Understanding Aminah Wadud & the PMU

Today, Dr. Amina Wadud, Islamic Studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, is leading a mixed-gender Friday prayer service in New York. This is the first recorded case of a woman delivering a sermon and leading the Friday Sabbath Prayer in Islam’s 1400 year history.

Now, I am not a religious scholar, and so I won’t even attempt to argue the issue theologically. As it so happens, I think there is a more important angle to consider anyway and that is whether or not such a move is relevant to the plight of the Muslim-American community at this time and in this place.

I think that Wadud is being somewhat selfish here, and her supporters, namely members of the Progressive Muslim Union, are being somewhat opportunistic.

Both are fully aware that the token issue they have chosen to trumpet is neither at the forefront of Muslim women’s rights/needs, nor at the forefront of the very real challenges facing the Muslim-American community at this stage of its development. Both know that there are far more important, pressing, and less controversial issues that are begging to be served; issues that promise to galvanize a much more constructive reaction from a somewhat dormant community. And yet they choose to forgo these issues and opt for one they know will create more rifts in the Muslim community than amends.

The American-Muslim community is under relentless scrutiny. It is facing intense pressures on many fronts and so is desperately in need of leadership that will unite its members against the injustices they face. It certainly is not in need of leadership that selfishly distracts its focus and wastes its limited energy on campaigns that do not address any of the real problems plaguing our daily lives.

By insisting on taking up fringe causes and overlooking the pressing causes simmering to be served, Wadud does not only undermine the real issues of relevance to her constituency but earns for herself a reputation as an extremist eccentric in the process. As such, she effectively marginalizes herself, robbing herself of the credibility sorely needed to make any symbolic gesture far reaching and change-inducing – historic as it may be.

Even staying within the realm of women’s rights, this seems to apply: as Wadud distracts us with an issue that the majority of Muslims – women included -don’t think much about, we note that the more pressing infringements of Muslim women’s rights continue to run amuck sans sufficient reproach.

As the Progressive Muslims dabble in gray areas for all the wrong reasons, the non-gray, undisputed rights of women’s (Muslim and otherwise) rights continue to be trampled upon here in the United States as anywhere. They continue to lack a vindicating voice of reason and credibility, and they continue to be short of public attention.

Muslim women continue to struggle with the real problems that pan out in their daily lives. Leading men in prayer is not high on that list; many Muslim women still do not have the freedom to choose who to follow, let alone who to lead. They continue to see their rights revoked not just by overzealous Muslim men who misinterpret Islam to their advantage, but by suspicious employers, unaccommodating lawmakers, unsympathetic media commentators, and vigilante street Joes. Yes, it is not just Muslim male extremists who jeopardize the rights of Muslim women, but secular, well-groomed men in suits as well.

So why do this? Why do it now?

For Wadud, ideological confrontation is the name of the game. It’s her claim to fame.

She’s a "shock Imam" who feeds off tackling controversial issues head on. In this case, she realizes that, though somewhat irrelevant to her community, such an endeavor is historic and so is bound to create ripples.

I am not claiming that Wadud is a hypocrite, only God has the right and the power to judge hearts. As the matter of fact, I have no reason to doubt her sincerity and her belief in, and love of, God. She strikes me as a genuine, intelligent and knowledgeable scholar.

What I am asserting is that her overt actions indicate that she has her priorities badly mixed up. I attribute her lack of clarity of vision to her losing herself to bitterness as she battles a conventional Muslim community that she has come to view with contempt. This as opposed to a non-contemptuous, objective approach peppered with patience and compassion, if not compromises -” one that I would argue is in more accordance with the tender spirit of the Prophet Muhammad. I believe her frustration has led her to vent via obstinate confrontation without much concern for the best interest of the community at large.

For PMU/MWU, it’s yet another opportunity to cater to the vociferous calls of the ominous Western critics of Islam who are currently sitting comfortably at the apex of America’s social and political pyramid dishing out reprovals and approvals of Muslims. The MWU folks seem to crave so desperately the much-coveted seal of approval: the “Good Muslim” badge that initiates Muslims into mainstream society as “good ol’ Americans”.

I am not asking PMU or any Muslim to deny the sorry state of women in some parts of the Muslim world. No Muslim should deny that there are legitimate complaints bemoaning the abuse of women’s rights at the hands of certain Muslim factions; complaints that would sound off from within the ranks of Muslim women just as loudly as they do from the ranks of the Western critics of Islam, had these women the complete freedom to complain. These infringements need to be given immediate attention. Yet when I consider the question, “can a woman lead a congregation of men in prayer?”, I cannot ignore the fact that this is just NOT one of those complaints that are festering in the frustrated minds of oppressed Muslim women, but one that is much more at the forefront for the Western critics of Islam. Had the Wadud/PMU initiative been a grassroots effort reflecting the common will of the people – even just that of Muslim women – I would have been writing an entirely different article. But that is not the case. It is an estranged campaign imposed on the community from the outside. The campaign organizers are fully aware of this.

That is precisely why it becomes crystal clear to me whom the Progressive Muslims are really trying to accommodate with this campaign.

And so I call them opportunistic because I realize that they are taking this on now and here for its publicity value and for its capacity to bring them acceptance, rather than for its value to Muslim women (whose real grievances lie elsewhere).

So who are the MWU Progressive Muslims?

No, they are not CIA agents or undercover enemies of Islam; no, they are not infidels or apostates; kaffirs or Murtads. They are simply -” at times – well-intended Uncle Toms vying for “total acceptance”. More often, they are a new generation of Muslim-Americans who are trying to redefine aspects of Islam to fit their comfort zone as set by their American culture. (Ironically, they do so without realizing that their very formation as a group was in reaction to a generation of Muslims before them making the exact same mistake of customizing Islam to accommodate the comfort zone set by their own Arab culture.)

In other words, the Progressive Muslims are as much culturally influenced as those they criticize for being culturally influenced.

Now, it is an unfortunate reality that Wadud and the Progressive Muslims see the rift that this will cause in the community as a small price to pay, or even worse, as a feat in its own right: "good, let them squabble about it – let’s shock those stagnant losers into change".

In these trying times, the Muslim-American community deserves leaders and activists who put its best interests first and their personal frustrations last.

Only time will tell how much effect today’s publicity ploy will have on advancing the rights of Muslim women.

Personally, I don’t expect much to come out of it.

Wadud will lead the prayer. She will be hailed by her usual supporters, and condemned by her usual critics; lauded by those who are on an ideological cloud of optimism, and heckled by those who are enraged by her perceived apostasy. It will be business as usual for the “shock Imam”. It will be a media field day. For the rest of us, it will be a chance to read and write about something different, but it will never be anything more.

For now, it seems that when it comes to that cause, Wadud and the Progressive Muslims are shooting for the stars, leaving behind a sorry planet called earth. Moreover, they are doing it for all the wrong reasons.