American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More than a Prayer

American Muslim Women
  • Book Title:
 American Muslim Women
  • Book Author:
Juliane Hammer
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Head to the ground Even the floor she walks upon becomes sacred She prays in prescribed form but knows There is no language the Universe does not accept There is no posture void of God From “My Sister’s Prayer” by Suheir Hammad

It was the prayer of a Muslim woman, standing, bowing, and prostrating “head to the ground,” that would leave its mark on Muslim debates about gender, women, and tradition.

 Like the sister in Suheir Hammad’s poem, she and those praying with her performed their prayer in the prescribed form, and yet some aspects were different. On March 18, 2005, Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies,1 gave the Friday sermon to a mixed-gender con- gregation and subsequently led the same congregation in Friday prayer in New York City.

While it was not the first time a Muslim woman led men and women in prayer, it was a highly publicized and highly debated act of religious, political, and symbolic significance. The 2005 prayer, itself part of a larger trajectory of events, debates, and developments, focused and changed existing intra-Muslim discussions and reflections on issues ranging from women’s interpretation of the Qurʾan, leadership, mosque space, and religious authority to gender activism and media representations.

 In this book I take the 2005 woman-led prayer event as the historical focus for these larger debates. This is why this book is about more than a prayer.

American Muslim Women’s Writings and the Prayer Event

The research project this book is based on was initially not about the woman- led prayer at all. A broader interest in the intellectual production of American Muslims and their contributions to contemporary Muslim thought came together with a long-standing interest in gender debates and women’s roles in Muslim societies. The result was a growing collection of texts written and published by American Muslim women. Two categories of texts emerged:

academic writings by Muslim women concerned with Muslim women and gender discourses; and (2) narrative and autobiographical materials. Some of the texts were products of the 1980s and 1990s. However, the bulk of the materials were published in the past decade, with a notable increase in quantity since 2001. It is easy and tempting to explain this surge with the events of September 11, 2001, but that may be too easy.

It has become commonplace to describe 9/11 as a formative event not only for the world or the United States but also, and in particular, for American Muslims. And it is certainly the case that the aftermath of 9/11 saw increased scrutiny and in- deed often collective persecution of American Muslims as internal security risks while also dramatically increasing interest in all things Islamic and Muslim, both in the American public sphere and in the world of academic inquiry.

 The growing academic interest (and its marketability) is amply demonstrated by the large volume of recent publications dedicated spe- cifically to the study of American Muslims. Some of these academic works support the impression that 9/11 has forever changed the status of Ameri- can Muslims in American society, as well as American Muslim attitudes, discourses, and practices.

However, many of the debates and issues catapulted to the forefront of public interest and indeed many of the transformation processes that have taken place in American Muslim communities have trajectories that reach farther back and cannot solely be explained by the impact of 9/11. The existence of materials and texts by and about Mus- lim women dating to the early 1980s is a clear indication of this trend. The

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increase in the number of texts is more closely linked to increased public

and publishing interest than to the absence or insignificance of gender dis- courses and transformations in the decades before 2001.

The second step of the project was to identify shared patterns and themes in the texts so as to analyze them as a body of materials with an inner cohesion beyond the shared identities of their authors as American Muslim women.

Not unexpectedly, the scholarly materials in the first category were very different in style and content from the “speaking out” literature in the second category. And even the drawing of boundaries around the group “American Muslim women” was not quite as self-evident as expected.

The authors are Muslim women because they identify as such in their writings, regardless of whether they perceive this identity as primary or more signifi- cant than other markers of identities. They are American in a very broad sense because they publish their writings in the North American academic and publishing context and thus address them to American audiences. Every other restriction of their Americanness would have become a matter of definition and thus by itself part of the naming process. This is not to say that no woman author was excluded.

For a variety of reasons, some of which will be discussed below, I did not include every woman who identified as Muslim in her writings and has published in North America. Some of the reasons are a function of political preferences; others are a matter of methodology.2

The most significant pattern I recognized was the fact that all the texts demonstrate the investment of their authors in a triangle of self- understanding and textual production: they write for the sake of formulating, negotiating, and sometimes saving their faith and religious identities as Muslim women;

they address intra-Muslim and communal audiences in an attempt to generate discussions about gender discourses, attitudes, and practices in those communities; and they are acutely aware of and directly involved in media representations of Muslims and Islam and/or the dynamics of authority and scholarship in the secular American academy. Each corner of this triangle influences the others in the ways in which the texts are produced, negotiated, and contested.

It soon became apparent that the number of authors and texts identified was too large to analyze in comprehensive and qualitative ways. Focusing on a particular historical event had the potential for a more focused and nuanced study of the larger topic.

 As I demonstrate, many of the authors dis- cussed here were somehow connected to the 2005 woman-led prayer and the debates surrounding it, most notably Asra Nomani, the chief organizer, and Amina Wadud, the imamah (prayer leader) and khatibah (woman offer- ing the Friday sermon) of the event. Although their writings have an impor- tant role in many chapters in this book, I have tried to avoid constructing the two women as archetypical in conveniently dichotomous (or comple- mentary) pairs.

The tendency and indeed temptation to “pitch” them as opposite poles—for example, born Muslim/convert, South Asian/African American, scholar/journalist—became quite evident in media coverage of the event.

 While some of those dichotomies reflect real issues and concerns within Muslim communities in North America, the focus on these two individuals and their struggles has overshadowed the intellectual, religious, and political communities that have sustained the discussions and debates on women and gender among American Muslims. Many other authors are dis- cussed in this book in order to highlight their equally important perspec- tives and contributions.

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Privileging Texts and Voices

In the process of writing this book I was criticized for giving too much credit and paying too much attention to the 2005 woman-led prayer and its organizers. Critics have argued that the event was blown out of proportion by the media (and the organizers themselves) and that it has had no lasting or significant impact. I disagree.

The prayer event served as a catalyst for de- bates that were already under way among Muslims in North America. The event itself was an accident of history, initiated by particular individuals on a particular day in a particular place. However, if not with those individuals, that day, in that place, something like the March 18, 2005, woman-led prayer event would have happened as the logical culmination of a trajectory of events and debates in the decades before.

All those—intellectuals, activists, and community members—arguing over gender equality, social justice, and the inclusion of women, whether they were male or female, had already paved the way for this step. Texts and events since March 2005 attest to the lasting impact of this symbolic event.

The focus on the prayer as a historical event calls into question the methodological focus on texts as opposed to a multilevel methodology that includes empirical research such as interviews and observations. It was not only the fact that I did not attend the 2005 prayer or that I did not develop a scholarly interest in the event and the debates until long after March 2005.

 It was also not only the methodological difficulty of “recording” or tracing something as fluid as gender discourses in Muslim communities and how they were and are translated into realities on the ground. Rather, it was my concern about how a more empirical approach as opposed to a textual one would limit and define the range of possible readings of the texts that swayed me in the direction of textual analysis. And it was my original interest in the intellectual production of American Muslims that is still significantly understudied that helped retain my focus on texts.

Based on a broad definition of the category “text,” this study draws on books, journal articles, newspaper items, websites, and documentaries produced by and about American Muslim women since the early 1980s. It is in the nature of the texts, especially those of a scholarly nature, to easily move between the categories of primary and secondary sources.

 Throughout the book I have used academic writings by Muslim women scholars for analysis while also drawing on their analysis of the matters at hand. This approach creates productive tensions between the dynamics of scholarly authority and the “‘reading’” of primary texts. It also reflects the dynamics of my own involvement in different communities.

As an Islamic studies scholar I have encountered many of the intellectuals whose work I assess here as colleagues, mentors, and peers. Reading and analyzing the works of one’s contemporaries comes with the hazard of attachment but also the very real possibility of being taken up on the invitation to engage in dialogue on their writings and my readings of them. I have found myself deeply involved in the very discourses and debates I am analyzing here, and thus this book is at once an analysis of and a contribution to the texts at the center of this study.

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My own work is as much invested in the triangle of faith, community, and representation as the texts and authors analyzed here.

The textual approach, the focus on the woman-led prayer, and the selection of works by women writers can produce the impression that this study privileges the ideas and contribution of a very specific segment of American Muslim communities: those commonly described as progressive or liberal.

Both terms are immediately political, especially in discussions of “gender issues,” in Islam as the status of women in Muslim societies has for more than a century been a litmus test of the ability of Muslims to be “modern.” They are also of concern when state actors like the United States actively pursue the construction of different categories of Muslims, or what Mahmood Mamdani has termed the “good Muslim—bad Muslim” dichotomy.3 Such labels, even when self-assigned, are even more complicated when they are used to dismiss or belittle contemporary Muslim projects of reform, transformation, or preservation. This privileging of certain ‘voices’ is in part a function of the texts themselves. Many of the texts by American Muslim women written in English and published by mainstream publishers are indeed more representative of a small spectrum of all American Muslim women.

 The dynamics of speaking for other Muslim women and standing in for them in media and textual representations is the subject of one chapter of this book. Rather than be overly critical of the progressive bent of many of the writings, it is important to recognize this “bias” as a research result in and of itself.

The focus on women’s writings creates another limitation that is only partly addressed in this book. Foregrounding the texts authored by women has created a space for interactions and conversations between women authors while ostensibly ignoring that Muslim men have made significant con- tributions to gender debates and that women’s ideas, projects, and critiques can only be understood in their interplay and interdependence with men’s perspectives.

 This gender bias, even more than the progressive bias, has the potential to relegate women’s contributions to the womens corner, away from the concerns of those outside it. The book, in sometimes ambivalent ways, includes men’s perspectives and the contributions of male Muslim intellectuals to gender discourses while recognizing the power dynamics of using male perspectives to authenticate or legitimize women intellectuals and their ideas.

Muslim women and men are increasingly conscious of the need to negotiate gender discourses among as well as between the sexes.

The ultimate emphasis on women’s texts and perspectives is a form of affirmative action: as long as women have to struggle for their concerns and ideas to be heard within Muslim communities, extra attention and analysis with a focus on precisely these concerns and ideas may help them take their place as half of their communities.

The focus on text should not be read as a dismissal of the various forms and projects of local, communal, and transnational activism that American Muslim women are involved in. There is a strong interdependence between formulating and negotiating discourses and translating them into actions. The prayer event itself as well as many other activist projects mentioned in this book are informed by gender discourses and debates while simultaneously informing and changing the discourses themselves.4

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