FCRJ Podcast › 3: amina wadud, QIST (Queer Islamic Studies and Theology)

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Episode 3
amina wadud, QIST (Queer Islamic Studies and Theology)

Guest podcast producer Ellan Lincoln-Hyde makes a call to The Lady Imam, Dr. amina wadud in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. They discuss qist (justice), terminology, identifying with feminism and making activism and academia would together through intersectionality.

Interviewer: Ellan Lincoln-Hyde

Guest: amina wadud

Produced by: The Feminist Centre for Racial Justice

Recording, editing, transcription, design: Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde

Music: Broken RNB Instrumental by The Audio Way,


Ellan: Welcome to the FCRJ podcast, where we discuss topical issues at the intersection of feminism and racial justice, as well as engage partners and comrades on projects we are carrying out together. This is the third in a series of podcasts developed by the Feminist Centre for Racial Justice, which is hosted at SOAS University of London. For more information about the Feminist Centre, please go to our website www. thefeministcentre. org. 

My name is Ellan Lincoln Hyde. I'm a guest podcast producer for FCRJ, and today I have the privilege of introducing you to a trailblazing scholar, spiritual leader, and advocate for equality within Islamic spaces, Dr. amina wadud, better known as The Lady Imam. 

Dr. wadud is known for her prolific body of work that has reshaped conversations around faith, feminism, and inclusivity. Her groundbreaking writings include Qu'ran and Woman, and Inside the Gender Jihad, and have challenged traditional interpretations of the Quran, emphasizing the urgent need for justice within the context of Islamic teachings, but also more broadly in global society. Today, I'll be asking Dr. Wadud about the business of defining and redefining terminology, and how centres like FCRJ and QIST aim to reach the general public beyond academia. 

Dr. wadud, welcome. 

amina: Thank you so much for having me. 

Ellan: We only have a very short time for the interview, so I'm going to jump straight in with my first question. We'll come back to talk about QIST - the International Centre for Queer Islamic Studies and Theology based in Indonesia. The term qist of course, refers to the concept of justice, fairness, and equality, and signifies acting in a just and equitable manner, ensuring that individuals receive what is due to them, and that their rights are respected. Before we speak about terminology, I would like to start by inviting you to share with our listeners a little about your personal and professional journeys through the term qist. 

amina: Thank you. Bismillahirrahmanirrahim. I begin, as I always begin, in the name of Allah, whose grace I seek in this, and all other matters. 

(Forgive me, I have a neighbour with a very noisy motorcycle...) I had an opportunity to do some engaged research on the issue of sexual diversity and human dignity in Islamic sources, and when it was completed, I really looked at ways for bringing the research forward. And one of the possibilities was for me to follow through with a trend that I had noticed in the classical sources about the extensive inclusivity within the classical discourse, which is now lacking in our current discourses.

So I began to play around with certain ideas. And I focused on QIST as an acronym -coincidentally- because I had spent a great deal of time during the research with trying to unpack the relationship between manifestations of especially homophobia and other -isms in the context of Muslim community life, along with the history of deep intellectual, inclusive trend in classical Islamic teachings. So I thought, 'well, we need to revitalize this'. And so the the intention was to align with the two institutions that I was a part of during the research and aftermath Starr King School for the Ministry and currently, I am doing a tenure at the National Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta. 

So I wanted to develop a program, but it was during the pandemic, and things were not moving for new administrative initiatives, because they were trying their best to accommodate students during, you know, the new terms of study. And... I decided I wouldn't wait for for the institutions that I was affiliated with, but I would put my money where my mouth is, and I would start this initiative independent of the institutions. So that's, that's how it got started, actually. 

Ellan: I'd like to ask you, before we come back to talk about the Center specifically, more about the concept of qist and how it manifests throughout your life and your work. 

amina: Well, my main theological interests are in the areas of karamah and that can become very abstract. It's part of the humanities, it's about hermeneutics - I love it. And yet I had this opportunity about 35 years ago when I took my first university position in Malaysia, at the International Islamic University, to liaise with women there who were interested in the application of Islam through Muslim personal status law or Muslim family law, and it became clear that I could apply the theory that I had been working with via just textual analysis. I applied to policy with them, provided I focused on certain principles... focus on the ones that were undeniable, particularly justice. And we came to the point where it was extremely important to give a definition of justice that was focused on gender equality. 

So when I began this research, I was still focused on justice, it's just that the matter of sexual diversity has sometimes allowed members of the Muslim community to sidestep the necessity of justice when it comes to issues like sexual diversity. And I wanted to maintain that the justice was unconditional based on the Qu'ranic statement, you know, we have granted karamah, or dignity, to the sons and daughters you know of the original person. And so the word for that in Arabic is qist and it just so happens that it aligned perfectly with Queer Islamic Studies and Theology. And so I kind of jumped on that as a you know, as a way to name this initiative. 

Ellan: What brought you to consider queer members of your community and as you say, 'put your money where your mouth is'? Because there are many other elements of the community that equally could have had a centre - disability rights or age rights, for instance. What calls you to be involved with a queer study center in particular?

amina: If I understand your question correctly, I officially retired and my relationship to institutions, usually as a visiting scholar researcher, my relationship to them is not within all of the... dotted 'i's and crossed 't's of the bureaucracy. So I'm sort of an outsider hoping to make a way in. But as a kind of visitor, I don't have that clout, so I was dependent upon the enthusiasm expressed by certain parties that had been aligned with my research. So I, I didn't mind trying to create a platform that I was hoping would be collaborative, and to network within my own spheres of activity already to see how many people I can get on board, at least with the idea so that in the future, they could be considered as partners in the advocacy for the reintegration of studies of sexuality as part of Islamic studies. So, I was going, I think, along the lines of, you know... 'this is something that really needs to happen, and I want to be a part of making it happen, even if I do not have an official university location'.

Ellan: As a member of the queer community myself, I'm very inspired by the fact that you've heard a section of the community calling for help, and you've answered that call. 

I'd like to take a bit of a shift and take the discussion in a slightly more theoretical direction, also in light of the fact that this is being a podcast for the Feminist Center for Racial Justice. Could you talk us through what you believe the meanings and implications of the words racial and justice are separately, but also in combination? 

amina: Yes, well, you know, sometimes we evolve into a level of intersectional awareness by the fact of our participation in you know, one of the, we should say roads leading to the crossroads of this of these intersections. And I think that's true for me. I mean, as a African American, I was raised in the context of white supremacy and yet a racial justice movement was a legacy in some ways, I say be bequeathed me, by my father, who was a Methodist minister and took me to the March on Washington with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.

And, you know, I was only 10. So I didn't necessarily have, what I would consider, you know, academic qualifications. But it's something that you can't lose sight of that is the need for racial justice. You can't lose sight of it. You know, if you're Black in America, it doesn't mean that I have disciplinary expertise. It just means that when it comes to making an analysis, I want to be sensitive to the possibilities of variance in the conclusions of certain research projects or other such academic endeavors, whether or not they have made certain presumptions across the board - race, class, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation, ableism. 

As an educated person who happens to be Black but not as a person who has trained in the areas of you know, racial theory in my life. That's not an area where I have more than a lay person's knowledge of or expertise. It's important. I remember my first mentor, my first academic position in the United States, her area of expertise in the field of sociology was Black family. And she used to say, 'every person who has a Black family thinks they're an expert'. And I thought it was so informative because, you know, we do know something about family and we do know something about how our families have been negatively impacted by certain politics. But it doesn't mean that we are as aware of the, of the things that have been developed in the field that will allow us to address the inequities in an informed and thorough manner.

Ellan: I'd like to pick up on a phrase you've just used: can't lose sight'. How do you think we might be losing sight?

amina: Well, you know, in, in reality, in order for me to raise my children, who are all Black, I have to also address certain concerns that are bigger than them individually, but which they will be impacted by. So I can't ignore realistically, if my Black sons go out the door in the times of, say, the Black Lives Matter movement, I can't ignore that my sons are more vulnerable to just walking down the street. And so I have to, I always have to include that awareness in the ways in which I've raised my children. In some ways, you could say it's a shame; at least that's what I felt like when my eldest daughter asked me if I would speak to my grandson during the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. I felt like, you know, 'it's a shame that we still have to do this'. 

So, when I talk about awareness, it's really you know, a practical, you know, kind of functional level of survival. And so, as I said, I mean, I'm informed about certain things, but I'm not an expert. And in not being an expert, if you look at my work, I don't always engage matters of race and racial theory in the work that I do on gender and sexuality. I am aware that there is an intersection, it's just that I'm not as well informed about race theory as, as it might seem. 

Ellan: In these discussions that you work through, and these experiences you manage within your life and the life of your family, how does being a feminist inform what you do? And I mean that in the broadest sense.

amina: Well, that's a good one, because for me, I think I eschewed the title of feminist for most of my life, simply because the way that the... You know, sort of mainstream feminist movement is an operation is to deny the significance of the intersection of things like race, culture or religion. And it was impossible for me to engage in social justice works of surrounding issues of gender in the context of Islam without bringing 100% my own religious identity into how I looked at those, I guess you could say, academic rubrics of analysis. It's like, are they complete or do they perpetuate certain biases? The end result of which is a lack of appreciation for the particular struggles that for example, Muslim women and men are engaged in with regard to the existence of something like Muslim personal status law. 

So, in order to be effective where to me, the mandate was the highest, and that is to have an impact on places where Muslims live and Muslims are impacted by the law, I found that the mainstream white, mostly secular feminism that was so dominant in the 1990s -when I began making my transformation to accept Islamic feminism as a personal identity- there was a lot of missing links to how the dimensions of, you know, our work within Islam might be impacted by something like Islamophobia, or racism, or xenophobia. And so for a long time, I did challenge the use of the term for myself and the transformation that I made with it is something that's important to even how I identify with it now.

Ellan: I find it quite interesting that you've used terms such as 'evolve' and 'missing link'. Where do you think feminism stands today in evolving or filling in these missing links, in searches for justice in particular? 

amina: Yeah, I think there's still a lot to be a lot to be seen that can be done in terms of I think mutual support and awareness. The difference is that when I began to look at the ways in which Muslim women's struggles for equality before the law in the context of Islam and Islamic you know, nation states there were certain tendencies to presume that Islam should be defined only in patriarchal and binary terms. And when it was clear that I needed to help with the interrogation of what does one mean when one says Islam, it also became important that I look at what does one mean when one says feminism. And as soon as I could take ownership over defining feminism for myself and within my work, then it was possible for me to claim the identity of a feminist. So all of it is about actually challenging rigid epistemologies to the place where they honor the necessity of intersectionality. 

Ellan: In a lot of your answers thus far, you've talked about moving thought and belief into action. And I'd like to ask you now a very broad question, activism and academia, pros and cons, or should they stay separate? 

amina: Yeah. For me, there is a, there's, there's no question about necessity of the two working together, except I am also aware that many people choose not to be engaged with the application of their theory in the context, you know, for example, as I say, the law. And it is sometimes in certain academic circles to one's disadvantage to show that one has been engaged in certain social justice work, because a lot of academics don't take the social justice in action part of it seriously. And they use it as a way to undermine the scholarship that may be produced as as a consequence of engaged theory, you know, by, by actually addressing the issues as they may impact, for example, the law.

That is a problem that still lingers, but it is I guess you could say, not a problem that I live with anymore because I'm officially retired. But I do understand that it's not always been equally accepted that one can be you know, an activist scholar. For that matter, a spiritual person that for me, I always talk about the incongruence between these three points of my own identity, you know, my intellectual work and theory or theoretical work or methodology work; my activism or engaged, you know, surrender and my spirituality, which is, you know, an affirmation of an identity beyond simply how I identify within the context of social justice. It doesn't mean that it is not integrated or important, it just means that when I enter into certain circles one or more of these that are essential to my identity, I have to put on the backburner. 

So in terms of working on gender within its more, you know, binary sense, working on the women's movement, there was a low grade interest in spirituality and, kind of utilitarian interest in sort of the intellectual or theoretical work. There was a much higher interest in the spiritual work for activism, but not as much interest in the intellectual. And then among academics, there was no interest in the activism with spirituality. So, I was always trading off something. 

One reason why I'm happy being in Indonesia is that there is a much higher percentage of integration between those three amongst the network of people that I work with. So it's, it's not just activism. Sometimes it's also spirituality that gets sort of sidelined in accordance to how, you know, these groups maybe identify themselves or identify what is important. 'Oh, what is real?' or what is -quote unquote- 'real scholarship'? You know there's a tendency to to undermine certain of the elements I think that goes into the complete integrated formula.

Ellan: I suspect many folks involved with FCRJ or similar initiatives would sympathize with this issue of engaged theory, the incongruity of some of the aspects that we try to bring together and make space for in the world, you know, beyond the boundaries that somebody else has imposed upon us. I realise we're getting to the end of our time, and as we're here, thanks to FCRJ, which celebrates it's first year anniversary this month, and QIST is also quite new, could you explain to our audience the place and use of academic centres such as FCRJ and KIST? How can we work through academia like this for the general public and vice versa? 

amina: Well, I, I love stories, so I will do this anecdotally. Especially working in queer spaces for 20 years. Sometimes I notice the members who were engaged and have this interest would sometimes ignore public issues that were important other reasons of intersectionality. And I... and I had to say, you know, 'until you understand that your... your feeling of oppression may be unique in the way in which it is manifest, but it's not unique in the world and therefore we have to continue to align ourselves with the struggles of others'. That may not be the central part of what we are struggling for, but nevertheless will be important in terms of forming effective alliances'. 

So I do think that sometimes oppressed people get insulated within their experiences of oppression to the extent that they ignore that other people are also experiencing oppression from, you know, that more intersectional approach. So I think it's important because when you're hurting from a real, you know, context with oppression, it's sometimes difficult for you to see beyond, you know, your pain, but others are in pain and we share, you know, the planet Earth, and so we have to become engaged, you know, with at least a level of awareness about things like the environment... and to lend our support when we are called upon by others working on issues slightly different from ones that we have centralized. That we need to show, you know, that we will be a willing supporter in their struggles as well.

Ellan: This is slightly off topic, and I did imply that I'd asked my last question already, but I'm intrigued by the concept of pain as a source of power. Could you speak to that? 

amina: Yes. Well if nothing else. It is a very strong motivating factor. That is that people will exert a certain amount of energy in order to have pain be reduced. If the source of that pain is systemic, as in the form of certain oppressions, then sometimes people can become wrapped up, you know, in their particular pain to the exclusion of the possibilities that other people are hurting as well. So hopefully pain will not be the only motivation but I have found that it is a very real motivation and that people are engaged in issues because they have struggled with those issues and that the lack of struggle, say in the larger community context, say amongst Muslims the, the lack of, you know, sensitivity towards those struggles is one of the reasons why they're involved. 

But then, you know, they become insulated. They, they look at their pain and they, you know, ignore that there are others who are also in pain of, you know, this kind of experience of injustice. And we should support the struggles to not become insulated in our particular struggles to such an extent that we are then participating as well in the oppression of others. 

Ellan: Dr. wadud, thank you so much. I could ask you questions for hours, but we do have to wrap up. Thank you so much for speaking to us today about being aware, keeping supportive and alert with our whole selves. I am so glad that FCRJ and QIST have made this connection through this podcast.

amina: Yeah, you're welcome. Thanks so much for having me. Good luck with your work. 

Ellan: Folks, stay tuned for more from the FCRJ podcast very soon.

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