Citizenship and Faith

What are the potential perils of using civic goals to define religious doctrine, as Wadud appears to be doing here? What are the potential benefits?
What type of citizenship does Wadud have in mind in this essay—religious or civil? How do the two intersect and inform one another? Compare her vision of citizenship with that of someone like Esther Edwards Burr or Frances Willard? How might we unify these varying understandings in a way that respects both pluralism and the political principles that define America?

No related resources


The daughter of an African American Methodist minister, Amina Wadud (1952–) converted to Islam during her college years. She went on to become a scholar of the Qur’an, writing her dissertation on feminist readings of the text. Wadud has since combined academic scholarship and activism in her faith, attempting to open new opportunities for Muslim women to participate in the public exercise of their faith. In 1989, she helped to found Sisters in Islam, an organization dedicated to the cause of gender equality and justice in Islam. In 2005, Wadud addressed a mixed-gender audience at a Friday prayer service in New York City; the service was held at a building belonging to an Episcopal church after several mosques refused to host the event. Although Wadud has received death threats for her efforts to bring about an Islamic reformation, she has remained faithful to her beliefs and continues to speak and write on the subject.

—Sarah A. Morgan Smith

Source: Amina Wadud, “Citizenship and Faith,” in Woman and Citizenship, Marilyn Friedman, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

This chapter proposes an important corollary between the idea of citizenship, in the context of a civil society of the modern nation-state, and the idea of moral agent (khilafah) in the context of Islamic theology as built upon in its primary sources. … In the context of the nation-state, Muslim women have been working toward reforms to establish full and equal citizenship for Muslim women, despite the absence of historical precedent in the Islamic tradition. The benefit of this essay is that it demonstrates how modern Muslim civil societies can mediate between the Islamic tradition and secular constructions of rights and reforms. It offers a profaith legitimation for reforms based on textual authentication in the context of the Muslim women’s movements. . . .

The message of the Qur’an is paramount. In Qur’anic cosmology the purpose for human creation is explained, “Verily I will create a khalifah on the earth.” (38:26). A khalifah is a trustee, a vice-regent, or an agent. All humankind is assigned as trustees of God on the earth. Although challenged to live in surrender (in islam) with all of the Creation, the human khalifah, is assigned and empowered to act fully and freely as an independent agent accountable for all choice in actions. A tension holds together the distinctive dual nature of the moral being: free, yet morally responsible for all choices and accountable for the consequence of the actions taken. …[A]gency is a characteristic of every human, irrespective of race, class, age, nationality or gender. . . .

. . . [T]he Qur’an would make clear its mandate to eradicate discrimination against woman. … [T]here are more explicit passages in the Qu’ran that are directed toward social reforms specifically addressing the well-being of women, as individuals, members of the family, and members of society than there are passages on any other social justice issue. . . .

Faith and Ethics: A Reconciliation

… I propose an ethical and theological basis for a just social order in the context of the modern Muslim nation-state, especially as relates to gender. To begin with, I agree with the necessity of moving Muslim political and legal systems toward establishing social relationships on the basis of a contractual relationship, because it supports the ontology of the creation of the human being as agent or trustee for Allah on the earth. The Qur’anic ideal points toward a cooperation between Allah, Creator of all the worlds, and humankind, creatures entrusted with each other and the earth. This is a three-pronged contract: God to human, human to God, and human to human. The moral agent, as conceived here, rests in the tension between the covenant (amanah) and service (ibadah).

Agency does not denote free rein and self-aggrandizement but empowerment and responsibility, operationalized in reciprocal terms with others, in the context of one’s circumstance, in order to arrive at truth, justice, honor, and human dignity. We are responsible for the choices we make at every juncture, and we will be held accountable via the ultimate judgment for all of our choices, such that hopefully we are morally inclined toward the choices that facilitate the completion of our trust. Ultimately, that trust is binding between self, God, and other. Only with all three aspects of this formula can the proper balance be sustained. Just as the agent-servant paradigm in the Qur’an with regard to the Ultimate and the human being sets up the understanding of both unlimited choice in human free will, so also does it set up the expectations of using that will freely toward right service, not as a limit but as a moral choice.

We are given a certain capacity through agency, which we are meant to understand as a gift to be utilized in the service of Allah; therefore, it is actually a matter of moral maturity or responsibility. … As a reminder and affirmation, nothing in the Qur’an or sunnah restricts agency for reasons of gender. For while agency is not limited to state or national legislation alone but reflects a transcendental order affecting the quality of the entire being, nothing relieves the agent—not even state sanctions—from the responsibility of completing the duty of justice. This juxtaposition between faith and civil order was so eloquently addressed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he articulated his nonviolent acts of civil disobedience as part of his belief in a just God. Furthermore, Malcom X shifted the articulation of his struggles for the complete human dignity of African Americans away from civil rights discourse into the global arena of human rights discourse. He fought to reclaim the loss of human rights that resulted from the systemization of racism in America. In other words, as a moral duty to God, one must act in society and within or against existing political structures and codes toward freedom, truth, justice, and dignity.

Progressive Muslim women and men are articulating such an overarching claim against the eradication of full human agency, as stressed by the Qur’an against historical patriarchal discourse and text that reduced women to subject through an epistemology of inferior status and incapacity. The paradigmatic formula for this articulation is at the core of Islam’s self-identification and rests on that three-pronged relationship: Allah to human, human to Allah, and human to human. . . .

Although there is no hint anywhere in the primary sources that the responsibility to establish what is good, and to forbid what is evil, has been restricted from any mature person for reasons of race, class, or gender, the development of Islamic ethical theories, shari’ah, and other disciplines all engaged in the process of intentional or unintentional reinscription of gender disparities …. Social and political agency was restricted to the male person in these theories.

. . . Although one of the primary characteristics of moral agency is freedom, in Islamic intellectual developments, discussions of moral theory are explicitly allowed to the free male. The female is made subservient to another system, called “family,” and her role and function as agent is restricted by the terms of her participation in the family.

. . . Power is another term that bears significantly on the understanding of moral agency in the form of capacity—although with notable concern regarding the differences between power to and power over. Power to is the condition of human capacity and, as understood in the Islamic legacy of moral agency, imparts power or capacity to human beings within a unique covenant between the individual and the divine. However, in the early Islamic discourse over ethical theory and civil society, human empowerment is always directed toward independent male power and most often to power as exercised over others. Females are relegated to a status of subjects to male agency, with “power or capacity being a prerogative of man [sic] as a free agent.” Women as individuals in such moral theory are not considered full agents but are incorporated into explicit consideration of family and as extensions of men’s agency.

Despite the regulation of these historical interpretations and the codification of these developments about the citizen, the sunnah reinforces the Qur’anic thesis of the primacy of righteousness or piety (taqwa) over outward attitude or appearance. The Prophet stated, “Allah will not look at your bodies or forms, but at your hearts.” The focus is moved away from gender as a feature if disparity. …

Although the ahadith of the Prophet did “not give us a definition of what the good and the evil referred to really are, we can clearly infer from it the express identification of goodness with conformity to the dictates of Islam or the Koran [sic].” In the Qur’an, “who ever does good, whether male or female and is a believer” shall be rewarded (3:195). Such an emphasis challenges the gender disparity that developed in the Islamic intellectual legacy and ethical theory.

. . . If agency is not subject to civil society, as discussed earlier, and civil society is insufficient for achieving the moral order, then it behooves women as agents, with the support of men who also respect their full moral responsibility as agents, to take inspiration from the spirit and ethos of the Qur’an and the sunnah, in order to pragmatically construct a civil society truly reflecting the moral order of Islam. Resisting the unfair treatment of women in the context of Muslim societies is part of the moral duty of every Muslim woman and man and represents one aspect in completion of moral agency. In fact, moral agency defines the role women and men should play in society. Since a society, even an Islamic one, has the potential to represent or repress the moral order as ordained by the Qur’an, whenever civil circumstances fall short, then the means for facilitating the successful reforms of that social order toward the moral ideal involves the full participation of its citizens. Here citizens are agents, acting on the society, and not mere subjects acted upon by an unjust rule. This was a missing element in the development of shari’ah where the law referred to women as subjects to be acted upon and not as actors deciding how to utilize our own agency.

Whenever society defines the role of a woman in any way short of the completion of her agency, then it is the duty of all moral agents to resist and reform that society. In the context of civil society, she can avail herself of the means of that society as a citizen in order to fulfill her role as agent. There is a reciprocal relationship then between citizenship and agency….

Finally, and yet foremost, moral agency, as a matter of faith, is neither contained nor enhanced by any existing or previously construed social systems. Although moral agency may have been the goal, it requires continual effort to sustain such a moral imperative to maintain social justice as it pertains to women and men. The ways in which traditional Muslim societies and Islamic law have denied women’s full agency is incongruent with the achievement of a just social order as sought after in the Qur’an and by the Prophet. In other words, irrespective of our citizenship status, as a matter of faith we are obligated to implement the equality inherent in the tawhidic paradigm, fundamental to our religious system. It is a moral imperative incumbent upon all agents in Islam. Ultimately, I use this as the basis for justifying alternative interpretation of shari’ah’s primary source, the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam. That the Qur’an has been exclusively interpreted by men for over fourteen centuries and we have no record of women’s perspectives on the text until the latter part of the twentieth century indicates a tremendous gap in our intellectual legacy, the filling of which has begun in earnest as part of progressive Islamic reform. . . .

Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.