‘All of nature in surrender’: Women and Islam

Volume 6 Number 3 March 8 - April 12 2010

A leading Qur’anic scholar and Muslim feminist, Professor Amina Wadud, has challenged the ‘received tradition’ of a vertical relationship between Allah, man and woman, and reconstructed it as a horizontal relationship of reciprocity, or equality, with the male and female pair united in surrender to Allah.

Professor Wadud is Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of several books including Qur’an and Woman. She was in Melbourne to deliver the inaugural Asia Institute Public Lectures, a series featuring leading local and international guest speakers carefully selected to represent each of the Institute’s teaching programs and research strengths.

In her lecture, Muslim Women and Gender Justice: Method, Motivation and Means, Professor Wadud explored the notion that Muslim women worldwide had reached a “critical mass”, and for the first time in history, were no longer subject to male or even non-Muslim definitions of what being a Muslim woman means.

“To name a thing, to determine its definition, is to have power over that thing,” Professor Wadud says. “With regard to the word Islam for example, whoever uses it has power over it … no matter how they use it and no matter if they stick to their own definition when they use it.”

For Professor Wadud, Islam is a state of surrender to the order of the universe. She explains it as: “Surrender to the ultimate, to the ultimate reality, to God, to Allah. Whoever surrenders participates or achieves its essence in real terms. Islam is that ideal system or world view which corresponds to a state of perfect harmony in all relationships, creator to creation, including human creation, relationships between divine and human beings and the relationship between human beings and each other”.

Following is an edited extract from her lecture.

In the Qur’an we are told all of nature is in surrender: it participates in the harmony of creation on a daily basis. The sun keeps to its course, properties of fire and water, air and earth are consistent within themselves. The Qur’an describes the primary miracle of God as all of nature. But most people do not properly observe this miracle.

Rather, we tend to notice the suspension of the harmony of nature – the floods, tsunamis, droughts, earthquakes.

I use the word Islam only in terms of this essence, of this harmony, in all of creation. I don’t want you to perceive of Islam as being something static, but rather to reflect on it as being a dynamic relationship, not a fixed order. Harmony doesn’t flow from stasis.

I stress this principle of harmony in interrelationship in order to distinguish the word Islam from Muslim. Muslims are people; whether striving toward obtaining or ignoring this perfection. There are all kinds of Muslims: Muslim secularists, Muslim feminists, Muslim terrorists, Muslim mystics. Muslim is the sociological and anthropological historical reality. Islam is the ideal. Muslim is the real. That we fall short as Muslims of the ideal is a function of our humanity.

We are created to be agents of God on the earth. This is not a role that is specific to one religion over another, to one race over another, to one gender over another. It’s the human role, the human destiny. In fact when people ask me what is the role of the Muslim woman, I say her role is to be an agent to Allah. That is about it. This would be very easy except for the fact that in the reality of human communities, in the reality of Muslims and Muslim communities there are other things that come into play with regard to how we actually fulfil our role as Muslim women.

What I mean by critical mass is that women who live at this time, including Muslim women, are engaged in diverse ways about what it means to be a human being, what it means to have a relationship with Allah, what it means to be Muslim, what is Islam, and how do we come to these definitions.

There is no aspect of Islamic thought, and no practice among Muslims or others about which Muslim women have not made some comment, some contribution or some contradiction. This has not happened before this time. At this time in history it is evident that Muslim women are participating from every socio-economic class, from every political context, in every country, whether it has a Muslim majority or minority. And that is, I think, a unique contribution.

Over the past few years, I’ve been looking particularly at women’s ways of knowing in order to understand both the similarities and distinctions between women’s ways of knowing and men’s ways of knowing.

There are times in the Muslim intellectual history where we do not have a record of women’s ways of knowing, experiencing.

In my area, Qur’anic studies in particular, we have no record until the end of the 20th century of women’s ways of understanding the Qur’anic text.

There is an overwhelming consensus that has come down through Muslim history and that is still sustained today, that the Qur’an is the primary source of everything that is Islamic.

So how does it happen that you have this primary source, and you have human creation that consists of both men and women but you have no record of women’s responses to the text, or what they think the text means? I’m not saying women did not respond, understand or have an opinion. I’m saying we have no record.

When we listen to women’s perspectives of what the Qur’an means we add to the human comprehension of what the Qur’an means. We bring something from our particular location as women to the human venture, to understand and hopefully follow the guidance of the Qur’an in the form of implementation.

When I’m saying we don’t have a record of Muslim women’s voices with regard to the Qur’an I’m not trying to say this was some kind of malicious, misogynist plot. We don’t have any edict in Islam that says women can’t read, study or make commentary on the Qur’an.

However, just because this lack of women’s voices wasn’t intentional doesn’t mean it doesn’t have consequences. Part of the work that I have done is to be able to help fill in some of those gaps in response, not just from the perspective of one woman (myself), but also from the perspective and reality of the lived experience of many women, in many different circumstances.

When we look at the development of women’s thinking in other traditions and even in non-religious civilisational situations we find a very similar marginalisation of women’s voices, women’s perspectives, and women’s experiences so I don’t see that as necessarily unique in Islam but I do see it as a unique opportunity to be able to fill that gap at this time.

And gender relations are set in some type of social construct. What we are doing today is self-consciously looking at both the social construct and the resulting notions of what gender is. Do we form relationships on the basis of power and control or of nurturance and mutual assistance? Well, the answer is we do both.

Reformists, not just reformist Muslim women, are much more aware that while there is a belief in the sacred, in the divine, in Allah, we as humans have always been agents of every aspect of the religion.

Obviously religious institutions try to take religious constructs and freeze-frame them for eternity but this kind of stasis is harmful to all religions. Religions need to stay dynamic, be interchanged with people’s lived reality.

Religions need to be changed to the extent to which they continue to fulfil the primary objective, which is fostering a relationship with Allah or with God that will characterise the relationships we have with each other and what kind of relationship we’ll have with the rest of creation.

Remember that if you start with a false premise you’re going to lead to a false conclusion. If you define the human being you must say something that is true for all human beings. If you define the human being in ways that are specific only to males it not only excludes women, it makes women either deviant or deficient.

So there is power in definitions whether we are conscious or unconscious of it and they say something about us when we make definitions, but there is no definition that totally renders the totality of the human reality.

The Qur’an says for all created things, there is the pair. That means duality is a primordial definition of what it means to be created. That is, there is no one before the other because that’s the definition, everything is in pairs. The creator on the other hand is unique, not subjected to this duality, ie not male or female. God is not like humans, as with humans male and female, not dual, and so therefore is not male or female.

Qur’anic cosmology then affirms duality (“I created you from male and female”), diversity (“the male is not like the female”) and here I want to say that equality does not mean sameness, the goal is not to be the same.

The goal is to be your own self and fully affirmed in your equality.

Listen to the full lecture at: