“We have to look for equality. We cannot get confused. Equity means to the complementary. It is like a man who wears an unfinished dress.” Author of Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (1999) and Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (2006), in 2007 Wadud was awarded the Danish Democracy Prize. “Peace and Justice are still far from being achieved. This is the dream of my life” she concludes, revealing that this is why she loves the South African national anthem. “It is all about peace and freedom.”
From a Methodist Afro-American family to your conversion to Islam. How did it happen?
My father was a Methodist minister and he always talked to me about the importance of independent choice. He often stressed the relevance of the relation between religion and justice. He was the one who inspired me to study other religions. I became a Muslim in 1972, but before that I was practicing Buddhism. Travelling all over the world, I discover the existence of different faiths and the relations they have. When I started reading about Islam, I felt that this religion has an important sense and relation with the universe.
Some might say it must be hard enough to be African-American in U.S. society, why add Islam as an additional oddity or difficulty or burden?
This is just a way to look at it. There is another way. If you take statistics, you find out that Afro-Americans form 44% of Muslims in the US. The majority are converts. Islam appeals to U.S. families, because it calls for a defense of justice. When I was 11-years-old, my father took me to Martin Luther King’s march in Washington. At that time, the idea that religion and justice cannot be divided started to circulate. The relationship between God and justice is more articulated in Islam. This is one of the reasons why Islam had such great appeal to me.
Which is the relationship between Afro-American and Muslim communities in the U.S.?
In the U.S., we have certain religious rights, which means that it is possible within the context of civil society to belong to different religions . There is an important African-American Muslim community too. They have been attracted to Islam’s equality, especially racial equality and economic equality. The majority of African-Americans are Christians and Islam was the first important transformation for this section of U.S. society. For the first time in their history, Afro-Americans practiced a religion different from Christianity. Now we have Buddhists, Hindus and a lot of other religions.
Why did you decide to focus your research on women’s role in Islam?
The more I studied the more I understood that the Muslim community was not living as taught in the Quran. I started to ask myself which of the two ways of living was true. I wanted to better understand women’s role in Islam. I did not want to just observe Muslims’ practicing gender relations.
When and why did you decide to lead mixed gender prayers?
In 1994, I was attending a conference in South Africa and I was invited to give a qutba, (the Friday sermon) in Cape Town. Both those who invited me and I knew that this was a landmark event because it could change the idea of Islamic leadership. From that moment, I spent ten years doing research, in order to better understand how women could become prayer leaders. Over the years, I understood the importance of equality in Islam. This is the reason why, in 2005, I accepted the invitation to lead a mixed prayer in the Synod House, New York. I wanted to prove that human beings are on an horizontal line of reciprocity, that means that there is no role that is fixed by gender unless determined by biology. The Quran never says that the imam cannot be a woman and must be a man. Whenever there is a difference in the ijtihad (interpretation) of the Holy Books we have to use our intelligence to understand the real meaning of Islam.
How did it change your life?
The first change was that I gained visibility even though I am a private person. I tried to refuse all sensationalist interviews for a long time, and I retired from university. All this caused me a great deal of conflict. There was also the reaction of extremist Islamists, but these were not determining factors for my faith or my actions. As a scholar working for women’s full inclusion in Islam, there was opposition, but I did not stop. Extremist Islam represents a minority and it seems to be greater in number that it is.
Speaking about the extension of women’s rights, you often refer to radical pluralism. What does that mean?
I use radical pluralism to describe how in the Muslim community there is diversity of opinion. I also use this term to indicate the relationship the Muslim community must have with other communities. We have to share our world with different groups. We always see differences, but this does not mean that I can convince people to agree with me. Pluralism means that you have your opinion and you can die with your opinion even if it never becomes similar to mine. At the same time we are equal in rights and human rights. I also speak about musawa, reciprocal equality of treatment and opportunity. To this end we are working very hard on family law and on women’s position in society.
How do you combine your academic activity with your grassroots activism?
Islam says that we have to combine faith with good deeds. So what I am doing is nothing new. It has its roots in the Quran. According to Islam, if you believe in things, you have to do everything you can to achieve them. I take inspiration from Gandhi who said that you must be the change you wish to see in the world. Social justice, gender equality, love, mercy and reciprocity between women and men are the inspiration I received from the Quran and I will do everything I can to achieve this in the world.