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Written by leading scholars, the Focus On essays are designed to stimulate thought and enhance understanding of vital aspects of the Islamic world. New essays on specific themes, with links to related content within the site for further reading, are published throughout the course of the year. All visitors to Oxford Islamic Studies Online can access these essays, but related content links in Previous Features are available to subscribers only.

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The first Focus On feature explores the role of women in contemporary interpretations of Islam.

Women, Islam, and the Twenty-first Century

Natana J. DeLong-Bas

Historically, the interpretation of Islam has been largely a male endeavor. Although the first convert to Islam was a woman (Muhammad's first wife, Khadijah), and women played an important role in the transmission of hadith (the sayings and deeds of the prophet Muhammad) and the development of Sufism, women have generally been marginalized from the male centers of Islamic interpretation, including both scripture and law, and leadership roles in public worship. But this has changed in recent times.

In the twentieth century, the combined spread of literacy; the availability and promotion of public education for both girls and boys; expansion of job opportunities for women; and the rising number of conversions to Islam from other religious traditions, particularly in the West, have added to the desire of Muslim women for greater empowerment in the practice and interpretation of their faith. As in other areas of life, Muslim women have proven to be resourceful, creative, and dedicated to claiming ownership of and responsibility for their faith lives, both individually and communally. This is in spite of the challenges they have often faced in gaining access to the appropriate religious training facilities and establishing credibility with the male religious establishment, particularly conservatives. Today, Muslim women are active in Qur'an study circles, mosque-based activities, community services sponsored by religious organizations, and Islamic education, as both students and teachers. There are a rising number of female Qur'an reciters, Islamic lawyers, and professors of Islamic studies throughout the world. Women are increasingly present in highly visible positions of religious prominence, although, to date, few have significant positions in the religious establishment and none have achieved the highest positions, such as grand mufti or ayatollah.

Contemporary Muslim women's activism in claiming an interpretive role within the Islamic tradition tends to focus on three key aspects of religious life: reciting, teaching, and interpreting the Qur'an; participating in and leading public worship; and interpreting Islamic law. There are a multiplicity of voices in these debates, some conservative and some self-designated "progressive," with some claiming a position of equality with men and others affirming certain unique roles for men and women. Vibrant, passionate, and often contentious, these debates are among the most important in defining Islam in the twenty-first century.

Reciting, Teaching, and Interpreting the Qur'an

Contemporary Muslim women's venture into Qur'an interpretation, both in the Muslim world and in the West, dates to the turn of the twentieth century. In 1909, Egyptian activist Malak Hifni al-Nasif, writing under the pen name Bahithat al-Badiya (or Explorer of the Desert) proposed a 10-point program for change that included as its first demand the teaching of the Qur'an and Sunnah to girls, primary and secondary education, and adherence to the shariah in betrothal and marriage. Nasif later requested mosque space for women to permit them to attend public prayer services. In 1937/1938, the Muslim Ladies' Association was formed by Zaynab al-Ghazali to carry out social welfare activities. However, it quickly expanded to train women to perform da'wah (religious exhortation), as well as to teach religious principles to other women. Training sessions were established to provide women with knowledge of exegesis on the Qur'an and hadith. At the same time, the prohibition against women delivering the Friday khutbah (sermon) or serving as imams was not challenged. Al-Ghazali was one of the first contemporary women to publish commentaries on the Qur'an and hadith and remains one of the most respected women interpreters; she died in 2005.

Similarly, in Indonesia, women have been encouraged to study the Qur'an since the turn of the twentieth century. The foundation of 'Aisyiyah in Indonesia in 1917 as the largest national organization for Muslim women combined the study of the Qur'an with programs to improve women's economic conditions and assert their basic human rights. A similar organization, Muslimat Nahdlatul Ulama, was founded in 1946 to improve the condition of women by focusing on legal issues and calling for the reinterpretation of texts that were used to justify a lesser status for women. Today, Indonesia is home to thousands of institutions, including pesantren (Islamic boarding schools), where women can specialize in Islamic studies. The products of these schools include expert Qur'an reciters, like Hajjah Maria 'Ulfah, the first woman to win the International Competition in Qur'anic Recitation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (1980), as well as female imams, intellectuals, and activists with expertise in Islamic studies and Islamic law and interpretation (shariah and fiqh). Interpretation and the reinterpretation of Qur'anic texts is a critical aspect of social activism because of the powerful role religion plays in Indonesian society. Many pesantren are run and staffed by women for women to assure that Islamic learning, particularly strong knowledge of the Qur'anic texts, is passed on to the next generation, to enable women to engage male interpreters from a position of equal knowledge.

Major steps in asserting women's voices into Qur'an interpretation have been taken by scholars based in the West and this has expanded throughout the Muslim world. For example, the African-American scholar Amina Wadud was one of the first to publish a deliberately female-inclusive exegetical work that asserted female equality with men at the time of creation and in terms of religious obligations, as a framework for challenging gender roles as the product of culture, rather than religion.

This work provided substantial scriptural support for already extant social activism in Malaysia in conjunction with Sisters in Islam, a group of professional Muslim women founded in 1988 and registered as an NGO in 1993 to promote awareness of the principles of dignity, equality, justice, and freedom that they believe are inherent in Islam and to create a society that upholds these principles within a democratic state, particularly through more humane treatment and protection of women. Sisters in Islam carefully constructs its arguments on the basis of the Qur'anic text, highlighting the Qur'an's emphasis on equality and fair treatment for all people. Thus, if the interpretation is not in keeping with the Qur'anic principles, the interpretation, rather than the text, is deemed to be flawed, suggesting the need for reinterpretation. Sisters in Islam has particularly challenged interpretations that endorse the oppression of and violence toward women and interpretations that deny women the basic right to human dignity and equality-because these interpretations violate Qur'anic principles. Sisters in Islam is adamant that the inferior and subordinate status of women to men is not part of the Qur'anic revelation, but is the result of men having had exclusive control over the interpretation of the Qur'anic text.

Subsequent works by other scholars have either built upon Wadud's text or challenged its interpretations, all through the re-examination of the original Arabic text. Pakistani-American Asma Barlas focused on removing patriarchy from interpretational mechanisms in favor of egalitarianism, while Iranian-American scholar Laleh Bakhtiar became the first woman to publish an English translation of the Qur'an in 2007. Syrian-American Nimat Hafez Barazangi has asserted the importance of women, remembering that they are individuals, as well as members of a community, in order to shift the discourse from consideration of women's roles as simply complementary to that of men, to consideration of women as individuals who are to be judged on the basis of their piety (taqwa). This interpretation asserts that the only difference God recognizes between human beings is in the level of taqwa, rather than gender, tribe, or birth (Qur'an 49:13).

In addition to challenging male domination of Qur'an interpretation, the textual authority of the hadith was also challenged by female Muslim scholars. Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi raised questions about the authority and authenticity of certain hadith typically used to justify a subordinate position for women, noting that they were often given privileged status over hadith with a stronger chain of transmission (isnad) that tended to be more favorable toward women. Her conclusion that the end result, a lesser status for women, was a consequence of male privilege in interpretational issues, has sparked additional research.

Gender Inclusiveness in Public Worship

Some Muslim women have challenged the male prerogative in the mosque, not only by asserting their right to pray in the mosque in the same room as men, but also by claiming their historic right to lead prayers in a mixed-gender setting. South African Muslim women had tied the issue of gender equality to the end of oppression and discrimination of all sorts-racial, gender, and religious-that was ushered in with the end of apartheid in the 1980s. South African Islamic liberation theology deliberately embraced the inclusion of women in leadership roles in public worship as evidence of its sincerity in ending discrimination. As early as the 1990s, women led mixed-gender prayers and delivered the khutbah (Friday sermon), citing the example of Umm Waraqah, who was appointed by the Prophet Muhammad as imamah (female prayer leader) over her own mixed-gender household. Women also asserted their right to pray alongside men in shared common space in the mosque.

Having performed the functions of imamah (prayer leader) and khatibah (preacher of the Friday sermon) in South Africa in 1994, American Muslim scholar Amina Wadud declared her spiritual fitness to do the same in an American setting, which she did in New York City in 2005. Since then, others have done the same, including Asra Nomani in Boston in 2006. A step further was taken by Kecia Ali in 2006 when she officiated at a Muslim wedding, giving the sermon and administering the vows. While these women are the vanguard of self-designated "progressive" Islam, other American Muslim women leaders have chosen to maintain male privilege in certain activities, particularly leadership of mixed-gender prayers. Ingrid Mattson, the first woman to head the largest Muslim organization in North America, the Islamic Society of North America, supports male privilege in leading prayers, based on her understanding of the Sunnah (Muhammad's example)

In Morocco and Turkey, the question of female imams took the national stage. The Moroccan Ministry of Islamic Affairs awarded diplomas to fifty female imams in 2006. That same year, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) in Turkey appointed two hundred female imams as state employees and announced that passages discriminating against women or subordinating them to men would be deleted from the hadith.

Interpreting Islamic Law

The interpretation of Islamic law (shariah) is one of the most contentious issues for Muslim women today, as changes to the law are viewed as critical to the expansion of women's practical rights. Because the roles of mufti (person issuing a legal opinion, or fatwa) and judge are restricted to men, some women seek to acquire these roles in order to have a voice in the deliberations. For example, in 2006, the American Society for Muslim Advancement organized a conference on Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity that resulted in the formation of a women's shura (advisory) council to provide alternative opinions and claim a voice for women's rights in the field of Islamic law. A select core group of women scholars will examine certain legal issues, but then return the proposed position to the collective group to vote on each recommended position. The majority opinion would ultimately be distributed globally. Anticipated topics to be addressed include dress, equality in the mosque, female imams, honor killings, and the hudud ordinances on the books in countries like Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and parts of Nigeria. These ordinances prescribe the death penalty for zina (sexual activity outside of marriage), and often include rape in the category of zina.

Another American-based organization, Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, founded in 2004 by Egyptian-American scholar Azizah al-Hibri, is also working to change the practice of shariah in countries where the shariah is not implemented in a balanced way. Noting a tendency of bias and discrimination toward women, this organization has established an international network of Muslim women jurists to support the rights of Muslim women both domestically and globally by developing gender-equitable Islamic jurisprudence based on the foundational and classical sources. Membership includes both academics and lawyers who are demanding a reinterpretation of gender-biased laws. Since 2004, Karamah has addressed core issues and legal realities affecting Muslim women's lives, such as marriage and divorce laws, child custody, education, political participation, domestic violence, economic, and inheritance rights.

Even countries as conservative as Saudi Arabia and Iran have expanded the public roles of women in the Islamic court system. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot serve as judges; however, female representatives of the Ministry of Social Affairs attend all hearings and court cases related to children as advisors to the male judges to assure that the mother's concerns are included in the deliberations. Although the law generally assigns custody of a boy over the age of seven and a girl over the age of nine to the father, Saudi women have challenged this practice by asserting the broader Qur'anic value of preservation of human life and child welfare and safety in cases where the husband has a history of domestic violence or has a lifestyle (involving drug or alcohol abuse) that could potentially harm the child or the child's development. Women have also expanded the grounds on which they may file for divorce while keeping their financial rights intact.

Similarly, in post-revolutionary Iran, women are no longer permitted to work as judges, but maintain a presence in the court system as employees, advisors, and lawyers, such as former judge and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi. The presence of women in these domains has been bolstered by the creation of a theological college for women, Jame'at al-Zahra, where women can study Shi'i jurisprudence. Iran is home to multiple women's movements, some secular and some self-consciously Islamic, that have found ways to work together toward common goals, including lobbying for changes to Islamically-based marriage and divorce laws, to expand women's rights. As with other organizations and interpreters, care has been given to frame the reforms in terms of Qur'anic values and principles.


Although significant strides have been made in the insertion of women's voices into Islamic debates, challenges clearly remain, particularly in widely-accepted conservative interpretations that appear to be supported by Qur'anic texts. Muslim women have successfully networked and engaged in dialogue and cooperation with other Muslim women globally; however, the ultimate success of joining women's voices to the interpretation of Islam requires their acceptance as equally capable interpreters alongside their male colleagues. Many Muslim men support and encourage this dialogue within Islam, as critical to the development of Islam in the twenty-first century.

Suggested Further Reading

  • Bakhtiar, Laleh. The Sublime Quran. Chicago: Kazi Publications, 2007.
  • Barazangi, Nimat Hafez. Woman's Identity and the Qur'an: A New Reading. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2004.
  • Barlas, Asma. "Believing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J. Notable Muslims: Muslim Builders of World Civilization and Culture. Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2006.
  • Esack, Farid. Qur'an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression. Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 1997.
  • Esposito, John L. with Natana J. DeLong-Bas. Women in Muslim Family Law, rev. ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2001.
  • Mattson, Ingrid. "Can a woman be an imam? Debating form and function in Muslim women's leadership."
  • Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • van Doorn-Harder, Pieternella. Women Shaping Islam: Reading the Qur'an in Indonesia. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam. Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2006.
  • Wadud, Amina. Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Subject Entries

Islamic Society of North America
Islamic Studies
Nadwat al-Ulama


Ghazali, Zaynab
Hibri, Azizah al-
Khadijah bint Khuwaylid
Mernissi, Fatima
Nasif, Malak Hifni
Wadud, Amina
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