Women as Imams

The development of our Imam work is the hardest thing we’re doing (that, and trying to find a permanent space) and we’ve found there is little out there on which to model our ambitious plans.

Opportunities to learn from others doing work with similar aims has been essential so I jumped at the chance to attend a seminar looking at three books which explore the concept and work of women leading prayers and taking on leadership positions in mosques. The keynote speaker was Dr Simonetta Calderini whose book ‘Women as Imams’ provides an academic exploration of the areas of divergence and consensus on the notion of women as Imams. It is the book Inclusive Mosque and communities like ours have been waiting for! It brings to light the concepts that throw women’s leadership into question and the multiple rationales that provide an Islamic justification for women leading prayers as well as the rationales that oppose it. Importantly, it charts the evolution of Islamic thought on this subject and shows there has never been a unanimous consensus among Islamic scholars on the permissibility of women leading prayers. It’s a multidisciplinary book that also platforms the voices of women working in leadership roles, leading prayers and expanding the possibilities for Muslim women in public leadership roles. 

At the seminar Professor Tazeen Ali, author of The Women’s Mosques of America, shared a summary of her research on the US-based mosque run by and for women where boys aged 12 and under are also permitted to attend. Jesper Petersen presented a short talk on the successes and challenges faced by the people running the Mariam Mosque in Denmark. The audience were also given a chance to ask questions and I took part as a discussant alongside Dr Hilary Kalmbach.

I’ve led prayers at Inclusive Mosque for almost ten years and this conversation helped me see how much power there is in creating the thing that we need the most. The action – women actually leading mixed-gender prayers –  as opposed to the thought exercises without action, is what helps the evolution of Islamic thought on the topic. The action and the reactions give us the material we need to understand the real impact of this work.

In Professor Ali’s book, she writes about the Women’s Mosque of America as an institution that cultivates Islamic authority by bypassing any requirement for formal religious training and instead platforming Imams who draw on their embodied experiences to create their khutbahs. In doing so the WMA creates more opportunities for women’s exegeses. Ali writes about the way the Khateebahs are using their experiences, their community activism, and their professional credentials to create and deliver their khutbahs. This, she writes, is what gives them religious authority in the eyes of their congregation. There is a beautiful and complex concurrence described in this book and it reflects my experience as a female Imam in the UK.

Any Imam can offer to lead prayers but the real authority that an Imam has is bestowed on them by the community. It’s created by the requests made of the Imam after the prayer, not during it. It’s when community members ask us for counsel on matters in their personal lives. In viewing us as part of their knowledge seeking, they give us an authority in their lives. An authority we did not ask for. How we respond to their requests determines to what degree we lean into the opportunity of authority being offered to us.

The concurrence that is required for religious authority to exist in Muslim communities also means that communities can take away that authority and limit the relevance of the imam in their lives. This collective action from the community is especially needed when Imams of any gender abuse their power. And we need communities to be more discerning about who they seek knowledge from because what we seek from Imams is what gives them power.

I was not surprised to learn from Jesper Petersen’s work that The Mariam Mosque had no intention of offering Islamic divorces but the community call for the service was too great for them to ignore.  In Islam, it is possible to get divorced without third party involvement (see Mubarat divorce) but few Imams or Muslim leaders share this knowledge with communities. Even if they did, the belief that a third party is needed to legitimise marriages and divorces is deeply embedded and few Muslims in the UK are confident accepting the Islamic rights they have been given to legitimise the beginning and ends of their marriages themselves without Imams. My hope is that this will change and that more Imams will mitigate the imbalance of power in their relationship with their communities by encouraging Muslims to use their Islamic rights and stop relying on Imams to arbitrate on matters where they don’t need to have any authority.

Dr Calderini’s book gives us, and all feminists drawing out the concepts of equity that are so central to Islam, so many gifts. For me, the book’s conceptualisation of the role of tradition in the past, the present and the future is crucial to making decisions proactively about how we move forwards as a community. Especially moving away from the notion of that women in public spaces are a potential fitna by default. Dr Calderini also provides examples of multiple women from the time of the prophet Muhammed (saw) and in the decades that followed his death who took on prayer leadership and military leadership. Importantly she show us that Islam and its history is not static or fixed, it is part of a living tradition which is constantly being shaped and reshaped by Muslims all over the world in our efforts to establish justice.