October 20, 2012 By Amina Wadud

‘I want to learn experience of living Islam in India’

Amina-WadudAmina Wadud speaks at an informal gathering held by Other Books, Calicut, which published her ‘Quran and Women’ into Malayalam

Thank you very much. First I want you to know that I am loving India and I am loving Kerala specially. I have only been here for one week. It is my intention to stay here for as long as possible-may be one year or may be two years. This is the luxury of being retired. I just wanted to come to India, then to Kerala and to Calicut. So that is how I got here. I don’t have any programme. People asked me before I left the United States, ‘What are you going to do in India.’ I said, ‘anything I want. This is the luxury of being retired. I have worked very hard in my life. I am a mother of five children, which means I had two jobs. The luxury of being retired is to go to places where I would like to go. I was very impressed with the invitation to translate my first book into Malayalam a few years ago. That was how I ended up here.

Quran and Women is 20 years old. It was first published in Malaysia 1992. It was picked up by Oxford University Press in 1999. The research for the book had preceded earlier, when I was a graduate student. So the book has a history of 25 years.

I have not stopped my own research interests and life experiences. Sometimes, it is difficult to speak about the same work again and again. So, sometimes I need to speak new things. It occurred to me that there are people who are interested in speaking new things. It would be good if people come together twice a month to discuss modern literature, sort of holding a book discussion. While it would be possible for me to give occasional formal lecture, I would like to exchange and learn a lot more about Islam and India and Islam and Kerala and to learn how you face issues as Muslims. I can contribute from my research and travel. But not everything is always on me. It happened when I lectured to students who wrote down my notes for exam. And it finished. I would rather be in a space where there is open dialogue. My major interest is in constructions of justice and in how they are actually played out in our lives as individuals and as members of families, as members of small communities, members of larger communities and nation states and as citizens of world.

I think that the notion of justice has never been static. What was justice at a time when the Prophet received Revelation is not the same as justice today. For example, my family descended from African slaves that means Africans-free people-who were brought to the Americas to be slaves. We were not workers; we were slaves. That is my heritage. Slavery existed during the time of the Prophet and slavery is discussed in the Quran as an institution that existed. There is no question about it. Fair treatment of slaves is the only issue that was raised. The inhumanity of slavery as an institution was never addressed by the Quran. There is a reason for this. And understanding that justice is an active term allows us to believe in the Quran, to follow the Quran, but (at the same time) not to hold slaves in the Year 2012. I am interested in how we understand the Quran in such a dynamic way. It is how we continue to believe in Allah, to love the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) and at the same time to contribute to the way Islam is lived today. We call this the construction of knowledge project, in which we actively participate in making Islam and we contribute to its structure, its depth and its breadth so that in future generations will look back on our times and be able to say, ‘You know what happened at the beginning of the 21st century. Kada v kada (arabic idiom meaning so and so).

So I refer to the active participation we make in the construction of Islam. I believe in the living god, Allah High. So I believe in a living religion. I don’t believe in living the religion of someone else’s past. I don’t believe in living the religion of someone else’s location. I believe that Allah has the capacity to keep Islam alive and dynamic. The only reason why we go back is because of us people. We the people must keep pace. The whole universe is constantly in motion, while we are sleeping. When we have the privilege, the mercy of sleeping, the world goes on. While people are dying, the living goes on. We have the opportunity in our life to contribute from our life towards the life of Islam. And I believe this in particular because of my involvement in gender issues. Sometimes, when you talk about gender issues, people think it’s about women. I am not. I am talking about gender, which is a construct of masculinity and femininity. That means, it has to do with women and men. Because of the practices of injustice, it continues to go on. Sometimes it is justified in the name of Islam. I think it is important to be able to counter that with a living embodiment of Islamic justice that is appropriate for our time and place. So, that clearly means there is no slavery. It also means there is no patriarchy. Patriarchy as an institution has outlived its usefulness and now it is walking towards its destruction. I think if we lived in caves, it is very nice we come out of caves. We need to be for future. We need to be part of the change. And that is what I considered to be my responsibility wherever I go. It is my responsibility too, when I am here.

However, there is so much I don’t know. I don’t know much about Islam in India and Islam in northern part of India and in southern part of India. And I am wise enough to know I don’t know. So there is so much I can learn from and can be actively engaged in. That would be something of interest to me. And I would also be willing to do formal works, depending on who is interested and who is making the investment. I am here on my own financial ticket. There are skills I can share, which I would not offer for free. I do charge. So be careful about what you are going to ask. I will give you bill at the end of the day. But there is so much more that is available for free. And that is the exchange. And that is what I am more inclined towards. That would allow me to be a learner, a student and not just someone who is responsible for someone else’s learning.
I have heard that this part of India has the highest level of education among all parts of South East Asia. So I have very high expectation when I compare you will all places I have visited. Hopefully, you would not disappoint me. You have made excellent contribution to knowledge. It will be a very dynamic visit for me and you will be excellent hosts. Brothers and sister, you will make it so that I will not miss family. I have never travelled and stayed long away from my children. I have five adult children and three grandchildren. I am hoping that there will be so much here that a visit home would be enough and I can continue my experience here. I would tell you why I was motivated to come to India.
I have lived in five different countries, including my home the United States, where we, I mean, Muslims are minority. We are very small minority sometimes having very little impact on the public idea about Islam. The mainstream perception of Islam especially post 9/11 is that Islam is terrorism. And we work very hard to show that there is diversity in Islam. There are terrorists who are Muslims. We can’t pretend that they are not Muslims. For, when we say that they are not Muslims we don’t have any responsibility towards them.. We are also responsible for Muslim terrorists. But the majority of Muslims in the world are not terrorists. In fact, a large percentage of them are not terrorists. But the impression (that most Muslims are terrorists) is being recapitulated in America. But, besides living in my country, I have never lived in a country where Islam is not majority. India would be my (first) experience in that respect. But I hope there is a dynamic minority relationship here. I am interested to know how Muslims maintain their integrity, identity and spirituality and how they contribute to the GDP. And how Muslims make India a successful country. What it is that they contribute specially from Islam and what it is that they contribute as they citizens? That is a good thing. It is important we are both citizens and Muslims. And I am interested to know how it is related to the notions of spirituality and identity. Are you different as Muslims in a minority country from Muslims in the majority contexts?

My experience so far: I have lived in Libya, Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia. Twice in Asia, Mid-east and North Africa. I want to believe that when Islam encounters dynamic religious identities, it makes our identity more well-defined. We understand what makes us Muslims and what makes us, say, Keralites. So, I am interested really in the dynamics of identity development. Despite the minority status, in India the number of Muslims are very, very large and the history of Islam is very, very deep. It would give me a sense of a living dynamics of Islam that I could not get in Egypt and Indonesia. However, Indonesia is my favorite place of Muslims in the world. Indonesians have a very distinct sense of identity. They are very clear that they are Indonesians and Muslims. And yet, like India, they live in a secular democracy which means they accept the right of other people to believe in other religions without prejudice before the law. So what they construct in terms of living Islam is not same as the age-old tendency to say ‘it is Islam.’  When most people speak about Islam, they are referring to the dead Islam. Islam is very much alive in Indonesia. It is very exciting to live and participate in that kind of dynamic relationship.
I am expecting a similar, if better experience of living Islam in India, because you have maintained an authentic Islamic identity through many conflicts across the continent. India is the mother of colonies. But for the India project, colonialism would never have been clear as colonialism. How did you survive colonialism and not come out with scars. You came out so productive as to contribute to the growth of the nation state as citizens and Muslims. How did you do that? These are the kinds of things I would be observing here. I don’t have a book in my mind. I lived in five countries before this. I did not write book about any of those. I might share my experiences there; but I am not a sociologist. I am a theologist, I am very interested in the notions of god and that is the one area on which we can have exchanges. If you want to discuss theological ideas in modern contexts and of course Quranic hermeneutics-how we understand Quran in our times and how we use it as hudan lil muthaqueen (kind of guidance that leads on a straight path), (you are welcome). So other than that I am very informal person, believe it or not. I don’t like to get involved in the media. It is clear that I have something to share. It is never because I want to be here inside for you to take picture of me. I’m not impressed with sensationalism. I am very much impressed with sincerity.

You can’t be the mother of five children and not accept the differences of opinion. We grow our children to be independent, to stand up and speak their minds out at the early age. We love this independence and freedom. I have five adult children and am used to listening to more than one opinion. I don’t think I can force my opinion on anyone and I can accept an opinion I don’t agree with. I would always listen, if you have a good argument. And I would discuss with you my disagreement and we can agree to disagree.

Posted in: Articles