Paradigms of Struggle: Tawhid and Khilafa

The conceptualization and development of theological paradigms that address women’s suffering is an integral component of such self-representation. While Esack and Engineer focus on the Exodus and the Battle of Karbala, respectively, as hermeneutical models of liberation, Wadud reflects upon the Qur’anic concept of tawhid: the centrepiece of Islamic theology, referring to the absolute Oneness and Unity of God. Echoing Shari‘ati, whose liberating exegesis of tawhid was discussed earlier in this book, Wadud argues that tawhid is not simply faith in a single, undivided deity, but also an ethical commitment to translating this monotheistic belief into the mundane realm, creating a single, undivided society. To quote her words:

As an ethical term, tawhid relates to relationships and developments within the social and political realm, emphasizing the unity of all human creatures beneath one Creator. If experienced as a reality in everyday Islamic terms, humanity would be a single global community without distinction for reasons of race, class, gender, religious tradition, national origin, sexual orientation or other arbitrary, voluntary, and involuntary aspects of human distinction. Their only distinction would be on the basis of taqwa.[1]

The unity of God, then, has direct sociopolitical, economic, and gendered implications. To put it another way: divine unity is more than a state, a stable noun but also a dynamic verb with lasting social effects, for God is not only ‘united’, but ‘unites all things’.[2] Furthermore, in this radically revamped society built on the unity of the creation, one’s worth is not determined by socioeconomic standing, gender affiliation, or racial identity, but rather solely by taqwa (piety). Yet although the unity of God is a divine characteristic that Muslims ought to emulate, this deity is also, at the same time, utterly unique. Citing Q. 42:11—‘Nothing is like Him’—Wadud juxtaposes this singularity of the Creator with the duality of the creation (discussed earlier in this chapter), arguing that God is beyond any partner and thus forever unpaired: One.[3] And it is precisely when men seek to pair themselves and their experiences with God, such as by portraying God as a male being exhibiting masculine qualities, that the tenet of tawhid is effectively violated.[4] [5] It is difficult to overemphasize the centrality of tawhid in Wadud’s Islamic discourse. In fact, she even describes the interpretive method of her gendered exegesis—that is, of reading the Qur’an as a coherent whole, extracting wider principles from the text—through this very language of divine unity, calling her holistic approach a ‘hermeneutics of tawhid’.188 So the unity of God is reflected, too, in the unity of the Word. Thus, Muslims throughout the world, from Iran to South Africa to America, have drawn upon tawhid in multiple contexts of oppression.[6] But in terms of its systematic, scholarly exposition, gender activists have been at the forefront of this hermeneutical project. Like Wadud, Barlas, as will be seen in the next chapter, has reflected extensively upon this key Islamic tenet. Paralleling Wadud’s critique of mainstream, masculine projections of the divine, Barlas argues that because God’s ‘sovereignty’ is indivisible and thus God’s domain alone, attempts by men to impinge on this sovereignty, such as by acting as mediators between the divine and the rest of humanity, undermines tawhid.190

In addition to Islamic monotheism, Wadud also reinterprets the Islamic concept of khilafa, or trusteeship. Whereas Engineer’s interest in the Battle of Karbala reflects his religious background as a Shi‘a Muslim, her hermeneutical emphasis on khilafa (though not necessarily as a conscious move) speaks to her own sectarian affiliation as a Sunni Muslim. Historically understood as caliphate, khilafa became an enduring Sunni institution of political leadership following the Prophet’s death. Referring to Q. 2:30, she brings this term back to its scriptural origins.191 The verse, alluding to a primordial time before humankind’s creation, reads:

When your Sustainer said to the angels, ‘Indeed, I am going to create a trustee (khalifatun) on the earth,’ they said, ‘Will You set in it one who will create corruption, and shed blood, while we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your sanctity?’ He said, ‘Indeed, I know what you do not know.’

The purpose of humanity, Wadud concludes, is thus to function as a trustee, a vicegerent of the Creator on the Earth.192 This duty is first and foremost an ethical one, in which the trustee—or, to use another definition that she forwards, ‘moral agent’193—has the solemn responsibility to uphold divine justice,194 to ensure that the unity of God, with all its sociopolitical ramifications, remains intact. She further argues that in the context of the contemporary world, characterized by the emergence of the nation-state as the hegemonic form of societal organization, a parallel can be drawn between khilafa and colors, from all over the world coming together as one! It has proved to me the power of the One God.”’ See Malcolm X and Haley, 443; 455; and 452, respectively.

  • 190 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 13-14.
  • 191 This verse on khilafa is incorrectly cited as Q. 2:38 in Wadud, ‘Towards a Qur’anic Hermeneutics of Social Justice’, 48.
  • 192 Ibid.
  • 193 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 33. 194 Ibid, 35.

an active, engaged citizenship.[7] In order to carry out one’s role as moral agent, therefore, one needs, as a citizen, to make use of all the resources and avenues that civil society has to offer.[8] Citing Q. 33:72, Wadud points out that humankind wilfully accepted this role as trustee, thereby entering into a sacred covenant with their Creator.[9] The verse reads:

Indeed, We presented the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to bear it, and were apprehensive of it; but the human being undertook it. Indeed, he has been an oppressor and ignorant.

Yet humankind has not only failed to live up to its role as trustee by spreading suffering on the Earth, but also by hampering the ability of fellow human beings to fulfil this divinely sanctioned purpose, such as when men silence women’s voices by claiming that women’s voices are taboo (‘awra), and thus not to be heard.[10] In emphasizing humankind’s role as khalifa, Wadud echoes the earlier exegetical work of Hassan, who has shown that biblical concepts like the Fall and original sin—and, by extension, the idea of being redeemed and saved—are non-existent in the Qur’an, as the Earth was understood right from the very beginning as being the principal abode in which the human being, as trustee of God, would dwell.[11]

  • [1] worthwhile noting that an earlier articulation of tawhid as a socially liberatingparadigm can be found in Amina Wadud, “An Islamic Perspective on Civil RightsIssues,” in Religion, Race, and Justice in a Changing America, eds. Gary Orfield andHolly Lebowitz (New York: Century Foundation Press, 1999), 155-6.
  • [2] Amina Wadud, ‘Foreword: Engaging Tawhid in Islams and Feminisms’, International Feminist Journal of Politics 10:4 (2008): 437. My italics.
  • [3] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 25-6; Wadud, ‘The Ethics of Tawhid over theEthics of Qiwamah', 266.
  • [4] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 81.
  • [5] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, xii.
  • [6] It is interesting to note that Malcolm X also saw society through the prism oftawhid. In 1964, he undertook his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. Deeply moved by thecamaraderie shared between Muslims of different racial backgrounds, Malcolm beganto make links between the political implications of tawhid and his own struggleagainst White racism. Consider the following excerpts from his autobiography: ‘Allate as One, and slept as One. Everything about the pilgrimage atmosphere accentedthe Oneness of Man under One God'; ‘I could see from this [pilgrimage experience],that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too,they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man—and cease to measure, and hinder,and harm others in terms of their “differences” in color’; ‘About twenty of us Muslimswho had finished the Hajjwere sitting in a huge tent on Mount Arafat. As a Muslimfrom America, I was the center of attention ... They asked me what about the Hajjhad impressed me the most... I said, “The brotherhood! The people of all races,
  • [7] Amina Wadud, ‘Citizenship and Faith’, in Women and Citizenship, ed. MarilynFriedman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 170.
  • [8] Ibid, 186-7. 3 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 35.
  • [9] 198 Barlas, ‘Amina Wadud’s Hermeneutics of the Qur’an’, 105.
  • [10] 199 Hassan, ‘An Islamic Perspective’, 106-7.
  • [11] 200 Wadud, ‘Towards a Qur’anic Hermeneutics of Social Justice’, 37.
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