Whither Female Islamic Authorities?
Women are seldom heard of as leaders of male and female Muslim believers today – but has this always been the case? Can only men become ayatollahs, muftis and qadis, and have women always been considered unfit to interpret religious law?
Although the history of Islam includes numerous examples of women transmitting hadith (i.e., sayings of the prophet), writing authoritative scholarly commentaries on the Qur’an and religious law, and issuing fatwas, women rarely perform such functions today. Most Muslim countries do not allow women to serve as judges in Islamic courts, and few congregations would turn to women for advice on matters of Islamic law, or invite women to lead prayer in front of mixed congregations. Given the dearth of women exercising Islamic authority today, one might be forgiven for assuming that for most of Islamic history, women were not granted the right to gain expertise on questions of religion and religious law and that these realms of knowledge were the near-exclusive domain of men.
Yet a look into Islamic history suggests otherwise. The publications resulting from the fellowship will showcase examples of women exercising the authority of interpreting Islamic law, and identify the conditions under which this was more likely to occur than in others.
1. Mirjam Künkler, Women as Religious Authorities: What A Forgotten History Means for the Modern Middle East. Issue brief no. 10.02.18. Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Houston, Texas, October 2018.
2. Mirjam Künkler and Devin Stewart eds.): Female Religious Authority in Shi’i Islam: Past and Present. Edinburgh and Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2019.
3. Mirjam Künkler and Roja Fazaeli, “The lives of two mujtahidahs: Female Religious Authority in 20th century Iran” in Women, Leadership and Mosques: Contemporary Islamic Authority, edited by Masooda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach, Brill Publishers, 2011, pp. 127-160.
4. Mirjam Künkler and Eva Nisa, A fatwa against sexual violence: the story of a historic congress of female Islamic scholars, OpenDemocracy, June 2017. Republished in Women in Islam, SIHA Journal No. 4, 2019, 25-27.
5. Mirjam Künkler, John Madeley and Shylashri Shankar (eds.): A Secular Age Beyond the West. Religion, Law and the State in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Cambridge University Press, 2018.