Berkley Forum

The Right to Spiritual Equality, Does It Exist in Islam?

Responding to Religion and Women's Equality

Spiritual equality most definitely exists within Islam. For example, the Qur’an says that men and women were created from a single soul (Qur’an 4:17) and that the most noble among humans are those that are most righteous (Qur’an 49:13), without referring to one sex over another. Nevertheless, the dominance of male authority and the prevalence of patriarchal interpretations of religious sources over the centuries have caused hurdles for Muslim women seeking religious leadership. Having uncovered the true history of Islam by rereading textual sources, Muslim women are nonetheless pushing back against these challenges, to realize and practice their right to spiritual equality, whether in the realm of hermeneutics or spiritual leadership.

Hermeneutics in Islam has been a field primarily controlled by male scholars, who in their own cultural and political contexts have often interpreted the Qur’an and the hadith narratives through a patriarchal lens. In the 1980s, a new gender discourse emerged, led by mostly female scholars from various academic backgrounds, including theology, anthropology, and sociology. This scholarship—coined as “Islamic Feminism”—has debunked theological assumptions of male authority and gender disparity in Islam by tackling patriarchal interpretations in Muslim legal tradition, including of verse 4:34. By working within an Islamic paradigm and drawing their inspiration from the Qur’an and the sunnah, Islamic feminists have pushed to reform man-made Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and its sharia laws that form the basis of structural gender discrimination, while also challenging gender stereotypes and discriminatory practices and norms within Muslim communities.

In Morocco, the Morchidats also confront patriarchal interpretations of Islamic traditions, which they are able to challenge and debunk, given their expertise of the Qur’an and hadith narratives. As a response to the bombing in Casablanca in 2003, the Moroccan Islamic Affairs Ministry began training these Muslim female leaders, the Morchidats, with the intention of countering Islamic extremist thought and enhancing the status of women and girls in society. The Morchidats provide moral support and guidance to women and girls, including in schools and rural areas, and educate communities on, for instance, the importance of girls’ access to education. The Morchidats do not, however, take up leadership roles in mosques on par with the imams, who are men.

It is not uncommon to find mosques, in any part of the world, to be less accommodating to women’s needs. In such mosques, women are either segregated from the main prayer hall through a physical barrier that keeps them in the back of the mosque or in smaller rooms in the basement of the mosque—but never beside their spiritual equals, the men. Even though prayers can be carried out anywhere, including at home, at the airport, and at the office, the mosque is a symbolic house of worship in which the community unites not only to perform prayer, to worship God, and to find peace, but also to address problems within the community. When women are confined to unpleasant prayer rooms, where facilities like the air-conditioning or the sound system are barely functioning, of course women are less likely to attend prayers at the mosque, which ultimately means that they are structurally hindered from meaningfully participating in spiritual and community discussions. It is for these reasons that some women have decided to create their own spaces of worship, like the female-run mosques in Copenhagen and Los Angeles. In China, women-only mosques have existed for more than a hundred years, like the Wangjia Alley Mosque, which was built in 1820.

While women’s mosques are welcoming spaces where women are able to lead prayer and freely discuss all spiritual matters including women’s issues within Islam, they should not be considered the end goal in realizing Muslim women’s spiritual leadership. Ultimately, all mosques should celebrate the fact that men and women are spiritual equals and therefore, both women and men have the right to perform spiritual acts. Yet, women leading the prayers of mixed-gender congregations remains a contentious issue, despite that the Qur’an itself does not mandate that only men are allowed to lead prayer. There are even reports that Prophet Muhammad appointed Umm Waraqa bint Abdallah, a woman well-versed in the Qur’an, to lead mixed-gender prayers.

For Muslim women to be fully engaged and recognized as spiritual equals, it is also imperative that Muslim men, including imams, sheikhs, and muftis, sincerely participate in discussions on women’s rights within Islam, examining the scholarship put forward by Islamic feminists, while following the example of Prophet Muhammad himself to uplift the status of women in society.
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