Keeping the faith

Published: August 21, 2011

Miles away from the Islamic heartlands, a new movement for a contemporary interpretation of the Qur’an gathers adherents and condemnation in equal measure.
Miles away from the Islamic heartlands, a new movement for a contemporary interpretation of the Qur’an gathers adherents and condemnation in equal measure.
Miles away from the Islamic heartlands, a new movement for a contemporary interpretation of the Qur’an gathers adherents and condemnation in equal measure.

In a quiet leafy suburb of the peaceful city of Oxford, some 20 Muslims gather in a hall to say Friday prayers. As they trickle in, most of South Asian origin along with two Malaysians and a few white converts, the organisers busy themselves in the kitchen laying out cups and saucers, samosas and cakes for the congregation to eat after the khutba and prayers.

The event would not be unusual except for one small detail: a woman scholar is to lead the prayers. Amina Wadud, is an American Muslim theologian and (now retired) professor of Islamic Studies. She is the author of the groundbreaking book Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and a leading voice in what is coming to be known as ‘Islamic feminism’. A classically trained scholar, she shot into the media spotlight in 2005 when she led mixed gender prayers in New York leading to death threats and condemnation from conservative Muslims worldwide. There were protests in 2008 where she led prayers in Oxford but on this June day the event passes by peacefully.

Following a brief khutba, Wadud begins the namaz. In the mixed congregation, a group of four women, used to praying behind men, are encouraged to move forward and stand alongside them. Old habits die hard.

Afterwards, as we sip tea, a young student speaks to Amina Wadud about what an emotional experience the namaz was for her, about the isolation in which she practices her faith, and her eyes fill up with tears. “I am very confident that things are changing,” Wadud assures her and everyone nods with hope.

For the last decade, the dominant voice of Muslims in Britain has been the voice of the conservative, and at times extremist Muslims. Religious and so-called ‘community’ leaders who are male, socially conservative and orthodox in religious beliefs, have spoken as representatives of the ‘Muslim community’. In the last few years however a growing number of British Muslims are rejecting received wisdom, re-engaging with their faith, and re-examining the Quran from a contemporary, more culturally relevant context.

Published last month, Reading the Quran, a new book by writer and broadcaster Ziauddin Sardar, is the most recent addition to a growing scholarship which seeks to understand and derive contemporary relevance from the Holy Text. As well as analysing some individual verses of the Quran, Sardar examines themes that run through the Text and seeks answers to contemporary issues such as sex and society, the veil and polygamy and domestic violence.

“The main point I am making in the book,” says Sardar, “is that you cannot take a verse from the Quran and say ‘this is what it means’, out of context.” According to Sardar there are at least three kinds of context a reader needs to be aware of. The first is the historical context in which the verse was revealed “to see whether that verse has universal validity or whether it was specific to the context in which it was revealed.”

Second is the social context of the text. “The Quran was revealed to a specific people in a specific part of the world during a specific period of history,” he explains. “The social context of the society is very important. Verses concerning the role of women for example, cannot be interpreted out of that social context.”

Finally, there is the context of the person reading the text. It is essential, he argues, to keep in mind that you bring your own self to the text. The reader’s ethics, outlook and personal context changes his or her approach to the text.

The classical scholars brought their own context — their social and historical context as well as the state of knowledge at the time — to their interpretations, he argues. While their understanding is limited to their time it has been turned into a universal interpretation.

While not a classical scholar himself, Sardar draws upon the works of classically trained scholars and forcefully argues for each generation of Muslims to revisit the Text to discover its meaning anew. But can we revisit even that which is clearly written, given that it is the Word of God?

“If, as we believe, the Quran is the word of God,” he responds, “then you as a finite person interacting with the Infinite cannot have a complete understanding of the Infinite — you can only keep going back to the Infinite to learn more and more.”

Amina Wadud is one of the scholars upon whose works Sardar draws. In her latest book Inside the Gender Jihad she argues that the Quran contains certain overriding goals or ‘maqasid’ such as justice and equality and that we may reject what seem to be literal meanings if they go against one of the maqasid of the Quran. The Holy Book, she says, was revealed in a patriarchal society but has a “revolutionary and egalitarian trajectory” that must be followed through in every age.

A weekend conference in London drew Wadud and other renowned Islamic scholars, including the influential author Dr Khaled Abu Al Fadl, Professor of Islamic law at UCLA together with British scholars to discuss gender and Islam. The group organising the conference, Inspire, is one of several new women’s groups and consultancies promoting liberal Muslim values.

The last few years have also seen older organisations, such as the Muslim Institute and the Association of British Muslims, being revamped. Both of these are now clearly articulating bold, liberal interpretations of Islam.

For example, an answer to a question posted on the AOBM site regarding this phenomenon reads, “We should study and reflect as much as we are able…and not become overly reliant upon any particular scholars or groups. To err is human and the scholars are human. Each of these scholars also has a cultural background and has studied in particular cultural environments which may also affect their understanding of Islam.” The Muslim Institute is planning a quarterly magazine of ‘groundbreaking thinking on Islam’ called Critical Muslim.

No doubt it will take time for these ideas to trickle down to the streets. Yasmin Ishaq, one of the few women in the country to sit on a mosque committee is from a conservative Pakistani Muslim community in Rotherham. Impressed and excited by the ideas she heard at the Gender and Islam conference she was uncertain how much of it would directly inform her work. “We couldn’t take this straight back to the people at home,” she says. “It will have to be baby steps.”

The distance that needs to be crossed is illustrated by an incident in March this year when a khateeb at a conservative London mosque said in his Friday khutba that evolution was compatible with the Quran. All hell broke loose amongst the congregation as a vocal group declared him murtad (apostate), his leadership in prayers invalid, and demanded his dismissal. Even the mosque committee was split. The khateeb Dr Usama Hasan, himself an academic and contributor to national newspapers, retracted his statements and voluntarily suspended his role in leading Friday prayers.

“There is a lot of interest these days in Muslim scholarship and contextualisation of Islam,” says Dr Hasan, who continues to live under extra security arrangements, “but the mainstream is still dominated by literalist interpretations. What we are experiencing today is Islam’s reformation but it may take another 50 years before we see the change on the streets.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 21st,  2011.

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Reader Comments (24)

  • Aug 21, 2011 - 1:48PM

    Brilliant Piece. Tribune should highlight more about how religious interpretations have been manipulated over the years by the maulvi/mullahs! and they called it beyond our understanding to fathom Quran where as it is a book that was, is and will remain to be a guiding manual for any ordinary man.. we dont need no preacher to tell us abt our faith. faith comes from enlightening oneself through self study


  • Saif
    Aug 21, 2011 - 2:05PM

    @Taha S. Siddiqui:
    If your notion for self study was accurate, Allah wouldnt have sent Prophet Mohommad (PBUH) to preach his companions, the quran. In today’s world people do not want supervision in order to avoid restricting their ideologies and practices. The self study phenomenon is highly propagated and partially an excuse for some to get rid of islamic authority figures.
    The truth is that students of islam will always need preachers. The only job is to find the non-manipulative and unbiased one’s so as to avoid an extremist school of thought!


  • Aug 21, 2011 - 2:46PM

    “Islamic feminism” is an oxymoron. The Quran very specifically states that men are superior to women and considers a woman’s testimony in court half as valuable as a man’s (among other things). This is in complete contradiction to feminism which deals in equal rights and opportunities for people regardless of their gender.

    Muslim women like Amina Wadud love labelling themselves “feminists” because the title makes them sound more progressive, but very few are fully aware of what the feminist movement is about.


  • Khalid Rahim
    Aug 21, 2011 - 2:48PM

    @Taha S. Siddiqui: The Cleric has no place in Islam, And has imposed himself since after the Crusades. They have been more influential in South Asia because of the Legacy of the Priesthood of Christianity such as followed by papal sect, the Hindu system where the pundits dominate all advents of life. Why must we have a medium between us and our Creator? Who has gifted us the Mankind with Power of Thought and Reason that we have forgotten to use properly.Koran gives you insight to the past to help you in the present and to develop foresight for the future. The Messages of Allah can be translated and interpreted by mature scholars of religion who have other academic qualifications and need we follow the immature bigot with a beard and long tuft under the headgear?


  • Mj
    Aug 21, 2011 - 2:52PM

    “All hell broke loose amongst the congregation as a vocal group declared him murtad (apostate), his leadership in prayers invalid, and demanded his dismissal”


    “…says Dr Hasan, who continues to live under extra security arrangements,”

    Why are we so intolerant? I commend those who are striving to reinterpret the religious text to suit the zeitgeist of the 21st century.


  • Muhammad Rehan Zafar
    Aug 21, 2011 - 4:52PM

    We must study religion and revisit The Holy Quran to remove bidaa’t from religion and to seek guidence in case new problems or dynamics to a problem emerge. However, we CANNOT REINVENT religion for the sake of getting approval of non-relgious or ultra-liberal class.


  • Aug 21, 2011 - 6:07PM

    M.Rehan Zafar:
    “However, we CANNOT REINVENT religion for the sake of getting approval of non-relgious or ultra-liberal class.”

    Christians said the same thing when they were out burning witches and waging crusades. They did eventually realize that time and tide waits for no man, and in order to prosper, they had to distance themselves from the scripture itself and stop taking it literally. They had to evolve, and adjust to the new era.

    This wave of secularism obviously did them a world of good. It’s far too much of a coincidence that the most developed nations in the world today are all secular.


  • Irshad Khan
    Aug 21, 2011 - 8:53PM

    It is an eye opening article, still to be difficult to be digested by our Mullahs. Is it not Ijtehad and should discussed on our media on a regular basis.


  • Khalid Rahim
    Aug 21, 2011 - 9:13PM

    ” Aey Muslman! Apney dil seh pooch, mullah seh na pooch. Hogaya Allah ke band ohn seh
    kyun khale haram.
    Ajab nahi keh khuda tak teri rasai ho, teri niga seh hai poshida adami ka muqaam. Ter e nimaz meh baaqi na falak hai nahi jamal Teri aazzan meh nai mehri sehar ka paigham.”
    So spoke Allama Mohammad Iqbal to the self appointed guardians of Islam.
    Before his birth another great personality of Punjab Bulle Shah addressed the bigots with this saying;
    You have gone to mosque and temple.Have you ever visited your soul?
    You are busy fighting satan. Have you ever fought your ill-intentions?
    You have reached into the skies.But you have failed to reach whats in your heart!
    * God does not die on the day when we cease to believe a personal deity.But we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily of a wonder, the Source of which is beyond all reason—- Dag Hammarsjkold (Markings) I wonder how the Mullah will interpret these words?


  • Aug 22, 2011 - 9:54AM

    @Loneliberal PK: ‘The Quran very specifically states that men are superior to women and considers a woman’s testimony in court half as valuable as a man’s (among other things)’

    Wrong. Quran no where states men are superior to women. The only reference to men’s superiority in Quran is in respect of divorce when his intention of reconciliation for welfare of newborn would get preference (2:228). Even in this verse God is telling people that apart from this condition the rest of the rights are equal.

    A woman’s testimony is not half of a man. Read my post on it.


  • Aug 22, 2011 - 5:05PM

    Excellent piece and nice to know the Pakistani media is picking up on what The Association of British Muslims and other Muslim groups are doing despite the Mullahification of the mindset of people we will succeed Insha’Allah.

    As the Association of British Muslims we are developing more links with Muslim groups everywhere – not just in the United Kingdom – so we are happy to work with Pakistani groups also to share knowledge and expierences.

    Mohammed Abbasi
    Association of British Muslims


  • Sikozu Johnson
    Aug 22, 2011 - 5:28PM

    Why, exactly, is this article illustrated with a photo of a woman in a face-veil? O, right, because that’s how you illustrate every article on Islam.


  • Daayiee
    Aug 22, 2011 - 9:24PM

    Sardar is correct, we have to look at our world through these three lenses in order to bring them into focus for our times. Quran is for all of human kind for all of human time…thus, it must grow and develop as humankind grows and develops. So many are stuck on repeating actions of people long dead before us without clearly understanding their actions and their import for those times, which do not necessarily mean they are appropriate for our lives today. To pretend they do is to look backwards while moving forwards…you’re bound to trip yourself up and what results is anyone’s guess. This is not about the whisper and then silence, but it is about thinking and understanding to move us towards the justice and mercy Allah promises to all of us, both internally in our heats and minds and externally in the world.


  • Dodo
    Aug 22, 2011 - 10:18PM

    So then how do you explain Surah 4 (al-Nisa) Ayat 34?
    “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women)…”

    That’s pretty clear on who’s superior in the creator’s eye! No?


  • Karima Vargas Bushnell
    Aug 23, 2011 - 5:16AM

    This has to do with translation and interpretation. Arabic doesn’t translate straight across, word-for-word into English. For the beginning of the verse you quote, the three Qur’ans I pulled off my shelf said, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah has given one more (strength) than the other . . .” (Yusuf Ali), “Men are the support of women as God gives some more means than others . . .” (Ahmed Ali) and
    “Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others . . .” (Laleh Bahktiar). Nothing about being in charge or excelling in any of these translations.


  • Karima Vargas Bushnell
    Aug 23, 2011 - 5:18AM

    My comment was already submitted. Here is my city.


  • Khalid Rahim
    Aug 23, 2011 - 1:28PM

    @Karima Vargas Bushnell:
    Only men with weak hearts and weak minds will interpret women as they deem fit to their vested interest. The real interpretation should have been, O man thy woman is thy partner,
    protect her as you protect yourself. Share her joy and sorrow and help in her responsibilities.
    Zuleikha was always consulted by Caliph Haroon ur Rashid. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) never look down upon his wives as a weaker person. In 12th century Razia Sultana ruled chosen by her father’s council. Nations prosper where men give equal opportunity in all wakes of life to women and protect them from harm.


  • Karima Vargas Bushnell
    Aug 23, 2011 - 7:38PM

    Khalid Rahim, salaams.

    Beautifully expressed! Yes, the Prophet (peace be on him) not only “never looked down upon” his wives, but enjoyed talking with them and consulted them on all matters. Our Mother Aisha transmitted one third of his hadith (sayings, teachings), and she and other wives were teachers of both women and men. Our Mother Khadija gave the Prophet his start in the world and was the first believer. There are many hadith about honoring and respecting girls and women. The real Islam of the Prophet affirms a woman’s right to own and transfer property, have her own business, keep her earnings absolutely, study and learn, and never be married without her consent, among other rights.


  • Dodo
    Aug 23, 2011 - 8:32PM

    @Karima Vargas Bushnell:
    I used Pickthall’s translation, which, by the way, is considered among the most “authentic” translations.
    Yousuf Ali probably thought, adding the word “strength” in parenthesis might be a good way to water down the meaning; perhaps Ahmed Ali thought of the same? Who knows what these guys had in their minds while translating the text.


  • Cynical
    Aug 29, 2011 - 12:34AM


    You are spot on.


  • Aug 29, 2011 - 9:28AM

    @ DoDo and Cynical:

    Which translation would you guys prefer given the multiple selection option?


  • Karima Vargas Bushnell
    Aug 29, 2011 - 5:42PM

    Hi again. Yusuf Ali is also among the most “authentic” translations, as is Ahmed Ali (no relation), and the third “guy”, Laleh Bakhtiar, is a woman. Her translation is relatively new – the others are old standards used by millions of people. It’s easy to cherry pick passages out of context to condemn a whole religion, but this is different from actually seeking accurate knowledge. PostMan, any translation of the Qur’an is only an approximation, both because the Arabic root-and-pattern system gives Arabic words multiple connotations and meanings and because the Qur’an contains many levels which speak to different individuals, cultures, perspectives and needs. Given these limitations, it’s good to have several and compare them. Thought they are not complete translations, I’d recommend Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, and Lex Hixon’s Heart of the Qur’an as conveying some of the actual depth and meaning in an accessible way. Finally, The Place of Tolerance in Islam by Professor Khalid Abou El Fadl is a wonderful book, only 117 pages, which includes essays from many points of view and explains the mess Islam is in today. The professor “is one of the world’s leading authorities on Islamic law and Islam, and a prominent scholar in the field of human rights.” (From UCLA’s website.)


  • ChaoticOne
    Sep 22, 2011 - 2:21PM

    You would expect a being such as God to send a clear message in a language that could be understood in clear terms in the future. You do not expect him to send something which could be translated/re-translated and then retracted from time to time depending upon the current moral landscape. Reading the above comments and the confusion caused by the Quran which i have seen on many forums and here as well one can easily conclude about the nature of the book. It all depends if one is being intuitive about it or being reflective.


  • Karima Vargas Bushnell
    Sep 22, 2011 - 6:58PM

    Would you expect that? I wouldn’t! It says in the Qur’an, “We will show them our signs (ayats) in themselves and on the horizons until they believe.” The “signs” that are embedded everywhere in nature and in human physiology, psychology and social relationships are not always easily understood. They are fascinating mysteries that require quite a bit of digging to comprehend. The world’s holy books often work the same way. They are pathways to travel, and different aspects are understood at different stages on the journey.

    I like your last sentence a lot.


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