By leading a mixed-gender prayer service in public this month, Amina Wadud made herself a hero to some Muslims and a traitor to others. The unhappiness of the latter group led Virginia Commonwealth University, where Wadud is an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies, to tighten security and heighten awareness last week both on its main campus in Richmond and its branch campus in Qatar. University officials described the changes as "precautionary."
On March 18, Wadud rose in front of a crowd of more than 80 people at an Episcopal church in Manhattan to conduct a prayer service for men and women. In the days before the service, she was applauded by some Muslims, especially in America, for trying to improve the status of women in the religion.
But Muslim religious leaders, particularly in the Middle East, sharply criticized Wadud for what they characterized as a break with hundreds of years of Islamic tradition that precludes women from being imams of congregations that include men. An art gallery that was scheduled to play host to the service received a bomb threat, according to news reports. Outside the prayer service itself, one protester carried a placard that said "Mixed-Gender Prayers Today, Hellfire Tomorrow." Another said: "If this was an Islamic state, this woman would be hanged."
Comments like that appeared with increasing frequency on some Islamic Web sites, and drew the attention of officials at Virginia Commonwealth, where Wadud has taught since 1992. Although Wadud led the prayer service as an individual, not in her capacity as a professor, articles about the controversy mentioned her academic affiliation prominently.
"As time went on, in some of the coverage, especially from other parts of the world, there were some quotes and statements that were alarming enough that we felt it necessary to make sure that everyone felt safe, and that we were doing what we needed to do," said Pam Leppley, director of communications at VCU.
She declined to specify exactly what steps the university had taken to protect Wadud or secure its campus against potential attacks. But she said the university had consulted with "state and federal law authorities" to "make them aware of the situation so we were on their radar screen" as they monitored intelligence reports.
Adding to the university's unease was a car bombing the day after the Wadud-led prayer service in Doha, Qatar, which is home to an arts school that VCU opened in 1998. Nothing in intelligence reports suggests a connection between the Wadud controversy and the bombing, which occurred about seven miles from the VCU campus and killed one Briton. But the fact "that the two things happened close together raised enough concern that we wanted to make sure we're doing due diligence," Leppley said.
The university bolstered security at the Qatar campus immediately after the bombing, Leppley said. But she added that its professors had declined an invitation to return to the United States. "The faculty there don't want to come home," she said. "They feel as safe there as they would anywhere. Their perception is that these kind of things can happen anywhere in the world."
As for Wadud and the university's home campus in Richmond, Leppley said that "for obvious reasons" she could not say much about the university's actions. VCU appears to have taken Wadud's name and e-mail address off the Web page of the School of World Studies, where Wadud works. Wadud called in sick on Thursday but, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she appeared on the campus on Friday and told a reporter that she had no plans to leave the classroom.
Wadud did not reply to an e-mail message asking for comment.