Progress in the Islamic tradition
It’s not often that one is asked to lead a grand mufti in prayer. Especially if one is a woman. Indeed, until this February, no Muslim woman had ever been asked to lead a grand mufti in prayer. So it was, understandably, with an edgy mix of trepidation and elation that I recently agreed to lead prayers for a congregation that included, upon his request, the former Grand Mufti of Marseilles Sohaib BenCheikh.
My excitement and anxiety were only heightened by the importance of what I was about to do. For a woman to lead a mufti, even a mufti known for his liberal views, was not just ground-breaking; it could be the lynchpin in the effort to legitimize women imams.
A mufti is a religious authority somewhat akin to a bishop — a scholar of Islamic theology, law and jurisprudence and who is qualified to issue fatwas, or religious rulings. BenCheikh received his education at Al-Azhar, the premier university in Sunni Islam, and has for 10 years been the spiritual leader of Marseilles.
He also is the first scholar of his caliber to have endorsed women imams. There have been scholarly articles presenting the theological justification for female imamate … written by Muslim women educated in the West. Various Islamic leaders have offered their support, but none of them carried the clout or credentials of BenCheikh. His opinion is one that other scholars cannot glibly dismiss.
That he decided to go beyond simply issuing a ruling, and chose to participate in a women-led prayer himself, sends an unequivocal message. A message that cannot be ignored by his fellow al-Azhar alumnae, who are among the most respected scholars in the Islamic world. A message that I dearly hope will help assuage the doubts of those who are sitting on the fence, undecided as to whether Islam bars women from religious leadership or not. A message that I dare to believe will eventually change the face of Islam as we know it today, restoring the community’s commitment to justice and equality.
Like the Catholic women who were ordained as priests and deacons last year, those of us who have served as imams do not see ourselves as rebelling against tradition, but as reclaiming our place as equal participants in the religion and in society. We challenge not the religion, but the patriarchal practices that have infiltrated Islamic practice and Muslim society.
Women’s leadership as imams cuts at the root of so many evils currently plaguing Muslim societies. It challenges popular notions of sexuality that cast women as temptresses and men as weak and dominated by sexual urges. It belies the idea that women are emotional rather than intellectual, and in need of a firm male hand to keep them in balance. It shatters a social order in which men must go out to work and women must stay home to raise babies and care for the house. And it defies the convention that good women are silent, submissive and serene.
These are notions that underpin a host of social ills in the Muslim world — from bans on driving to extreme forms of segregation. They are used to justify rape, honor killings, female genital mutilation and domestic violence, to bolster arguments for separate but “equal” education and the denial of leadership positions to women.
I do not expect that change will come to the Muslim world quickly, but I do believe that in 25 years, or maybe 50, women imams will be a common thing, and many of the worst abuses we see today will be nothing more than a bad memory.
One short year ago, in March 2005, Dr. Amina Wadud made history when she became the first Muslim woman in 1,400 years to deliver the sermon and lead a mixed-gender congregation in the Friday prayers, an event that had to be held in a New York art gallery because no mosque would agree to host it. That prayer created a firestorm of opposition across the Muslim world.
In July 2005, I gave the khutbah and led the men and women of the United Muslim Association and the Muslim Canadian Congress in Friday prayers — the first occasion of a woman officiating Friday services in a mosque. There were threats of protests, and a few nasty e-mails.
In January of 2006, in Boston, Nakia Jackson quietly became the first woman to deliver the Eid khutbah and lead the Eid prayers.
And now, the mufti has broken ranks and thrown his support behind us. The progression towards wider acceptance is clear.
Needless to say, to play a role in this progression has been both incredibly humbling and incredibly exhilarating. It has been gratifying to me as a woman, as a feminist and as a Muslim. My experiences with leading prayer have been uplifting and empowering, filled with joy and love, with tears and laughter and deep, deep gratitude to God as I joined hands with brothers and sisters from all backgrounds.
Ten years ago, I was asked by the Muslim Student Association at my university to lead the Friday prayers, and I declined because I felt the time wasn’t right; the community was not ready and it would have been split over the issue. But our community is ready now. Today, there are entire congregations that are united behind this movement. At long last, I have found a community that I truly can call my own.