On Race and Religious Pluralism
As has been shown at numerous points in this chapter, issues of race permeate Wadud’s writings. In fact, race is arguably the most crucial aspect of her analysis after gender. Looking back at her early life, she records how Blackness became an inseparable part of her identity, especially during the final three years of high school. Recall that at the age of fourteen, Wadud left Washington, DC, to attend a reputed high school in an all-White suburb of Boston, living with different fam- ilies.212 She vividly recounts her conflicted experience at this institution, being one of only two Black students:
I was a black female. During those years I was never for a moment allowed to let my Blackness escape me. Aspects of my color and ethnicity were the points of entry and exit into many facets of my high school life. Privileges were given to me or withheld from me because of my race. In my first semester, I refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. I was permitted to make my protest, but not to enter the classroom. So, for three years, I spent homeroom period wandering the halls. I was allowed to do this—although no one else ever was.... I was even excused from dissecting a frog on the day that Martin Luther King was shot. None of these favors were permitted to white students. In each case the affirmation was only that one set of rules applied for the whites and another set applied for me. No one ever knew
that I simply didn’t want to dissect the frog Being Black was a special
prize and a unique curse. My first highschool crush told me he couldn’t kiss me because I was Black. I had no boyfriends because I was Black, or I had them out of curiosity or pity because I was Black. In short, at no juncture was I to forget that I was Black. So I never forgot.
Though she had grown up in mostly Coloured spaces, it was, interestingly, with her entry into a predominantly White setting that her racial consciousness heightened. This emerging sense of ethnic identity was intensified, moreover, by the wider American context: namely, the civil rights struggle—as the above passage notes, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated during her senior years—and, more significantly, the rise of the Black Power movement.
And just as with gender, Wadud brings her racial background to the interpretation of the Qur’an. Reflecting upon Q. 49:11-13, she argues that while the text acknowledges the differences that exist between various communities, it never uses these differences as a measure of human worth. The passage reads:
O you who believe! Let not any people deride another people: it may be that they are better than they are; nor let women (deride) other women: it may be that they are better than they are... O humankind! We created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. The noblest among you in the eyes of God are the most pious (atqakum) among you.
So whereas she drew upon the first part of Q. 49:13 when reading through the lens of gender justice—‘We created you from a male and a female’—here she focuses on the latter part of this verse, referring to God creating ‘nations and tribes’ so that they may recognize one another. Furthermore, just as with the case of gender, it is taqwa, appearing in this passage in the superlative form (atqakum: literally, the most God-conscious among you), that becomes the central criterion with which God will render judgement. But while White racism has undoubtedly played a formative role on Wadud’s hermeneutic, it is important to note that the brunt of her critiques, at least insofar as race relations within the American Muslim community are concerned, centre on Arab and South Asian Muslim immigrants who, due to their superior socioeconomic standing in comparison to their African American coreligionists, have monopolized leadership and public representation roles within the American Muslim commu- nity. Indeed, Wadud laments that the attacks of 9/11 have reinforced the misled notion that ‘Islam in America is only the Islam of foreigners’, thereby rendering Black Muslims even more invisible.
Wadud also embraces questions of religious pluralism. Like Esack and Engineer, she is wary of exclusivist Islamic discourses that claim to own God, countering that Muslims constitute one of numerous faith communities that have been recipients of divine revelation. As she put it in her Friday sermon in New York City in 2005:
There is no chosen people, exclusive members of one of the world’s many religions—some no longer in existence—some so widespread by numbers and powers that they look upon themselves as exclusively ‘the chosen.’ The ‘chosen’ are all of humanity.
There can be little doubt that her emphasis on the transcendence of God, underscoring the chosen-ness of all people as opposed to solely Muslims, is a direct result of her own diverse religious background, being born into a devoutly Christian household, living for a year as a Buddhist, and, finally, converting to Islam.222 This deeply enriching experience enabled her to appreciate the intrinsic value of different faiths, to acknowledge the plurality of divine disclosure. Wadud’s writings on religious pluralism also delve into apologetics, however. Her commentary on polytheism is an illustrative example:
... polytheism in Qur’anic discourse did not include any direct references to Hindu or African traditional religious polytheism, which have both the concept of numerous gods as well as the concept of the sacred as Ultimate.... There are no animists, believers in the sacred manifestations throughout creation, as in many indigenous traditions, like native African, Australian, and North and South American pre- and post-Qur’anic traditions. These are not directly spoken to in the Qur’an. Furthermore, all forms of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, with unembodied or non-personified concepts of the sacred, were excluded from Qur’anic discussions of faith or religion, despite their existence prior to the seventh century in other parts of the globe.
But since the Qur’an spoke to a specific context, addressing the religious communities and practices that were immediately present in that time and place—precisely the reason why Jews and Christians, in addition to polytheists, are mentioned—is it persuasive to reason that just because other faith traditions are not discussed that they are, therefore, outside the fold of the text’s discourse on monotheism? For the Qur’an puts forth a principle with regard to belief: namely, that of not associating any partners with God, thereby undermining the unity of the Creator. Particular manifestations of such divine association, then, are contingent upon different historical contexts. Given Wadud’s hermeneutical emphasis on principles over particulars, it is surprising that here she focuses on particulars, shying away from making broader generalizations on polytheism.
With regard to Wadud’s approach to religious pluralism, two points of clarification are in order. Firstly, although religious pluralism plays a role in Wadud’s thinking, it is squarely secondary to that of racial justice. If the two are in conflict, the latter takes precedence. This prioritization of race is vividly illustrated in a roundtable discussion in which Wadud participated, entitled ‘Feminist Theology and Religious Diversity’. The roundtable addressed the Christian- centricness of feminist theology and included respondents from Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim backgrounds. Rita Gross—a White American Buddhist theologian—set the stage for discussion by contributing the opening article, reflecting on her own experiences as a nonChristian scholar in feminist theological circles. For Gross, a key problem is that discussions of diversity have largely revolved around diversity within Christianity:
When I have pointed out that some of us are not Christians and that religious diversity, not just intra-Christian diversity, needs to be on the agenda, my comments have been repeatedly ignored. As soon as I would finish speaking, people would return to the topic of intraChristian diversity and complain that not enough non-white Christian feminist theologians were in the group.
Wadud responds with a pointed criticism of how ‘diversity’ is being framed, unearthing the racial privilege that underlies Gross’ grievances:
For anyone to espouse an enlightened expression about the use of the term diversity, she must first accept the necessity to annihilate all forms of white supremacy. I will not accept to coordinate my efforts with any white feminist—for whatever reasons of her own personal experiences of marginalization—who chooses to ignore this reality of race.
In other words, why should the inclusion of non-Christians, in particular White non-Christians, into Christian feminist circles be privileged over the inclusion of Black and other Coloured Christians into these very circles? Is racial diversity, even within Christian contexts, less significant than interreligious diversity? Indeed, in this roundtable Wadud (despite her non-Christian faith) sides with her excluded Christian sisters of colour, that is, she privileges racial diversity over interreligious diversity. Yet, as she herself observes, Christian-centricness is a problem in feminist theology.228 So how can this be addressed while still paying due attention to pressing questions of race? She resolves this puzzle by switching her interlocutor altogether, speaking to Coloured Christian feminist theologians. Here, Wadud challenges the hegemony of Black Christian feminist thought and experience over womanist theology and how, for example, Islam’s historic role in Black religion is routinely ignored.229 What is necessary, then, is greater interreligious diversity within feminist theologies of colour, which hitherto have been Christian dominated.
The second point of clarification is that, in terms of religious pluralism, Wadud’s primary interest is not in Muslim/non-Muslim relations—interreligious pluralism—but rather in the interfaith dynamics that exist within the Muslim community, that is, intrareligious pluralism. Referring to Q. 2:256, ‘There is no compulsion in religion’, she argues that not only is entry into Islam a purely personal decision that cannot be forced upon anyone but so, too, is a Muslim’s decision to leave the faith—a right that is severely undermined by the punishment of death for apostasy, as outlined in the shari‘a. This accusation of apostasy, of being outside the pale of Islam, is used not only to ensure that Muslims remain Muslims but also as a powerful tool to silence alternative religious voices within the community. Indeed, Wadud herself, as a highly controversial figure amongst mainstream Muslims, has been constantly accused of being nonMuslim, even an enemy of Islam. A YouTube video that covered aspects of the 2005 Friday Prayer in New York City captures the deeply controversial (and marginal) nature of this event within the wider Muslim community, showing an angry group of Muslims protesting outside the prayer venue—a church, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine—amongst them a man holding a placard that read: ‘Ameena Wadud [sic] is not a Muslim according to the Qur’an and Sunnah.’ Fostering an inclusive atmosphere of interpretive pluralism within the community is crucial, therefore, in order to mainstream egalitarian interpretations of Islam, especially in terms of gender justice.