A reactionary Islam is being perpetuated by progressive identity politicsI stand neither in support or condemnation of the decision by Amina Wadud to lead a mixed-gender Jummah salat earlier this year. This is not because I am being evasive or that I have no wish to hold an opinion. Rather, it reflects my mixed and often contradictory thinking with regards to the event. On the one hand, I feel an instinctive desire to support individuals who take decisions in good conscience (within the law of the land) that attract the opprobrium of the majority, and I believe Amina’s decision was made in good conscience and deeply unpopular with many Muslims. On the other hand, my fears regarding the media circus surrounding the whole shebang, which turned an avowedly local event into a global one, have not abated in the least. A firework has been thrown into the air and it seems little thought is being given to where it will land.
Some of the responses were not surprising. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, described by Mayor of London Ken Livingstone as ‘the leading progressive Muslim scholar in the world’, came out wholeheartedly against it, with Sayyed Tantawi of Al-Azhar not far behind, and for all the predictable reasons. In a society where the origins of male sexual desire is still frequently located in woman’s bodies, the idea of men praying behind a woman’s bottom was clearly an outrage. Not everyone agreed. Muhammad Abdel Ghani Shamaa, an advisor to the Egyptian Ministry of Awqaf, issued a fatwa broadly supportive of the Wadud Jummah. But in a faith-culture which Seyyed Hossein Nasr once described as being ‘unapologetically patriarchal’, Wadud’s decision was bound to be interpreted as a gendered attack on Muslims, a treacherous assimilation of Empire’s long-standing lambaste against Islam as being inherently sexist. The result was just as New York head of Women in Islam Aisha al-Adawiya expected - a ‘backlash’.
The problem with backlashes is that they are an invitation to extremists to take the media limelight. Perhaps the most vitriolic, and arguably the most ludicrous, came from the Maldives, where the Chief Justice Sheikh Mohamed Rasheed Ibrahim claimed in an impromptu diatribe that God was male. Naturally, other more responsible scholars along with one or two children were quick to point out the theological difficulties in attributing the physical characteristics of God’s creatures to Allah. More worryingly was the Sheikh's claim that Wadud was tarnishing the Islamic faith and his call for her to be “dealt with”. This is a worrying development, more so given that critics of Wadud have already compared her to Salman Rushdie, who was similarly accused of betraying his own cultural tradition.
Yet, in the hullabaloo that followed events in New York, reactionary responses have been equally evident within the Muslim Wake Up/Progressive Muslim Union (MWU/PMU) camp. Though none have included direct threats, they are arguably as sinister in the way they are now increasingly co-opting tropes long employed by Orientalist intellectuals to debase Muslim scholarly traditions. One example of this development is an article entitled The ‘Non-Debate’ in the Muslim World by Farish A. Noor and Dyala Hamzah, utilising what I call the ‘Macaulay trope’, based on the notorious 1835 Minute on Education in which Lord Macaulay denounced the entire corpus of writings in Arabic as “less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.” In Noor and Hamzah's case, the "non-debate" is actually the startling assertion that no debate is possible, on the grounds that almost every Muslim outside the MWU/PMU fold is intellectually incompetent. Thus, in a single sweep, Muslim scholarship around the world is reduced to dunderhead status.
The second trope, which features more widely, is the equivalization of the Empire’s cultural hegemony and a moral universalism. The trope is founded on the claim that human rights and other Empire values, which have their origins in the European enlightenment of the 18th century, are the inevitable consequence of ‘progress’, and thus superior to ‘traditional’ Muslim values and practices. Most recently, this trope has even utilised anthropology – a human science once deeply complicit in demeaning colonised civilizations – to give kudos to assertions of cultural supremacy. The claims that MWU/PMU are merely local expressions of Islam are now no longer tenable, as MWU’s editorial stance moves beyond association with the Empire’s dominant culture to a position of direct involvement with its hegemonic project. When the authors of such supremacist nonsense include an American marine who has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems only a matter of time before MWU/PMU becomes the American liberal Muslim dream-come-true envisaged by the Rand report.
Writers such as Fatima Mernissi have already written extensively on the consequences of colonial/imperial attacks on Muslim cultures – the result is a reactionary response, where woman become the focal point for enforcing cultural orthodoxy. Such a response, arguably enflamed by the Wadud Jummah, is now in full swing in Pakistan, which has recently witnessed attacks on female athletes organised by Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, and the introduction of a ‘Prohibition of Indecent Advertisements’ Bill aimed at banning female models from appearing in adverts. This backlash is further fuelled by the relationship between General Musharraf and George W. Bush - with Musharraf’s talk of Pakistan becoming a ‘modern, enlightened democracy’ frequently juxtaposed against Muslim laws that are unpopular with Western governments and human rights groups.
The use of Imperial tropes to make attacks on Islam is reminiscent of the politics Lord Cromer, who helped colonize Egypt under the banner of liberating its women despite being the cofounder and president of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage back home in the UK. MWU/PMU claim to be supporting the liberation of Muslim women in a country where they are already liberated, but one apparent result of their actions is that woman face greater oppression in a nation where they are already oppressed.
For more than a century now, progress in Islam has been dogged by reactionary intellectuals and the fall out surrounding them. Figures such as Qutb and Mawdudi may arguably have ushered in an era of Islamic revivalism, but they have carried with them the inevitable detritus of reactionary dialogue – intolerance and authoritarianism. Today, it is the so-called progressives who I fear are stoking the flames of reactionary conflict, in their perpetration of identity politics and in their wholesale failure to analyse and challenge the political and cultural landscape in which their own ideologies are being forged.
My hope is that insha Allah MWU/PMU will remember the words of Allah as they plan their future events: “And hold fast, all together, unto the bond with God, and do not draw apart from one another. And remember the blessings which God has bestowed upon you: how, when you were enemies, He brought your hearts together, so that through His blessing you became brethren; and [how, when] you were on the brink of a fiery abyss. He saved you from it. In this way God makes clear His messages unto you, so that you might find guidance.” (3:103).
Since writing this, I have learned a mixed-gender Jummah has been led by Canadian journalist Raheel Raza. Read her khutba here.