As I am transiting back into America from Asia, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela made his final transition from our collective human lives to the next dominion. (I mention my transition only to apologize for not continuing with the third installment on Vipassana; sometimes real life—or death –gets in the way).
Instead, I want to say a few words about the man President Obama referred to as “the last great hero of the 20th Century.” First the personal glimpse: I got to shake hands with Mandela when he included Malaysia among those countries he visited upon release from a 27 year prison term. It was 1991 and I felt the wind of change. In a small country like Malaysia it’s easier to get up close and personal with a national guest of this stature. No big deal (but I did tell my friends I wouldn’t wash my hand for a week!).
The beginnings of my own deep considerations about gender in Islam were under way at this same time and in fact got their biggest boost when I visited South Africa for the first time. The whole nation was marking 100 days in the Mandela presidency. Every fiber in the air sparkled with the intensity of change. I became friends with South African Muslims who had struggled side by side with comrades from all races and religions in the movement to tumble apartheid. Sometimes they’d had to stand against conservative members of their own Muslim community to form such alliances.
The phrase, “gender jihad”–which bridges Islamic terminology for struggle, resistance and justice was first articulated by South African Muslims (as was “economic jihad” in concert with the racial struggle against apartheid). Theirs was also the nascent movement for inclusion for persons of diverse sexual orientations. This radical intersectionality of oppressions and move towards inclusiveness is enshrined in the S.A. Constitution: “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”
Here was the first time I had even thought about a woman as imam when I accepted an invitation to give a sermon at a Friday service in Capetown. It was 1994, and there was no turning back. As a black American woman of African origins, to be in South Africa at that particular time exploded my view of the world into a kaleidoscope of possibilities that would never again return to mono-chrome.
So I was struck hard by the return of Mandela to the Beloved. I had no patience with certain Muslim “scholars” who asserted that while Mr. Mandela was a great man, because he was not a Muslim he must be considered an unbeliever/ kafir, and thus destined for hell (yes, people actually said this!). In Malaysia, a general fatwa was issued saying it was haram (an act of grievous sinfulness) to even say “Rest in Peace” over any person who was not Muslim.
There were of course several responses to such, especially as far as the specific man, Tata (Father) Madiba (a title of high esteem for a member in his tribe). Most simply ignored it, and continued to mourn his death and celebrate his life. Some, including Dr. Tariq Ramadan, gave a general apologetic speech about tolerance. With the reminder that none of us knows our final abode, so we should remain humble.
A friend of mine responded to a similar accusation in the Netherlands by reviewing the lengthy Islamic intellectual tradition about the nature of belief. None of us know our final abode, but we should know this: “islam” is not merely an ethnicity, a history, cultures, a set of practices, peoples and dogmas. It is described in the Qur’an as the highest order of the entire universe. All of nature is Muslim. All of nature “surrenders” to the beauty and harmony of the universe. When some say, Islam means peace, they refer to the peace of living in accordance to the highest order of the universe.
The highest order of the universe is al-Haqq (absolute Truth). Thus, to be a believer, one must stand up for Truth…no matter the consequences. It is abundantly clear that Truth must be wedded to Justice, that attribute which is an obligation upon God/Allah and which today we understand cannot exist without equality. Thus, the primary characteristic of a believer is to stand for truth, justice and equality making Mr. Mandela the most stellar Believer. For even when his persecution (in the form of imprisonment) was over, he embraced his jailers as only equals before the constitution of the New South Africa. The Islamic paradigm of belief requires an affirmation of the harmony and unity of all things, but especially between human beings. “Thus the rejection of tyranny is by itself a reflection of belief”. Belief exemplifies the highest order of human decency without which no religion can survive.
Because I take this great legacy to heart and not just for work or ethics, I share my 4 grandchildren with other grandparents who are Muslim, African-American, Polish Jewish immigrants to Canada, Native American, Christian, Latino, white and even a Grammy award winning musician of dual citizenship. Diversity of race and religion is not optional, it is mandatory in my life. So, my response to the claims that Mandela was going to hell was much simpler: If where he is going is hell…I’d rather join him there than spend an eternity with those Muslim “scholars” who spoke out against him.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.