Women in early Islamic history held numerous prominent leadership positions, as transmitters of hadith and as ritual and interpretive authorities. Notable Muslim women consider the Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, as an exemplary business leader, and his last wife, Ai’sha, as essential in preserving and narrating the Prophet’s sayings.
“Say: My Lord! Increase me in knowledge.” (20:114)
The Prophet’s Sayings
“My Companions are like stars; whoever follows them will be rightly guided.”
As the centuries progressed, however, women began to be systematically excluded from religious education for various reasons, including socio-political pressures and unjust religious interpretations challenging their authority. This led to limitations on Muslim women’s access to religious spaces, and hence their inability to gain and share religious knowledge. Societies that deny these rights contradict the true essence of Islamic teachings and stand to lose from the benefits of Muslim women’s religious leadership.
According to the Qur’an and Sunnah, religious leadership in Islam should be understood as a system based on merit, whereby leadership positions are determined according to each candidate’s mastery of religious knowledge and acceptance by his or her community to lead as a moral example. The purpose of this system is to ensure that the most competent person is selected to lead the community and to educate those seeking knowledge, regardless of their gender.
Today, countless Muslim women around the world have claimed the rights that the Qur’an preserves for them to lead their entire communities in religious affairs. Building on the significant legacy of Muslim female religious leaders, Muslim women are currently beginning to reappear in religious leadership roles, most of which are a continuation of leadership roles found in Islamic history. Whether publicly reciting the Qur’an, calling the adhan (call to prayer), delivering the khutba and bayaan (post-prayer advice), serving on the board of directors at mosques, officiating or blessing weddings and funerals, and holding positions as muftis, vice-muftis, and qadis (judges), Muslim women are actively assuming roles of religious leadership within their communities.
WISE asserts that Muslim women not only have equal rights to religious education and religious leadership roles, but also that the denial of those rights constitutes a violation of women’s rights under Islam. On the basis of Islam's history, women’s pursuit of religious education and religious leadership should not be obstructed. Rather, women should be encouraged to contribute their vast talents and restore balance within the Islamic community, promoting greater well-being for all.
Amina Wadud, Aminah McCloud, Azza Karam, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Homayra Ziad, Kecia Ali, Margo Badran, Zahra Ayubi