Bold female Imams in the West stir some muted local interest

As this year’s Holy Month of Ramadan edges closer to the end, there are those who are beginning to wonder whether it also did not mark yet another significant sign of a growing march toward liberalism in Islam.

As this year’s Holy Month of Ramadan edges closer to the end, there are those who are beginning to wonder whether it also did not mark yet another significant sign of a growing march toward liberalism in Islam.

A mosque where men and women prayed side by side has just opened its doors in Berlin, Germany, led by female imams. All comers were invited, irrespective of gender, religion or other orientation.


Last August saw the unprecedented all-female mosque open in that part of the world for the first time in Copenhagen, Denmark.


In Islam, as in the Abrahamic religions – Judaism and Christianity – the top clergy are usually male. It has been in keeping with the traditional view of mosques as spaces where men gather for collective prayer and discussion. But a push against male primacy at the pulpit is increasingly gaining traction.


The idea of Islamic women clergy is not new, however. Female imams have been practicing in South Africa since 1995. In China they have existed for the past 300 years.

The face has, nevertheless, been male. Note the names in the often celebrated history of Islam’s scholarly contribution to civilisation, such as in medicine by the likes of Ahmad ibn Tulun in the 9th Century, or Ibn Khaldun in the sociological sciences in the 14th and 15th centuries.

This has been the consistent narrative, starting in the 8th century when Muslim scholars inherited volumes of Greek philosophy lost to Europeans through Christian religious dogma and violent internal strife.

Except that, though the scholars translated the volumes from Latin to Arabic before the knowledge found its way back to Europe fuelling the Renaissance and the Enlightenment movements in Western universities, their women’s contribution is not often talked about.

In 859 AD, two women, Fatima and Miriam al-Firhi established one of the world’s earliest universities, the Al-Qarawiyyin, in Fez, Morocco. Their concept of awarding degrees after rigorous evaluation of students would prove influential, spreading throughout the world.

There’s no point belabouring the point. The women imams in Berlin envision an all-inclusive space in the mosque housed in a room they have rented on the third floor of a Christian church owned building.

One of their objectives is not only challenging patriarchy everywhere, but also “sending a signal against Islamic terror and the misuse of our religion.”

They are looking to welcome every shade of Muslim – Sunni or Shia, Alawite or Sufi – to the mosque named after one of Germany’s greatest writers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and 12th century Islamic scholar Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes.

This has generated some local interest. Some EAC feminists have been wondering: Surely, a similar female boldness in the region can’t be too far behind…

Islam in the region is still heavily steeped in tradition. Muslims in East Africa, including Rwanda, are predominantly Sunni. And, like in much of the continent, the religion came via the coast in many waves and at different times.

However, the Muslims did not arrive with the main aim to convert the people, but as traders in constant movement of slaves, and ivory and other goods from the inland to the coast.

At this point, it would be worth noting that history records show that, in the region, only Rwanda escaped slavery because of the kingdom’s fierce sense of pride, and not least the fearsomeness of their warriors whom the slave traders could not dare cross.

Nevertheless, it is said that Islam came to Rwanda in the very early 1900s through Arab and other native Swahili-speaking merchants from Tanzania and elsewhere in the East African coast, even from as far as India who settled and married Rwandan women.

As to whether we are likely to see female imams in the Eastern Africa region any time soon, I have not heard that Muslim women have expressed a need.

Perhaps only in Kenya some years ago when the country’s chief justice sought to introduce the post of female judge in Kadhi (Shari’ah) courts raising some heated controversy led by the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK).

What is certain is that, as the liberal tide continues its march in the West, it is bound to have some influence on the local scene.

Happy Eid al-Fitr holiday.


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