There’s ‘Muslim,’ and Then There’s ‘Muslim-Born’

By Guest Contributor Krista Riley, originally published at Muslimah Media Watch

The Independent recently published an article by Jerome Taylor, titled “First woman to lead Friday prayers in the UK,” talking about the mixed-congregation Friday prayers that Canadian Raheel Raza was to lead the following day. I read it, feeling confused: didn’t Amina Wadud do this already?

Well, yes, she did. The beginning of the article clarifies that Raza is the first Muslim-born woman to do so:

A Canadian author will become the first Muslim-born woman to lead a mixed-gender British congregation through Friday prayers tomorrow in a highly controversial move that will attempt to spark a debate about the role of female leadership within Islam.

Wadud’s role as the first woman to do this is only mentioned towards the end of the piece. Other articles from the BBC, Sify, and the Oxford Times, echo this language about Raza being the first “Muslim-born” woman to lead Friday prayers in the U.K. (The BBC link also includes a radio interview with Raza. At one point, the interviewer says about Wadud, “She wasn’t actually Muslim-born; she was a convert.” Raza’s response is “Yes,” without correcting the interviewer or questioning what it means to make that point.) A Comment is Free piece in the Guardian acknowledged Wadud as the first woman to lead mixed prayers in the U.K., but only after identifying her first as an “African-American convert.”

I cannot think of any other examples of such a strong emphasis being placed on someone’s status as “Muslim-born.” If people want to highlight what Raza is doing, why not just talk about her as the second woman to lead prayers in the U.K., or the first to do it since Wadud did in 2008?

Aside from the personal angst that the repetition of this “Muslim-born” label is causing me (are those of us who are not Muslim-born destined to forever be seen as less legitimate Muslims?), what really aggravates me is the way that this portrays Wadud. The implication seems to be that Wadud isn’t quite as Muslim as Raza, particularly when the headline simplifies the issue (to the point of inaccuracy) by saying that she’s the “first woman” to do this. Think what you want about Wadud’s politics, but the suggestion that she is a lesser Muslim by not being Muslim-born is offensive. Raza’s failure to respond more strongly to the BBC interviewer’s mention of this point is also deeply disturbing.

Writing for Pulse Media, Huma Dar makes a similar point:

Taylor’s differentiation between “American-born convert” and “Muslim-born woman” and labeling of the latter as the “first woman” in the headline creates a false hierarchy and subtly delegitimizes Dr. Wadud, a leading Muslim scholar and author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, a path-breaking text in the study of gender and Islam. Taylor’s late admission of “repeat” after the (mis)leading announcement of “First” in the bold headline does not quite cover up for the critical sins of omission and commission, especially as Raheel Raza, the Pakistani-Canadian woman leading the prayer at Oxford, is neither an ‘Alima or a scholar of Islam nor is she known for her advocacy of Muslims at large.

I can’t figure out why the “Muslim-born” thing matters in this situation, and who is giving it value. Is it Muslims who see this as significant, in contrast to the predominance of so many people who have become Muslim within the leadership or scholarship of a lot of Western institutions?* Is it non-Muslims, who see this as a more authentic illustration of changes within Muslim communities than Wadud was seen to represent? (Never mind that Raza has very little credibility among any mainstream Muslim communities; we’ve written about her before on MMW.) Is it everybody, having trouble seeing an African-American woman as fully Muslim? (I’m not sure how this would play out if Wadud was a different race, but it’s hard to imagine that race is entirely irrelevant here.)

Can anyone else help me understand why this point was so emphasized?

(Note that the comment section here is not a place to debate whether women should or should not be leading prayer. Please stick to the media representation and the particular issues that I raised in this post.)

*It’s true that many scholars who have become Muslim get put on a pedestal and can have certain kinds of privilege and authority that people who were raised Muslim don’t always have access to – there might even be some situations where it would be significant to note that someone raised Muslim was occupying a certain role that had previously been done only by people who had become Muslim later in life. But first of all, I don’t think that Wadud is really in the same position of privilege that a lot of the white and/or male scholars are, and secondly, I don’t think that this counts as one of those cases.