Muslim Woman in the 21st Century Forward or Backwards *

Amina Wadud-Muhsin

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Muslim Woman in the 21st Century Forward or Backwards *

By Amina Wadud-Muhsin


The title of this article “Muslim Woman in the 21st century forward OR backwards” forces one to choose between forward and backwards. Actually, the situation for the Muslim woman in the next century rests upon the delicate balance in the present century between the forward advances in the Muslim Ummah—which have a residual affect on the position of woman—and the backward consciousness and attitudes that continue to constrain her. Today I will discuss some of the terms of this balance with particular reference to post-colonialism, Islamic resurgence and “western” modernity—factors which have effected some forward advances for the Muslim woman, and the narrow attitudes that bind her through sanctification of the existing order. However, my hope is to discuss the basis for a complete forward advancement for women that will positively effect the whole Muslim ummah by increasing its potential while maintaining traditional Islamic principles and distinct cultural identities.

A disparity arises between acceptance of change as a natural evolutionary part of the created universe and the rejection of changes in the essential status of the Muslim woman. Much of the progress for the Muslim woman is a residual of the post-colonial modem industrial era which has effected Muslims in general. In particular, we see both men and women have benefited from greater economic potential as a result of industrialization and increased world trade (more jobs, more workers—including women). Both Muslim women and men enjoy greater participation in the independent post-colonial political systems of self-determination—why we can even boast of our first female prime-minister.

These noticeable residuals of changes in many post-colonial Muslim nations represent advantages for women which I would never want to see turned back—but they fall short of total or holistic forward advances, because as one author puts it “we are up against something very profound, very stubborn, something we cannot rout out simply by rearranging a few tasks and roles in the social system ... ” [1].

The increased importance of education in the Muslim world (both on the elementary or basic level [2] and on a level which creates and advances institutions of higher learning) affects females and poor more slowly than males and the more affluent, but the trend is there. This post-colonial residual is more substantial because when a girl manages to get some reading knowledge, she begins to have the means to take advantage of information about herself, her nation, her God. Ultimately the power for change rests in the minds of the individual.

For indeed, without some thought or consciousness from which to imagine where FORWARD is, no steps can be taken. Although change is a natural part of the created universe, progressive advancement in civilization is not accidental. If we expect any situation—including the situation for women—to advance, it must involve some conscious effort (or efforts of consciousness!).
Forward and backward are also relative to 1) a starting reference point, 2) a direction and 3) an objective—so the extent to which the Muslim woman is allowed to participate in the benefits and struggles of the human experience [3] is related to her particular social-cultural context. Naturally variations exist.
The other two perspectives on the forward movement for the Muslim woman are Islamic resurgence and western modernity. I define Islamic resurgence as “a surge forward into the future with the basis of one’s surge being the primary sources of Islam: the Qur’an and the sunnah”. To be sure these sources are always at the heart of the movement, but how these play on the role of woman I will examine in more detail below.
Since I accepted Islam in the modem west, unlike many of my Eastern colleagues in the field of Islamics, no contradiction between “the West”, “modernity” and Islam needed to be reconciled. I saw the Islamic tradition as a viable belief system which affects inward and outward change in the experience of any individual or group—but only in so far as they allow it to do so. (4)
However, as Fazlur Rahman asserts, often what is called the “Islamic tradition might best be called “the Muslim tradition, which contains of course, many Islamic things, many un-Islamic things and many that may be border line. This is extremely important. [5] To determine what is “Islamic” he recommends a thorough re-examination and critical analysis with a criterion-referent that defines the great tradition [6] and the little traditions [7]. He proposes that for judgments about Islam; the criterion-referent can only be the Qur’an and the Prophet’s definitive conduct (i.e. sunnah). For “not only do the people of the great tradition but also those of the little traditions claim, and claim sincerely, that it is these two sources that constitutes the norm of Islam; but the people of the great tradition go further and claim they are trying to follow that norm and that if they consciously or in ignorance deviate from it that would constitute a sin, even a grave sin.” [8]
Bernard Lewis [9] wedges a third category between these two when he gives three meanings to the word Islam:
I) those primary sources: Qur’an and sunnah; 2) the developments of the great Muslim jurists and theologians (what I refer to as the intellectual tradition); 3) and what Muslims actually do or have done—the “little traditions”.
Most people who think of Islam, including many Muslims, do not distinguish between these three definitions of Islam. Muslims who wish to preserve “Islam” are sometimes more adamant about the sanctity of the intellectual tradition or their customs than they are concerned with the most sound, most universal representation of the transcendent faith that we hold in the sunnah of Allah for the enrichment of the lives of humanity.
Thus the absence of the fetters of traditionalism (taqlid) that hinder many eastern Muslims in the modem era allows new Muslims from the west to see some of the untapped potential within the primary sources of Islam. That is, in the modem western context, one interprets directly from the core of the Islamic primary sources and not from the cultural developments of Muslim peoples throughout history. Ultimately this allows for greater forward advances within the context of that great tradition.
That the Qur’an and sunnah are the starting points for all that we call “Islamic”, including radical forward Islamic movements past and present (or an Islamic woman’s movement) needs perhaps a bit of clarification. Anything that contradicts these universal principles is unacceptable as positive change: whether forward or backward. However, if the sources of what we consider “Islamic” are behind us—how can we possibly say such a basis can move us “forward”?

First, because the Qur’an refers to itself as “hudan li-al-naas (guidance for all humankind)”. In this era, we are part of that genus of “humankind”. All those who come after us (who proceed “forward” from our loins) will also be “humankind” . Therefore such verses are saying in effect ‘this book is guidance for all the changing people, places and times’. The principles of Qur’anic guidance are universal. They transcend particular times and places and their application fits forward progression—the natural order of the universe (and all that is in it).
The sunnah or definitive conduct of the Prophet is also a primary source of all that is defined “Islamic”. It too has universal principles underlying it. The Qur’an explicitly commands us to obey the prophet (3:32, 132; 4:59) and reminds us that “he was only sent as a mercy to all the world” (2: 107). The sunnah is the embodiment of the Qur’anic message. It differs from the Qur’an in its detailed explanation and minute demonstration of physical and practical matters of concern to Muslims.

Muslims have not been plagued by these two sources but for centuries they have been grappling with interpretation and implementation of the underlying principles. Each generation and each group of Muslims at various places have struggled to identify themselves in the light of these sources. It is interesting to notice the myriad of variations that manifest themselves in the peoples to whom Islam has spread. Each culture gives a unique inflection to the central core. These inflections of the Islamic core are particularly useful for the identity and survival of various cultural groups within the context of their unique eco-systems. This is part of the beauty of Islam. Thus, ultimate forward will come from its ideological core and reflect the wide spectrum of manifestations that already characterize the Muslim people.

Realization of the full Islamic experience belongs to all humans—no matter what nationality, historical point in time, or gender. The single most important constraint on the substantive advancement of the Muslim woman in this century has been a narrow attitude that restricts the Islamic potential and gives a single (usually culturally determined, often sexist and racist) system of evaluation to a universal system. It says, in effect, ‘No one is better than I or my kind. Any forms foreign to our representative practices are deviant and must be held in check (by any means possible). The means employed in the name of this narrowness have gone the gambit: oppression of certain factions within one society: minorities, converts, the poor, and women; wars between Muslim nations; stagnation in the intellectual tradition [10]; and false sanctification.
Human adaptability is one essential aspect of survival in the face of the continual natural change in creation. [11] When changes occur in matters that affect the way we order our lives in society we lose some of our flexibility because of the loss of security and comfort which such order has given us. One means of survival which helps us maintain order is sanctification of the existing basic institutions in society [12] or of perceptions surrounding those institutions.

‘The inability to share the full Islamic experience gives way to sanctification of narrow-mindedness. My favorite example again comes from the Qur’an. The measures described to protect the safety and modesty of the Muslim woman were taken within the context of the pre-Islamic Arab practices. Are later generations intended to duplicate—to the very color and stitching—these exact manifestations, or does the Qur’an set another precedent that expresses the essence of what was sought after—something fundamental and adaptable, like: modesty? (of course it does!)

Without the proper methods of Qur’anic hermeneutics, the literal has been given priority over the essential. What was effective in one context in our Islamic tradition may not be effective in every context. Rather than understand the facility of a particular metaphor in its context, the concrete manifestation of it is lifted up and displaced into other circumstances and forced to “fit” by false sanctification of the literal model.
Thus by re-reading the Qur’an itself and utilizing its own internal coherence a more decisive as well as adaptive criterion for a substantial forward movement for the ummah (and therefore women) comes forth. In particular two important principles of human evaluation and existence come to mind. Naturally, these are inter-related.

First “wa min kulli shay’in khalqanaa zawjayn (And all things we created in pairs)”. That is man and woman are part of a contingent-pair system. They both must be, or, are necessary. This principle of the Islam transcends the evaluations that have come to distinguish males from females in the various contexts to which Islam has spread. It rests on the equal potential of the male and the female to realize Allah. The basic and necessary duality in the created world means mutual necessity and complementarity—not hierarchy. In Ivan Illich’s book entitled Gender, he discusses how this complementarity works:

“Sometimes not a basket is plaited, no fire is kindled without the collaboration of two sets of hands. Each culture brings gender together in its own unique way.” [13] The male and the female are indispensable in society and for survival. What is needed within society are mechanisms to develop the inner potential equally for both gender. [14] There is no disparity between the values attributed to the roles fulfilled by males and females such that men’s work is ” ... more valuable than women’s work, no matter how arbitrary the division of labor” [15]. Such thinking will be transcended through the Qur’anic model: “to men a portion of what they earn to women a portion of what they earn” (4:32), “we will not suffer the work of anyone of you—male or female—to be lost” (3: 195) or “who ever does a righteous deed—male or female—and is a believer, he or she will enter paradise” (4: 124). The distinctions between the two gender are necessary, but that difference is not of any intrinsic value.

In general, the determination of human value from the Qur’anic perspective is unspecified in gender: “Inna akrama kum inda-Allah atqaa-kum, (the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the one [he or she] with the most taqwa). Taqwa is an important Qur’anic concept that implies a certain pious attitude (consciousness of Allah), and results in certain types of behavior. As such, it is the underlying principle that determines Islam’s flexibility with regard to the roles and status of men and women in society. When people are judged by their taqwa and not by their gender then both man and woman will be free to strive for greater piety as a means for moving forward—not only in this life but in the next life as well.

Since all of the universe continues to move forward, realization of this principle of evaluation can not only be beneficial to the woman, but to the Ummah as a whole and to the creation at large. The limitations that have been culturally reinforced and mislabeled “Islam” will have to evolve to the level which encourages the individual to experience a closeness to Allah—as a responsibility of a believer shared with the community of other believers—or potential believers. Women will not limit themselves to being mere instruments for men. We would not see an end to the sanctity of existing institutions, but we would move these institutions forward such that they become the means for the self-fulfillment of the two essential members of the pair in humanity: the man and the woman. As a result, all humans would share in the worship of Allah through His creation.

1. Sherry B. Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” in Women, Culture and Society, Edited by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford University Press, Calif. 1974) p. 67.
I.e. literacy.
3. It is this definition of forward which I will focus on directly or indirectly throughout.
4. “laa yughayiru-Allah maa bi-qawman hataa yughayiruu maa bi-anfusihim (Allah does not change the situation of a people until they first change what is in themselves).” (13-11)
5. Fazlur Rahman, “Islamization of Knowledge: A Response”, in The American Journal of Islamic Social Science (Vol. 5, No. I, 1988) p. 8.
6. The Great Tradition, or true Islam, is the transcendent aspect of Islam, its universal truth, which has not yet been appropriated but has a precise and unambiguous relationship with the Qur’an and the Sunnah.
7. The little traditions are the aspects of Islam which represent the unique, non-transferable and cumulative historical and cultural experiences of the community of Muslims but which have through-out Islamic history been made ‘orthodox’ although not purely based in the sources of Islam.
8. Fazlur Rahman, “Islam in Religious Studies: Review Essay” in Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies, edited by Richard C. Martin, (The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1985) pp. 196-197.
9. See Bernard Lewis’ Race and Color in Islam, (Harper and Row Publishers, NY 1971), pp. 5-6.
10. To close the door of ijtihad is the same as saying: no one can interpret Islam better than our forefathers. Some scholars have made brilliant discoveries or analogies. At least for a time, we all basked in the light of these. But time passes and new brilliance is needed.
11. See the discussion of this by Roy Rappaport in his book Ecology, Meaning and Religion (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California 1979) pp. 223-247.
12. Like marriage, child rearing and clothing - matters particularly affecting the perceptions of the role of woman.
13. Ivan Illich, Gender, (N.Y., Pantheon Books, 1982), pp. 106-107.
14. Thus we see, for example, that when the Qur’an sets forth an example in Surat-al Tahrim “for those who believe ... ” because it happens to be a woman does not reduce her to an exemplary character for women alone.
15. Carol Tarvis and Carole Wade, The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective, 2nd ed. (Orlando, Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich, 1984), p.20.

Originally published in the print edition of

The American Muslim

Fall-Winter 1994