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New Straits Times - The day I met Amina Wadud
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By Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi
‘I only led prayers when I was invited to,’ said Amina.
After kicking up a storm in the Muslim world by leading a mixed gender congregation, Dr Amina Wadud would seem to have a formidable persona. SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI discovers a gentle person behind the name.  “WHO?” Dr Amina Wadud. She led a mixed gender prayer in New York, a few years ago.  My colleague’s eyes almost bulged out of their sockets when I told him I would be interviewing the controversial Muslim scholar. A few seconds lapsed before he launched into a tirade on the woman who chose to be an imam to a congregation.
He was not the only one to be upset. While a handful were excited about the prospect of meeting her — one even took a photo with Amina for her own album — many of my colleagues were upset, enraged and rattled by Amina’s action in March 2005. The wound bleeds afresh.  Unknown to many, Amina taught Quranic Studies at International Islamic University Malaysia between 1989 and 1992 when she published her dissertation Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. It was also during the same period that she co-founded the NGO Sisters-In-Islam together with, among others, an analyst with Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Askiah Adam, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia sociologist Norani Othman, and artist Sharifah Zuriah Al-Jefri, who was then a cultural advisor at the US Embassy. Amina was a speaker at the recent Musawah: Equality and Justice in the Family conference where she presented a paper titled “Islam Beyond Patriarchy Through Gender Inclusive Qur’anic Analysis”. A mouthful, one would think, and unless one is a sociologist, it was a bite too big to chew. But curiosity was a hungry animal and it fed on me. I had to know why Amina Wadud did the thing that earned her the most damning label in Islam: heretic. Her actions received worldwide attention at both ends of the spectrum. Renowned ulamak Yusuf Al-Qardhawi berated her on Al-Jazeera, calling her action unIslamic and heretical; while Eygptian ulamak Gamal al-Banna argued that her actions were supported by Islamic sources, and were, therefore, orthodox. It was confusing, but the majority voiced their opposition to her actions through fatwas and more criticism. Amina, meanwhile, remained reclusive and refused to give her side of the argument.  When I asked to interview Amina, Sisters-In-Islam, which organised the Musawah conference, imposed one condition — that I read her books first. I was only given two days to finish The Qur’an and Woman and Inside the Gender Jihad Women’s Reform in Islam.  Given that both are works of academic research, it was near impossible.  The Qur’an and Woman, however, was an interesting read. Here, Amina looked into something most Muslims, learned or not, fail to uphold, which is to read the holy text and understand it. The book asked an important question: do we accept the given knowledge without question? If so, that’s not learning.  Due to the timelessness of the Quran, Amina wrote that the holy text must be re-read by scholars of various disciplines, otherwise there is a grave danger that its meaning and value would be lost through time. Prior to the interview, I was warned by those who knew her that she might be difficult, standoffish and daunting. I tried not to be intimidated by these warnings. What came later was an enlightening experience.  With a PhD in Quranic Studies and almost 30 years poring over the holy text, Amina has every reason to be a scholar snob on her subject. But she did not come across as someone bursting with self-righteousness, consumed by feminist ideals. Instead, she was more of a teacher, patiently listening; choosing her words after careful thought. Amina abhors generalisation. To her, it is an insult to deem all ulamaks as stereotypes in ideas and conduct. “They are intellects and they have their reasons,” she said. Not once during the interview did she refer to herself as an imam. “I only led prayers when I was invited to,” explained Amina, who now lives in Jakarta and is collecting material for her next book on gender ethics.  Dressed in a cotton Indonesian batik blouse and sarung, with a dark green scarf over her head, the 180cm-tall African-American scholar also opened up a little more about herself over lunch, reminiscing about family, living abroad and Malaysian food. She still craves fish head curry and roti canai. “The stalls here are the best,” she said. She enjoyed living in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in the early 1990s. “I’m never one for loud and busy cities. I prefer a quiet neighbourhood. Taman Tun was perfect then. But recently my friend took me there and I discovered this huge shopping mall...” she gestured, quite overwhelmed by how much the area has developed.  As for the fame that came with controversy, Amina said she initially had difficulties dealing with it, especially when strangers would come up to her asking to be photographed together and permission to post the picture on Facebook. “I don’t think much of it now. The reality is that, when you come home, you have to do the dishes, cook and do the laundry.” Was I swung to believe that Muslim men could be led in prayer by women after the interview with Amina, asked some colleagues and friends. It took Amina 11 years of theological research on leadership before making the commitment to lead a mixed gender congregation. Do I subscribe to the idea? I can only say that I do not have the knowledge yet.

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