Kahina Bahloul and the European imamas, pushing for a modern and liberal Islam

Kahina Bahloul, who is credited for becoming the first female imam (or imama) in France, published in March 2021 her first book titled “Mon islam, ma liberté” (“My Islam, my freedom”). In this book, she explains her origins and her liberal vision of Islam. Born in Paris in 1979, Bahloul spent her childhood and adolescence in Algeria during the country’s civil war of the 1990s between Islamists and the military government. Back in Paris in 2003, she obtained a doctorate in Islamic Studies from the École Pratique des Hautes Études. Following the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people and for which Daesh claimed responsibility, she felt compelled to become an imam, as she disagreed with how Islam is taught in salafi dominated mosques.

Born in a family with Algerian and French origins as well as Muslim, Jewish, Christian and atheist backgrounds, Bahloul advocates for a modern Islam that incorporates equality between men and women. In her view, the Quran does not justify the oppression of women, and it could rather be interpreted as the best instrument to fight against patriarchy. She claims that women have the legitimacy to be an imam, to lead prayers and to teach. With the goal to create an “inclusive” mosque – and through a crowdfunding campaign –, she founded in 2019 the Fatima mosque in Paris, of Sufi inspiration, open to men and women (veiled and unveiled) and also to non-Muslims. Bahloul’s first book, as well as her religious positions, have been covered by French media and international media. Bahloul also created an association and a Youtube channel called “Parle-moi d’Islam” (“Talk to me about Islam”) where she offers lectures about Islam and other religions.

Since Bahloul has claimed her imam title, some other French Muslim women have followed her path. Eva Janadin and Anne-Sophie Monsinay cofounders of the Simorgh mosque, in Paris, led in September 2019 the country’s first congregational prayer where men and women stood side by side. In this mosque, women are imams and lead all services – including those for men –, wearing the veil is not compulsory and Muslims of all denominations are welcome.

These imamas face many detractors and attacks, to the point that Bahloul has decided to keep her social media accounts private. Janadin and Monsinay insist that Islamic theology does not forbid female Imams, and that the barriers are only “cultural and psychological”. As they said in an interview for Le Parisien, they “are helping to build a French Islam, adapted to modernity” and that, although they have faced opposition, “there has been more encouragement than threats”. The Arab Weekly, for example, published an article stating that “the fact that a woman performs the task of imamate does not raise any theological problem in Islam”. 

Becoming imamas, a trend across (Northern) Europe

Several Muslim women have become imamas in the West during the last two decades, breaking with the tradition of male leadership. Since Amina Wadud, the American theologian and scholar, made international headlines in 2005 after leading a mixed gender congregation in Friday Prayer in New York, USA, many women have claimed the imam title, in turn inspiring other women to do so. 

Sherin Khankan, daughter of a Muslim father who fled Syria and of a Christian mother from Finland, became Denmark’s first female imam. She has also been credited for opening the Europe’s first women-led mosque: the Marian mosque in Copenhagen, where in August 2016 she led the first women-only Friday prayer – while Saliha Marie Fetteh delivered the khutbah (sermon). A divorced mother of four, Khankan has performed interreligious marriages between Muslim women and men of other faiths. She argues that while the Quran does not explicitly authorize inter-religious marriages, it does not prohibit them either. She is also the main protagonist of the documentary “The Reformist”, where she argues that change is achieved little by little and without burning any bridges. At least three other women have publicly claimed the imam title in Scandinavia. Suad Mohamed became the first female imam in Sweden, although later on she gave up that title, and currently Iman Baroudi is a female Imam in the Angered mosque (which she cofounded) in the Southern city of Gothenburg. Maryam Trine Skogen became Norway’s first female imam.

In June 2017, Seyran Ates, a German lawyer born in Istanbul with a Kurdish background, founded the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin and delivered the inaugural sermon. In this mosque, prayers bring together men and women (veiled or not) in the same hall, and it welcomes homosexuals – only niqabs and burqas are not allowed, because according to Ates’ interview for Der Spiegel, the full veil is a political statement and has little to do with religious freedom. That same year, Ates wrote the book “Selam, Frau Imamin: Wie ich in Berlin eine liberale Moschee gründete” (“Salam Mrs. Imam: How I Founded a Liberal Mosque in Berlin”), where she explained the reasons behind her decision to open a mosque and her desire to create an international network of liberal Muslims. At least two other women have become imamas in Germany: Rabeya Müller, who converted to Islam in her teens and has become a Muslim scholar, and Halima Krausen, who was was raised in a Christian family before converting to Islam and becoming the imam of Hamburg mosque. 

Many more women have either been given the title of imam or claimed it in local Muslim communities. These women have performed this role in different ways: for some, becoming an imam is about religious leadership, involving counseling and teaching, while for others it entails religious performances, such as delivering the khutbah and leading prayers. Some of their projects have been labelled “anti-sharia” by traditionalist Islamic authorities and Atse has needed police protection to continue to voice her opinion. The opponents to the imamas do not contest indeed that Muslim women can lead prayer but for women only audiences, not for gender mix congregations. While imamas in the West are still a rare phenomenon, they have shown resilience and continue to advocate for a modern and liberal Islam.

These developments have unfolded in a challenging socio-political and security context, in France and elsewhere in Europe. In October 2020, President Macron announced plans to tackle what he called “Islamist separatism” and to defend France’s secular values. During his speech, Macron said that a minority of France’s six million Muslims – making it the country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe – were in danger of forming a “counter-society” in the Republic. In response to such perception, Kahina Bahloul stated in a recent interview (France Inter) that “there is not a unique Islam; Islam is rich and diverse, a tradition that has evolved during 14 centuries”. Bahloul aims to undermine fundamentalist Islamic currents, and insists: “We represent the silent majority of Muslims who are completely integrated in all spheres of French society”.

By Ada Mullol

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