“Men have monopolised the interpretation of the Quran for many, many years – and unfortunately some of the readings of the Quran have discriminated against women in different spheres.”
Sherin Khankan is Denmark’s first female imam and the founder of the first mosque for women in Europe. Having recently published her new book, Women are the Future of Islam, she joined us at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival to discuss her dream of educating a new generation of female imams. She was in conversation with BBC journalist Nidale Abou Mrad, who has reported extensively on migration, the environment and women’s rights across Europe and the Middle East.
Introducing Khankan, Mrad said the word that best describes the female imam is “activist”: “You are an activist who works to give women in your Muslim community more rights and leadership roles by offering a gender-sensitive interpretation of the religion.”
In an exclusive Asia House event, Khankan recounted her journey of faith, her belief in “Islamic feminism”, and the opposition she has faced in her role as a female imam.
Women’s role in Islam
Khankan began her talk by noting that she is not revolutionary in what she is doing as a female imam. She explained that there are three narratives – or Hadiths – in Islam that discuss women leading the prayer for other women.
“Women had a very distinguished role when it came to disseminating the Islamic message. What happened? How come that we, Muslims, in 2018, still do not give women the basic right to serve as female imams in our societies? How come we have normalised these patriarchal structures within our religious institutions, within our societies, in the reading of the Quran, in our families?”
She said that the Prophet Muhammad “blessed the concept of female imams” and that it was only after he died – under the second caliphate in 634 – that women were forbidden to lead the prayer for other women.
“Under that period, the house mosque was slowly becoming institutionalised. In the process of institutionalising the existing house mosques, women were told that it’s not obligatory to come to the mosque. So my point is that the patriarchal practice started back then in 634 when Umar forbade women to lead the prayer for other women – and it has continued until today.”
Khankan also stressed that the concept of a female imam is not new to the world. She said that she knew of female imams in China, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Somalia, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
When Mrad questioned whether Khankan was suggesting people “re-read the word of God”, the female imam responded: “It’s very natural to re-read the Quran. We’re doing what scholars have always done – it’s not something new to read and interpret the Quran.”
She added: “We are going back to the roots. We are re-reading the Quran according to our times and our society. The things that we are doing; it’s not a reformation because we are actually going back to the roots.”
The journey to the Mariam Mosque
Born to a Syrian-Muslim father and a Finnish-Christian mother, Khankan says that her parents gave her an upbringing that celebrated both religions and gave her the flexibility to navigate between different cultures.
“My father made a compromise with my mother that we should have the possibility of choosing our own religion when we became old enough to reflect. So he didn’t give me and my sister a strict, religious, Muslim upbringing… At the age of 19, I knew that I wanted to study Islam and specialise in Islam.”
Khankan said that her first meeting with Islam was through sufism – “the spiritual path within Islam” – and that she did her thesis on sufism and Islamic activism. She then had her first vision of a mosque led by a female imam when she was in Syria.
“I thought, ‘What would happen if the mufti was a woman or if the imam was a woman?’ We were always standing on the balcony, looking at the mufti, and there was this distance – not only a physical distance, but also a mental distance – because we couldn’t be close to the grand imam. And I wanted to change that.”
Having returned to Denmark from Syria, Khankan said she missed belonging to a “community of believers”. In August 2001, she started the Critical Muslims, where she wrote the first manifesto – the Muslim Manifesto – where she talked about her vision for a mosque with female imams and advocated for the separation between religion and politics. Khankan believes that they were the first Muslim organisation in Denmark to have a female leadership.
The Mariam Mosque is a 800 sq.ft. apartment in Copenhagen – similar to the house mosques that existed in Medina – with Mrad noting that it is “more of a social, religious home, rather than a mosque in the classical way”. With a female imam, the Mariam Mosque is the first of its kind in Scandinavia. However, it is also “breaking a lot of taboos” and doing things that are “widely contested within the Muslim community”.
The Mariam Mosque has conducted a number of inter-faith marriages, as well as divorces. Khankan points out that while the Mariam Mosque is not the only mosque in the world to conduct inter-faith marriages, they are proud of having made it possible for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim people – and that more than half of the marriages they have conducted have been inter-faith marriages.
“We believe that women’s right to choose their love partner is a basic Islamic right,” Khankan said.
However, she went on to add that one of the most “acute dilemmas of our time” is the fact that Muslim women do not have the right to divorce within Islamic marriage. In order to tackle this, the Mariam Mosque has constructed a new Islamic marital contract, which states that Muslim women have the right to divorce, polygamy is forbidden, and that if mental or physical violence occurs, the marriage is annulled.
Khankan said: “Even in cases with severe violence, Muslim women cannot divorce unless the husband gives her the divorce – and we are trying to change that… Some of you [might wonder] why this is important because we live in Europe and European law counts legally. Yes, of course you can get your divorce easily through [legal means]. But within the Muslim communities, the Islamic marriage counts spiritually, religiously, psychologically – and the same goes for divorce.”
When questioned over what makes the Mariam Mosque legitimate in what they are doing, Khankan noted that she sees legitimacy as being based on three things: knowledge, Islamic theology, and need.
“If people come to us, this means that we have legitimacy. If people seek us, it means that we have legitimacy. Legitimacy is based on need and it’s based on people accepting you as an authority.”
Fighting for human rights within a religious sphere
Defending her decision to tackle these human rights issues within the religious framework, Khankan said: “We have some specific problems within our practices of Islam… In order to create change within the religious sphere, you have to act within the religious sphere. You cannot only use human rights arguments – even though I believe that the majority of human rights arguments are also present within the Islamic tradition.”
However, while fighting for what she believes in within the religious framework, Khankan has had to accept that things can’t always proceed as rapidly as she would like. When voting for whether the Mariam Mosque should host mixed-gender Friday prayers, Mariam’s vote in favour was voted down. While the Mariam Mosque remains inclusive and open to all six days a week, it is a women’s only mosque on Fridays.
However, Khankan now realises that it was a good thing.
“I realise that if you want to create change, you have to be aware and you have to do it very slowly and you cannot burn all the bridges behind you. I’m very happy about the decision because we are on safe theological ground – and so we do not receive any criticism and we can make the important resolutions.”
The female imam believes that it is her duty as a Muslim leader and imam to “find Islamic solutions” to dilemmas among her community. She hopes that her message reaches a new generation of Muslims, as well as non-Muslims.
“It is possible to change the status quo, it is possible to change the narrative, it is possible to challenge the growing Islamophobia,” Khankan told the Asia House audience. “We just have to go out there and create that change. We don’t need to be a mass movement, we don’t need a big, grand mosque to create change. You just need a small place, and gather a group of people, and then you can create that change on the ground.”
It was a lively debate with differing and challenging views exchanged in front of a packed Asia House audience. Watch the full event here
There’s lots more coming up at this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival – check out the full programme