Can women-led mosques in the West revolutionise Islam?

The fact that a woman performs the task of imamate does not raise any theological problem in Islam.
Sunday 27/01/2019
Fighting taboos. French Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed (R) and female Imam Seyran Ates pose at the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin.  (AFP)
Fighting taboos. French Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed (R) and female Imam Seyran Ates pose at the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin. (AFP)

Muslims in the West have begun to adapt their beliefs to the requirements of living in modern and free societies by taking fresh perspectives on their religion.

For more than a year, prayers at the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin have been bringing together in the same hall women and men.

Unlike what goes on in Berlin’s other 80 mosques, veiled and non-veiled women pray side by side at the Ibn Rush-Goethe mosque. So do Shias, Sunnis and homosexuals. The mosque only bans females wearing the niqab or chador. Preaching at the mosque is done in German.

“We wanted to counter Islamophobia and the misrepresentation of our religion,” said Seyran Ates, the female imam of the mosque. “We urgently need a modern reading of Islamic texts to combat discrimination against women and encourage mixing of the sexes and respect for the freedom of homosexuals. We can’t do that by literally taking religious interpretations dating back from the seventh century.”

Ates, a feminist human rights activist of Kurdish origin, does not hide threats she receives.

She is an outspoken critic of forced marriages of minors and of female Muslim migrants and denounces the practice of forcing female Muslims to wear the veil. In the eyes of her enemies, however, her top crime is her call for a sexual revolution among Muslims.

The goal of opening such a mosque in Berlin, Ates said, was to initiate a constructive dialogue between the different Islamic communities to change the stereotypical image of Islam in the West and to show the moderate side in interpretation of Islamic texts.

As expected, Ates’s project was quickly condemned as anti-sharia by conservative Islamic circles. Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta said on its Facebook page that wearing a headscarf is consistent with the rites and practices prescribed by Allah, that Islam forbids physical mixing of males and females during prayers and that a female cannot lead prayers when males are present.

In Turkey, Diyanat — the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs — declared that the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque ridicules the foundations of Islam and means to destroy it.

In France, Kahina Bahloul stands to become the first female imam. She will be overseeing the Fatima mosque in Paris that she plans to be “different from all other mosques.” She said she wanted it to be open to everyone, in which women and men pray side by side.

Bahloul’s project, which she shares with philosophy Professor Faker Korchane, a French citizen of Tunisian origin who is interested in the philosophy of Al-Mu’tazila in Islam, raised questions and reactions.

Bahloul said that for some time she has been very uncomfortable with what was happening inside mosques in France, especially those that espouse a Salafist ideology.

Because she couldn’t find a mosque that would answer her spiritual and religious needs, Bahloul decided to open a place of worship that would be different from those already in place to answer the needs of those who share her views.

It would be a place where women and men could pray side by side. At a first stage, the main prayer hall would be divided into two zones to avoid mixing of the genders  and close physical contact between the genders during kneeling and prostration. As to sermons and lectures, they would be given alternately by a man and a woman.

The Paris mosque was not named “Fatima mosque” in vain. It was to emphasise that it was time that Muslim places of worship become fully open to female worshippers, giving them a voice in discussing affairs of their faith and the place they fully deserve in Islam. “For a long time now, the Quran has been interpreted through male eyes only and women were excluded from the exercise,” said Bahloul.

Bahloul created a channel on YouTube called “Parle-moi d’Islam” (“Talk to me about Islam”) on which she offers lectures about contemporary issues in the lives of Muslims.

Bahloul emphasised that what is meant by “liberal Islam” is simply a reformist religious movement that examines beliefs through a modernist lens. Korchane explained that “Fatima mosque will propose a critical historical approach to the teachings of the Messenger of Islam. This does not mean that this legacy should be rejected but rather that it should be dealt with in a contemporary framework.”

Bahloul said the fact that a woman performs the task of imamate does not raise any theological problem in Islam. The question has been settled since the 12th century and the writings of Sheikh Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi do not prevent this.

Korchane’s view is confirmed by the opposing, sometimes mocking, and even sometimes threatening reactions on social media. Silence, however, reigns among the representatives of official Islam in France, except for Tariq Obro, the imam of the Bordeaux mosque and author of “The Theory of Jurisprudence of Minorities in Europe,” who said that the Prophet did not forbid women from the imamate.