Friday, August 1, 2014

Did she call Imam W. D. Mohammed a feminist?

I don't call Imam W. D. Mohammed a feminist in my new book, but I did say to an audience at my mosque in Atlanta that when I studied Imam W. D. Mohammed's writings on women, I was stunned by the extent to which they sounded, "dare I say it," feminist.

Imam W. D. Mohammed would not have claimed the label--gender equality was not his guiding principle--but empowering and elevating women was central to his work in transitioning the "Black Muslims" from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam. He certainly took on the fight for gender justice and it was at the center, not the periphery, of his work. In a 1977 issue of the Bilalian News, Imam Mohammed stated,

               "Women's lib' is not an accident. It is a divine thing but women have to rise above the 'lib' to understand that we want more than just lip. We want mothers who have mothers' hearts. We want to hear some hearts, some mother sentiments."

In light of other statements by Imam Mohammed on gender and women, which I explore extensively in the book, I interpret the imam here as encouraging women to base their demand for rights and opportunities not on popular notions of women's liberation but on their own experiences as mothers or potential mothers.

As I argue in the book, in no way was he reducing women's experiences to motherhood or encouraging women to stay at home. The increase in women's work and education outside the home was a hallmark of the transition and the imam's leadership.

Instead, Imam Mohammed was saying that the physiological capacity to carry and nurture a human being (a mind) is a honorable commitment and undertaking unique to women. He focused on mothering to correct religious interpretations, especially those of the Bible, that vilified women and this capacity. The capacity to mother, even for women who have not had the experience, offers an immense contribution to the intellectual and moral character of a society.  

To the mosque audience, I did not attempt to provide an extensive analysis of Imam Mohammed's feminist consciousness but invited them to read the book. A question from the audience, however, reminded me that many do not feel comfortable using the word feminism in sacred space, let alone associating it with Imam W. D. Mohammed. I understand the sentiment given the tendency to see feminism in very limited ways. Indeed popular notions of feminism present a critique of religion, and Islam in particular, as inherently oppressive to women.

It is for this reason that I like the modifier "Islamic" to designate a form of feminist thought and practice derived within an Islamic framework. As I state in my interview "Islamic Women, Islamic Feminism,"

          "Muslim women do not have to look beyond their faith tradition to acquire gender consciousness and to fight against gender injustices.  The Qur'an and the precedent of the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him, inspire and inform their feminist practice. This, however, does not mean that other forms of feminism do not influence Muslim women's feminism. Rather, feminisms intersect to influence Muslim women's [consciousness] and activism." 

In my writings, I also use womanist, or black feminist, thought to frame my discussion of Islamic feminism. Because mainstream white feminism did not account for the experiences of African American women who faced multiple forms of discrimination, particularly racism, which affected an entire group of people, not only women, black feminists understood feminism as the pursuit for the rights of women, men, and children.

Similarly, I see Islamic feminism as gender justice thought and work that also accounts for children and men, linking their struggles to the fight for women's rights. Imam Mohammed once stated,

          "I'm trying to promote women's lib and at the same time save society."

I interpret this statement as a clear indication of a feminist consciousness that accounts for the advancement of an entire community. Imam Mohammed's comments on women were almost always tied to consideration of the whole society, community and family.  

In a coming post, I present women's voices in relation to Imam Mohammed's gender thought. Drawing upon their everyday experiences as mothers, many women in his community honored and emphasized motherhood beyond the imam's teachings. They developed gender consciousness and activism on their own terms.

Indeed, African American Muslim women have answered Imam Mohammed's call when he said, "We want to hear some hearts, some mother sentiments." Women answered the call to carve out their own ideas, not based on society's standards, not even based on Imam Mohammed's standards, but the divine light in the hearts of women.

1 comment:

  1. From Sandra El-Amin: " Who will deny that Imam Muhammad endeavored to reaffirm the exalted status, dignity and esteem of womanhood? I enjoyed your insightful comments. They were very thoughtful and very well explained (supported by fact). You also demonstrated understanding and compassion for those who have a more limited understanding of the term "feminist" based on media hype and the popular vernacular. We need more of these thought-provoking discussions in our community; and it often takes much courage to speak the truth when one already knows the consequences of doing so. I applaud your writing, your scholarship, and your teaching. I see you as the preeminent female Islamic scholar of your generation. May Allah reward your efforts!"