You organised the first ever Muslim Friday prayer service of a mixed
congregation led by a female Imam, Dr Amina Wadud, at Synod House
at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal church in
Manhattan. Why was a church chosen for this historic occasion?
A: When the art gallery had to back out because of fears of
a bomb threat, I searched the city for an alternative venue. St.
John the Divine is known as a place of worship that respects people
of all faiths. They even have a Muslim prayer rug in their main
sanctuary. When I called a coordinator there, she said she could
offer the spacious Synod House. I asked: "Why are you helping
us?" She answered: "Why not?"And that is truly the
attitude we need to embrace in order to overcome fear and advance
as a Muslim world.
You have recently written 'Standing Alone in Mecca: An American
Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam.' A recent CNN report states
that "Some critics have accused Nomani of using the [mixed
gender, woman-led namaaz] event to publicise a book she has written
about women and Islam." How do you respond?
A: I am proud of my book as a platform from which
I can proclaim loud and clear the rights of women that Islam gave
women in the 7th century.
Q: While you profess devotion to the traditions of Islam,
you go against the conventional interpretation of the Quran and
indeed, all monotheistic religions, when you state in your book
that sex outside of marriage is not a sin. Do you believe that the
Quran is flawed or that it needs reinterpretation?
A: As it has been said: Let those without sin, cast
the first stone. I respect the right of people to make moral decisions
about sin, but God is the judge. Man is not the judge. Yet, too
many people are ready to throw a whip across a woman's back for
being an unwed mother or pummel her with stones. I challenge something
very clearly: the punishment of women, because it is usually women
who are punished, for zina, or illegal sex. There is a fundamental
flaw in interpretations of sharia that say a woman - and for that
matter, men - should be punished for sex outside of marriage. We
assign divine creed to manmade laws. The Hudood laws in Pakistan
are manmade. We need to define our communities with compassion and
inspiration not criminalisation and repression.
Q: You travelled through Asia writing a book on the Hindu
erotic philosophy, tantra. You also gained an informal reputation
as the Wall Street Journal's sex-reporter with beats on the mile
high club. You seem fascinated with sex and its relationship to
A: I have seen that issues of sex are very much a
taboo topic in this world. And yet they have a huge impact in defining
our world and, in particular, the lives of women. I have looked
at the intersection of issues of sexuality with religion. It has
become clear to me that women's bodies are used as the vehicles
for their imprisonment in manmade rules that control us, from the
way we dress to where we are allowed to travel. The Prophet did
not have women live in a repressive society in the 7th century.
He was healthy and realistic about issues of sexuality. We need
to do the same.
Q: You have been very candid about your personal life
in your book. You fell in love with a Pakistani man and conceived
a child here. Why did you choose to make your story public ?
A: I have been honest about my baby's conception because
I want to encourage all people - women and men - to live truthfully.
When I told my boyfriend that I was pregnant, he said that he could
not marry me because people would do the math and know that we were
not married when we conceived. I spent virtually every day of my
nine months of pregnancy battling the despair that comes with living
with lies, deceit, and shame. When my son lay in my arms for the
first time, beautiful and perfect, on Oct. 16, 2002, I saw that
he was not scarred by the tears that I had swallowed while pregnant.
My son gave me a second chance. I write more about this in Tantrika.
Q: Why have you
chosen to hide your son's father's identity?
A: Ultimately, we are all accountable to only one
being for our actions on this earth. I am not that being. I pray
only that he will be able to live as peacefully as I do, having
accepted the responsibility God gave me for my beautiful son.
Q: Did your being an unwed mother contribute to your becoming
the very vocal activist for women's rights in Islam that you have
become, in your defence of Amina Lawal, the Nigerian unwed mother
who had been sentenced to stoning by death, and in your recent campaign
to reclaim women's rights in mosques?
A: The murder of my friend Danny and the birth of
my son Shibli forced me to come face-to-face with the horrors of
narrowmindedness, judgmentalism, and even cruelty that are expressed
in the name of Islam. When I went on the Hajj to Mecca in February
2003 with my son, just three months old, I saw the beauty that can
be Islam. These three experiences greatly influenced me. I chose
after a year of thought to raise my son as a Muslim, and from that
day I knew I had to fight for the way Islam is expressed in the
world. I wrote my second book, Standing Alone in Mecca, as a call
to action to all women and moderates within Islam to stand up to
extremists. I have created an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in
Mosques and an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom.
The second-class citizenship of women is not Islamic. I am not going
to win any popularity contests in my local community, but that does
not disturb me.
Q: You have personally led the second mixed congregation
in America, in the hope that "Muslim women will challenge the
status quo." Putting aside gender for a moment, given your
history, do you feel you fit the strict criteria required for an
I have sat in congregations where men who are supposedly knowledgeable
about Islam spew hate toward women, Jews, Christians, the west and
any Muslims who don't agree with them. I have prayed behind imams
who preach that the Quran permits men to beat their wives. Our definition
about "knowledge" has become very skewed in our Muslim
world, and I stand strong as a woman who is very firmly grounded
in the most essential teachings of our religion for peace, love,
and tolerance. The luxury of my life as a writer, journalist and
researcher has allowed me to seek knowledge about a beautiful Islam
that has been lost in the sedimentation of man-made rules. We accept
all sorts of arbitrary litmus tests meant to disqualify women -
and for that matter, men - and we devalue the inspiration of simple
human beings, such as our grandmothers, our mothers, our daughters,
our sisters, who have mastered an understanding of Islam deeper
than many of the great sheikhs and mullahs of the world.
Q: Your movement has been criticised not just by traditional
vanguards of Muslim faith in the Middle East, but also by American
Islamic scholars themselves. Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Islamic
studies at Georgetown University, for example, says that "the
service goes against Islam's traditions" and that in a vacuum
of acceptable Muslim leadership, new leaders who fancy themselves
as the voice of change "can get away with anything." How
do you respond?
A:Social justice is not an issue of popularity contests.
We are challenging an assumption in the Muslim world that men are
the God-given leaders in our society. I don't blame men and women
who oppose this change because, yes, change is frightening. But
we have to acknowledge that we have a serious vacuum of leadership
in our Muslim world. It's time that women take their rightful place
as spiritual equals to men and stand up as leaders defining Islam
in the public space. Look what a mess we are in.
Q: You say that the
prayer was meant "to draw attention to the inequality for women
in Muslim spiritual life and Muslim life in general." Why choose
to highlight a negative spin rather than the positive step which
has been achieved - that of a Muslim woman reclaiming her religion?
A: My thinking is very much two-pronged. We challenge
inequities. We create new realities that reclaim the rights Islam
granted women in the 7th century.
Q: If the woman-led namaaz wasn't meant as a protest against Muslim
traditions, why then did the woman Muazzin, el-Attar, proclaim the
Azan without a headcovering, traditionally considered a symbol of
respect for both men and women when in presence of the divine?
A: I also did not wear my hijab standing in the front row. In creating
dogma, we have forgotten an essential principle in the Quran: "There
is no compulsion in religion." The hijab has become a political
symbol that has become yet another litmus test for a woman's decency
and piety. As long as we don't hurt another human being with violent
action, we must respect the rights of all people to choice in this
world. Allow each one of us to be judged by divine powers, not by
Q: If Dr Wadud and yourself were not the first women to lead Muslim
prayers, why do you believe this event was so widely-publicised
over the world?
A: Dr Wadud was the first one in the modern day to proclaim loud
and clear: women have a right to lead prayer of men and women. This
has not been done since the 7th century. Dr Wadud took the courageous
act of connecting us in the 21st century to the rights women received
in the 7th century, reclaiming rights denied as a result of centuries
of man-made rules. That is why the prayer of March 18, 2005, was
Q: You say "this single act [of a woman leading an unsegregated
service,] is symbolic of the possibilities within Islam."What
precedent is there for a woman imam leading a mixed congregation?
A: The precedent is Umm Waraqa, who was recorded in
every Islamic history book as leading a mixed gender prayer. There
are many caveats that the detractors try to put on her prayer. Some
like to say that she led only people of her household. That there
were only relatives in her congregation. The bottomline is this:
as a woman, she led men and women in prayer. There are documented
accounts that state that men did pray beside women in the 7th century
in the Prophet's mosque in Medina. It's commonly assumed that women
have to pray behind men. Quite frankly, clothing at the time of
the Prophet didn't allow for the type of modesty that we can have
today. Just look at Mecca. I prayed beside my father. Other men
and women prayed beside each other. There was a very healthy distribution
of people in the congregation. Women who wanted to pray together
did. Men who wanted to pray together did. Families who wanted to
pray together did. I saw a woman from the North West Frontier jostling
shoulder-to-shoulder with men. A lightning bolt did not strike her.
As long as we rely upon man-made rules to segregate, we will never
have a healthy society. The society may seem better controlled,
but repression simply breeds quiet rebellions.
Q: But is there a justification in the Quran for a mixed
congregation to be led by a woman?
A: The Quran does not ban women from leading mixed gender congregations.
The Sunnah supports it. To deny women this right is "bidda,"
or an "innovation."
Q: This month, you launched the Muslim Women's Freedom
Tour, a campaign for religious equity and justice for women in Muslim
communities. Can Muslim American women activists make a difference
in the lives of their counterparts around the globe?
A: I hope to educate women about the rights Islam granted us in
century and empower them to reclaim those rights in the 21st century.
I know that we can be a part of solving pressing global issues after
we liberate ourselves fully from centuries of traditions that try
to silence us and subjugate us in the Muslim public sphere. I hope
that we can be an inspiration to our sisters around the globe as they
have been an inspiration to me personally. On March 1, 2005, I launched
the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour and posted the 99 precepts and the
bill of rights on the front door of my mosque in Morgantown, where
the men at my mosque have put me on trial for daring to stand up for
women's rights and tolerance. The punishment that I face: banishment.
But there is one fate they will never be able to impose upon me: silence.