Ask me No Questions by amina wadud


amina 2014 - cropped

In some alternate universe I would have complete control of what becomes part of discourse about me and about my work.  In THIS universe, I just try to set some minimal standards even when it might sometimes not seem generous to the persons who send requests to interview me.  Must be some alignment of the stars that I’ve been inundated with requests of late, so I will share some of the “types” of request to ask you–my community at Feminism and Religion blog-sphere–what you make of these, or how better to respond? I seriously contend that all people deserve dignity even when this might clash with the dignity of another human being at times.

First, there are the curiosity seekers from the world of fast pace media sensationalism, perhaps in order to keep up with the latest, hippest media hype they rush in with their requests.  While they often include the deadline they are up against, they simultaneously ignore that I might be up against my own deadlines, or just LIVING my life.  I’m clear from way back…the kind of work I do is not well suited for the 30 second sound bites, one second for each of the 30+ years I’ve spent to develop coherent reconstruction of Islamic thought and practice, away from the dominant patriarchal paradigm developed during its classical period and maintained until today.  By the time I explain even that previous sentence my 30 seconds are up!

Next would be sincere but slightly naive students of modern Islamic thought, Islamic reform or Islamic feminism. At one end they define the parameters of their research problem or their term paper (also on deadline) and then they ask me for references, despite particular interests that may be slightly outside my area of expertise.  I usually think and sometimes reply: I am not a reference librarian.  At the other end are graduate students who have more detailed inquiry to make and thus send along complex questions each one, in my mind, deserving a mini-dissertation in order to do justice with.  I have to temper my desire to assist them with a realistic assessment of how long I can be at their disposal. It is not uncommon to answer one set of questions only to be sent another set.

Then there are questions indicating the bias of the questioner. I’d be so busy unpacking the location of the question to ever give it power over how my life’s work would be presented.  At the moment I have such questions from a “journalist and researcher”: “The origin of feminism is a humanist idea. Islam itself is justice. Why Islam is faced with a feminist approach?”  Even for questions poised in a yes no form, to respond without qualification would add to the problem of misrepresentation.

Some questioners contact me because they are experiencing moments of faith crisis.  I have no illusion that I am equipped to handle with compassion the angst of another human being. Still, I try to balance a sincere response from within the spiritual locus of Islamic thought, with a gentle recommendation about professional help or deeper spiritual counseling.

Oxford Union, the seat of serious formal debate located in one of the most concentrated intellectual centers in the modern world, sent me a request through my twitter account to engage in a debate next term on Islam and gender equality.  Then they ask me to DM them. Maybe, like me, you do not know that DM, or direct message, is like a private in box connected to your twitter account.  However, you can only DM someone if you follow them on twitter. I have almost 9000 followers but I am not tempted to follow more than the 30 or so, mostly news agencies and women’s groups.  So despite the prestige of OU, I’m not inclined to follow.  So I sent a reply tweet including my email address.  They sent a lengthier version of the request including a formal letter of invitation from the president.

To this letter I replied with my own set of logistical and other questions, about the detail formula of the debate and possible opponents.  No response, except to say the president himself must answer. He never did.  I guess the idea is you cannot question the questioner, you must just accept, because you were asked.

After giving an invited lecture at Auburn seminary, a journalist-friend tried to persuade me to allow for an interview, despite expressly indicating I was tired from the previous lecture, and wanted only to rest. She said, “but it’s the New York Times!”  I ask myself: in this world of public inquiry how to effectively and responsibly use the media while avoiding its imposition.

After the “prayer event” in 2005 I received about 60 requests for interviews in a single day.  I almost changed my address but in the usual fashion the fervor died down and so I finally agreed to 2 or 3 select interviews among them the Chronicle for Higher education.  All went well but even then as a closing question the interviewer said, everybody is interested in their 15 minutes of fame, weren’t you just a bit trying to get yourself some media attention?  The answer then and still now is, no.  I believe sharing information is crucial to transformation, and thus, for example I do blog here at FAR. But with all this work on epistemology I should, above many others, be able to distinguish between words that make a difference and a difference that can be unmade by words.

Yesterday, I did an interview here in Fribourg, Switzerland, for an on-line university journal.  These are part of the service to the hosting institution. It went well enough, but here’s the thing: even the one who gives the questions have the power over the results.  When can anyone ever really control what the outcome is?

Who decides what the depiction of my life’s work will be, me the questioned, or the ones who question me?

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.

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Categories: Academy, General, Islam, Politics, power, Women and Work

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13 replies

  1. You could try a Greta Garbo, “I vant to be alone.” This will increase your Islamic Feminist Mystique.

    You should express yourself in the way you want with the word count you want. You can try to manage your legacy now, but once you are dead, others will take over and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s in God’s hands.

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    • LOL! Believe me, I’ve tried the Garbo response on occasion.

      At my age, I think often enough about the posthumous legacy. I willingly surrender to the possibilities far greater and far less than what may occur while I am here to contend with such assertions now.

      But is has been my humble experience that I am already not in full control of it, so accept that even at this very moment it is in God’s hand.

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  2. Sounds like the discernment between a “teachable moment”, frivolous and superficial gawking, and lazy students! You impress me as a dedicated teacher so maybe each instance is a “teaching moment”, including teaching yourself loving care for your own needs. I don’t do a good job with this in my own life. Maybe it’s a life-long juggling act?

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  3. It sounds to me like you’re making correct decisions to be choosey about who you “talk” to via the social media and what questions you answer. You seem always to be respectful of other people, though I bet you get frustrated, but some of those other people obviously don’t respect you. I think you’re doing the right things. Hang in there! Get some rest.

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    • I honestly don’t think it is intended as disrespect. People are focused on their needs and can lose sight that other needs may be equally compelling even if contrary to their own.

      The person who asked the horribly biased questions apologized for the delay in sending them due to a flare up from kidney disease. English is not his first language and when he first contacted me I tried to caution some limits over his inquiry, to which he replied, I am not asking about your personal life. I am asking about Islam, gender and justice..or some such wording. To which I simply wrote THAT IS my life!

      In the end, I decided to send him a copy of the lecture I will be presenting here. I would have to do Islam and gender justice 101 to fairly answer his questions, but nothing I can do in response to them will change his bias. He has to do that on his own.

      The awful thing is not being able to be all things relative to all requests. Again, this is a lesson in humility as well as simple self care and the ever allusive “rest”!

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      • The words “kidney disease” jumped out for me. I wonder what his deeper questions are, and if he is looking in new areas for new understandings of the Holy One?
        Old social worker am I! :-)

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  4. Amina, The struggle you seem to be having is between having an impact with your work vs. making sure it’s the impact you desire. From your description you sound like you’re making good choices. Of course, how we’re received is not always in our hands, but often in the eyes of the beholder or the ears of the hearer. And then there’s the editing function that’s not in our hands. Trust is necessary in that case, and it seems you try to vet your editors when you can.

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  5. I don’t know, should I be jealous that you get asked questions and I don’t, or happy that I don’t. It does irritate me too when students ask me questions they could have found out the answers to through research, but maybe that is because I would never have dared to interrupt the life of the person I was writing about, even when I was a professor.

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  6. You know what they say about the greener grass?

    I have also had the fortune of making some astounding contacts through the questioner moving beyond the one direction. But I think when you are a member of a tradition that is based on authoritative sources people tend to want to defer responsibility to “experts”.

    It’s fun to get people to become more self reliant agents in their own lives. When it works out, it’s great and they understand. It’s been so long since I have had the peace of not being asked I don’t know how I would behave if it were to stop at some point.

    I’m not a fan of media but am reminded by others there is a way to use it beneficially. I’m just not very good at that skill. LOL

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  7. Now that my presentation is done and I gave out my email address (I have no business cards as an anarchist, so I “think” I have greater control) to 4-5 more people, I awake with a new consideration on this matter.

    WHY do I even feel the need to “control” what other people think, say or feel about my work? Maybe I’ve gone about this with the wrong emphasis and it is this deeper self introspection that is needed.

    I will definitely work more on the reasons I might even feel I should struggle to be in charge of every aspect of my legacy, now and in the future. Doesn’t that seem slightly arrogant after all?

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  8. Respected Madam Amina Wadud,

    In today’s world, the enmity is being done with ‘Muhammad as a personality’. The foundation lesson of Muhammad is “La Ilaha Illallah Muhammad Rasool Allah”, all the people even today they understand this. In today’s world, Judge and wise personalities are existing many, who are aware that ‘how the peace will be established in the world from this lesson’. Mecca’s Ismaili Musalmans, who were having the faith and belief on the sky where ‘Heaven, Hell and Allah as a personality are existing’. They believed voluptuousness and tyranny as legal. They were believing ‘marriage of the below age girls’ as legal. They kept the faith like “the girl of twenty one year became the grandmother”. They were copulating with any women to whom they wish. Banu Hashim were feeling very bad due to their characters. They were thinking that ‘how to correct them and do their improvement’. They were the administrators of Kaaba. The Lunger of Sareed was in force for the pilgrim’s and for the poor people. On the basis of these worries only, the birth of Sallam Ahmad came into existence. He was brought up with good education. He became famous as Sadique and Ameen due to his talks, deeds and characters. When his highness put forth the Kalmah before the rich and learned people of Mecca to correct and improve the community, they strongly did the opposition but they have no answer for it. They accepted Sallam Ahmad as Muhammad that “his talks, deeds and characters are excellent” and Keen.

    This information is useful for reconstruction of Islamic thoughts and practice.

    With Regards

    Wasim Ahmed
    Maharashtra. India
    wasim_j@rediffmail.com

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