courage, clarity, and vision: Civil rights icon Rosa Parks, feminist suffragist Alice Paul, and the prophet Muhammad. The convergence of these three unlikely personalities underscores the deep way in which the American civil rights movement, the struggle for women’s rights, and religious reform are on parallel paths toward the common goal of a more just, tolerant, and equitable world. Rosa Parks was fed up, as I was, with separate but unequal conditions. Alice Paul took action deemed radical even by other women leaders of her day. The prophet Muhammad persevered, despite persecution, in his commitment to his faith. On the dawn of the eleventh day of Ramadan, I entered the main hall of the mosque with my mother, son, and family.

There has been intimidation and harassment, but the mosque reversed its rules banning women from the front door and main hall. A woman has been elected to office for the first time. More women are attending the mosque than ever before. Five women and one man came to Morgantown to march to the mosque to affirm women’s rights everywhere.

As a Muslim in America, I am part of a profound historical reform movement that is taking shape in the Muslim world. Across the United States, ordinary Muslim writers, scholars, and community members are engaging in a struggle for the soul of Islam. Some of our strongest leaders are women invoking feminist principles not only from the West, but from within Islam. We are at a crossroads similar to the one Christians and Jews found themselves in before women were accepted as rabbis, ministers, and pastors.

In November 2004, the Progressive Muslim Union of North America was launched, dedicated to advancing a progressive religious, intellectual, social, and political agenda. Also in November, Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Sufi Muslim Association Society, led a retreat for "Muslim leaders of tomorrow," identifying them as change agents who will "begin a new national conversation about Islam." Early in 2005, I will launch the Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour, advocating an Islamic bill of rights for women in the mosque and in the bedroom.

Sept. 11 was a wake-up call for many Muslims. We are called to arms as spiritual warriors fighting for the heart of our religion. We are on the cusp of a new day for the Muslim world, and we will persevere.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Pilgrimage into the Heart of Islam. She lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with her son Shibli.

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