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Religious Authority of Women

Women hold positions of religious authority in many contemporary Muslim communities despite historical male dominance of formal religious leadership and the institutions and spaces associated with it. Although their authority is often limited by long-standing, often gendered, practices, their activities are significant because they have ended the near-monopoly of men over public religious leadership and increased female participation in lessons and prayer. This article refers to “female Islamic leadership” to specify the role of female authority in an explicitly religious context.

Although historical examples of female Islamic leadership exist, its expansion in the twentieth century needs to be seen alongside more recent changes in society and the place of women within it. Muslim women occupy leadership roles in a wide range of contexts, from the mosques and madrasahs of conservative piety movements, to official religious institutions, to movements trying to transform gender relations completely in Islam.

Authority in Islam is less centralized than in many religions, as is demonstrated by the proliferation of individuals claiming to speak for Islam in the twentieth century. The lack of a single, centrally regulated path to leadership increases the importance of peers and audiences in judging who is a legitimate leader. This less centralized structure provides women with opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, it lowers barriers to entry, making it possible for women—even those without significant religious education—to establish, or rise within, new religious organizations. On the other, it increases the role played by audience expectations, which are often shaped by long-standing sociocultural norms that place additional restrictions on women. What people expect to see in a religious authority is influenced by past examples, and what they expect to hear is influenced by past interpretations, making it difficult for women to advocate change explicitly without losing legitimacy.

Female Islamic Leadership in History.

Prominent historical examples of female Islamic leadership are of several varieties. Women are featured in biographical dictionaries of Islamic scholars before the sixteenth century, often as Companions of the Prophet and ḥadīth transmitters, but occasionally as instructors or scholars. There are also many examples of female Ṣūfī leaders, as women could inherit the barakah of a Ṣūfī saint even in periods and places where women were excluded from the centers of Islamic scholarship in which would-be religious leaders mastered and demonstrated their knowledge. Many contemporary female Islamic leaders are aware of (and cite) these historical examples. It is important, however, to place the significant expansion of female authority within Islam in the context of twentieth-century social and cultural changes.

Women in Twentieth-Century Piety Movements.

Mass movements spreading particular forms of Islamic practice are a major vehicle for female Islamic leadership worldwide, starting in the early twentieth century as social changes increased the public presence and education of women, and especially since the 1970s, with the spread of revivalist movements furthering specific forms of Islamic piety across the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. Female leaders help the movements attract and engage female members.

These leaders often have some formal religious education, possibly provided within the movements themselves, but a significant part of their authority rests on building a reputation within the movement as a committed volunteer, knowledgeable instructor, and pious person. Many of these women are active in spaces that have long been central to religious practice, such as mosques or madrasahs, while others utilize alternative spaces such as public or semi-public spaces outside of mosques (rented premises, universities, other community facilities), private homes, or virtual spaces (television, Internet).

These leaders tend to spread conservative social and religious practices. Further female education and involvement within conservative contexts, where restrictive sociocultural practices are often justified through reference to religion regardless of the degree of support given to them in Islamic texts, nevertheless can enable women to have more influence over their daily lives through explicit reference to Islam.

Positions for Women in Official Islam.

Female leaders have also been invited by states or male leaders to exercise religious leadership within official circles, though often with status lower than their male colleagues. For instance, state-run programs in Morocco and Turkey certify women to work as state employees preaching, teaching, and, in Turkey, even issuing fatwās. Hui women in China capitalized upon past invitations to leadership, as well as the gender-equality policies of the communist state, to establish women-only mosques. Women are serving as deputy muftis focusing on women's issues in India and Syria, and as judges (qāḍīyahs) in Palestine and Indonesia, the latter being the only setting where qāḍīyahs are equal to their male colleagues.

Opportunities for women to pursue formal religious education also expanded significantly in the second half of the twentieth century, for instance with a women's section of al-Azhar in Cairo and numerous female madrasahs in Qom. However, this expansion in education has not led to a rise of similar magnitude in the number of women recognized as top religious scholars, perhaps because the emphasis of many of these schools is on proselytization and outreach. The women who have emerged as prominent scholars in the twentieth century include Suʿad Saleh and Abla al-Kahlawy of Egypt, Noṣrat Amīn and Zohreh Ṣefātī of Iran, and Hajjah Maria Ulfah of Indonesia.

Religious Authority and Women Seeking Gender Justice.

A final group of female Islamic leaders aim to change gendered hierarchies radically within Islam. Women such as North America's Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, and Kecia Ali, and Germany's Rabeya Mueller, and organizations such as Malaysia's Sisters in Islam, combine reinterpretation of the Qurʾān with action, such as leading mixed-gender communal prayer. In North America, women have sought positions on the communal boards that run mosques, and equal distribution of mosque space. In Europe, these groups and thinkers are influential among women trying to figure out how to be Muslim while living in Europe. These female leaders make up a highly visible and inspirational vanguard arguing for major change within Islam. At the same time, this emphasis on change limits their audience and authority to groups and individuals sympathetic to this change.

Women who exercise Islamic religious authority are a heterogeneous group pursuing diverse goals. At the same time, the fact that so many women have successfully established themselves as people who can legitimately speak on behalf of Islam is a significant development that increases the influence and voice of women in a wide range of communities.



  • Bano, Masooda, and Hilary Kalmbach, eds. Women, Leadership, and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2012. A 22-chapter volume discussing female Islamic authority in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America.
  • Jaschok, Maria, and Jingjun Shui. The History of Women's Mosques in Chinese Islam: A Mosque of Their Own. Richmond: Curzon, 2000.
  • Kalmbach, Hilary. “Social and Religious Change in Damascus: One Case of Female Islamic Authority.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 35, no. 1 (2008): 35–57.
  • Kuenkler, Mirjam. “Of ʿĀlimahs, Wāʿiẓahs, and Mujtahidas: Forgotten Histories and New State Initiatives.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (forthcoming).
  • Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • van Doorn-Harder, Pieternella. Women Shaping Islam: Indonesian Women Reading the Qurʾān. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
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