Canada: Amina Wadud lecture disrupted in Canada

Muslim WakeUp!
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 Islam."

"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 marriage.

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 Muslim population.

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 fluency."

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 superiority.

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.

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