This year's Islamic conference, held in Washington, D.C., will certainly go down in history of (Islamic) gender justice as nothing less than memorable. On August 30, Tahera Ahmad, who became the first Muslim chaplain to serve the religious community at Northwestern University in 2010,, became the first woman to open the 50th annual Islamic Society of North America convention with a beautiful recitation of the Holy Qur'an.
This is the very first time that a woman has been invited to publicly recite the holy scripture at the nation's largest Muslim convention. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is the largest and oldest Islamic umbrella organization in North America, serving Muslims for well over 40 years. Chaplain Ahmad gracefully delivered a touching and beautiful recitation at an assembly which draws crowds of up to 40,000 Muslims each year.
Still, as a Muslim woman, I ask myself what it says about us as a community, and our fundamentally Islamic commitment to Qur'an-mandated gender justice, when recitation by a renown female scholar at such a large-scale, public forum like ISNA is ground-breaking. What does it say when the very celebration of this "novelty" feels almost tragically unfortunate, and the mere discussion of the inclusion of women's voices is uncomfortable for far too many?
Tahera Ahmad herself is keenly aware of how "novel" her recitation really was. In an interview with WBEZ's Morning Shift, she admitted that she anticipated that her performance would inevitably "rock the boat," yet hoped that it would build a path for an open, intellectual and honest conversation within the American Muslim community.
"Muslim women, for a very long time, have been deprived of very fundamental, basic right [to publicly recite the Qur'an]," she noted. We live in an inherently patriarchal and misogynistic society, yet these struggles have not always been the overarching reality for Muslim women. "Muslim women, during the Golden Age of Islam, did practice the recitation. And in fact, they [Muslim women] were teachers of many of the great scholars of our heritage," Ahmad explained.
Other scholars confirm that Muslim women have been barred from reciting the Qur'an publicly in the past. In his discussion of Ahmad's performance, Dr. Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, highlighted a broad spectrum of interpretations in regards to the Islamic practice of public recitation, that vary from "place to place, and culture to culture."
"It would be highly unusual in an Arab or Persian context to have a woman recite the Qur’an in public in front of a mixed male/female audience," he wrote. "On the contrary, in Southeast Asia, there are large public competitions for Qur’an recitations that sometimes are so popular that they have to be held in soccer stadiums."
Nonetheless, a simple YouTube search reveals numerous videos of Muslim women and young girls, reciting the Qur'an in public competitions in mixed-gender audiences, facing both men and women. For example, the index of champions from the International Qur'an Recital Competition, an international recital event held in Malaysia since 1961, lists several names of female winners over the years, beginning as early as 1964 and continuing to the present day.
Alas, not in the United States.
Ahmad's performance forces us, the American Muslim community, to engage in a painful exercise of rigorous self-reflection. Considering the diversity of responses expressed in regards to this event, the question of the permissibility of public Qur'an recitation by women must be discussed in the larger context of the spiritual, intellectual and political agency that women's public voices occupy in the Muslim community. What will the American Muslim community choose to learn from Chaplain Ahmad's graceful execution of what she deems to be her inherent religious right?
Keep on rocking the boat, and we'll find out, I suppose. Keep on rocking.