“Papa Don’t Preach”: TED-like Talks at Malmo Nordic Women’s Forum May 2014

amina 2014 - croppedWhen I was a little girl, I used to be afraid. I was afraid of the dark. I was afraid of thunderstorms. I remember once cowering on the floor in the back seat of the car waiting for my dad to come take us home. My dad, who was a Methodist Minister, was too busy talking about God to really notice my reaction to being there in the back seat of the car during that terrible storm. Instead, he just kept busy, talking about God to other grown ups—talking in a way I did not understand, or found incredibly boring and long winded, sometimes even just a little frightening.

But Thunderstorms filled in a gap I did not know I had. A gap between my tiny self and the awesome Reality I have since come to know in a very different way. So when I would hear thunder, I thought of it as coming from God. I would begin this conversation with the Awesomeness of It asking moral questions: you know about good and bad. The thunder would seem to provide direct answers. Was that the voice of God?

Isn’t that how so many people think of God: an awesome and overwhelming omnipotent presence—with a voice that roars?

One dark night, during another storm, maybe my father heard me crying. He sat me on his lap and told me, in his quiet voice, how God had promised He would never again destroy the world by water. The sign of this promise, he said to me, was the Rainbow… the place where water, light and power combine to show color and beauty. That was my first experience of transcendence. From that time forward I would seek that loving nurturing experience of the Ultimate.

Fast forward from those days by over half a century and what I will share with you here in the few minutes allotted to me, is the self-same girl now speaking in a woman’s voice, through a woman’s mind, body and spirit. (for) I am the same; and yet—not the same. Today, I am Muslim. I chose Islam, after practicing the religion of my father contemplating the roaring voice of God, believing in the nurturing lap of serenity, then practicing Buddhism, learning to embrace silence and God. Today, the matter of “voice” figures centrally in the work I do and the women and men I work with and for.

Now I listen for that
of God

Learning to hear that voice did not really take a cataclysmic event but came through slow and steady change which was yet radical and complete.

As a child, I preferred to curl up with a book than play with the other children. I was not so much interested in the story-lines: saved damsels and brave handsome knights, but in words…words that spilled out from the pages and brought me into a realm both different from and yet intimately aligned with my own world.

Although I date my embrace by Islam from a cold day in November, 1972—the US Thanksgiving holiday in fact—when I made the declaration of faith called Shahahdah, in a small mosque in Washington, DC., the place of my deep turning, the turning of my heart came later, when I was given my first copy of the Islamic sacred text, the Qur’an.

Reading it whisked me off to that same old place of word-fascination and meaning-making, constructing the world in a line or a phrase. I have dedicated over four decades, my entire professional career—to mastering all that stood between me and understanding the Qur’an, starting with the Arabic language of its revelation and on to the related sciences and disciplines, pre-requisites to locating the text in both its historical place of revelation and its transcendent telling of divine truth.

When I began my Ph.D. studies I would discover something important about women and meaning making with regard to the Qur’an. Despite centuries of near complete consensus amongst Muslims about the significance of this book, and despite centuries of countless words written about the text, we had no record of women’s voices regarding textual meaning. That’s right, no female exegetes (or mufassirah), and no traces even of an informal personal conversation between female saints and mystics and this text.

Now, let me say this, lest you think otherwise, there is no restriction against women learning or constructing meaning. On the contrary, in fact, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, has said, “seeking knowledge is (like) a religious duty, incumbent upon every Muslim male and Muslim female”. That’s right, he was specific, “Muslim wa Muslimah”: male and female. He also said, “seek knowledge even as far as China”, which in those days was like the furthest distance of the known world.

So although many women memorized the text and memorized Prophetic sayings or ahadith, and while today many women still memorize it, if for no other reason than to fulfill the required prayers formulas, we just don’t have a record of women’s responses to what the text means until recently. Meanwhile, we have thousands and thousands of pages written by men.

It seemed to me, when I first learned this, that maybe, just maybe there might be some things about the text that we have not yet understood, because after all, the text speaks in a woman’s voice. For example, Mary, the mother of Jesus, speaks eloquently when she is in labor. She says (in Arabic) “Oh woe is me, would that I had died before this, and not only been forgotten, but (be so long gone that it does) not (even make) a memory.”

Who would understand that cry better than one who has also delivered up a new life from under her heart into the waiting world, a woman?

So what we have been doing and what I will talk about later this evening is the ways that women KNOW Islam and create Islam as we live it. Nothing more is needed, no expertise, no characterization of good or bad, just BE-ing Muslim and BE-ing engaged in living Islam. That makes us authorities constructing Islam AS we live it.

In particular, think about this: most of what the popular media tells us about Islam comes from men. Not just what men think and assert themselves as authority over, but what men do: the good and the bad. Including what they do to women and what they think about women. We are changing that script and to do so, we not only challenge authority, we create our own authority as an affirmation of our experiences. We also assert our interpretation of texts and canon. We create new meaning. We challenge any policy or any practice that does not allow us the space and freedom to define Islam according to our lived realities and then we keep on living. We call this a movement towards MUSAWAH, which means equality and reciprocity.

And you know something else: we are all different. That difference I will talk about in detail this evening. The purpose of this short talk was simply to remind you and me, that no longer will history record the silence of Muslim women about the meaning of Islam because from a still small voice, we have spoken.

Will you listen?

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.

Categories: Activism, General, Islam, Qur'an, Qur'an and women, Women and Scholarship

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10 replies

  1. There are echoes of what you write here in Judith Plaskow’s understanding of women’s agency in creating the Judaism of the present and future. She says Jewish women can stand again at Sinai and hear the voice of God … in other words not only interpretations of the texts (the Torah), but the texts (Bible, Torah, Koran) themselves must and may be questioned, since women did not write the texts. Would you agree?


  2. Beautiful! Thank you for quoting the passage where Mary cries out.


  3. Brava! I hope you and women like you will indeed change the patriarchal script and tell us about how women experience a religion that right now–and hopefully only temporarily–wears the face of the Taliban and similar extremist, misogynist militants. We need to hear the words of women like you. Please continue to speak.


  4. Reblogged this on Lead Me On and commented:
    This gentle, wise scholar and leader weighs in on the patriarchal script against women’s education:
    “Now, let me say this, lest you think otherwise, there is no restriction against women learning or constructing meaning. On the contrary, in fact, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, has said, “seeking knowledge is (like) a religious duty, incumbent upon every Muslim male and Muslim female”. That’s right, he was specific, “Muslim wa Muslimah”: male and female. He also said, “seek knowledge even as far as China”, which in those days was like the furthest distance of the known world.”


  5. Although not Muslim, I’ll listen to a woman speak about it. Gladly.


  6. That thunderstorm was your scripture, perhaps, your teacher, better than any text written down could serve as scripture. There you learned the awesome power of nature as a name for God. When I was maybe four years old, I was in the back seat, looking out a car window, during a rainstorm, and I saw each droplet, reflecting light, one after another running down the outside of the glass. I thought it was the most miraculous, fantastic sight I alone could see, some deep, deep secret that had been given me, just me, somehow, making my child self feel loved and very special.


  7. Great post, Amina! I’m curious, what led you to become Muslim?


  8. Thank you for your comments. I have spotty Internet where I am at the moment awaiting the birth if my grand child, any day now. I only wanted to point out, that in preparing for this talk, on the main stage of a forum that boasted 7-11 thousand participants, I was also told I needed to provide the speech earlier to assist with the sign language interpreter. Now, my wanting to accommodate this modest request challenged my tendency to speak from the heart when it comes to such a short time slit, we were given 7-10 minutes. This would have also allowed me to know what type of audience, since I would have had time to interact before this particular program by 2 days.

    Instead, I decided to compose my thought completely and to speak both to the lowest denomination relative to knowledge about Islam and Islamic feminism while still speaking from my heart. This was the result.

    The most pleasant surprise was that all of the other women who spoke from different traditions also spoke about the RELATIONSHIP with the Divine and the heart as the instrument. It all came together although we none of us knew each other before nor mostly saw each other ever again. I loved the synchronicity of the spirit.

    Since I got to follow with two other sessions including a longer presentation of a more academic detailed focus, this turned out to be, just what I would say if some one gave me a time limit on my life work.

    Thanks again. Blessed be


  9. Thank you for this, Amina. Perhaps because I was taught religion initially by my mother, perhaps just because of my awareness that I am getting only half the story of my Islamic faith, I have been near obsessed with getting the female perspective of Islam. That quote of the Quran on Mary is so relevant to the issue of women in Islam, for it is an incredible instance of Allah praising a woman fully and without bounds for what He has praised men for, namely being devout, righteous, dedicated to the worship and reliant on Him beyond and for everything. Reading that sura leaves me aware of the fact that Jesus’ greatness relies on, and is so much bound to Mary’s greatness. Additionally, the respect she is given in those passages is so great as to be overwhelming, and it is obvious that even her mentor, Zakaryia, is given a back seat to her, as she reveals to him something about the reality of God that he obviously did not know.
    It is known that the Prophet AS routinely told people to ask Aisha about their faith, saying “Ask this red woman over there (for her complexion), for she knows much about your religion”, and she was not shy about challenging his public religious statements, along with those of the other companions. As a follower of the maliki school of sunni Islam, i am also aware that most of the knowledge that came to Imam Malik and later informed his school, came from scholars who were directly or indirectly taught by Aisha.
    I have yet to read an Islamic scholar whose views on women weren’t informed by his times, and unfortunately, that is the legacy of patriarchal culture that informs the religion still, and it is so obvious to me when I ask mom about her female view of a certain religious practice or QUranic passage, and she gives me the stock male view. Then again she was taught by men.
    I am praying for a healthy, safe, blessed birth, and that your grandchild be an asset to his family and to humanity as a whole.


  10. Amina — Thank you for giving us this window into your spiritual journey, especially the inspiring feminist motivations for your in-depth study of Islam. Yay!


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