The Islamic Reform Symposium in Exeter: authority, Muslim feminists, and woman-led prayers

In June, I attended an Islamic reform conference in Exeter, UK. It was a beautiful experience, and I’m saddened that the symposium at which I spoke was the last of the 3-year project – because it would’ve been great to try at it again, hah!

It was a memorable experience for many reasons, but primarily because of the people I met and hung out with. There was friend H. who graciously hosted me for some 9 days while I was in London and treated me like I was the most important thing in her life (I’ll never be able to thank her sufficiently); the Northamptonshire waala friend M. whose family invited me and H. for a fun day with delicious foods (and whose mother went through immense trouble driving to and from London to get specific utensil necessary for cooking mantu because M. had remembered from years ago that I love mantu!); my friend O. who took time out of a busy schedule to give me a tour of London and not complain about having to take pics of me every other minute or having to carry my jacket and purse because they were a nuisance during photo-taking sessions; my friend Y. who invited me over for a delicious meal and wonderful conversations and plenty of guidance (often, nothing moves me more than women supporting other women, sharing resources and guiding each other, wishing each other well); the folks at the symposium, whether the organizers or the scholars, who were generous and supportive – and informal (thankfully: I get excruciatingly awkward in formal settings. I’m a happy and proud Swati village girl deep down inside and have no plans to change); and so on.

There were some great presentations there, and I learned more than I have the ability to retain. I must comment that this was a male-dominated (almost all-male) conference, as most I’ve ever attended tend to be. I was the only female presenter at the event– and Ziba Mir-Hosseini was one of the two keynote speakers (the other keynote was Carool Kersten)–and at times, we, along with another friend of ours, were also the only females in the audience. I was also the only presenter speaking on a female scholar, and Mir-Hosseini discussed the book Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition. (I say this not as a matter of pride; there’s nothing to be proud of about being the only female, or one of two, at an all-male event.) I’d discussed this issue briefly in an email with Dr. Mir-Hosseini prior to the conference, and I made sure to address it also during my presentation, where I spent probably more time than necessary explaining why this was a problem. I’m happy to say that the organizers recognized the omnipotence of the male scholar/student there, and I’m hopeful they will not be repeating the error, whatever their reasons this time around or the previous rounds.

Dr. Amina Wadud, Woman-Led Prayers, and Patriarchal Explanations for Muslim Feminists’ Struggle for Authority

Despite the many great presentations, I am going to talk here only about Dr. Mir-Hosseini’s and maybe about mine where I think necessary. (As you all know, I don’t like talking about myself much. #sarcasmalertthough). I’ll mostly show photos to get the point across. It was a relief to have Dr. Mir-Hosseini there; she added important things to the Q&A after my presentation as well. One of those moments was a highlight of the whole event for me:
Someone, a male, in the audience asked why Dr. Amina Wadud, about whom I had just given a presentation, led the gender-mixed prayer knowing very well that it’d further diminish her chances at a position of authority in the Muslim community. (I’m paraphrasing this individual’s question here.)

I understand a question like this to be asking, why don’t Muslim feminists work with patriarchy to fight patriarchy. There are many problems with the suggestion that a woman would enjoy authority if she would only just do what patriarchy expects her to do. It’s not like she’d be respected any more if she hadn’t led the prayer. Authority is a complex issue, and it’s not something that can be amounted to just one or two factors like not leading gender-mixed prayers or dressing “properly.” In the Authority and Islam conference at Zaytuna College this past April, one of the speakers’ argument in her paper can be summed up as follows: If Muslim feminists want authority, they must stop doing non-traditional things like leading gender-mixed prayer,  playing leadership roles that the community disapproves of, not dressing according to “Islamic” standards, and so on; Muslim feminists, the speaker continued, need to display more (outer) piety in order to be given authority. Among the many problems with this argument is that the speaker didn’t seem to recognize that her/the community’s/the tradition’s ideas of piety and authority were extremely gendered, defined by male scholarship, and needed validation from, most basically, male scholarship. (I wanna note that I know this speaker, am friends with her, and I like her as a person; I find her argument troubling, not her as a person.)

So, in other words, this patriarchal argument goes, Muslim feminists, in their quest for authority and recognition from the Muslim community (whatever “community” may mean here) must learn to accept and embody the patriarchal standards imposed on them that themselves make it so difficult for them to be accepted as authorities. (A friend of mine also pointed out, while we were discussing this specific Zaytuna presentation, that the claim that Dr. Amina Wadud is not authoritative is unfounded in the first place, actually. No one, as this friend said, talks about someone who is not authoritative; no one writes books, articles, etc. about someone who doesn’t hold such a position. Again, authority is not so simple as for anyone to conclude whether an individual has authority or not based on a factor or two. There are several fundamental questions to ask and discuss, if not also attempt to answer, before determining whose authority counts and whose doesn’t.) But importantly, proposing to Muslim feminists that “well, YOU are the actual problem, and that’s why you aren’t given any authority in the community” is troubling; is it really so difficult to understand and accept that the mere presence of the Muslim feminist is an attack on patriarchy, a statement itself against patriarchy?

Besides, Amina Wadud led the prayer only in 2005 – and she’s been a scholar since long before that. Not only did she, until recently, wear the hijab (covering her head) for some thirty years after conversion, but she also covered her face for four years while in the U.S. and Libya. Where was her authority then? She appeared pious (if our idea of piety is to be clothed by the outer appearance of a Muslim – #punintended… is this a pun? k, cool) then – what changed? Just the fact that she led a gender-mixed prayer?

If we think about it, this sort of an argument is not all that different from the way that we talk about many Muslim women’s difficulty in finding compatible Muslim husbands: “You can’t find a compatible marriage partner because you’re too ~insert an adjective that’s not traditionally to be associated with women, like intelligent, career-oriented, ambitious, stubborn, thinking, etc.~ Men don’t like women like that. You’ve to change to fit men’s desires in order to be able to find a husband.” This is patriarchal advice that we need to stop feeding women, whether in discussions on (female) authority, on marriage, or on whatever else, because it harms women; instead of telling women to stop displaying their intelligence, critical thinking, accomplishments, etc. (or telling women to just not be themselves, period!), why is no one focusing on the men/their families whose patriarchal and unrealistic expectations of today’s women make it so difficult for so many (Muslim) women to find husbands? Why do we rarely, if ever, tell men, “Listen, bruh, today’s women are far more likely to be educated and career-oriented than in the past. So you need to reconfigure your expectations and ideals such that they reflect the reality – where women are actual equals of men, where your wife is your equal and not your maid, cook, nurse, baby machine, etc. The problem is YOU”? (Don’t attempt to answer this question, folks, pliss. Contemplate on it, maybe, though.) Why is it always so easy for people to target the woman and tell her she’s the problem and that she must change in order to accommodate patriarchy/men? By God, what good has patriarchy ever done for humanity that it needs to be accommodated in the first place?

On Why Amina Wadud Led the Gender-Mixed Prayer

Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s response to the question, though, was one that left everyone speechless – and this is what the highlight for me was; she gave a firm and moving response that I really don’t think anyone was expecting because most of us don’t tend to recognize the importance of religion/God/spirituality in the Muslim feminist’s life and work. Mir-Hosseini gave a detailed explanation of Dr. Wadud’s reason for having led the prayer: As Wadud explains in her book Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, her decision was a matter of justice and ethics, grounded in the Qur’an because she knew and knows that the Qur’an does not prohibit women from leading prayers or assuming other roles of leadership. Wadud also talks about this in this video here. (P.S. Juliane Hammer discusses the prayer event, its connection to (female) authority and gender justice, and its broader impacts on Muslims and Muslim women specifically in her book American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer. Also worth a read.) So, for Wadud, unlike for some of the organizers of the event, the prayer was not intended to be sensationalized the way it was – Wadud had different intentions and interests and some of the organizers had other intentions and interests, and she talks about these competing intentions in Inside the Gender Jihad. She has emphatically pointed out many a times that she did not want to be contacted by the media or the public about the prayer–except for a press conference about the prayer right before it began–because what she was doing was for God and God alone, an expression of her devotion to God.

It might also be useful if I quote Wadud herself from an interview:

You will hear people who categorically say: “In Islam we women shouldn’t lead the Muslim community in prayer.” But the question must then be asked: “How do you come to those conclusions? What is your evidence?” And when you look back, you’ll not only see that Qur’an does not prohibit women from being imam or the lead of prayer but also never said they had to be male. Likewise, the prophet never prohibited women and never said it had to be a man. So if Qur’an and Sunna have no explicit confirmation of that opinion, we have to wonder how we came to that opinion. The answer is that it originated out of juridical interpretation. But if the primary sources do not advocate the conclusion of the juridical interpretation – to say nothing even of the diversity of opinions within the juridical interpretations – you have the right, and in fact even the mandate, to interrogate that finding and to challenge the notion that it is or isn’t Islamic.

There was complete silence in the room after Mir-Hosseini’s response. Her emphasis on Wadud’s decision as rooted in justice was very inspiring.

That Amina Wadud was willing to put herself at risk for her quest for justice, with the Qur’an as her shield, is a powerful statement if we choose to think about it and reflect on her decision. Instead of challenging it with a superficial “but that’s not allowed! Give me ONE scholar’s fatwa that says it’s allowed!” Which is completely missing the point, and which, by the way, if I did give you, you wouldn’t accept. Like if I pointed out that al-Tabari said women can lead men and women in prayer. Ibn Arabi, too, said it was allowed, as did many other male medieval Muslim scholars. Heck, even Gamaal al-Banna, brother of the Banna who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, insists that women are Islamically allowed to lead men in prayers, too. Also, while this topic deserves its own entry–and I promise to write it one of these days, inshaAllah–let me also just mention that the excuse that women shouldn’t lead prayers because of sexual temptation is actually quite modern: for earlier Muslim scholars, this wasn’t the reason at all, totally irrelevant to their arguments and conclusions, since they defended their decision that women shouldn’t/can’t lead prayers because of male superiority over women and women’s incompetence and so on. (For more on this note, I highly recommend Marion Katz’s Prayer in Islamic Thought and Practice and Behnam Sadeghi’s The Logic of Law Making in Islam: Women and Prayer in the Legal Tradition.)

Back to Mir-Hosseini’s response to the question about why Wadud led the prayer knowing it would further reduce her chances at a claim to authority/authenticity. The person who had asked the question later told me that, while he still didn’t agree with Wadud’s having led the prayer (“because fiqh does not permit it” – another topic that has to do with authority that I need to discus on my blog at some point, inshaAllah), he now does understand Wadud’s justification and appreciates her struggle, knowing now how important justice is to her.

Hi. Let’s Actually Read Muslim Feminists’ Scholarship – and not hold mere second-hand opinions about Muslim feminists or their works.

I don’t think I can emphasize enough the need for Muslims to actually read the scholarship being produced by Muslim feminists before attempting to discredit them/their scholarship. We need to actually understand what they are saying and doing before forming an opinion about them or their work, and we need to be wary of their critics’ opinions – be it that the opponents are recognized community/faith leaders and scholars. These critics should not be our source of knowledge on Islamic feminism. With a remarkably long list of Islamic feminist scholarship, such as is found here, no Muslim has any excuse to not learn about feminism from feminist sources themselves.

You see, there’s a complete lack of communication between the Muslim feminist and her detractor (my use of “her” here doesn’t mean I think all Muslim feminists are women; it’s that I don’t use the generic he/his – I use she/her). Mir-Hosseini addressed this lack of communication among Muslim feminists and our opponents as well:

In response to another audience member, whose question was precisely about why Muslim feminist scholars and the more traditional Muslim scholars supposedly aren’t communicating with each other, Mir-Hosseinin said something that I will paraphrase as (not at all verbatim): Because the opponents don’t want to listen. We’ve tried many times to talk with them, and they have no interest in talking. Instead, the most effective way to get them to listen to us is to have a public debate/discussion with them in which we critically discuss their patriarchal stances against women and gender issues more generally, because when in public, with so many people watching and listening to them, these (male patriarchal) scholars cannot dare make misogynistic comments about women. They can and do that only behind a wall when and where they’re not likely to be challenged and called out on their misogyny. (P.S. More about this issue in Mir-Hosseini’s book Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran.)

Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s Presentation on Men in Charge? at the Symposium

As for Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s presentation, we had the pleasure of hearing her talk about Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, a book she edited along with Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger. (I highly, highly recommend the book, by the way. Here’s why.) Here are pictures of some of the slides from her presentation. If they’re not clear, I’m happy to type them out. The “Questions to Ask” is one of the most important lists of questions we should always be asking.


The title of the book – “Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition”


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Isn’t this powerful?

And Ziba Mir-Hosseini graciously signed my copy of the book 🙂 God reward her generously!image8And we took pictures!  (The first pic is of me (in the middle), my friend Y., and Z.)

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11 thoughts on “The Islamic Reform Symposium in Exeter: authority, Muslim feminists, and woman-led prayers

  1. Hi orbala,

    I love reading your blog. I have a few questions for you. Is there an email I could contact you on, as I know you’re getting your Ph.D in Islamic studies and think you’d be the best person to ask.

    Thank you!


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  3. Pingback: Muslim women scholars of Islam, the question of qualifications, and romanticized images of the “Islamic tradition” | The Muslim Times

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  7. Pingback: actually, Islam DOES allow women to lead mixed-gender prayers. | Freedom from the Forbidden

  8. Pingback: “Picking and choosing” is actually inherent and essential to Islam. | Freedom from the Forbidden

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