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American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism

American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism
More Than a Prayer

Examining the intellectual output of female American Muslim writers and scholars since 1990, Hammer demonstrates that the themes at the heart of women’s writings are central to the debates of modern Islam worldwide.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, #28

April 2012
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295 pages | 6 x 9 | 32 b&w photos |

Following the events of September 11, 2001, American Muslims found themselves under unprecedented scrutiny. Muslim communities in the United States suffered from negative representations of their religion, but they also experienced increased interest in aspects of their faith and cultures. They seized the opportunity to shape the intellectual contribution of American Muslims to contemporary Muslim thought as never before. Muslim women in particular—often assumed to be silenced, oppressed members of their own communities—challenged stereotypes through their writing, seeking to express what it means to be a Muslim woman in America and carrying out intra-Muslim debates about gender roles and women’s participation in society. Hammer looks at the work of significant female American Muslim writers, scholars, and activists, using their writings as a lens for a larger discussion of Muslim intellectual production in America and beyond.

Centered on the controversial women-led Friday prayer in March 2005, Hammer uses this event and its aftermath to address themes of faith, community, and public opinion. Tracing the writings of American Muslim women since 1990, the author covers an extensive list of authors, including Amina Wadud, Leila Ahmed, Asma Barlas, Riffat Hassan, Mohja Kahf, Azizah al-Hibri, Asra Normani, and Asma Gull Hasan. Hammer deftly examines each author’s writings, demonstrating that the debates that concern American Muslim women are at the heart of modern Muslim debates worldwide. While gender is the catalyst for Hammer’s study, her examination of these women’s intellectual output touches on themes central to contemporary Islam: authority, tradition, Islamic law, justice, and authenticity.

  • Note on Transliteration
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  1. A Woman-Led Friday Prayer: March 18, 2005
  2. Women Leading Prayers: Tracing the Debate
  3. Gender Justice and Qur'anic Exegesis
  4. History, Women's Rights, and Islamic Law
  5. Authority, Tradition, Community
  6. Space, Leadership, Voice
  7. Media, Representation(s), Politics
  8. Memoirs, Narratives, and Marketing
  9. Covers and Other Matters: Concluding Thoughts
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Juliane Hammer is Assistant Professor and Kenan Rifai Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of Palestinians Born in Exile: Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland.


Head to the ground


Even the floor she walks upon becomes sacred


She prays in prescribed form but knows


There is no language the Universe does not accept


There is no posture void of God


From "My Sister's Prayer" by Suheir Hammad


It was the prayer of a Muslim woman, standing, bowing, and prostrating "head to the ground," that would leave its mark on Muslim debates about gender, women, and tradition. Like the sister in Suheir Hammad's poem, she and those praying with her performed their prayer in the prescribed form, and yet some aspects were different. On March 18, 2005, Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies, gave the Friday sermon to a mixed-gender congregation and subsequently led the same congregation in Friday prayer in New York City. While it was not the first time a Muslim woman led men and women in prayer, it was a highly publicized and highly debated act of religious, political, and symbolic significance. The 2005 prayer, itself part of a larger trajectory of events, debates, and developments, focused and changed existing intra-Muslim discussions and reflections on issues ranging from women's interpretation of the Qur'an, leadership, mosque space, and religious authority to gender activism and media representations. In this book I take the 2005 woman-led prayer event as the historical focus for these larger debates. This is why this book is about more than a prayer.


American Muslim Women's Writings and the Prayer Event


The research project this book is based on was initially not about the woman-led prayer at all. A broader interest in the intellectual production of American Muslims and their contributions to contemporary Muslim thought came together with a long-standing interest in gender debates and women's roles in Muslim societies. The result was a growing collection of texts written and published by American Muslim women. Two categories of texts emerged: (1) academic writings by Muslim women concerned with Muslim women and gender discourses; and (2) narrative and autobiographical materials. Some of the texts were products of the 1980s and 1990s. However, the bulk of the materials were published in the past decade, with a notable increase in quantity since 2001. It is easy and tempting to explain this surge with the events of September 11, 2001, but that may be too easy. It has become commonplace to describe 9/11 as a formative event not only for the world or the United States but also, and in particular, for American Muslims. And it is certainly the case that the aftermath of 9/11 saw increased scrutiny and indeed often collective persecution of American Muslims as internal security risks while also dramatically increasing interest in all things Islamic and Muslim, both in the American public sphere and in the world of academic inquiry. The growing academic interest (and its marketability) is amply demonstrated by the large volume of recent publications dedicated specifically to the study of American Muslims. Some of these academic works support the impression that 9/11 has forever changed the status of American Muslims in American society, as well as American Muslim attitudes, discourses, and practices. However, many of the debates and issues catapulted to the forefront of public interest and indeed many of the transformation processes that have taken place in American Muslim communities have trajectories that reach farther back and cannot solely be explained by the impact of 9/11. The existence of materials and texts by and about Muslim women dating to the early 1980s is a clear indication of this trend. The increase in the number of texts is more closely linked to increased public and publishing interest than to the absence or insignificance of gender discourses and transformations in the decades before 2001.


The second step of the project was to identify shared patterns and themes in the texts so as to analyze them as a body of materials with an inner cohesion beyond the shared identities of their authors as American Muslim women. Not unexpectedly, the scholarly materials in the first category were very different in style and content from the "speaking out" literature in the second category. And even the drawing of boundaries around the group "American Muslim women" was not quite as self-evident as expected. The authors are Muslim women because they identify as such in their writings, regardless of whether they perceive this identity as primary or more significant than other markers of identities. They are American in a very broad sense because they publish their writings in the North American academic and publishing context and thus address them to American audiences. Every other restriction of their Americanness would have become a matter of definition and thus by itself part of the naming process. This is not to say that no woman author was excluded. For a variety of reasons some of which will be discussed below, I did not include every woman who identified as Muslim in her writings and has published in North America. Some of the reasons are a function of political preferences; others are a matter of methodology.


The most significant pattern I recognized was the fact that all the texts demonstrate the investment of their authors in a triangle of self-understanding and textual production: they write for the sake of formulating, negotiating, and sometimes saving their faith and religious identities as Muslim women; they address intra-Muslim and communal audiences in an attempt to generate discussions about gender discourses, attitudes, and practices in those communities; and they are acutely aware of and directly involved in media representations of Muslims and Islam and/or the dynamics of authority and scholarship in the secular American academy. Each corner of this triangle influences the others in the ways in which the texts are produced, negotiated, and contested.


It soon became apparent that the number of authors and texts identified was too large to analyze in comprehensive and qualitative ways. Focusing on a particular historical event had the potential for a more focused and nuanced study of the larger topic. As I demonstrate, many of the authors discussed here were somehow connected to the 2005 woman-led prayer and the debates surrounding it, most notably Asra Nomani, the chief organizer, and Amina Wadud, the imamah (prayer leader) and khatibah (woman offering the Friday sermon) of the event. Although their writings have an important role in many chapters in this book, I have tried to avoid constructing the two women as archetypical in conveniently dichotomous (or complementary) pairs. The tendency and indeed temptation to "pitch" them as opposite poles—for example, born Muslim/convert, South Asian/African American, scholar/journalist—became quite evident in media coverage of the event. While some of those dichotomies reflect real issues and concerns within Muslim communities in North America, the focus on these two individuals and their struggles has overshadowed the intellectual, religious, and political communities that have sustained the discussions and debates on women and gender among American Muslims. Many other authors are discussed in this book in order to highlight their equally important perspectives and contributions.


Privileging Texts and Voices


In the process of writing this book I was criticized for giving too much credit and paying too much attention to the 2005 woman-led prayer and its organizers. Critics have argued that the event was blown out of proportion by the media (and the organizers themselves) and that it has had no lasting or significant impact. I disagree. The prayer event served as a catalyst for debates that were already under way among Muslims in North America. The event itself was an accident of history, initiated by particular individuals on a particular day in a particular place. However, if not with those individuals, that day, in that place, something like the March 18, 2005, woman-led prayer event would have happened as the logical culmination of a trajectory of events and debates in the decades before. All those—intellectuals, activists, and community members—arguing over gender equality, social justice, and the inclusion of women, whether they were male or female, had already paved the way for this step. Texts and events since March 2005 attest to the lasting impact of this symbolic event.


The focus on the prayer as a historical event calls into question the methodological focus on texts as opposed to a multilevel methodology that includes empirical research such as interviews and observations. It was not only the fact that I did not attend the 2005 prayer or that I did not develop a scholarly interest in the event and the debates until long after March 2005. It was also not only the methodological difficulty of "recording" or tracing something as fluid as gender discourses in Muslim communities and how they were and are translated into realities on the ground. Rather, it was my concern about how a more empirical approach as opposed to a textual one would limit and define the range of possible readings of the texts that swayed me in the direction of textual analysis. And it was my original interest in the intellectual production of American Muslims that is still significantly understudied that helped retain my focus on texts.


Based on a broad definition of the category "text," this study draws on books, journal articles, newspaper items, websites, and documentaries produced by and about American Muslim women since the early 1980s. It is in the nature of the texts, especially those of a scholarly nature, to easily move between the categories of primary and secondary sources. Throughout the book I have used academic writings by Muslim women scholars for analysis while also drawing on their analysis of the matters at hand. This approach creates productive tensions between the dynamics of scholarly authority and the "'reading'" of primary texts. It also reflects the dynamics of my own involvement in different communities. As an Islamic studies scholar I have encountered many of the intellectuals whose work I assess here as colleagues, mentors, and peers. Reading and analyzing the works of one's contemporaries comes with the hazard of attachment but also the very real possibility of being taken up on the invitation to engage in dialogue on their writings and my readings of them. I have found myself deeply involved in the very discourses and debates I am analyzing here, and thus this book is at once an analysis of and a contribution to the texts at the center of this study. My own work is as much invested in the triangle of faith, community, and representation as the texts and authors analyzed here.


The textual approach, the focus on the woman-led prayer and the selection of works by women writers, can produce the impression that this study privileges the ideas and contribution of a very specific segment of American Muslim communities: those commonly described as progressive or liberal. Both terms are immediately political, especially in discussions of "gender issues," in Islam as the status of women in Muslim societies has for more than a century been a litmus test of the ability of Muslims to be "modern." They are also of concern when state actors like the United States actively pursue the construction of different categories of Muslims, or what Mahmood Mamdani has termed the "good Muslim—bad Muslim" dichotomy. Such labels, even when self-assigned, are even more complicated when they are used to dismiss or belittle contemporary Muslim projects of reform, transformation, or preservation. This privileging of certain ‘voices' is in part a function of the texts themselves. Many of the texts by American Muslim women written in English and published by mainstream publishers are indeed more representative of a small spectrum of all American Muslim women. The dynamics of speaking for other Muslim women and standing in for them in media and textual representations is the subject of one chapter of this book. Rather than be overly critical of the progressive bent of many of the writings, it is important to recognize this "bias" as a research result in and of itself.


The focus on women's writings creates another limitation that is only partly addressed in this book. Foregrounding the texts authored by women has created a space for interactions and conversations between women authors while ostensibly ignoring that Muslim men have made significant contributions to gender debates and that women's ideas, projects, and critiques can only be understood in their interplay and interdependence with men's perspectives. This gender bias, even more than the progressive bias, has the potential to relegate women's contributions to the womens corner, away from the concerns of those outside it. The book, in sometimes ambivalent ways, includes men's perspectives and the contributions of male Muslim intellectuals to gender discourses while recognizing the power dynamics of using male perspectives to authenticate or legitimize women intellectuals and their ideas. Muslim women and men are increasingly conscious of the need to negotiate gender discourses among as well as between the sexes. The ultimate emphasis on women's texts and perspectives is a form of affirmative action: as long as women have to struggle for their concerns and ideas to be heard within Muslim communities, extra attention and analysis with a focus on precisely these concerns and ideas may help them take their place as half of their communities.


The focus on text should not be read as a dismissal of the various forms and projects of local, communal, and transnational activism that American Muslim women are involved in. There is a strong interdependence between formulating and negotiating discourses and translating them into actions. The prayer event itself as well as many other activist projects mentioned in this book are informed by gender discourses and debates while simultaneously informing and changing the discourses themselves.


American and Transnational Dimensions


American Muslims are at once American and members of transnational Muslim networks. As such, their histories are interwoven with those of the United States and Canada (and the Americas), and they are equally intertwined with the modern and especially colonial and postcolonial histories of Muslim-majority countries halfway across the globe. The transnational dynamics of American Muslims' intellectual production and activism are hinted at in several places in this book, but more research is necessary to adequately assess the multiple ways in which American Muslim intellectuals are produced by and are producing contemporary Muslim thought.


Muslims are part of the fabric of American society, socially, economically, politically, and religiously, and they are struggling to be recognized as equal members in it. As Americans and as Muslims they have to negotiate the environments, histories, and policies of a secular state with a liberal ideology. While several chapters of this book are focused on intra-Muslim debates and conversations, they are always framed by the particular American context in which they take place. For a better understanding of the secular state—religious community dynamic, I draw in subtle ways on the works of Talal Asad. His assessment of the historical development of secular and liberal ideologies and practices and his critique of secular and liberal frameworks as self-evident and uncontroversial sets of values have deeply influenced my thinking about Muslims as a religious minority population in North America.


Even more directly, the work of Saba Mahmood (who draws on Asad's work herself) has provided avenues for situating this project. Initially, Mahmood's work on women in the piety movement in Egypt appeared at one end of the spectrum of how one can study Muslim women and gender discourses and thus worked as something of a mirror to my own concerns. The women in Mahmood's study participated in religious education and transformation through increased levels of piety and religious practice. The women authors I studied situated themselves as part of American society, however critical they may have been of it, and employed decidedly liberal frameworks to position themselves within their communities and the larger society. Mahmood saw her work as a contribution to feminist theory engaging with religious women, while some women authors in my study themselves employed feminist theory and rhetoric to advance religious transformation. In Politics of Piety Mahmood describes the way one of her informants, a woman preacher in a mosque in Cairo, insisted on leading women who were studying with her in prayer, despite the quite explicit prohibition of such prayer leadership in Hanafi interpretations of Islamic Law. Strikingly, the argument for her choice was the possibility of interpreting the law differently, thus assuming the authority to do so, but not any liberally framed gender concern. For American Muslim women writers the prayer was all about gender and symbolic equality and not very much about legal dynamics. Yet Mahmood's critique of the inability of liberal frameworks to acknowledge their own discursive power helped me understand the ways in which the women (and men) in this study are influenced by such frameworks and their inherent power dynamics.


Asad's work is foundational in yet another way for many of the topics discussed in this book. Asad has formulated the now commonly cited concept of an "Islamic discursive tradition" (there can be a multitude of them in his view). In his seminal essay The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam he writes:


A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. These discourses relate conceptually to a past (when the practice was instituted, and from which the knowledge of its point and proper performance has been transmitted) and a future (how the point of that practice can best be secured in the short or long term, or why it should be modified and abandoned), through a present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions, and social conditions). An Islamic discursive tradition is simply a tradition of Muslim discourse that addressed itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future, with reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present.


Mahmood elaborates:


Tradition, viewed in this way, is not a set of symbols and idioms that justify present practices, neither is it an unchanging set of cultural prescriptions that stand in contrast to what is changing, contemporary, or modern. Nor is it a historically fixed social structure. Rather, the past is the very ground through which the subjectivity and self-understanding of a tradition's adherents are constituted. An Islamic discursive tradition, in this view, is therefore a mode of discursive engagement with sacred texts, one effect of which is the creation of sensibilities and embodied capacities (of reason, affect, and volition) that in turn are the conditions for the tradition's reproduction.


Such an understanding of the dynamics of text, interpretation, and history permeates the discourses and debates addressed in this book. Whether it is in attempts to reinterpret the Qur'an, rethink and restructure Islamic rituals such as congregational prayer, or make claims to religious and communal authority, the interplay of texts and interpretative presents and authoritative readings of the past are ever-present subtexts in those debates.


American Muslim women are part of the fabric of American society and history in yet another way. Not only does secular American feminism have its own trajectory and dynamics, but to a greater extent religious feminisms are a product of and in constant conversation with the concerns and investments in secular America and the secular feminist movement. Aysha Hidayatullah has traced the interactions of Muslim women feminist theologians with Jewish and Christian feminist thinkers in the United States and has argued that while other religious feminisms have had various interactions with Muslim feminist thinkers and their ideas, deep rifts and disconnects also need to be acknowledged. Of particular importance is the tendency of American feminists, both secular and religious, to use Islam and Muslim women as a backdrop for their own conversation and as the other against which to define themselves. Even more difficult to escape is a sense of evolutionary hierarchy in which feminist projects and ideas are measured against a scale of developments in Christian and later Jewish feminism in which they can only be in a perpetual state of being behind. And while Muslim women scholars have been involved in feminist "interfaith" work for decades, they have also often insisted on their own circumstances, trajectories, and methods. Many Muslim women scholars are still debating the use of the term feminist for themselves and their works.


The Structure of the Book


This book is and is not about woman-led prayer. It uses the 2005 woman-led prayer in New York as the historical focus for an analysis of gender discourses in American Muslim communities as reflected in the scholarly and nonfiction writings of American Muslim women authors. The resulting structure of the book combines two focused chapters on the prayer event itself and the ensuing debate on woman-led prayer with six thematic chapters addressing a variety of themes that formed the subtext and framework of the debates.


Chapter 2 describes the prayer event on March 18, 2005. It also includes a partial transcript of Amina Wadud's Friday sermon and the first written reflections by some of those who organized and attended the event. Chapter 3 traces the debate surrounding the prayer event, starting with opinions expressed after the early announcement of the event and following the trail of opinion pieces, newspaper articles, and follow-up events into the summer of 2005. The chapter also identifies the themes guiding the remaining six chapters of the book and argues that the prayer acted as a lens that focused and advanced existing discussions on women and gender in American Muslim communities.


Chapter 4 presents a discussion of the exegetical projects developed by American Muslim women scholars in their hermeneutics and goals. It argues that the prayer event should be read as an embodiment of a tafsir (Qur'anic exegesis) of gender justice, which is at the center of women's interpretations of the Qur'an. The chapter also presents an analysis of two Friday khutbahs (sermons) offered by Amina Wadud, one in 1994 in South Africa and another at the prayer event in 2005. Both khutbahs are to be read as tafasir (pl. tafsir) of gender justice and equality demonstrating the content and methods of Wadud's Qur'anic exegesis.


Chapter 5 engages with the legal dimensions of the prayer debate and develops a larger framework for women scholars' approaches to Islamic Law. Connecting the hadith of Umm Waraqa, often cited in discussions of the prayer, with the larger legal arguments for and against women's prayer leadership, the chapter then moves to the works of women scholars with particular interest in legal frameworks and legal reform, as well as women's scholarship within human rights frameworks. Finally, it addresses the identification and negotiation of historical role models for contemporary Muslim women, in particular a recent interest in the person of Hagar among several Muslim women writers.


Chapter 6 connects exegetical and legal projects to the overarching question of religious authority and the ways in which women scholars have stepped into the authority "voids" created by colonialism and modernity. Muslim religious authority is linked directly to the ongoing debate about the nature of the Islamic tradition and whether there is indeed a complete or even partial break between the "classical" and modern interpretations of textual sources and the application of hermeneutical methods. Discussions of Islam as tradition are inextricably linked to questions of authenticity. The idea of interpretive communities as the only way to make interpretations relevant is then connected to the multiple ways in which American Muslim women's ideas have contributed to the creation and sustenance of informal networks, communities, and structures.


Chapter 7 addresses another subtext of the prayer event: the quest of American Muslim women for full access to and equality in mosques and the debate about women's leadership roles within and outside mosques and formal community structures. If the prayer event "gave voice" to women's demands, it also claimed their right to both really and symbolically use their voices in worship and community politics. The chapter closes with a discussion of women's voices in both capacities.


Chapter 8 assesses the ways in which women have been framed by but have also challenged media representations of themselves as oppressed and silent. American Muslim women are uniquely situated to recognize and change media images and representations they perceive as false. However, their active self-representation does not necessarily change the ways in which they are determined by existing frames, and it can unintentionally create a new dichotomy between liberated, confident, and outspoken American Muslim women and their still oppressed counterparts in Muslim-majority societies.


Chapter 9 analyzes memoirs and narrative texts published by American Muslim women and discusses their entanglement in the politics of publishing and marketing in North America. The concluding chapter takes up dimensions and angles of the texts to be explored further: the issue of hijab (Muslim headscarf), the politics of American Muslim women's participation in the secular American academy, and matters of race and gender inclusion.




While gender discourses and discussions among American Muslims are at the center of inquiry in this book, the themes addressed are also reflective of all the major issues in modern and/or contemporary Muslim thought, among them authority, tradition, Islamic Law, justice, and authenticity. The focus on gender acknowledges the centrality of this concept for modern intra-Muslim debates while simultaneously questioning its defining status. If the debates and discourses analyzed in this book prove one thing, it is that gender has become part of "mainstream" discourses among Muslims worldwide rather than the concern of a few privileged activist women. Debates about authority, authenticity, and tradition cannot meaningfully take place any longer without taking gender issues into account. And while some still accuse those Muslims who advance gender conversations of having adopted a "Western" and thus inauthentic and alien concept, Muslims in an interdependent globalized world of intellectual exchange have taken ownership of gender debates and have taken it upon themselves to address issues of justice and human dignity from within their religion and communal structures. This book demonstrates that gender debates are contextualized, framed, and negotiated through the particular histories, circumstances, and intellectual currents of Muslim societies and communities. American Muslims experience and advance gender discourses in particular American ways while simultaneously developing and sustaining transnational projects and networks that address gender dynamics worldwide.



American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism overall is a significant and distinctive contribution to the existing discourse...the survey of manifold topics is precisely what creates the primary strength of the book; it makes the book an accessible and wide-ranging introduction to the complexity of the discourse surrounding and produced by American Muslim women.”
Journal of American Academy of Religion


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