The engaged scholar: Amina Wadud, academic and activist

Amina Wadud Amina Wadud

By Nora S. Eggen, postdoctoral fellow IKOS, UiO

November 23rd, Amina Wadud, an American Muslim scholar known for her combining academic endeavours with activism in the service of gender justice, visited the University of Oslo and gave an engaged lecture on the intellectual, ideological and political challenges in combining academia and activism. Through the prism of her personal experiences, she highlighted the power dynamics one has to play in order to pursue knowledge and discussed how issues of class, race, gender and religion play into the processes of knowledge production. With her own life as an example Wadud talked about the numerous challenges she met, first as a child and student where there were socio-economical obstacles to gaining access to knowledge, then as a teacher she had to deal with the cognitive biases of the students which could prove a hindrance but also a door opener to critical engagement in different discourses, and as a member of faculty and researcher her critical engagement met reactions of reluctance and resistance. Maybe regular academic life also proved too uncommitted, with limited space for groundbreaking action. Wadud is worldwide famous for her leading several mixed-gender Friday prayer, first time publicly in 2005. For her, this controversial action was a natural consequence of her engagement with Islamic faith and thought, as well as a political action challenging male privilege in the power centers of Islam.

Wadud’s scholarship evolves almost exclusively around issues of gender inclusiveness in the interpretation of the Islamic message. However she has in later years come to see this claim for social justice and gender inclusiveness in a broad perspective, and she strives now not only for the female voice but also for diversity of sexual orientations. Thus, in Wadud’s work the religious and the political interplays, although in ways different from various forms of Islamism with political power as an explicit program. To reach her position Wadud has had to engage critically with Islamic traditions, and intellectually her main challenge has been to do so without compromising her fundamental conviction of the Divine nature of the Qurʾan. At the core of her work is thus her hermeneutic approach to this textual basis of Islam.

In 1992 a small book authored by Amina Wadud was published at the Malaysian branch of Oxford University Press. Wadud was at the time assistant professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia. Inaugurated as late as in 1983 and from the early 90-ties beautifully located in the lush greenery green in Gombak at outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, IIUM was a very ambitious academic institution. It had opened in the spirit of the Islamization of knowledge-program formulated among others by the Malaysian scholar Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas.

But it was not in this academic environment Amina Wadud found her main platform for developing ideas. Parallel to her work at the university, she participated in and led a series of study circles with a group of lawyers, journalists and other female professionals in Malaysia. The starting point for this group of concerned citizens and Muslims was the question: If God is just, and Islam seeks justice, how come there is so much unjust politics in the name of Islam?

This was exactly the same question Wadud had grappled with when facing social problems among Muslims, both in America and in the Arab and Muslim world. While the women in the group Sisters in islam, had been reluctant to engage with the Qurʾanic text directly, this was exactly what Wadud, who with her degree in Islamic Studies had training in Arabic, theology and textual hermeneutics studied, had done. Her contribution therefore became important in the discussions that took place both in the group, and eventually in debates around the world. Her voice came to be central in the movement that has been called Islamic feminism, where the basic idea is that equality between women and men is not an imported mindset but a central idea in the Islamic message and the Qurʾanic text.

The group aimed at spreading their new questions and readings outside of the inner circles of the members, and their activities took the form of an on-going series of writings and interventions into the public sphere, starting with the two pamphlets:  Are Women and Men equal before Allah? (1991) and Are Muslims allowed to beat their wifes? (1991).

With the book Qur’an and Woman. Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (first published 1992), a more comprehensive methodological and theological basis for the gender inclusive reading of the Qurʾan was formulated. The book is based on Wadud’s PhD thesis from the University of Michigan. Her original plan had been to unearth the Qurʾanic notions on gender and on femininity, freed of a centuries old tradition she saw as completely entrenched in a patriarchal mindset. According to Wadud this patriarchal mindset is not intrinsic to the Qurʾan, but is a result from a history of reading the text through patriarchal lenses.


In other words, Wadud distinguished between the text and the reading of the text, and her ambition was to contribute a reading on her own, a new reading meaningful for women in our time. In order to do this she had to develop a method and a hermeneutic approach. She adopted several of the traditional techniques for textual analysis, but she construed them in her own way and she included explicitly her own personal experiences in the hermeneutical endeavour in order to bring forth a new voice about the text as well as in the text. Not only a female voice, but the voice of someone starting from an underprivileged position in terms of gender, race and socio-economic situation, and as a convert to Islam and later on as a single breadwinning mother.

In this reading Wadud put particular emphasis on three analytical principles. Firstly she took the linguistic expression as her starting point. Although she acknowledged the dilemma of language as an imperfect tool to grasp the metaphysical truths, she insisted on the liberating potential of language. In her opinion, her outsider position in terms of the language enabled her to spot elements people absorbed in the traditions would overlook, and this enabled her to relate to the Qurʾanic language freed from the culturally grounded implications accumulated over time. For instance she notices the distinction between grammatical and biological gender, with the implication that the text should not be read with the traditional form of gendered reference. One of her telling examples is that when the text tells about the first individual to be created (4:1), it does so with a grammatically female word: nafs.

Secondly, the text must according to Wadud be read historically. The reader has to take into consideration both the historical context of revelation and the historical development of the message in the chronology of the revelation. One example is the passages describing the rewards and delights of Paradise. In early revelations one of these delights is described with the word ḥūr, which alludes to ancient notions among the Arabs of sensual figures. Later, when Islam is established, the gender neutral word zawj is used to describe these blessed partners of Paradise. Yet, on a third and more spiritually matured level, the highest reward is described as closeness to God.

Finally, the Quʾan has to be approached as a unified whole. The main idea in the text is the unity of God (tawḥīd), and as this idea pervades the text it should pervade the method for approaching and interpreting the text. This hermeneutics of tawḥīd is necessary in order to overcome the limitations of the atomistic approach of most traditional exegesis. At the same time there are different levels in the text, and part of this hermeneutics is to address the dynamic between the Qurʾanic universals and particulars. Some passages and ideas in the text must be understood to be universal, and will therefore set the premises as hermeneutical keys for the general interpretation. Other passages must be understood as particular and relevant to some historical contexts and concrete circumstances only. In this Wadud took inspiration from Fazlur Rahman and his double movement methodology: To understand the implications of the Qurʾanic message in the original context in order to determine the meaning and implications of the same message in other contexts. (Rahman 1982).

Qurʾan and Woman was first printed locally in Malaysia, but was later on published for the global market. It has been translated into a number of languages, although it has had its impact first and foremost in the English-speaking global discourse. In contemporary debate on Islam and gender or on contemporary Qurʾanic exegesis, the name Amina Wadud is an obvious reference.

Wadud’s work has both inspired and caused controversy. Her analytical perspectives and hermeneutic methods has been used, further developed and not least analysed and discussed. The festschrift A Jihad for Justice: Honoring the Work and Life of Amina Wadud (2012) brings together both scholars and activists who have in different ways been inspired by her work, and numerous articles and student assignments discuss her work. The main controversy arose over her leading a public mixed-gender Friday prayer in 2005. This action prompted condemnation as well as support, and spurred a continuous debate on the historical and theological basis for male liturgical leadership.

In terms of her hermeneutics, critics have particularly taken two positions: some holds her to assign the Qurʾan too little authority (and herself too much), others think she has assigned the Qurʾan too much authority (and herself too little). Both debates revolve around the reader attitude towards the authoritative text, and an underlying issue is who is granted the interpretational privilege.

It may be argued that while Wadud discusses the revelation context as well as the historical context of later interpretations, the interpretations born out of the contemporary context is to a lesser degree problematized in her work. In her understanding of the Qurʾan, a set of verses constitute an egalitarian trend, while other verses indicate a more hierarchical social order, and the tension is attempted solved by attributing verses different status and different explanations. But why, one may ask, should the egalitarian trend in the text be proposed as universal, while the hierarchical is held to be particulate? What is read out of the text, and what is read into it? On the other hand, could the apparent tensions in the text be insolvable – but also fertile?

Although Wadud has interpreted some of the more bigoted criticism as the expressions of a narrow-minded and patriarchal culture where men not only are granted authority but also enjoy the right to freely present their ideas-in-progress, criticism has also helped evolve the ideas further. She has maintained her intent to develop a hermeneutics based on the premise of the immutability of the Qurʾān. However, in the book Inside the Gender Jihad (2006) she argues for the necessity of intervention with the text; to not only talk about it but to talk with, and against it. She believes that the text itself instigate such interaction in order for the reader to formulate new ethical ideals in new circumstances, and that intrinsic textual resources are the best means to prevent the misuse of the text.


In Inside the Gender Jihad as well as in an article in the resent anthology Men in charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition (2015), Wadud advances a new ethical ideal. Her argument is that the fundamental principle of the unity of God must lead the believers to strive for equilibrium and reciprocity in their social relations. In defining these values as the Qurʾanic mandatory norm, Wadud argues that the text itself guides the weighting between egalitarian and hierarchical tendencies. As the abundant literature testifies to, the test case for interpretation of the Qur’an from a feminist position is the verse 4:34, traditionally understood to be granting male authority (qiwāma) over women (traditional and contemporary interpretations are recently summed up in Saeed 2014, Abu Bakr 2015). According to Wadud, using this verse as grounds for male authority over women rests of false premises. In addition to the hermeneutics of unity, she also draws on social experiences in her interpretation. In the traditional understanding male authority is based on his ability to provide for his family (economically). But, Wadud asks, what if this ability is taken away from him, or if the roles in the marriage is shifted by different circumstances? Wadud reads this verse historically and points out that what is described as a specific social structure in a specific context is not necessarily prescribed as the same social structure in other contexts.

This point demonstrates how Wadud has developed her method and thinking over the years. In Qur’an and Woman she interpreted this verse within the frames of a hierarchical order, but male dominion was downplayed in favour of male responsibility. But now she holds that it is no longer possible to maintain an ideal of male responsibility and recommends a much clearer break with the traditional thinking on this point. An ethics based in hierarchical structures and preconceived ideas about the distribution of authority must be replaced by an ethics based in values like equality, reciprocity and mutual responsibility. This is an ethics entrenched in the Qurʾanic morality, where every individual, male or female, is portrayed as a God’s agent or viceregent (khalīfa) on Earth with an individual responsibility towards. To Wadud, this ethics is also a platform for action.

Back in the early nineties, when still located in Malaysia, her contract at the IIUM was not renewed. To Wadud this decision was an example of ideology inferring with intellectual development and the academic pursue of creative thinking. Wadud returned to the US, took a position at the Virginia Commonwealth University and worked in academia at the same time as she continued and extended the network originally initiated with Sisters of Islam. After achieving full professorship, she chose to retire from regular academic practice and has since toured the world as an independent scholar, serving as visiting professor at several institutions and participating in a number of workshops and courses, not least in cooperation with the Musawah network which was born out of Sisters of Islam.

In spite of her increased focus on activism, Amina Wadud has not given up her belief in academic work as a set of rules of engagement or in academia as an institutional framework for knowledge production. She still believes in the value of the academic discipline when working with pressing issues, of the knowledge which comes out of this work and the authority and credibility academic knowledge and credentials may foster. However, she finds it disappointing that Islamic feminism has yet to make a location in the US academy. What she would do if she has a billion at hand? Found an institute.


Omaina Abu Bakr, ‘The Interpretative Legacy of Qiwamah as an Exegetical Construct’, in Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, ed. by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2015, pp. 44-64.

A Jihad for Justice: Honoring the Work and Life of Amina Wadud, ed. by Kecia Alim Juliane Hammer and Laury Silvers. E-book, Boston University, 2012).

Aysha A. Hidayatullah, Feminist Edges of the Qur’an. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Fazlur Rahman, Islam & modernity: Transformation of an intellectual tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Abdullah Saeed, Reading the Qurʾan in the Twenty-First Century: A Contextualist Approach. London; New York: Routledge, 2014.

Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1992) 1999.

Amina Wadud, ‘Towards a Qurʾanic Hermeneutics of Social Justice: Race, Class and Gender’, Journal of Law and Religion 12:1 (1995), pp. 37–50.

Amina Wadud, ‘Qurʾān, Gender and Interpretive possibilities’, Hawwa 2:3 (2004), pp. 317–336.

Amina Wadud, ‘Citizenship and faith’, in Women and citizenship: Studies, in Feminist Philosophy, ed. Marlyn Friedman. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 170–187.

Amina Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006.

Amina Wadud, ‘Islam Beyond Patriarchy Through Gender Inclusive Qur’anic Analysis’, in Wanted: Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family, ed. by Zainah Anwar. Selangor: Musawah, 2009, pp. 95–112.

Amina Wadud, ‘The Ethics of Tawhid over the Ethics of Qiwama’, in Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition Paperback, ed. by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2015, pp. 256–274.


This blogpost is based on an article in the newspaper Klassekampen August 19th 2015.