Monday, March 28, 2005

RICHMOND — Virginia Commonwealth University has tightened security because of threats against a faculty member who led a mixed-sex prayer service that drew harsh criticism throughout the Muslim world.

The precautionary measures were taken the week after Islamic studies professor Amina Wadud led 80 to 100 men and women in Muslim prayer at a church in New York. Muslim clerics denounced her actions and some have suggested that it was part of a plot to corrupt Islam, which requires separate religious services for men and women.

University spokeswoman Pamela Lepley said on Saturday that inflammatory comments on Internet forums discussing Miss Wadud’s actions and her views about the role of women in Islam “raise concerns.”

President Eugene P. Trani sent a universitywide e-mail Thursday night addressing security concerns but did not name Miss Wadud.

No specific threats have been made, but security is at a “heightened state,” Miss Lepley said. The university has consulted Virginia and federal agencies.

The March 18 prayer service involved a call for “An Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque” and Miss Wadud’s periodic substitution of the Arabic word for God, Allah, with pronouns he, she and it, arguing that God’s omnipresence defied gender definition.

Supporters of traditional Islam denounced the service and Miss Wadud, saying she committed an apostasy, punishable by death under Islamic law.

Miss Wadud, an associate professor who has worked at the university since 1992, has been an outspoken scholar of the role of women in Islam. She is the author of “Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text From a Woman’s Perspective” and has argued for the reform of Shariah, or Islamic law, to be more inclusive and equitable.

Miss Wadud has declined to be interviewed, except to say that she intends to continue working at the university.

Mr. Trani’s memo stated that the university “respects the academic freedom and rights of free speech and religious expression of all our faculty and students,” but that their beliefs and practices don’t reflect any university views.

Esther Nelson, an adjunct professor of religious studies, said she and other faculty members are concerned about security, “not just for Amina but for everybody else.” But she called Miss Wadud’s stance “absolutely courageous.”

The university also increased security at its campus in Qatar, a few miles from where a suicide car bombing occurred outside a theater last week, killing one person and injuring 12. Miss Lepley said no link has been found between the bombing and Miss Wadud’s prayer service.

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