The Warriors of Gender Intifada: Where Are They Now?

Dr. Robert D. Crane

Posted Jun 17, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Warriors of Gender Intifada: Where Are They Now?

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

  With all the meltdowns or near meltdowns going on around the world in the Year 2009, starting with America, then Pakistan, and now Iran in June, it is difficult to pay attention to such perennial issues as gender justice.

  This issue may surface again on June 22nd when the story of Asra Nomani will be retold on KQED under the title “The Mosque in Morgentown.”  Advance hype states that this film, originally made in 2003-2004, has stirred up some raw feelings.  Nomani, who is now leading the Pearl Project as a visiting journalism scholar at Georgetown University, is the author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” 

  She was one of the lead organizers of the high profile intifada of the Islamic scholar, Amina Wadud, whom Nomani recruited four years ago to wow the Muslim world by leading the Friday prayer of men and women as their imamah.  This performance in New York on March 18, 2005, attracted worldwide TV coverage and hundreds of media articles in a storm of both protest and support.  Few people then and now were aware that the real organizer of the event was Asra Nomani, who was born in Mumbai (Bombay), India, but grew up in Morgentown, West Virginia.

  After working in Pakistan as a journalist and as a columnist for, she returned to Morgentown to recover from the death of her friend Daniel Pearl at the hands of Muslim extremists who slit his throat, and from the pain of an unplanned pregnancy and the cruelty of a partner who refused to acknowledge their child. 

  Once back home in Morgentown she decided to wage a jihad to desegregate the local mosque and rescue it from the cruelty of Muslim extremists.  She was proud of the fact that she was a mother and wanted to use her own case as a means to stand up for women in Pakistan and Nigeria who at the time had been sentenced to death for having babies without being married.  The frustrations from facing issues head-on, which resulted in her supportive father, who had founded the mosque, being expelled from the governing board, drove Asra to take on the entire Muslim world and even Islam itself. 

  Her mission was simple.  In an interview on June 15, 2009, with David Ian Miller, entitled, ‘Reconciling Faith, Feminism, and Islam: One Woman’s Push for Change at Her Hometown Mosque,” SF Gate,, Asra Nomani stated, “There’s a place in this world for traditionalists.  It’s just that I don’t want them controlling all the rest of us.”  Her basic rationale is that, “To me, shari’ah is just a matter of human interpretation.  Sadly, it’s been largely a male interpretation. ... The puritanical want to say that shari’ah is God’s law, but it’s clearly an interpretation of the law.”

  The interviewer asked her whether she is lonely praying alone now, since she is not welcome praying in community.  She answered, “I have a community.  It’s virtual, and it stretches from Malaysia to Atlanta. ... There are so many cool, awesome people in the world.  I don’t feel like I’ve got to find community anymore inside four walls.”
  Asra Nomani is addressing a real problem of extremism that produces more extremism at both ends of the spectrum.  The utter degradation of women among certain ethnic groups was brought home to me in September, 1997, when Professor Hashim Kamali and Dr. Fathi Osman and I toured British universities after we had given a week-long course, entitled “Intensive Orientation Course on Islamic Law in the West,” at the Markfield Conference Centre in Leichestershire, U.K., sponsored by The Islamic Foundation.  Since my responsibility was to chair the final day of the course on September 6th, which was devoted to “International Law and Human Rights,” I was invited to the Friday salat at the main mosque in Manchester to discuss human rights in Islam. 

  Immediately I noticed that there was no woman in sight either outside or inside the mosque.  When I asked where the women were, I was met with stares of disbelief that I could ask such a question, because, I was told, Islamic law forbids women from ever entering a mosque. When I insisted that I wanted to visit a mosque where women were permitted to pray, I was met with stares of disbelief and was told that there are several dozen mosques in Manchester but that only three of them are so heretical that they permit women inside.  My reply to them was that Muslims in England would never be welcome until they recognize human rights of every person, and that even the concept of women’s rights, as distinct from human rights, could be considered to be un-Islamic.  This so confused them that they forgot to tell me that I was going to hell.

  This is the story, unfortunately, of gender degradation so extreme that many Muslim women would rather die than compromise their own dignity, just as would many men.  The problem, however, is not the validity of the universal search for dignity, but the wisdom of the means chosen to pursue and achieve it.

  In my critique of Nomani’s ten point Muslim feminist manifesto, I supported her on nine of the ten, but I opposed her tenth point, which was that women should be permitted to lead the public in mixed gender prayers.  I noted that in theory there is nothing essentially wrong with this, but that pragmatically it was counter-productive to emphasize the most controversial of the ten in order to get attention to all of the others.

  I admire Asra Nomani and Amina Wadud as soldiers of justice, but I always cite them as examples of how not to go about Islamizing Muslims.  Since gender equity may arise again as a hot topic after the story of Asra Nomani is aired next week, and since it may well be accompanied by more shock and awe, we should consider the caveats that I made on April 2, 2005, two weeks after Amina Wadud’s performance in New York, in my article, “Shock and Awe in the First Intifada of American Gender Insurgency: Paradigmatic, Strategic, and Legal Perspectives,”:

“On March 18th, 2005, Professor Amina Wadud launched what might be seen as the first intifada in a widespread gender insurgency by serving with much public fanfare as the imamah in a mixed-gender jumu’a salah.  This triggered a flurry of fatwas from every trend of thought and seemingly every country on earth.  Her action has produced a growing literature not only about its legal validity but about the political wisdom of her chosen strategy of ‘shock and awe’.

“Sister Amina’s bold action is not merely a flash in the pan, here today and gone tomorrow.  It raises perennial issues and may become a landmark case in future textbooks on comparative legal systems and on the international law of human rights.

                                Justice versus Freedom

“The most basic paradigmatic issue is where the Wadud case fits in the political spectrum of conservatism versus liberalism.  Conservatives advocate equity and justice.  Libertarians and post-modernist liberals demand equality and freedom.  Ever since Karl Marx, progressives have always asked for and tried to impose total equality in all things. 

“Conservatives claim that equality should apply in human relations only to opportunity, not to results.  Insisting on equality of results would deny free-will and oppress some people in order to favor others.  To impose equality in results would deny the diversity decreed by Allah in everything from clouds to sunsets, to races, to sex, and even to religions and schools of law within religions.  Such absolutism would raise the concept of equality to the level of shirk al khafi, i.e., the worship of a false god.

“In the field of gender relations, the issue should be equality of opportunity for every person to fulfill one’s God-given potential.  If denying women the right to lead formal prayers would deny them their inherent right to be leaders in society, then Dr. Amina Wadud would be justified both in her goals and perhaps even in her strategy of revolution through shock and awe.  But, if the difference in duties or responsibilities does not cause inequity, then the demand for equality would carry no weight in arguing against the rather clear evidence, if only primarily circumstantial, that the form and methods of formal worship for Muslims have been decreed by Allah and do not provide for women leading the jumu’a salah.

“The paradigmatic danger is that Muslims who focus on absolutist equality are clothing secular fundamentalist feminism, known as women’s liberation, in religious terms and thereby introducing American cultural baggage into the Muslim community both in America and throughout the world.
“By adopting the standards of modern Western culture (or lack of culture) social revolutionary converts to Islam may be shifting the burden of proof from the West to the East in defining the nature of dignity and justice. They thereby would be buying into the Orientalist insistence that the base case for evaluating Islamic law is Western culture, when they should be comparing Western law with Islamic law as the base case.  Advocates of Muslim reform aimed at preserving the purity of Islam should shift the burden of proof onto the secular fundamentalists by showing how deficient Western positivist legal jurisprudence is compared to the sophisticated normative legal system and code of human responsibilities and rights developed over the centuries known as the maqasid al shari’ah.

“The fact that Muslims have observed this code of human rights primarily in the breech for hundreds of years reflects poorly not on Islam but on Muslims. Professor Wadud points this out, but she appeals to the Western obsession with freedom rather than to the emphasis of all the world religions and of America’s founders (fathers and mothers) on justice, without which freedom means nothing.  She appears to be caught in the wrong paradigm.

                              Strategy and Tactics

“From a strategic perspective, one must ask whether it is counter-productive to push this issue when the broader issue of women’s oppression under gender apartheid should be the focus of reform.  The tactical blunder of Sister Amina in launching this first intifada of postmodern gender insurgency is to set Muslims up for attack by the Muslim-bashers who can use this to claim that Muslims hate freedom.  Focusing on a peripheral issue like women leading mixed-gender canonical prayer plays into the hands of extremists who can use this issue to attack Muslim male chauvinism as an opening to attack Islam as a religion.

“Furthermore, these strategic and tactical blunders may generate what in current parlance is called blowback, as illustrated by the failure so far of the Neo-Con strategy to stamp out chaos in the world.  Since Professor Wadud can’t win on this issue, her intifada will serve as grist not only for those who bash Islam but for those troglodite Muslims who oppose gender equity, i.e., human dignity and rights for women (part of the maqasid known as haqq al karama).  Extremism elicits counter extremism, just as terrorism produces much more terroristic counter-terrorism. Sister Amina’s confrontational approach mirrors the paradigm of the clash of civilizations, known as the West versus the Rest, which, in turn, gives rise to the counter-paradigm of Al Qa’ida known as the East versus the Beast.

                                Legal Perspectives

“Even from the legal perspective, Sister Amina Wadud’s counter-cultural crusade is at best problematic.  She tries to defend it in terms of Islamic law simply because her detractors cast it in terms of Qur’anic exegesis, hadith interpretation, and legal commentary.  Many religious people like to reduce complex issues to a simple question of good or bad and right or wrong.  Sister Amina insists that she is right and her opponents insist just as firmly that she is wrong.  Since the shari’ah or ‘Islamic law’ is so important for Muslims, it is perhaps natural that most Muslims like to label everything as either legal or illegal.

“The distinction between the secularist demand for a blind equality and the more discriminating emphasis on equity must be understood and carried out within the framework of the universal purposes of Islamic law (the maqasid, kulliyat, or dururiyat, which are three terms for the same thing, emphasizing respectively purpose, universality, and essentiality).  The maqsud known as haqq al karama or duty to respect human dignity was added over the centuries to Abu Hamid al Ghazali’s five original maqasid recognized by the followers of taqlid, as was the maqsud of haqq al hurriya or the duty to respect self-determination of persons, groups, and nations, which nowadays is known as political freedom.  The purpose of gender equity calls for equality in applying all the other purposes of Islamic law equally to both male and female, the most important one being haqq al ‘ilm or the duty to respect knowledge, which, in turn, calls for freedom of thought, speech, and association.

“All of these maqasid in the form of basic responsibilities and rights were taught and practiced by the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam.  As Professor Aziza al Hibri convincingly contends in her magisterial position paper, ‘Islamic and American Constitutional Law: Borrowing Possibilities or a History of Borrowing’, the decline and fall of human rights in the Muslim world began when the weak third caliph, ‘Uthman, radi Allahu anhu, no longer promoted them and gave his family, the Ummayed tyrants, the chance to stamp them out.

“Although all the great Islamic scholars were imprisoned for their independence, they persisted in developing and codifying human responsibilities and rights in a much more sophisticated way then the secular fundamentalists with their hang-up on a meaningless equality have even attempted to do. 

“Traditionalist thought in all religions teaches the wisdom of respecting the nuances of competing perspectives on what is good.  These cannot be fitted into a narrow legal framework, unless this framework is based on justice, which emphasizes the purpose of the specific legal injunctions. This is why the maqasid are so important.

“Furthermore, many Muslims seem to forget that in the shari’ah, unlike in Western law, there is a spectrum of categories from required (wajib) and good (halal) all the way to haram or forbidden. Most acts fit into categories in between, namely, mandub or desirable and makruh or undesirable, with a large middle category that depends entirely on intention. The same applies to bid’a. Not all innovation is bad. Some is desirable, namely, bida’ hasana, and some is undesirable or even haram.

“The differences in approach may ultimately depend on what aspect of the ‘usul al fiqh one uses. Adopting the maqasid or universal purposes and essentials of the shari’ah as the starting point for analysis is merely the first step, though the most important one. The next is to decide what analytical technique one wants to use.  Self-styled liberals, like Professor Muqtedar Khan, may prefer istihsan, which is the most liberal form of jurisprudence approved in the ‘usul al fiqh, emphasizing what the faqih subjectively thinks is good or hasan.  Self-styled conservatives prefer the istislah, which emphasizes derivation from the Qur’an and Sunnah.  Proceeding from these two approaches, equally competent jurists may end up on opposite sides of important issues.

“Islamic jurists, of course, will always be aware of the difference between applying rational thought to the muamalat or socio-economic and socio-political issues of everyday life and applying such thought to the ibadat or rules of Muslim worship. The maqasid are ideally suited as a normative framework for analyzing the muamalat, whereas the ibadat, as well as most family law (especially marriage, divorce, and inheritance), are revealed and are not equally subject to reasoned debate for application by and to Muslims.

“Although one can easily contend that this first intifada in the growing gender insurgency is violating the fundamental Islamic principle of mizan or balance, the extreme case that Dr. Wadud has chosen to raise fundamental issues of human responsibilities and rights should challenge students to approach fourteen hundred years of Islamic scholarship with an open mind.

“This open-mindedness in the search for knowledge, which is part of the maqsud of the maqasid known as haqq al ‘ilm, is the current task of Muslims in fulfilling the third jihad, the only one mentioned specifically in the Qur’an, namely, the jihad al kabir. This is the intellectual jihad, which assumes the first two taught by the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, the jihad al akbar and the jihad al saghrir. The jihad al akbar for self purification is fard ‘ain or the individual responsibility of every person. The jihad al saghrir or use of force within the constraints of a just war doctrine to defend human rights for oneself and others is both an individual responsibility and a group responsibility known as fard kifaya. The third jihad, the intellectual jihad, in the complexities of the modern era increasingly requires the joint ijtihad of group effort.

“Each person should educate oneself in order to use individual ijtihad as guidance for one’s own life, just as one should respect personal inspiration or ilham from Allah, but neither this individual ijtihad nor this personal inspiration is applicable to other people, and one certainly should not try to impose it on them. Group ijtihad evolves to meet the changing needs of the era and of different cultures. It is an incremental and evolutionary process.

                              Forecasting the Future

“During the past four decades, futures forecasting has become a lucrative business for both government and industry.  The favored technique is to build alternative scenarios in order to stimulate creative thinking about the future, and about how to avoid threats and seize opportunities, and about how to plan in order to get from here to a desired there.

“The most obvious scenario would simply project the past of Christendom or Judaism onto the Muslim world.  Muslims would become split among liberals and conservatives and perhaps mimic the Jews in forming four distinct forms of the faith, namely, reform, orthodox, conservative, and reconstructionist.  This is not much of a forecast, because it is merely projecting past trends into the future.  The Muslim world is already split into many different groups.  The current gender intifada would merely consolidate and accelerate an existing trend.

“The real question is whether the battle for women’s rights can be carried forward without splitting the Muslim umma still further.  Certainly the time is now opportune for women to educate themselves so that they can overcome the sexist and patriarchal interpretation of Islamic law embodied in the various cultures that have submerged the original Islamic wisdom and practices in the Muslim world. 

“But, there are two subordinate questions.  The first is whether American muslimas are ready for the required leadership.  To my knowledge, there is not a single American woman with dual degrees, one in American law and one in the shari’ah from a recognized university like Al Azhar.  In fact there is not a single American-born man who has ever earned both degrees either, though forty years ago Aramco did arrange for six non-Muslim American lawyers to get formal degrees in the shari’ah.  The challenge is for some Muslima is to be first one.  Until she does, the intifada of Amina Wadud will be premature.

“The second subordinate question is whether the future Muslim legal scholars in America will have the wisdom to distinguish between what is important or essential for gender equity and what is not.  Will they distinguish between those few parts of the Qur’an that prescribe detailed regulations in such things as marriage, divorce, and inheritance and those parts that serve only as the sources of the maqasid to guide other areas of life in which it may be easier to overcome prejudice and special pleading.  And will they recognize the special case of canonical prayer, for which Allah has prescribed the details in His infinite knowledge of human nature and what is best. 

“Perhaps a third subordinate question is whether evolution is better than revolution.  Was Hassan al Banna wiser than his disciple Syed Qutb, because Al Banna urged evolutionary change by education from the bottom up rather then revolution through the state’s legitimate monopoly of power from the top down.  This applies not only in external political life but in the internal politics of the Muslim umma. 

“Since women have special responsibilities as the primary educators of the young and therefore are the real key to the transmission of culture, over the long run they have the ultimate authority and power.  But, they must first educate themselves, even though it may require considerable heroism in some countries and situations to do so.  It does not help to blame someone else, in this case, generically men, for the degraded state of women, just as it does not help to blame the European colonialists and the American Neo-Cons (neo-conservative neo-colonialists) for the degraded state of both men and women in the Muslim world today.

“The ultimate criterion for long-run success in all endeavors is reliance on Allah.  Whoever thinks that one is self-sufficient in a good cause has already lost.  And Allah determines not only the fact of success but its definition.  Whoever perseveres in jihad and leaves the result up to Allah has already earned the ultimate success, the only one that really matters.  And Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, always knows best.”

“This is a longer version of the introduction to this topic in the last issue of TAM in an article on Muslim Women Leading Prayer

GENDER ISSUES - Women in Islam - article collection
Pushing the envelope without breaking it, Shahed Amanullah