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Between Praxis and Application

Action is a central aspect of Wadud’s Qur’anic hermeneutic, for liberating ideas can only truly be liberating if they are translated into concrete realities. As she puts it:

theory alone is insufficient to bring an end to patriarchy and gender asymmetry. There is a crucial interplay between belief in certain ideas and the practical implementation of gender justice in the context of present global circumstances.[1]

The pursuit of knowledge, then, is not some pristine, scholarly endeavour detached from the rest of the world, but rather one in which new insights are used to create a new world built on social justice. Wadud refers to this wedding of theological study and transformative struggle, whether that struggle takes place in the university classroom or in community affairs, as ‘spiritual activism’.[2] Indeed, the twinning of study and struggle—a liberating practice that has also been termed ‘scholarship activism’—is a significant contribution that gender egalitarian female interpreters have made to contemporary Islamic thought, challenging patriarchy within the Muslim community through their research on Islam.[3] While this accent on the practical implementation of one’s research may seem novel in the context of the academy, it is important to note that this is actually a recognized form of scholarship. In his now classic study—Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (1990)—Ernest Boyer challenges the reduction of scholarship to research and publication alone, or what he calls ‘the scholarship of discovery’.[4] He outlines three additional interrelated paradigms that are equally significant: namely, drawing critical linkages between disciplines and, in so doing, making one’s research accessible to non-specialists (‘the scholarship of integration’); implementing one’s research to address societal needs and problems, thereby serving the larger community (‘the scholarship of application’); and transforming—not simply transmit- ting—one’s research through the process of teaching (hence, ‘the scholarship of teaching’).[5]

Wadud’s encounter with SIS played a formative role in her discourse on action, allowing her to see how purely theoretical concepts could be translated into practical reforms. In our interview, she described the impact of SIS on her thinking as follows:

I didn’t realize until after those three years of being in Malaysia that all the work I had done, which was basically theory, had very pragmatic application. So if I were to say there was a turning point, it would be between 1989 and 1992, working with Sisters in Islam... I think the result of reading for gender in the Qur’an is social justice, and that’s what happened with the Sisters. The results of my research computed into strategic, meaningful, practical changes in terms of lived reality.67

The Malaysian experience shaped Wadud’s Islamic discourse, then, by shifting it from the ‘devotional act’68 of an individual—that of a Muslim woman reading the Qur’an through the lens of gender justice—to a collective act that is explicitly political, coming together with likeminded Muslim women and using the results of this research to address everyday problems faced by women. As SIS organized one outreach activity after another, from public lectures and open forums to the publication of newspaper editorials and pamphlets on pressing issues like domestic violence and the equality of men and women in Islam,[6] Wadud witnessed the myriad ways in which an idea, through action, could transform a society. That being said, at the same time as SIS showed Wadud the political potential of scholarship, she also had a tremendous impact on the movement’s thinking. Before her arrival on the Malaysian scene, SIS had little interest in the Qur’an and focussed far more on questions of shari‘a. By the time Wadud left Malaysia in 1992, the organization’s discourse had squarely shifted from secondary sources to the scriptural source of Islam, foregrounding the Qur’an and using this text as a tool to fight for Muslim women’s rights.[7]

It is in Wadud’s accent on action, moreover, that a critical difference emerges between her hermeneutic and that of Esack, for while Esack’s is a hermeneutic of praxis, Wadud’s is a hermeneutic of application. According to Wadud, actions are ‘a necessary extension of faith.’[8] Her liberating exegesis is marked by a generally linear mode of reading, in which radical reinterpretations of the text are practically applied to real world contexts. To be sure, she clarifies that there cannot be one universal model of implementation, since any effective implementation ‘reflects time, place, gender, level of knowledge, circumstances of history and culture’.[9] But what about the reverse direction? Can the insights and perspectives gained through action not lead to a renewed, reinvigorated reflection? The largely unidirectional character of Wadud’s exegesis stands in contrast to that of Esack. As was shown in the second chapter, according to Esack a liberating exegesis is based on praxis, or the idea that religious reflection ought to take shape in the very midst of struggle. As a result, not only does reflection lead to action but this action, too, has a constitutive effect, creating new insights and revelations into the text.[10] To put it simply: while Wadud’s exegesis is more linear, Esack’s is more dialectical, characterized by a continuous interplay between action and reflection.[11] It is precisely because liberation theology, as a theology of praxis, is forged in the heat of struggle that it makes no claim to objectivity, neutrality, and the truth. Rather, it reclaims the value of subjectivity, privileging the experiences, the perspectives, the truths of the oppressed. Yet Wadud’s generally linear hermeneutic, based on extracting broader principles from the Qur’anic text (theory) and then pragmatically implementing these principles in the present (practice), subscribes, at least to some extent, to notions of objectivity.[12] For example, in Qur’an and Woman she differentiates between reading and exegesis, arguing that while reading is a subjective enterprise, conditioned by ‘the attitudes, experiences, memory, and perspectives on language of each reader’, exegesis is a different creature, attaining a measure of objectivity by employing hermeneutical methods.[13] As the next chapter will show, Barlas criticizes Wa- dud’s distinction between reading and exegesis, pointing out that it is impossible to split these two language acts into separate, hermetically sealed categories, as any textual engagement is inescapably shaped by the contextual baggage of the reader.[14]

  • [1] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 42.
  • [2] Amina Wadud, ‘Teaching Afrocentric Islam in the White Christian South’, inBlack Women in the Academy: Promises and Perils, ed. Lois Benjamin (Gainesville:University Press of Florida, 2007), 142.
  • [3] Gisela Webb ed., Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists in NorthAmerica (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000), xi.
  • [4] Ernest Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (SanFrancisco: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning, 1990), 17.
  • [5] Ibid, 18-24. 67 Wadud, Interview 2009. 68 Ibid.
  • [6] Amina Wadud, ‘Sisters in Islam: Effective against all Odds’, in Silent Voices, eds.Doug A. Newsom and Bob J. Carrell (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1995), 123-4. For the pamphlet publications, see: Sisters in Islam, Are Women andMen Equal before God? (Kuala Lampur: Sisters in Islam, 1991) and Are Muslim MenAllowed to Beat their Wives? (Kuala Lampur: Sisters in Islam, 1991).
  • [7] Wadud, ‘Sisters in Islam’, 120. 3 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 98.
  • [8] 72 Amina Wadud, ‘What’s Interpretation Got to Do With It: The Relationshipbetween Theory and Practice in Islamic Gender Reform’, in Islamic Family Law andJustice for Muslim Women, ed. Hjh Nik Noriani Nik Badlishah (Kuala Lampur: Sisters
  • [9] in Islam, 2003), 93.
  • [10] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 13.
  • [11] Indeed, in reality linear readings are a hermeneutical impossibility, for one doesnot simply pick up a text, read it once, and then spend the rest of one’s lifeimplementing its teachings. Rather, there is a constant, even if unintentional, dialecticbetween the text and life. I am grateful to Christopher Rowland for this insight. Allreadings, therefore, are necessarily dialectical, and what differentiates Esack’s hermeneutic (and that of liberation theology as a whole) is that he consciously foregrounds this cyclical aspect of interpretation.
  • [12] As discussed in the second chapter, this is a key problem that Esack has withRahman’s double movement theory, arguing that the very idea of extracting perennialprinciples from the text is premised on objectivist notions of discovering and accessing the real truth, and thus failing to consider crucial questions of reader subjectivity,interpretive pluralism, and who gets to define truth. See ibid, 68.
  • [13] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 94.
  • [14] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 118.
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