I Never Dreamed Of Being An Imam - Then I Founded One Of The World's Only Female-Led Mosques

We want to challenge the conservatism and paternalism that reign supreme in our society, and transform Islam in Europe and beyond
Sherin Khankan
HuffPost UK

It was Ibn Arabi, the Islamic Sufi master and theologian, who once said: ‘the perfect man is a woman’. This is also typical of something my father would say. He was the first feminist I knew (as well as the first political activist) with a social democratic leaning to boot. He is one of my role models, and he gave me his sense of political activism and his taste for current events and debating ideas.

My mother is a Finnish Christian and my father a Syrian Muslim. This rarely posed a problem for them, and when it did, my parents sought a point of convergence. Love is a process, an alloy of compromise and negotiation. I am the product of this wise philosophy. Half Finnish, half Syrian, my identity is an intersection. I am the East and the West. The village and the city. The refugee and the protected. I am a synthesis balanced on a tightrope. A product of Finland and Syria who came into existence in Denmark in 1974. Almost half a century later, they still form the strong and admirable couple who serve as an inspiring example for me.

Nothing predisposed me to becoming a woman imam. I never could have imagined such a destiny for myself. My father grew up in Damascus, in a house in the historic part of the city, twenty yards from the Great Umayyad Mosque. Before sunrise, my grandfather Naïm, married to Wajiha and father of six who worked hard to support his family, was a muezzin who would climb the thousand steps of the west minaret to call the faithful to prayer. I often imagined the voice of this man I never knew rising up in the warm early morning and soaring over the Damascene rooftops, singing: ‘prayer is better than sleep’. But to tell the truth as a young girl, I pictured myself becoming a psychologist rather than an imam engaged in the intellectual fight for Islamic feminism, challenging patriarchal mindsets.

But then in Copenhagen in August 2016, I, together with a group of female and male activists, opened the first women’s mosque with female imams in Europe. We named it The Mariam Mosque. To this day imam is a title that, to this day in Scandinavia and most places in the world, belongs exclusively to men - except from the female imams in China (since 1820), US, Germany, South Africa and Canada among others. It is a title that has a variety of meanings and practices, and can be defined as ‘one who leads prayer’, ‘one who leads the mosque’ or ‘one who offers Islamic spiritual care’.

Little did we know that, soon afterwards, news of our mosque would spread worldwide, from Copenhagen to China. On the verge of becoming a female imam, my life is now at a turning point.

Sherin with France's president Emmanuel Macron
Sherin with France's president Emmanuel Macron
Sherin Khankan

The idea behind The Mariam Mosque can be summed up in four ideas: offering and promoting a spiritual approach to Islam based on a rereading of the Quran anchored in the reality of today’s world, with a specific focus on women’s rights; challenging patriarchal structures within religious and educational institutions, as well as patriarchal readings of the Quran and the Hadiths (the oral accounts written down after the Prophet’s death that relate his words and actions); promoting Islamic feminism, which I believe is rooted in the Islamic concept of equality, and, finally, to fight Islamophobia.

We want to challenge the conservatism and paternalism that reign supreme at the heart of our society, where men by and large have all the power. Too often the younger generations, desiring to fully live out their faith, do not see themselves in patriarchal readings of the Quran and in patriarchal Islamic practices, and so our aim is to offer alternatives. We are here to transform Islam in Europe and beyond, to show the world that this is a peaceful religion. We will change things from within, and we will take as long as necessary and go as far as China if we have to, repeating this message and putting an end to the reign of ignorance.

For example, in many countries in Europe and the Muslim world, a woman’s right to divorce is not included in the Islamic marriage contracts, despite being lawful under Islamic law. Because of this, some women are trapped in religious marriages. Our marriage contracts however take this into account - that’s why women today trust us, consult with us and dare to open up to us when their marriages falter, or their husbands turn to domestic abuse. At Mariam Mosque, they can get a divorce (naturally after having explored all possibilities for reconciliation).

In fact, the Islamic marriage contracts we offer are very different from some of those in other mosques around the world. Ours stipulate in the preamble that women have the right to divorce, polygamy is not an option and that, in the case of divorce, the woman keeps the same rights as the man and custody of the children is shared. In cases of physical violence or emotional abuse, the union is invalidated.

Moreover, at Mariam Mosque, we celebrate interfaith marriages because we acknowledge the reality that, being in Europe, there is a considerable probability that a Muslim woman could fall in love with a non-Muslim man. We respond to this by respecting Quranic legality, since you only need to study the sacred book lightly to discover that it doesn’t oppose such unions. As such, I have officiated more than 30 Islamic marriages, half of them between faithful Muslim women and faithful Christian men. We have couples coming from all over the world to get married in our mosque, since the majority of male imams around the world do not accept Muslim women to marry outside Islam.

One day, around the time of the opening of our mosque, I was getting ready for the Friday prayer, putting on my white scarf and Syrian galabiyya (a long-sleeved garment that goes all the way down to the ankles), a gift from my father that I converted into my imamah dress.

Halima Mariam, my youngest, had a friend over. Halima’s friend whispered in her ear: “Do you know what an imam is?” Halima, then five, looked at her with proud tigress eyes and answered, “Yes, it’s a woman who does very important things!”. This story alone shows that it’s possible to change a century of fixed narrative in the mind of a five-year-old.

Sherin Khankan is the founder and imam in The Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen, an activist, lecturer and author of Women Are The Future Of Islam, published by Rider Books on 14 June

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