Prophet Ibrahim, Amina Wadud and Caught Between Compassion and Indignation

I’d like to say it’s that time of year again for another controversy but it seems these days every day is controversy day in the world of Muslim social media. In specific, many were deeply offended by the statements of Amina Wadud, a scholar who focuses on Islamic studies from a more feminist point of view. Her statement regarding Prophet Ibrahim was as follows,

Amina Wadud’s comment,

Yes, you read that correctly: She labeled Prophet Ibrahim a dead beat dad. I know many found it difficult to look beyond Wadud’s statement, which is blasphemous to say the least, but for myself, having some moderate training in recognizing mental health disorders, it signaled to me a person suffering from some form of a breakdown. Not simply this particular statement but Wadud’s statements and positions over the years. Also knowing a little bit about her personal background I think Amina Wadud may be dealing with untreated trauma, fueled by negative experiences within the Muslim community. I’m not saying this to excuse her despicable comments about the “Friend of Allah” (Khalil Allah), Ibrahim, peace be upon him. Just looking at the situation from another angle.

One problem I have had with the response to this is that from a number of imams and public figures. Many of them, not having adequate mental health training, took the opportunity to not only attack Wadud’s statements (legitimate attacks in my estimation), but also to then use her statements as opportunities to impugn any Muslim women who espouses any relationship to so-called feminist thought. For instance, Mikaeel Smith stated,

It’s not that I have an issue with Smith, and others, being offended by Wadud’s statements, but it’s that they did not restrict their issue to her statements themselves. It’s as if they’re saying any woman who is a feminist (especially black) is in complete agreement with Wadud. Would this include such sisters as Ieasha Prime or Tamara Gray, simply because they speak on matters pertaining to women? I’m not confident that many of us in roles of leadership/scholarship completely understand our grievances with feminism (of which there certainly are grievances). So to make statements like the above is, in my opinion, sloppy. There are legitimate critiques against feminist thought, many I have myself, but I prefer to perhaps be a bit more concise in my critique. I would encourage the brothers to consider doing so as well. In fact, sister Faatimah Amatullah Knight makes the kind of rebuttal that I’m thinking of,

She goes on to give a very balanced critique of Wadud’s statement by saying,

“If we are more forgiving to the characters of Shakespeare or Homer then perhaps we need to work on the prejudices that make us attack people who are traditionally deemed holy.”Faatimah Amatullah Knight

Returning to the question of mental health, I would ask, has anyone checked in on sister Amina Wadud? Perhaps she’s in her right state of mind (I pray to God she is not to excuse her from these statements) and perhaps she’s not.

But let us turn for a moment from the controversy — for there will always be controversy — and look at the kind of situation we have here and what our Deen tells us about it.

أَنَّ نَافِعَ بْنَ عَبْدِ الْحَارِثِ، لَقِيَ عُمَرَ بْنَ الْخَطَّابِ بِعُسْفَانَ – وَكَانَ عُمَرُ اسْتَعْمَلَهُ عَلَى مَكَّةَ

It was narrated that Nafi’ bin ‘Abdul-Harith met ‘Umar bin al-Khattab during his khilafah in ‘Usfan, when ‘Umar had appointed him as his governer in Makkah.

فَقَالَ عُمَرُ مَنِ اسْتَخْلَفْتَ عَلَى أَهْلِ الْوَادِي قَالَ اسْتَخْلَفْتُ عَلَيْهِمُ ابْنَ أَبْزَى قَالَ وَمَنِ ابْنُ أَبْزَى قَالَ رَجُلٌ مِنْ مَوَالِينَا ‏ قَالَ عُمَرُ فَاسْتَخْلَفْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ مَوْلًى قَالَ إِنَّهُ قَارِئٌ لِكِتَابِ اللَّهِ تَعَالَى عَالِمٌ بِالْفَرَائِضِ قَاضٍ قَالَ عُمَرُ أَمَا إِنَّ نَبِيَّكُمْ ـ صلى الله عليه وسلم ـ قَالَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَرْفَعُ بِهَذَا الْكِتَابِ أَقْوَامًا وَيَضَعُ بِهِ آخَرِينَ

‘Umar asked, “Whom have you appointed as your deputy over the people of the valley?” He said, “I have appointed Ibn Abza over them.” ‘Umar said, “Who is Ibn Abza?” Nafi’ answered, “One of our freed slaves.” ‘Umar replied, “Have you appointed a freed slave over them?” Nafi’ assured ‘Umar, “He has great knowledge of the Book of Allah, is well versed in the necessities of the religion and is also a good judge.” ‘Umar then remember a statement of the Prophet in which he said, “Did not your Prophet say: ‘Allah raises some people in status because of this book and brings others low because of it.’

For me, I see one of the central lessons to be learned here for our community is that we should ask ourselves, “how is my approach to the Qur’an ennobling me?” And, “how is someone else’s approach to the Qur’an ennobling them?” When you look at the trajectory of sister Amina’s last decade or so she seems to have become even more extreme and isolated in her musings about Islam and the Book of Allah. Is this due to mental health degradation? Perhaps. Or perhaps this degradation is brought on by insulting one of the greatest humans God has ever created and appointed as a light of guidance. It would seem the latter part of the hadith above gives much to consider.

But now, what about ourselves and our responses. Whether we like it or not, we must come to accept that some folks are going to say things we find offensive. When this happens we must also remember the advice that Luqman, peace be upon him, gave his son,

يا بُنَيَّ أَقِمِ الصَّلاةَ وَأمُر بِالمَعروفِ وَانهَ عَنِ المُنكَرِ وَاصبِر عَلىٰ ما أَصابَكَ ۖ إِنَّ ذٰلِكَ مِن عَزمِ الأُمورِ

“My son, establish salat and command what is right and forbid what is wrong and be steadfast in the face of all that happens to you. That is certainly the most resolute course to follow.”Qur’an,
31: 17

Is this easy? No, but neither is the discipline of controlling ourselves (عَزمِ الأُمورِ). I’m not saying that we don’t defend the Prophets, that we don’t stand up for what is right and against what is wrong. I’d be a hypocrite by publishing statements about Reza Aslan if I didn’t believe we have a right to respond to statements of disbelief and blasphemy. Just giving us some food for thought.

May Allah guide us, put Islam in our hearts, and make us from amongst the Grateful. Amin.

Islam: Questions and Answers

I am re-posting this from a letter my wife wrote about the 20/20 incident.

After lengthy discussion about ABC’s recent 20/20 program on an email listserv for Middle East and Islamic Studies, Maytha Alhassan invited members to compose a letter to the producers. We have workshopped the letter with someone in the media and incorporated suggestions from readers. If you are interested in signing, please send your name, title, and affiliation.

ABC’s 20/20

Islam: Questions and Answers

We applaud ABC’s 20/20 for producing the show “Islam: Questions and Answers” program, which attempted to address the American public’s curiosity about Islam and show the true face of Islam in America. However, as scholars, activists, educators, and community leaders, we are concerned about the ways in which this program misrepresented Muslim Americans.  We would like to address three major areas where your program inaccurately depicted Islam in America: first, by continually asserting that moderate Muslims do not speak up; second, by overlooking the contributions of African American Muslims;  and finally, allowing women who have complete antipathy towards Islam (Pamela Gellar and Ayaan Hirsi) to speak for Muslim women. The producers and researchers may have been well meaning, however the program’s insensitivity and lack of nuance  alienated many American Muslims and perpetuated many misconceptions about American Muslims. Our aim is to address these three areas and provide some recommendations for more accurate coverage of American Muslims in the future.

  1. First, the show continually asked, “Why don’t we hear or see more mainstream, peaceful Muslims speaking up?” or “Where are the moderate voices?”
    • It is problematic to divide Muslims into binary categories of “moderate” and “radical.” Would the same categorical statement be made about the socio-political orientation of followers of different religious faiths and other ethnic groups? How would the mainstream reaction to your program be had you produced a segment titled “Where are all the moderate Christians?,” “Where are all the moderate Latino Americans?” The framing of these questions and methodology of answering these questions highlights an acceptability of a bigoted stance on Muslims that is rarely acknowledged.
    • Muslim Americans are constantly blamed for not speaking up, however the media bears some responsibility. Moderate Muslims continually speak out and do positive things for American society, but this does not make it in the news. And there American Muslim scholars and leaders who hold conferences, talks, lectures devoted to the topic of “Forging an American Muslim identity.” Zaytuna Institute scholars Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir, Islamic Center of New York University Imam Khalid Latif and professor Dr. Sherman Jackson are but a few of the many American born intellectuals and community leaders who do speak out.
    • Where is the media when peaceful Muslims gather, participate in the American political process, protest terrorism, violence, and hatred?
    • At one point, an expert posits a recommendation “They need to have a million man march on Washington,” while conveniently ignoring that the Million Man March was actually led by a Muslim man, Louis Farakhan.
    • On September 25, 2009, Islam on Capitol Hill gathered an estimated 8,000 to prayer Friday prayers. And on October 15, 2010 thousands of Muslims once again convened on Capitol Hill to demonstrate their belief in American democracy and promote religious freedom, however, there were few media outlets at the DC event.
    • Muslim Congressmen Keith Ellison wrote an Op-ed “Should We Fear Islam?” in the Washington Post speaking to the first point made in this section. Ellison and Muslim Congressman Andre Carson were also completely absent from the program, which brings us to an important issue of accurate portrayal of American Muslims.
  2. The program reinscribes Islam as a foreign religion by focusing on Arab and South Asian immigrant communities in the US, at the expense of African American Muslim communities.
    • Your program excluded African American Muslims in the narrative of Islam in America and conflated of Arab with Muslim. African Americans make up the largest percentage of Muslims in America, and yet your program visited Dearborn, Patterson, NJ, and even Egypt to speak with Arabs who compose the third largest group of Muslims in the US.
    • The Nation’s first capitol, Philadelphia, has a rich and long history of Muslims. There was a community of orthodox Black American and Caribbean American Muslims from the 1920s. It has high concentration of Muslims, a Muslim chief of police, Muslims who work in city government, etc.
    • With the over-exposure of Arab Muslims, your program even failed to mention that Arab American Muslims are in the minority in Arab American communities. Most Arab Americans are Christian.
    • The program did a poor job discussing, engaging with and highlighting the diverse community of Muslims.
    • Low figure for Muslims (2-3 million?), and no breakdown of the demographics.
    • No discussion of converts.
    • The program even failed to show celebrated athletes (NFL, NBA, boxing, Soccer players), politicians and historical figures who are Muslim and African American.
  3. Finally, the segment, “Does Islam oppress women?” did a great disservice to Muslim women.
    • While we appreciate the inclusion of one Muslim voice, Irshad Manji, she herself is not a scholar on Islam.
    • Instead two polemics who are vehement in their anti-Islam stance, Ayaan Hirsi and Pamela Gellar received undo attention.
    • Your program failed to include any Muslim scholars such as Amina Wadud, Ingrid Mattson (a Canadian scholar who recently ended her term as ISNA president), or Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud to speak in this segment? Their and other scholars’ absence is an indication of an asymmetric representation of opposition views.
    • Perhaps these scholars would have shed light on Muslim women’s contributions through history such as Islam’s first convert, Khadija al-Kubra, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, who was also his employer before marrying. One of the first Sufi saints was a woman, Rabia al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (Rabia al-Basri) or Nana Asma’u, a West African educator and reformer.

In order to explore our rich diversity, we have provided some recommendations to improve your coverage of American Muslims below:

  1. Explore the long history of Muslims in the US, a history of residency and settlement that predates the formation of America as a country. American born Nawawi scholar Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah has written extensively on this subject.
  2. Include broader segments of the American Muslim community to ensure that each major ethnic group, South Asian American, African American, and Arab American, is represented in your programs.
  3. Attend Muslim American events, banquets and conferences like the prayer on Capitol Hill, MPAC, CAIR’s functions, etc. Do not just focus on sensationalism, but cover American Muslims during Ramadan or Eid al-Adha (the end of Hajj).
  4. We ask your researchers and staff to be more careful in their selection of “experts.” Make distinctions between socio-politics and Islamic scholarship. None of the women you interviewed in the question on the oppression of women in Islam had training in Islamic scholarship on covering or the hijab. We can help provide a list of scholars and experts who would be happy to lend their expertise.
  5. Consider diversifying your staff, researchers and interns with knowledge, expertise, and experience in various communities may yield better results.

In summation, your program provided a rare opportunity to provide accurate coverage of Muslims and clear up misconceptions. As acknowledged at the onset of your program, the controversy surrounding the Park 51 community center elicited a renewed curiosity in Islam. We were pleased with the inclusion of Edina Lekovic’s (MPAC) comments, Reza Aslan’s explanation of the definition of “fatwa,” and Faiza Ali’s (CAIR-NY) elucidation of the hijab’s complex historical place in cultural and religious practice, “coerced headcoverings are tribal.” However we note that while your program was a step in the right direction, it still ended up being misleading. By taking into consideration the recommendations we have made, your producers can create more accurate programing on Muslim Americans thereby showing the real face of Islam in America.