Rethinking interpretative authority: gender, race, and scripture at the Women's Mosque of America
Ali, Tazeen Mir
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This dissertation investigates trends in Muslim women’s religious authority within and beyond the US context by examining the Women’s Mosque of America (WMA), a women-only mosque in Los Angeles. Muslim women across the globe occupy various positions of authority across different religious networks, including as educators at Islamic institutions, board members at mosques, khateebahs (preachers), and prayer leaders. Shifts in Muslim women’s religious authority result from uneven processes of privatization and individualization of religion, resulting in the decentralization of established religious authorities. In the global Islamic context, scholars theorize this process as a fragmentation of authority and its expansion to a wider range of lay actors. This privatization of religion in the US context 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. This dissertation, which analyzes the WMA at the convergence of these two contexts, intervenes in scholarly conversations on the fragmentation of religious authority and the racialized nature of American religious institutions. Through my analysis of WMA sermons, participant observation, and ethnographic interviews, I argue that the WMA produces new forms of Islamic authority based on women’s experiences and individual relationships to scripture, rather than traditional religious training. This study brings together the Religious Studies methodologies of textual analysis and ethnography with feminist epistemological frameworks that privilege experiences as a valid basis for knowledge. My analysis of the WMA speaks to ongoing debates on Islam and gender, American Islam, and the role of the mosque as a center for religious community. This study situates Muslim women’s authority at the intersections of gender, religious space, and national belonging. I demonstrate how WMA preachers assert themselves as meaningful religious actors in the US in and beyond Muslim communities. Through their interpretations of scripture, the WMA represents an American branding of Islam that privileges individuality, civic engagement, and social and gender justice.