From Issue: 1059 [Read full issue]
Interpretations of Islam's primary sources, or even the very claim that what one is espousing is "Islam," continues to be one of the most effective tools to silence oppositional voices, inhibiting a large majority of Muslims in their intent and claim to honour the Islamic tradition, either with an obscure, reductionist, out of context quotation or without reference to a specific source text in defense of their arguments. Political regimes or opposing political parties corroborate with certain definitions provided by their own experts incorporated in ministries, advisory councils, or think tanks specifically set up to determine religious legitimacy. Many Muslim governments support these specific usages of the term "Islam" and the users have the coercive legal force to threaten and restrict discourse and disqualify certain discussants. Unfortunately, even in higher learning, only fragmented concepts are provided, depending upon larger agendas and ulterior motives of control and authority. This again points to manipulative intents in using the word "Islam" or its derivatives to narrow the space for genuinely free and open dialogue. There are endless implications behind multiple ways Muslims and non-Muslims consistently or inconsistently use the term "Islam."
Some definitions seem impartial, like using "Islam" as one of three Abrahamic traditions. It merely distinguishes it from the history, development, and dogma of the other traditions, especially considering the unlimited distinctions and similarities between them. This is Islam as a historically based faith movement. Its utility is best demonstrated when teaching at the undergraduate level. To even engage those distinctions and similarities requires a handle term to indicate the reference to Islam in particular. Islam is the name of a religion, which students in that course will be considering through a complete learning process.
At the level of the average Muslim man or woman on the street, Islam is whatever they have inherited, culturally and ethnically. Since they are Muslim, they do Islam. Despite numerous definitions, historical and current, whether explained or not, knowingly or unknowingly, each user assumes some authority that justifies him or her to determine when others would be considered adherents to their understandings, practice, and limitations of "Islam." From the multiple parameters of these understandings of "Islam," the discussions with diverse presumptions, the social-cultural climate, and the positions of authority, others could be accused of heresy, deviance, or even blasphemy or kufr (unbelief or infidelity to Islam).
One of the most intimidating strategies used to deter women from working openly on reforms within an Islamic framework is the powerful force of techniques that accuse others of denying or going against "Islam." So as Muslims learn about developments in Islamic thought, either for themselves as believers or as potential and actual participants in establishing and maintaining a reformed "Islam," they either become skeptical of themselves or of the intent of certain references used negatively to accuse them of "going against Islam." Eventually, this skepticism has led many to question whether the solution to establishing a just society or human rights lay within "Islam" at all.
Using the Quranic text to define "Islam" has the same potential pitfalls as claiming certain definitions of "Islam." The patriarchal norms of seventh-century Arabia left its mark upon the nature of the Quranic articulation and continued to do so for centuries with interpretation and implementation. Furthermore, narrow minds point to even more narrow interpretive potential of textual references. This, fortunately, lends support to accepting human agency as a critical resource for establishing and maintaining dynamism between a linguistically articulated text, of divine origin, addressed at a fixed time while simultaneously intending to provide eternal guidance, as well as for understanding the meanings of Islam.
"Inside Gender Jihad" - Amina Wadud, pp. 18-21