I arrived at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., half an hour before Friday prayer. In the open courtyard, men were distributing free lunches to the homeless. A man offered me a head scarf. I stood waiting - uncertainly - for the women I was there to join. In a moment I heard a commotion at the front gate. Asra Nomani - the "Muslim Sojourner Truth" - entered the courtyard with her friend Rahat Khan. Their mission? To pray in the main hall of the mosque - an area, by custom, reserved for men only - rather than in the "womens section" located in the basement near the mens bathroom.
This former Wall Street Journal reporter began by praying in her hometown mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. I was intrigued by a Muslim woman, born into an Indian Muslim family and raised in the United States, not only returning to the heart of her religion but doing it in a way that produced the kind of radical call to freedom true faith engenders. I was intrigued by her connection with Sojourner Truth, the ex-slave who adamantly defended the rights of women in the church and in the society.
Not only is Nomani integrating the mosque, she "nailed" (taped, actually) her "99 Precepts for Opening Hearts, Minds, and Doors in the Muslim World" and an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women on the Morgantown mosque door. She stands firmly in the tradition of Martin Luthers 95 Theses pounded into the church door in Wittenberg and Martin Luther King Jr. posting the demands of the open-housing campaign on then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daleys office door in 1966. Nomanis reformation, however, is for the heart and soul of Islam.
WHENEVER RADICAL change is in the offing, moderate reformers suddenly find their voice. As soon as Nomani posted her theses on the door, moderates came forth to blast her for demanding too much change too fast. "It is unfortunate," wrote Louay Safi, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, "that Muslim feminists are following in the footsteps of their secularist precursors, breaking all traditions, and engaging in experimentations that break out with formative principles and values."
Nomani, however, is drawing strength not primarily from secular feminism but from the rich history of women of faith who have fought for equality: Hagar, Ramlah, and Aisha in Islam and Sojourner Truth in Christianity. "When other progressive Muslims have criticized me," Nomani told me, "I really had to struggle to regain my confidence. But then I think of Sojourner Truth and remember that there is always the dilemma of whether we as women should minimize our work. Now Im gaining more ownership of my work, my call, my writing. Its my gift. I have to offer it, right?"
The militant right wing has also been after her. The first women-led Muslim prayer service planned by Nomani in New York City received bomb threats and had to change locations. When that happened, said Nomani, "I quoted Sojourner Truth when she said, If they burn us out, then I shall preach upon the ashes. Sojourner Truth gives me strength. She reminds me of the universalism of the issues of womens rights."
At the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., Nomani and Khan moved swiftly and intently into the main hall. A few men skittered out as soon as the women entered. Wonderfully, however, Nomani and Khan were allowed to stay for the whole service. "I was really proud and pleased to see all these Muslim men creating space for us," Khan told UPI. I remained outside the main hall praying in silent witness with the women inside. The mosque administrator approached and asked why I was there. "Im praying with the women in the main hall," I replied. "Do they need your prayers?" he queried. "I dont know if they need my prayers," I said, "but I know I need theirs."
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. To learn more about Asra Nomani, visit www.asranomani.com.