by Dr. Amina Wadud
Verse 34 in the first surah, al-Ahzab, of juz’ 22 is one of the most powerful Quranic statements about the ultimate intent of inclusiveness and equality between women and men. It can be translated thus:
For Muslim men and Muslim women, believing men and believing women, devout men and devout women, men and women who keep to the truth, men and women who are patient in adversity, men and women who are humble (before Allah), men and women who give charity, chaste men and chaste women, men and women who remember Allah unceasingly, for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward.
As an African American woman who is Muslim by choice, my life work has been dedicated to Allah and to the establishment and experience of divine justice for all humankind. As a result, I take on all subtle and systemic practices of injustice to shine a light of truth and love to transform them. In particular, I focus on gender and sexuality. It is easy confirm the mandate for racial justice and equality—despite racism among Muslims and in the context of the United States— yet I had many more questions about the matter of divine justice around gender and sexuality. I chose to study Arabic and Qur’an to understand more deeply if what I saw all over the world regarding gender injustice among Muslims was actually part of the Islamic world view.
Were women relegated to the back of the mosque, secluded, silenced in the public space and even subjected to abuse because of some Islamic ethic or divine mandate? In my first book, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Text from a Woman’s Perspective (1992), I put that question to rest. Whatever the problem, it was not the sacred text from Allah. For while there are various indications that the revelation was intimately connected and responsive to the time and place of its origins—7th century Arabian culture, with its patriarchal customs—that is not the sum total of divine guidance. The Qur’an responds to that time and place but within its own universal expression of guidance for all humankind (2:2).
Curiously, verse 34 is said to have been inspired through an inquiry made from Umm Salamah, wife of the Prophet Muhammad (s). She asked why the masculine plural was used so often in the Qur’anic address. Is it meant to privilege men? Why were women not addressed as often? After that inquiry, this verse was revealed making it clear that both women and men are included in every aspect of sacred guidance.
A simple linguistic limit in the Arabic language is at issue here. There is a feminine plural form for women and a masculine plural form that is used for both men and women. If there are 25 female students in a room and even as few as 2 males, the masculine plural form must be used in order to describe and discuss them collectively as students.
There is no form of Arabic plural exclusive to men. In order to know if a particular masculine plural is exclusively designating men, there must be some indicator in the language or sentence structure to support it. When both the masculine and feminine plural forms are used—as in this verse—it is clear the masculine plural is exclusive to the males. Thus, as the Qur’an often says “Oh you who believe”—using the masculine plural form—it is inclusive of both male and female believers. This verse further confirmed that for Umm Salamah, the Companions and for all Muslims, until the end of time.
In the context of the 21st century the reality of discrimination against women and non-gender conforming persons runs amok in Muslim lived realities. I have addressed this now for 4 decades. I started with textual analysis but within a decade moved to be more engaged with policy and reform as an activist. This advocacy started when I came to Malaysia, (where I am now, as I write this) to join the faculty of the International Islamic University in 1989. From here, I became a founding member of a faith based organization, Sister in Islam, to address gender inequality from a pro-faith perspective. Once I returned to the US taking up a university position there, I continued my international advocacy in all parts of the world. I have visited more than 60 countries to date, promoting gender equality.
In 2009 the Musawah movement was launched. Musawah is a global movement for reform in policy, culture and spirit. The launch was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Together were women and men with whom I had worked over the course of my life. In the opening ceremony for the movement, in which the name Musawah was chosen, a very powerful short video was shown that uses this very verse from al-Ahzab to demonstrate how the trajectory of gender justice, as started by the Prophet and heralded in by the Qur’an, was moving forward given our historical and current circumstances.
Musawah is founded upon the Qur’anic mandate for justice and human dignity in all human relations. It recognizes that the principle architects of Muslim Personal Status Law (MPSL) in the Classical development of Islamic law subsumed the dignity of a woman under her role in the family where she was made subservient to men. Despite the fact that MPSL is still in use today the principles of the Qur’an can yield more equitable possibilities which were not prioritized in the early development of the jurisprudence but which are surely much in need today.
I have been inspired to continue this work using the principle of tawhid. While it is clear this concept is used for the Unique Nature of Allah, I have demonstrated how it must impact our practices and spirit if we are believers in that One God. The Tawhidic Paradigm mandates human relations of equality and reciprocity for all who believe in the highest organizing Principle: Allah. It is not enough to just say “justice and equality.” We must reform systems that limit women’s rights and challenge them with this intra-Quranic logic and with sensitivity to lived realities.
As an African American theologian, most of my life work is unknown in my own US context. The African-American community has never engaged with Muslim Personal Status Law. The link between Islamic jurisprudence and daily life is absent. We often operate by an adhoc mixing and matching of Qur’anic statements, and sometimes ahadith, with little appreciation of over a millennia of intellectual, ethical and spiritual Muslim engagement in the complexity of the Quran and ahadith in the construction of complete systems of community, politics, international relations and faith. We are dedicated and sincere for sure, but sometimes we exist in a bubble apart from the much of the global Muslim ummah. As such, in my global work I almost never come across another African American. I am also not often invited to participate within our confessional spaces. Very few of my brothers and sisters are aware of my contributions to the current global discourses over Islam, gender, sexuality and justice.
I used to worry about that. I often professed that I would stop so much global work and just concentrate on my own community. Now I am content with the opportunities Allah has given me to be the leading African American Muslim woman known internationally. However, when I struggle at the intersection of race, religion, gender and sexuality it can seem strange to one audience how much I emphasize that none of these aspects operates in isolation.
I have been contemplating another aspect of tawhid: unity within the person as the moral-spiritual motivation impacting words and deeds. In this respect, I invite you all to the divine unity within yourself. From where ever you are, you are part of the harmony and peace of the entire Universe; that is true surrender (or Islam).
In one way, this verse is redundant. Since all of the Qur’an is written for women—just as all of it is written for men—why would Allah need to further point this out? But that’s just it, isn’t it? Sometimes we need a reminder: We are ALL in this together. May our journeys be filled with light.
Dr. Amina Wadud is Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies and Visiting Scholar at the Starr King School for the Ministry, Berkeley, CA; and at the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Since retirement she has been an International Consultant on Islam and Gender Justice, most notably as Resource Scholar with the Musawah movement (www.musawah.org) as well as a member of the International Advisory Group. Her publications include “Inside the Gender Jihad” and the classic, “Qur’an and Woman,” first published in 1992 and still widely read. She is currently doing research in Islamic Classical Sources on sexual diversity and human dignity with a generous grant from the Arcus foundation.