Challenges Facing the Role and Scope of Female Scholarship

cims convention 2021 item 3: Challenges Facing the Role and Scope of Female Scholarship

2nd-3rd October

The underrepresentation of female scholarship, within the CIMS platform, has been recognised and reflects the relative absence of female representation in wider Muslim scholarly circles. In order to unearth some of the factors contributing to this imbalance and to help address this disproportion, this panel hosted three prominent female scholars.

The three thought-provoking academic presentations ranged from those discussing historical factors to findings from empirical date through social science research methods.

Dr. Amina Inloes

A discussion of the scriptural legitimacy of female scholarship in Islam centres on a discussion of female authority in Islam. Private scholarship has rarely been a concern, and, even in the early time of Islam, women from the immediate family of the Prophet and female Companions taught the faith. Instead, the question is whether today’s Muslim women may speak on behalf of God, exerting leadership in the face of new challenges.

Since Islam has no formal system of ordination (even among Shi’is), this question is essentially non-scriptural. While some hadith, such as in Bukhari, take a dim view of female rulers, these hadith – if authentic – are contextualized, and the Qur’an presents the Queen of Sheba as a capable ruler. Secondary objections to female leadership – for instance, the ideal that a woman’s place is the home – do not arise directly from scripture. Others are back-projected from fiqh rulings.

Furthermore, asking whether women are “allowed” to exert religious authority implies that non-women have the right to decide what women may do. However, there is no scriptural reason why women themselves may not determine what they are “allowed” to do – and, in doing so, exert their own authority.

Additionally, in practice, among Muslims, there are many ways that authority is vested in a person, apart from an abstract discussion of who may hold authority. Authority is often democratic; individual Muslims decide which mosque to attend or whose views to act upon. Sometimes authority is awarded by a traditional institution, or passed on via a spiritual or ancestral lineage. And sometimes it is state-appointed or state-enforced. Each of these dynamics both favor and exclude women.

Lastly, while the typical image of Muslim authority is of a male, and while Muslims often look to scholarly authority as the most legitimate form of Islamic authority, in practice, many forms of Islamic authority co-exist. For instance, an imam of a mosque, a politician in a Muslim-majority state, a madrasah principal, a Sufi guide, a charitable worker, a social influencer, a chaplain, and a grandmother all exert authority, and many of these roles are already filled by women.

In short, while scripture may be cited for or against female Islamic scholarly authority, it is largely a non-scriptural question since ordination is not mandated by Islamic scripture. Therefore, it is helpful to expand the question to look at the dynamics of gender and Islamic authority, including but not limited to scholarly authority, in Islamic societies.

Dr. Amina Inloes is the author of Women in Shi‘ism: Ancient Stories, Modern Ideologies and a co-translator of Spiritual Mysteries and Ethical Secrets by Fayd Kashani as well as a contributor to the Tafsir al-Mizan translation project. She completed her PhD at the University of Exeter on the subject of Shiʿi hadith. She teaches via distance education for The Islamic College in London in the United Kingdom, a small, faith-based institution offering academic and seminary studies of Islam. In addition to her academic work, she is an occasional peripatetic and travels and lectures for Muslim communities worldwide as well as engages in interfaith work. In addition to being fluent in academics, she has an unrecognised talent in paleo baking.

Shahanaz Begum

This presentation looked at narratives dealing with the experiences of female scholars within the Sunni Muslim community in the UK, with a focus on the South Asian community. The South Asian community is responsible for setting up many of the traditional Islamic learning institutions (darul ulums) in the UK for both male and female students.

Many of these institutions will follow the same curriculum whereby students will study the same texts and subjects, yet female graduates often face greater challenges upon graduation. Often their education is questioned and their opportunities to serve their communities are more limited. This presentation highlighted some of those challenges through personal narratives taken from various studies conducted in the UK. Finally, it called for greater community participation in creating a more accepting space for female scholars and a more supportive community network so that they are able to better serve their communities, and the community is able to benefit from their knowledge and expertise.

Shahanaz is currently studying for a PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, with a focus on Islamic legal theory. Prior to this, she also completed her MA in Islamic Studies, at SOAS University, as well as the full Alimiyyah programme at Ebrahim College, London.

Shahanaz also holds an undergraduate degree in Law, and has worked in public policy and strategy in both a local and national context. She continues to take an active role in the community through various voluntary activities, as well as teaching both in traditional and non-traditional contexts.

Dr. Fella Lahmar

Dr. Lahmar’s paper, based on empirical research, began by asking underlying questions that challenge assumptions about women in educational institutions, as well as identifying some of the institutional barriers that exist and hamper female scholarship.

Some of the challenges faced by Muslim women, in education, are not exclusive to Muslims and other not exclusive to women. However, Dr. Lahmar highlighted how the intersectionality of their identities have magnified the challenges that her research participants faced. 

Having cited instances in the data, the presentation concluded by highlighting the potential social and religious dangers that might be faced if the aforementioned barriers are allowed to be perceptualised.

Dr Fella Lahmar is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). She worked as a PhD supervisor at the University of Bolton, and a lecturer and a Course Leader for the Islamic Studies and Education programmes at the Markfield Institute of Higher education (MIHE). She also worked as a Research Associate at the University of Nottingham, and a lecturer and academic adviser at the European Institute of Human Sciences (EIHS, Birmingham).

Fella has a PhD in education and an ESRC-recognised MA in Educational Research Methods (University of Nottingham), a PGCert in Higher Education Practice (Newman University); an MA in Islamic Studies (Loughborough University); a PGCert in Professional Studies in Education (Open University); and a BA in Islamic Studies (Emir Abdelkader Islamic University in Algeria).

She has published on Islamic educational theory and practice, her PhD and follow-up research examined diversity in Muslim schools in Britain. Fella’s broader research interest explores intersections between education, Islam, Muslims, gender, migration and identity issues in the Western context. She is a member of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and the British Association for Islamic Studies (BRAIS).

The panel concluded with questions to the panellists and a discussion on addressing some of the issues raised within the presentations.


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