Amina Wadud: Saying "No to the Qur'an" when one disagrees with it
She did not agree with the Qur'an for cutting off the hands of thieves
Amina Wadud, Professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University
and author of Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's
Perspective, was speaking as part of a series sponsored by York University and
the Noor Cultural Centre.
Wadud's reputation preceded her, resulting in standing room only in Toronto's
most progressive mosque, the only place in Canada where men and women pray
side-by-side in separate enclosures.
Midway through her speech titled "The Qur'an, Women and Interpretive
Possibilities," Wadud waded into the minefield by addressing some difficult
passages of the Qur'an. Breaking the ultimate taboo in the Muslim narrative,
she stated that despite the fact the Qur'an explicitly asks for cutting off the
hands of thieves, she did not agree with the Qur'an. She said she understood
that this was a very difficult subject to talk about, but she would be
dishonest to herself if she did not express her views.
She maintained that as a Muslim with Allah close to her heart, in all honesty
she could not continue with the hypocrisy of lying about how she felt about
some verses of the Qur'an.
The basis of her talk was "How to be God's agent (khalifa) on Earth; to be a
moral agent of the Creator." In this context, she presented four ways of
looking at Qu'ranic verses which Muslims find difficulty dealing with. She
identified the four methods as: (1) The literal readings of the text, (2) The
legalistic arguments that constrain how verses are applied, (3)
Reinterpretation from alternative perspectives, and (4) Saying "No to the
Qur'an" when one disagrees with it.
Pursuing the last point, she declared that she could not intellectually or
spiritually accept some things in the Qur'an, for example some of the hudud
punishments like the cutting of hands or the permission to beat one's wife. She
made it clear that she was denying neither the religion nor the revelation. "It
is the Qur'an," she said, "that gives me the means to say no to the Qur'an."
However, many in the audience were completely unprepared for her honesty.
She had barely finished her talk when a long line of people lined up at the
microphone to ask questions. One woman, who identified herself as a professor
of Arabic Language at a Toronto University, took the mike and started
lambasting Wadud, suggesting that she had come to her conclusion because she
did not understand Arabic and that she had misread the Qur'an, saying, "You
know only one verse of the Qur'an." Instead of a question, Wadud was subjected
to a rant that was largely incomprehensible. The professor continued, accusing
Wadud of supporting illicit sex, when Wadud had made no such reference.
"That is the most idiotic nonsense I have ever heard," Wadud replied.
When Amina Wadud referred to the 9/11 tragedy and the fact that some Muslims
deemed it Islamic to crash planes into buildings and kill innocent people, a
section of the crowd interrupted her. "What about Israel killing Palestinians,"
they yelled. One middle-aged heckler said, "She is a CIA agent." Other men and
women lined up at the mike to accuse her of all sorts of things.
Another man, angered by Wadud's 9/11 remark, came to the mike and lectured Her.
"Let me remind you that no Muslim was involved in the 9/11 attack." Wadud did
not dignify his remark with a response.
One young man, with his oversized shirt hanging out, mimicking a rapper, took
the mike out of its stand, twirled around, and started addressing the audience,
with his back towards Wadud, accusing her of not knowing the Qur'an.
Wadud responded to this outrageous display of rudeness by intervening and
saying, "This young man is uncomfortable with what I have said and so instead
of asking a question, he wishes to give a speech... why don't you come up on
the stage and I will go and sit in the crowd." Then she stepped down from the
podium and asked the young man to take her place, which he did. Holding the
mike in his hand, he harangued her and said she did not know enough about Islam.
One questioner apologized to Wadud for the rudeness of some members of the
audience, suggesting very few Muslim men had ever seen or heard an African
American woman in charge and in command. She responded that as a black woman,
she knew what it is to have one's views rejected, she thundered to an applause
that started with a few hesitant claps and then rolled across the hall.
Every time she used "nigger" to describe herself, most of the lighter skinned
members of the audience became visibly disturbed, squirming in their chairs,
perhaps uncomfortable at how she was destroying their middle class comfort zone.
When an Indian man told Wadud that he understood racism, she replied, "No you
don't understand. You are not Black; you don't know what it is to be Black."
Addressing Wadud, a woman with peroxide blonde hair and hip hugging jeans said,
"Even though I am not a practicing Muslim, I believe you do not know proper
"Your response is not new to me," Wadud replied. "When I wear a hijab, I don't
look African and my words are measured with politeness; however, when my hijab
is not covering my hair, I become Black and my words lose all value."
The straw that broke the camel's back came when Wadud, answering a question,
criticized Canada's proposed Shariah laws and expressed support for same-sex
A deeply troubling aspect of the audience's reaction was that it was clearly
divided along ethnic lines. Arabs largely behaved as one group heckling her,
while South Asians bandied together in supporting her. The few white Muslims
stuck quietly with each other. And in a telling indication of the profound
divisions within the community, it appeared that Wadud may have been the only
African in the room, although Africans account for about a quarter of Toronto's
Ahmed Bayoumi, an Egyptian-Canadian Physician who sat through the entire
lecture, reacting to the heckling said, "I find it fascinating that people
would question Wadud's ability to speak Arabic because she has moved from an
interpretative understanding of the Qur'an to a literalist one. The argument
seems to be that if she can explain away troublesome verses by resorting to
nuance or obscurantism, her Arabic must be fine, but if she accepts the
meanings of the text at face value, well she must have lost her previous
Describing Amina Wadud's lecture as "revolutionary and liberating," Bayoumi
said, "I think Wadud is absolutely right. It's wonderful if you can live with
legalistic or interpretive explanations. I cannot. It was liberating for me to
hear somebody of Amina Wadud's stature say that she also cannot, not as an
excuse for wanting to perform bad acts, but from a perspective of trying to be
a true moral being and God's agent."
The knee-jerk reaction to being reminded of our internalized racism is
predictable: complete denial. Racism governs our behavior, yet we are oblivious
to our own prejudices and tribalism. With noted exceptions, I saw this in
action on Sunday. I heard repeatedly from Arabs in the audience that Amina
Wadud does not understand Arabic. Instead of debating the merits of her
argument, many invoked and sought refuge in their ethnic and linguistic
Then there is the predictable reaction towards converts. If the converts are
white, all of us, Arabs and South Asians, simply go complete gaga, but if we
run into Black converts, we treat them at best in a condescending manner with
barely concealed disrespect, as demonstrated Sunday night in Toronto.
Abbas Syed, an Indo-Canadian who witnessed the entire episode summed it best.
"When a white person converts to Islam, we try to make him the Imam of the
mosque. But when a Black woman converts to Islam, we expect her to run the
mosque day care for children during Jum'a prayers. Amina should have worn the
Hijab; people would have mistaken her for a dark Pakistani."
Tarek Fatah is host of the weekly TV show, "The Muslim Chronicle" that runs on
CTS-TV in Canada and Bridges TV in the US. He is a member of the Board of
Directors of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America.
Copyright © 2003-2005 Muslim WakeUp! Inc.
Submitted on 02/18/2005
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