The Women’s Mosque of America (WMA) was conceived as a space to elevate Muslim women’s voices. Its services officially began in January 2015, when it held its inaugural Jummah (Friday prayer) for an all-female congregation at the Pico Union Project near downtown LA. At the service, one woman called the adhan (call to prayer) while another delivered the khutbah and led prayer. Over one hundred supporters attended. Today, the WMA continues to host women’s monthly Jummahs as a part of its broader aim to empower women and girls through access to Islamic knowledge and leadership opportunities. In media interviews, its founder, M. Hasna Maznavi, a comedy writer, and then co-president Sana Muttalib, an international law attorney—both South Asian American women—described it as the first women’s mosque in the U.S.
The WMA’s emergence fills a need in a U.S. mosque culture that systematically yet unevenly marginalizes women in a variety of ways, including through inadequate prayer spaces, exclusion from leadership roles, and limited access to religious learning. Given that U.S. mosques vary greatly with respect to physical space, size of the congregation, internal layout, and social norms, patterns of women’s marginalization are neither uniform nor universal. Yet broadly speaking, men and women’s respective worship spaces within conventional mosques across the country are both separate and unequal. Women’s quarters are usually smaller and inferior, though a 2011 survey found that African American–led mosques and Shi‘i mosques are typically more inclusive of women than Sunni mosques with South Asian, Arab, or other ethnic majorities. This mosque survey also revealed that over 60 percent of U.S. mosques used physical barriers to mark off women’s prayer space from the main space reserved for men.
In cases where women do not pray directly behind men and a physical partition, they are usually consigned to a poorly ventilated and dimly lit basement or other marginal space. As such, women often do not have access to the imam (the prayer leader) and in many cases are not even able to hear the khutbah. Those in the WMA community, including board members, khateebahs (female preachers) and congregants, implicitly critique the various factors that contribute to women’s subordinate status within U.S. mosques. To be clear, patriarchal mosque culture is not unique to U.S. Muslim communities. In mosques around the globe, men occupy the main spaces and assume leadership roles. The WMA seeks to provide an alternative to this norm by creating space for women to worship and opportunities for them to cultivate religious authority. In so doing, the American Muslim women at the WMA collectively reimagine what a mosque is and what it should be.
Both the form and function of mosques have evolved over the course of Islamic history and differ across geographical region, Islamic sect, and individual Muslim communities. Moreover, for centuries, Muslim historians and contemporary scholars of religion and architecture alike have contested the criteria that properly constitute a mosque. Masjid, the Arabic term for mosque found in the Qur’an, signifies a place for prostration and could therefore broadly apply to a range of locations, temporary or purpose-built, within a private home or in an open space. Among Muslim historians, the Prophet Muhammad’s house in Medina has been widely understood to be a mosque, in which ritual worship, religious instruction, and communal gatherings all took place. That mosques have never been fixed in meaning in either Muslim-majority or -minority contexts allows us to situate the WMA within a global and historical Islamic context. When WMA members raise questions about the right configurations and criteria for a mosque, they are partaking in debates that have been occurring for centuries.
In other words, the women in the WMA community are not breaking with the Islamic past by raising questions about right religious practices and contesting gendered marginalization in existing U.S. mosques. Muslims have been voicing similar concerns since the early centuries of Islam. Rather, the WMA, as a living community of Muslim women and an emerging Islamic institution, legitimizes different existing configurations of Islamic authority and combines them to promote the notion that mosques should be gender-inclusive spaces where women lead prayer, interpret the Qur’an, foreground their experiences in exegesis, commit to multiracial and intrafaith inclusivity, and build interfaith community.
My book The Women’s Mosque of America: Authority & Community in US Islam uses the WMA to illuminate significant trends and tensions relating to Muslim women’s religious authority within and beyond the U.S. context. Muslim women around the globe occupy various positions of authority across different religious networks, including as educators at Islamic institutions, board members at mosques, Sufi shaykhas, khateebahs, and prayer leaders. Shifts in Muslim women’s religious authority proceed from uneven global processes of privatization and individualization of religion, which has resulted in the decentralization of established religious authorities. In the global Islamic context, scholars describe this process as a fragmentation of authority previously monopolized by the ulama, the Muslim scholarly elite, and its expansion to a wide range of lay actors. In the U.S. context, this privatization of religion shapes religious congregations as civic institutions through which religious actors acculturate to American norms, including women’s increased participation in public religious life and engagements in interfaith dialogue. Therefore, to understand the WMA, it is necessary to attend to both the global processes of Islamic authority and the privatization of religion in the U.S. context. Analyzing how these contexts converge further illuminates global Islamic debates on the fragmentation of religious authority and the racialized criteria by which religions become Americanized.
In their constructions of Islamic authority, American Muslim women must negotiate their marginalization in their patriarchal religious communities while also navigating the Islamophobia prevalent in mainstream U.S. society. The WMA provides a platform for Muslim women, particularly those without any formal Islamic training, to navigate both of these terrains; it creates space for them to cultivate forms of Islamic authority that are based on the Qur’an, center women, and also speak to the sociopolitical climate of the U.S. These forms include ritual authority to lead prayer and deliver khutbahs, and interpretive authority to engage in oral exegesis in those khutbahs, based on English translations of the Qur’an. In their oral exegeses, khateebahs draw on their experiences as women to interpret sacred texts, and often also use their khutbahs to engage contemporary social justice issues and promote building multiracial, intrafaith, and interfaith community.
The WMA community is diverse in age, race, and religiosity; and the size of the congregation has fluctuated over the years. The numbers have shifted from 70 to 100 women every month in 2015 to approximately 30 to 50 women in attendance in subsequent years, with select months in 2018 and 2019 attracting up to 75 congregants. Attendance dipped to a dozen or so each month during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the WMA shifted its services to a virtual format over Zoom, although online views of khutbahs on Facebook and YouTube consistently hit several hundred views. The WMA runs on donations, and membership is voluntary and does not entail formal fees, though congregants are encouraged to contribute five dollars a month if they are able.
Amid fluctuations in congregant numbers, there is a core constituency of African American Muslim women over the age of 60 whom other congregants describe as the heart of the community. There are also white Christian and Jewish women in the same age range who come as interfaith allies. An ethnically diverse group of younger women in their twenties and thirties—Black, South Asian, white, Arab, East Asian, and Latina—are also in regular attendance. This racial and ethnic diversity itself is consistent with the majority of U.S. mosques. A 2020 study confirms that mosques in America are among the most ethnically diverse religious bodies in the country, especially during Friday congregational prayers. However, this diversity is not evenly distributed, and 75 percent of American mosques have one dominant ethnic group, with the number of African American mosque attendees declining between 2010 and 2020. By contrast, no single ethnic group at the WMA dominates the congregation. Moreover, given that African Americans make up approximately one-fifth of U.S. Muslims, the WMA’s diversity more accurately reflects the overall demographics of Muslims in America than do the majority of American mosques.
Through its analysis of the WMA, my book offers insights into the dynamism of Islam and the American Muslim women who interpret it, who approach the Qur’an as a tool to resist social hierarchies and empower themselves. It demonstrates how WMA khateebahs assert themselves as meaningful religious actors in the U.S. and beyond, by intervening in debates about Islamic authority as the intersections of gender, religious space, and national belonging. The WMA’s model of authority fits into a discernible American Muslim pattern of treating the English language as a Muslim vernacular, as scholars of Islam in America Mucahit Bilici, Justine Howe, and Timur Yuskaev have all shown. In its turn toward lay interpretive authority, the WMA also fits within global revivalist trends that emphasize individual interpretation of the Qur’an. While still a part of ongoing U.S. and global Islamic trends, the WMA produces a distinctive model of authority through its khutbahs and the interactions between khateebahs, congregants, and board members. This model of authority combines new and existing trends that assert women’s right to lead prayer, engage English translations to interpret the Qur’an, and center women’s experiences and social justice issues in exegesis, as well as forge multiracial and intra-and interfaith solidarity. Authority through the lens of the WMA, then, offers us an alternative to hegemonic models of authority that are rooted in maleness, Arabic language expertise, and formal Islamic credentials.
Supporters of the WMA share key assumptions about the patriarchal nature of U.S. mosques within them. In other words, WMA members all believe that Muslim women belong in positions of religious authority. Thinking specifically about women’s religious authority, it is useful to consider gendered patterns of authoritative claim making across modern American history. Religion and Africana studies scholar Anthea Butler helps us to think about how women have subverted patriarchal authority within religious institutions through both their selective acquiescence and resistance to male power. Butler shows that early twentieth-century Pentecostal African American women in the Church of God in Christ, in their negotiations for spiritual authority, upheld men’s exclusive right to preach while simultaneously eroding male influence by taking up alternative roles such as teaching in the church. Women at the WMA are similarly judicious with which patriarchal norms they set out to contest, and as a result, they subvert male modes of authority by formulating new ones, even as they appear to defer to or tolerate male authority in some respects.
Women throughout American religious history have also cultivated their authority by developing auxiliary networks and institutions outside of their faith communities. Here, historian of religion Judith Weisenfeld provides a way to understand how women have carved out their own spaces outside of the formal structure of the church to exert influence and authority. Weisenfeld’s research on African American women’s Christian activism in twentieth-century New York City illuminates how women’s venues created at the margins of the church, like the Young Women’s Christian Association, serve as rich sites for understanding the extent of women’s authority in and beyond their religious communities. The WMA can be understood through this lens as an alternative space created outside preexisting LA mosques that operates exclusively under the authority of women. These late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century examples of African American women within the various Protestant congregations that make up the institution of the Black church provide useful ways to think about some of the moves that U.S. Muslim women make in their own claims to Islamic authority. The WMA offers ways for lay Muslim women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, without formal Islamic training from religious institutions in the U.S. or overseas, to cultivate religious authority.
Tazeen M. Ali is an assistant professor of religion and politics in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of The Women’s Mosque of America: Authority & Community in US Islam, from which this excerpt was taken.
Excerpted from The Women’s Mosque of America by Tazeen M. Ali. Published with permission from NYU Press.