Denmark's women-led Mariam Mosque: Unorthodox reformation or overdue recognition of the 'female imam(a)'?

Denmark's women-led Mariam Mosque: Unorthodox reformation or overdue recognition of the 'female imam(a)'?
Sherin Khankan and a group of Islamic academics founded the women-led Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen in 2016, sparking a debate among mainstream Muslims who do not traditionally recognise female imamship
6 min read
23 December, 2020
Sherin Khankan was born to a Muslim Syrian father and Christian Finnish mother [AFP]

"Everything starts with a human voice," Imama Sherin Khankan told The New Arab. "The fact it was a Black slave who was the first to call Muslims to prayer, is miraculous considering the treatment of Black people then - and now."

She sees this as evidence that reform and evolution are not new in Islam, but rather integral to it.

"[We] re-read the Quran with a focus on gender equality. Religious institutions are patriarchal, so we try and challenge the structure from within."

Born in 1974 to a Muslim Syrian father and Christian Finnish mother, Khankan, Denmark's first female imam or 'imama', came into the world in a meeting of different cultures.

In 2016, along with a group of Muslim academics, she founded the Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen - one of the first in Europe to be led by women.

The mosque has come under fire within the Muslim community as a diluted "Islam for Europeans"; a watered-down state-compliant form of the religion introduced to conform to Western values. Critics, such as Manzoor Moghal, the chairman of the Leicester Muslim Forum, see such reformist mosques as an attack on traditional values that perpetuate harmful tropes about violence, women's rights and sexual politics in Islam.

The mosque has come under fire within the Muslim community as a diluted "Islam for Europeans"; a watered-down state-compliant form of the religion introduced to conform to Western values

"They are not correct, the powers they have granted themselves are un-Islamic […] they have no place within the Islamic society and would be considered a mischief-making operation," said the chairman of the Leicester Muslim Forum Manzoor Moghal, referring to the Mariam mosque.

But supporters of the mosque say questioning tradition is not necessarily an attack on the religion itself.

The circumstances by which women may act, as imams' remains a thorny topic, with vast division within Islamic society. Khankan is quick to point out that it's not a new phenomenon, rather a part of Islamic history and tradition.

"But still to many Muslims, it was something new, and many saw us as a reformation [...]. At the time of the prophet in Medina (around 600 A.D.), at least three women were acting as female Imams. They are called Um Waraqa (she was appointed by the prophet), Aisha, Umm Salamah." 

Orthodox clerics however, while aknowledging that female imam led other women in prayer during the time of the prophet, dispute whether they had led men in prayer too, a hotly debated topic.

Some see the existence of a woman-led mosque as an example of how Muslim women are able to combine traditional Muslim understandings of female leadership with the principles of Western feminism such as anthropologist of religion Nur Amali Ibrahim. Though, he hastens to add that "women have long been able to occupy leadership positions in certain fields of Islamic religious knowledge […] being an imam has not been one of them". In spite of this, he sees the existence of female imams as a positive development.

"The effect of bringing together Muslim and Western feminist ideas is an enlargement of the spaces women can occupy. I think this is a good development because it makes Islam a more inclusive and egalitarian religion."

Sherin Khankan is Denmark's first female imam [Jad Salfiti]

The mosque has three central missions: Advocating for a woman's right to be an imam; promoting a right to interfaith marriage and supporting women's right to initiate divorce in Muslim marriage. Since opening, of the 50 marriages that have been conducted at the mosque, more than half have been interfaith unions, another controversial topic for mainstream Muslims.

"We realised very quickly that one of the most acute dilemmas of our times among the Muslim youth is the question concerning interfaith marriages," said Khankan.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered mosques around the world, an interfaith couple from Paris had a Muslim ceremony featuring speeches by the bride, groom and Khankan. In Muslim weddings, the imam usually gives a short speech on marriage. 

The couple partook in a civil ceremony three years earlier. 

"The Mariam Mosque ideas fit the current globalisation trend in this world. People travel around the world and meet people from different backgrounds," said the bride, who requested anonymity.

"We can't force these people to believe what we believe. Mariam Mosque, to a certain extent, facilitates this new generation of people including myself who want to continue believing and practicing Islam but [are] living in a non-Islamic country," she added.

Some suggest that reformist mosques, like the Mariam mosque, might have developed as a survival mechanism for religion in a challenging world.

"Remember that these women live in a country [Denmark] that is very Islamophobic," says Amali Ibrahim. "This is a country where in recent years, cartoons have been published denigrating the Prophet Muhammad and halal slaughter has been denounced as unethical (conveniently overlooking that the entirety of the meat industry is unethical).

"So Muslims in Denmark face unfavourable conditions," he says, suggesting that this might have an effect on how the religion is practiced. 

When the mosque launched in 2016, the Western media became transfixed on Khankan. A year earlier, film director Marie Skovgaard had been shooting Khankan as part of a documentary entitled 'The Reformist'. While trying to pitch the film to broadcasters, Skovgaard said she faced rejection.

Khankan's appearance, Skovgaard says, did not match their expectations.

"The context of that was: 'Oh, she doesn't conform to our stereotype of what a Muslim woman should look like'." 

Khankan said she is aware of the role race plays, and attempts to reflect the diversity of Islam at the mosque.

"We want to change that, and we already [have] started to change that," she said. 

Two other females imams at the mosque are from Malaysian and Somali backgrounds, while some wear Hijab and others do not.  

Unlike some headlines would suggest, the mosque takes a cautious, incremental approach to change. 

"If you have too many battles on your shoulders, you won't gain any legitimacy or we would lose our unity," Khankan said. 

"If you want to create change, you have to do it wisely and carefully … you cannot burn all the bridges behind you."

If you want to create change, you have to do it wisely and carefully … you cannot burn all the bridges behind you
- Sherin Khankan, Denmark's first female imam

As with all religions, there are differences between how the world's almost two billion Muslims view worship.

Islam doesn't recognise any specific leadership structure, as seen for instance with the Pope in Catholicism.

While priests are ordained by the church, the role of imam is not a licensed profession; imams can be appointed or organically rise to the role within a community. 

British Imam Sabah Ahmedi told The New Arab: "Leading prayers is a responsibility given to men [for] various reasons.

"Women do not pray on certain days and on periods which means they would not be able to fulfill the role [of imam]."

For Ahmedi, being an imam requires you to lead the five daily prayers within a mosque.

"Certain roles have been ascribed by Islam to each sex and we believe in upholding these roles."

However, Islam has a long history of female empowerment, he said.

"It established rights for women at a time when they were seen as second-class citizens. Islam gave them the right to divorce, inheritance, and established the crucial importance of women being educated."

"Islam is a perfected religion and it caters for all times."

But Khankan claims that examples of women's mosque can be found elsewhere in Muslim communities, for example, in China in the late 17th century. Historically, women in Islamic culture have assumed respected positions such as judges and scholars, but women rarely perform such actions today.

In contemporary times, women have led prayers in countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, France, South Africa, and India. Looking ahead, Khankan said the mosque will continue "reflecting reality as it is".

The New Arab interviewed Khankan and Skovgaard at the Faroe Islands International Minority film festival in late 2019 where the the documentary 'The Reformist' was screening in competition.

Jad Salfiti is a British-Palestinian culture and politics journalist.

Follow him on Twitter: @JadSalfiti