Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Is Sharia Law Still Relevant?”

An hourlong teleconference with

Ani Zonneveld

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Founder and President of Muslims for Progressive Values, Ani Zonneveld, about the differences between Sharia, Sharia Law, and her organization’s work to widen the influence of progressive Islam.

Mary E. Hunt: I am at the WATER office in Silver Spring, MD with WATER colleagues and friends on a summer day. We welcome two new summer interns, Karis Slattery and Susanna Stutler, who have already become valued members of our team along with Loretto Volunteer Hannah Dorfman.

We welcome all of you to this session and all of WATER’s efforts, which are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction.

Today we have the pleasure of welcoming Ani Zonneveld, founder and President of Muslims for Progressive Values. We are delighted, Ani, to have you with us via phone from Berlin, though you are usually located in Los Angeles.

Ani Zonneveld is Founder and President of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV). Since its inception in 2007, Ani has presided over MPV’s expansion to include chapters and affiliates in 12 countries and 19 cities. She has organized numerous interfaith arts and music festivals, participated in interfaith dialogues, and is a strong supporter of human rights and freedom of expression.

Ani is co-chief editor of the anthology Progressive Muslim Identities: Personal Stories from the U.S. and Canada. She is also a contributor for HuffingtonPost, OpenDemocracy and al-Jazeera, and has a TEDx talk titled Islam: As American As Apple Pie.

It is not every month that we have an award winning singer/songwriter in our midst. Ani utilizes the power of music and the arts in countering radicalism as she speaks and sings her message of social justice and peace from a progressive Muslim woman’s perspective.

Born and raised Muslim from Malaysia and based out of Los Angeles, though today is in Berlin, Ani spent a good portion of her formative years in Germany, Egypt, and India as an Ambassador’s daughter. Her exposure to different politics, religions, and cultures has shaped her inclusive worldview. So it is no surprise that her work is controversial in some circles, out and out rejected, I would guess, in others. We at WATER are used to such experiences but we do not accept them. We seek to create, as we do with Ani today, spaces where religious feminists can articulate their views and discuss them critically. We welcome you warmly, Ani. 

Ani Zonneveld: Thank you for having me, and welcome, everyone. The title of my talk is, “Is Sharia Law Still Relevant?” Recently we learned about the National March Against Sharia by the right-wing organization Act for America. MPV agrees on the basis for their march: we are against discrimination and human rights abuses in the name of Sharia Law, but the march validates a certain definition of Sharia Law and defines it as radical.

Let’s start with definitions. Sharia and Sharia Law are two completely separate concepts. 1) Sharia is defined in the Qur’an as the watering hole that quenches spiritual thirst, an analogy for one’s desire for spiritual connection with God, 2) Sharia Law is a manmade construct, created by medieval politicians, patriarchal, misogynistic. Politicians have interpreted the Qur’an in patriarchal ways and meshed it up with cultural norms such as forced marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), secular norms, etc. These practices have been validated as Sharia Law by religious leaders and have given it religious connotation. It’s hogwash and has nothing to do with Islam itself.

That’s why Sharia Law is different in various parts of Muslim world. There’s no one Sharia law, no consistency. In the March Against Sharia, which Sharia Law are they marching against? It is not God’s law, or it would be consistent. We need to debunk of Sharia Law as being wholly untouchable and un-amendable. Today we have a Sharia Law that is abusive and unjust, very contradictory to what the Qur’an advocates for, which is for social justice.

For example, if the Qur’an defines marriage as between two consenting adults of sound mind, why is it that Sharia Law in much of the Muslim world does not allow for that? It enables the man and parents to be commanding and abusive in marriage. We have a Sharia Law that is contradictory to Sharia itself as it is described in the Qur’an.

Other contradictions: FGM, child and forced marriage, blasphemy and apostasy (accusations and jailing for critical thinking, challenging the status quo). These have nothing to do with the Qur’an or Islam. There has been a shift: scholarly and lay pushback against this current definition of Sharia Law. There is a push to redefine Sharia Law within its true context. It is supposed to be about ethics and justice.

If Muslims claim that Islam is a religion of peace, then you have to have justice, because you can’t have peace without justice. Scholars are reinvigorating this conversation. Sharia Law needs to be revisited and updated for the 21st Century. Muslims for Progressive Values has been working with scholars of Islam who are involved in this conversation. Our work is based on sacred texts and sound scholarship.

We advocate for the rights of women, reproductive rights, the freedom to leave Islam without punishment, LGBT rights, and absolute freedom of expression. All our positions are based on sound sacred texts.

We advocate for women to lead co-congregation in prayer. This is based on our Islamic tradition from 1,400 years ago. The first female Imam was appointed by prophet Muhammad, but I didn’t learn about this until I was 35. This is something we’re never taught. The best part about being in America is having uncensored scholarship to re-engage with sacred texts, in a way that is void of cultural biases. We can look at Islam through the lens of advocacy and social justice and create an Islam pure to its values. We can peel off the cultural baggage that we’ve been raised on.

For example, menstruating women are not supposed to pray or touch the Qur’an. This has nothing to do with the Qur’an, only with Hadith. The Hadith are a set of sacred texts that, in our opinion, has bastardized the understanding and practice of Islam. The Hadith were written 100 years after the Prophet died by men who claimed to have met the Prophet, claimed that he said this or that. They are contradictory to the human rights message of the Qur’an.

When we talk to those who disagree with us, a lot of their arguments come from Hadith, not from the Qur’an. When we argue with mostly young people who were raised on radical theology, it’s simple for us to argue back–all we do is quote the Qur’an. There’s nothing for them to argue against because they believe this to be the word of God.

I want to touch on the Sharia Law that has been abused in the Muslim world when it comes to freedom of religion and belief. We are a Muslim organization that uses the language of faith. One of the most powerful verses is Verse 2:256. It states that there is no compulsion in faith. There’s another verse that talks about rationality and tells us to challenge authority and traditions, even if it harms yourself. Islam is a faith that advocates you to be agnostic, to question, to read Qur’an critically and challenge your father’s traditions. Politicians in the Muslim world use apostasy to throw Muslims in jail. Governments are accusing progressive Muslims and MPV chapters (especially in Malaysia), painting us as tarnishing the teaching of Qur’an in the name of liberalism. Liberals are defined as a danger to national security. We are accused of being as dangerous as ISIS.

Our members are being threatened every day. Exposés written by the Malaysian government describe us in disparaging terms. The government has accused us of apostasy. There is an endangerment of progressive Muslims throughout the world. We’re experiencing pushback against us in name of national security.

One hope is that the highest religious authority of Morocco came down with decision that apostasy has nothing to do with Islam, but is political tool. This has been MPV’s position for ten years. Because we are American-based, we are accused of propagating the American agenda. When we argue for freedom of religion at the United Nations, we use sacred texts. A lot of Muslim-majority countries are using freedom of religion and belief to imprison their social justice advocates and critical thinkers. We use sacred texts to challenge them.

With the radicalism in the Muslim world and the shift in American politics, the whole world is polarized and it is discouraging. For ten years there has been attraction to our work because people, especially in Muslim world, are suffering from radicalism. The status quo in the Muslim world is unsustainable. We have worked with progressive Muslims throughout the world. For example, our program #ImamsforShe advocates for pluralism and women’s rights within the structures of Islam. Unfortunately we are underfunded and understaffed compared to what we call “Hate Imams.” The condition of the Muslim world, and the world in general, is the result of these Imams.

People finally understand what our work is about, what we have been advocating for. This wasn’t true 10 years ago. I’m 54 and I’ve seen the Islam that I was born and raised with compared to the Islam of the last 15 years. It looks so different. It has become fascist and supremacist. It’s not the Islam of the Qur’an. I welcome any challenging questions, no question is too difficult. It is important that you understand that Islam is inherently progressive, and that our work to challenge the status quo undermines the radical theology that is so woven into the Islam that is practiced today.

What we need to remember is that Muslims themselves are at the forefront of this, and Muslims themselves desire change. In this desire to change, we are convening about 25-30 progressive Muslim organizations from all over the world in Tunisia in September to form a coalition. We will be challenging human rights abuses at the UN and implementing antiradicalism programming at the grassroots level. There’s hope. There’s vision. There is a trajectory we are taking. It’s important that our allies understand and promote this narrative that there is a positive movement. It’s important for our non-Muslim allies to understand this.

Q & A

Q: How do the two major groups, Sunni’s and Shi’ites, deal with progressive Islam? Do they both have progressive movements within them?

Ani Zonneveld: Yes. MPV is non-denominational, we are made up of a lot of ex-Sunnis and ex-Shi’ites and ex-Ahmadiyyas because at the end of the day people realize that these different groups are primarily made up of the belief system of Hadith that are created by men. At the end of the day, there are no sects in the Qur’an. In Shi’ite there are progressive groups, and we would be the progressive group in the Sunni tradition.

Q: Thank you, very much. I had the honor of meeting your organization at the UN at an event for #ImamsforShe, I was very moved and impressed by the people there. My question is a practical one. I’m on your list now, and we’ve (Pax Christi International) been circulating your materials broadly among our religious groups and others. I was very worried to hear that you are physically endangered now in some parts of the world. Does disseminating these materials in the United States help or harm?

AZ: I really appreciate you circulating our materials and I think it’s very important that you continue to do that. At the end of the day in the United States I wasn’t too worried about radical physical attacks. However with the election of Donald Trump and with the rhetoric against Muslims in the last year, we have received a lot of threats from right-wing Christian groups. They concern me more then radical Muslim groups. They are very bold in their threats towards us, on Facebook through social media and phone calls. I encourage you to keep sharing it. We cannot cower. We refuse to cower. It’s the nature of the business and we will deal with it.

AZ: There is this case on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) charges. Federal prosecutors are prosecuting three doctors in Detroit who are part of a minority Shi’ite group that have been practicing FGM secretly. Muslims for Progressive values has issued a statement in support of the case and have written a letter to the Prosecutors to tell them that religious freedom will be an argument used in this case. We are arguing that this argument cannot be made in the context of religious freedom because FGM has nothing to do with Islam. We hope they will use our framework. This issue of religious freedom in the United States is going to be critical in the coming years.

MEH: In a way, I sense that one of the questions people may be asking a lot is that “you’re not really Muslim.” I also hear that from people who say “you’re not really Catholic.” How do you approach this? I wonder how you handle this in your circles.

AZ: For the last 15 years, the media has been discriminating as far as who they invite to fill in the narrative that they have prescribed for what a Muslim is and looks like. Between the media and conservative Muslim organizations in the US who are perpetuating a narrow image of what a Muslim is supposed to look like, women are supposed to wear hijab and men are supposed to have a beard. The definition of what a Muslim looks like has become an orthodox Muslim. The majority of American Muslims are not orthodox, only 22% of American Muslims actually attend mosque. It would be equivalent to having your understanding of American Jews as orthodox, a complete misrepresentation of Jews in America. Because we (MPV) approach Islam from a progressive way, I have been edited out from some mediums when I have been interviewed. Even on NPR and Public Television. This anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiment has basis because of these negative images of what a Muslim is.

MEH: You talk about functioning as an Imam. Can you talk a little bit about how you understand yourself as an Imam in relation to conservative male Imams? I’m wondering how that plays out in the public arena, how people perceive you, and how you understand yourself?

AZ: Islam does not have an ordination process. Anyone can be an Imam–anyone who knows how to lead prayer or knows the recitations. It’s a low bar, it’s not meant to be hierarchical but it has become so. The tradition has been that only men can lead prayer because the Hadith have redefined that men have spiritual authority over women, this is not what the Qur’an says. Theologically speaking there’s no basis for why women cannot lead a co-ed congregations in prayer or conduct marriage services, which is what I do. There’s so much that needs to be debunked in Islam, not just in a spiritual leadership context. The beauty of being in America, because of separation of church and state, we can dictate how we practice our Islam. In a Muslim country, this would be an issue because the state defines what Islam is.

We do a lot of services for interfaith marriages. In a traditional mosque, Imams will not marry an interfaith couple. They require that the man converts to Islam, but they do not require a non-Muslim woman to convert in order to marry a Muslim man. This is also a tribal interpretation, the Qur’an does not limit who the Muslim woman can marry except to encourage the woman to marry a “believer,” which is anyone who believes in a creator. The Muslim man is required to marry people of the book only. We are known for our interfaith marriage services and same-sex marriages as well.

Comment: I just want to wish Ani “Ramadan Mubarak.” I’m a Roman Catholic feminist, and I have the same sense of joy and liberation hearing about your work as I had when I heard about the first Catholic feminist theologians. I have been reading and studying about Islam and I have many progressive Muslim friends here in Canada. On the good news side, the Federal Minister of Women’s Affairs is a practicing liberal Muslim feminist named Maryam Monsef. I just wanted to thank you and let you know about other good news in other places.

AZ: I reread the Qur’an for myself after 9/11 and I discovered that it’s such a liberating text and wondered what I have been taught all these years. I recommend The Veil and the Male Elite by Fatima Mernissi, she’s a Moroccan sociologist who interpreted the Qur’an from a social context. This book unshackled me once and for all. This liberating moment is so powerful, I still relish this moment. I wish that for every woman and every girl.

Q: How do we get materials to share with others that Ani has published?

AZ: The best thing is to sign up for Muslims for progressive values newsletter, a monthly newsletter about activities in the US and all over the world. Read any articles written about MPV or written by me. I publish a column in the Huffington Post. The newsletter is a good place to start. It will direct you to relevant links that you will be interested in.

You can also learn more about Ani Zonneveld through her online CV here. You can read her latest two articles responding to recent negative attacks she has received here and here.

MEH: Ani, I want to ask you one last question. I was inspired by your work in the arts. Can you talk about the connections between music and social change? I think this is a way to access religion, critiques of people’s own traditions, new ideas and insights, etc. Can you talk a little bit about this?

AZ: Thanks, I tend to skip over this aspect and I really shouldn’t. MPV came out of music and the lack of space for women to express themselves. I decided to release an Islamic pop CD, not realizing there hasn’t been an Islamic pop CD released by a women before. I used progressive content that I learned advocating for women’s rights and reminding Muslims of the contributions of women from day one. Islamic websites wouldn’t sell the CD, it’s haram [forbidden by Islamic Law] because I’m a woman’s voice and because I used instrumentals. We had never had this interpretation of Islam before. I used the arts as a way to open people’s hearts, I sang in front of audiences that were very hostile. I’ve used music to create a new American Muslim culture because everything about Islam in the United States is from somewhere else. I’m a classically trained pianist, so for my last CD I decided to go back to my roots. I wrote and produced an album with a friend called “Islamic Hymns.” The vocal arrangements are like a church choir, the lyrics are from Rumi and old poets — spiritual and pluralistic. My favorite prayer is “Prayer of Light.” Here’s a link of my video and here is a link to my music page.

This is really a Western, American Islam. This is where American Muslims need to go. I’d like to form the first American Muslim choir. I’d like them perform in DC on July Fourth along with a Baptist choir, gay men’s choir, etc. Arts and culture is key, but dominant and traditional Muslims don’t get it. It’s going to be a hard sell.

MEH: I’d like to be front row for that July Fourth performance. I hope that others, if they have questions, will get in touch with you through MPV. This has been a very informative and provocative conversation and I hope this is an expression of solidarity. You’ve given us a lot to think about. I hope you’ll keep in touch with us at WATER so that we can promote your work. We can expand the ways in which women in feminist work in religion bring about social change. We look forward to further conversation with you.

WATER thanks Ani Zonneveld for her work. We look forward to further collaboration.

The next WATERtalk is scheduled for Wednesday, July 12, 2017 at 1 PM ET with Jennifer Rycenga and Linda Barufaldi.