At Work With: Sherin Khankan

Alia Gilbert talks to Sherin Khankan—leader of Copenhagen’s first all-women mosque.

“Magical things happen when you are in a room that’s exclusively for women.”

When Sherin Khankan established the first female-led mosque in Scandinavia, she was celebrated in the mainstream press for being a feminist activist in addition to being its imam. Khankan, however, makes it refreshingly clear that the two roles are one and the same. An Islamic scholar, she is an expert on the ancient primary source texts that swat away today’s patriarchal interpretations of institutional Islamic thought. “At the time of the Prophet, women were warriors. They were teachers. And, of course, they were imams,” she says. Khankan is a steadfast community activist (she founded Exitcirclen, an organization for psychologically abused women), humble in her roots (“My father’s homemade shawarma is the only shawarma I like”) and a lifelong academic. In August, she will qualify as a cognitive psycho-therapist, a role that she will combine with her existing work as a spiritual leader and imam at Mariam Mosque. On top of this, Khankan is a mother of four. She is an exceptionally difficult woman to pin down.

When did the idea of a women-run, women-focused mosque come to you?
It has been a long journey—it wasn’t just an idea that we had overnight. It began back in 1999 when I was doing my thesis on Sufism and Islamic activism in Damascus at the Abu al-Nur Mosque. I spent eight months there doing my fieldwork. I first thought about female imams and muftis [scholars] while studying the history of female leadership in Islam. The vision for Mariam Mosque began there.

The “Mariam” in Mariam Mosque refers to the Virgin Mary. Why did you choose to name the mosque after her?
The Virgin Mary is a unifying figure, which is what the Mariam Mosque is all about. It’s about unifying the manipulated dichotomies we’ve created in this world—dichotomies between East and West, Christian and Muslim, women and men, black and white, homosexuals and heterosexuals, faithful practicing Muslims and secularists. The Virgin Mary has a surah [chapter] named after her in the Quran, and some Islamic scholars believe that she was a prophet. She is one of many female role models in the Islamic tradition. I also see Mariam as a metaphor for the concept of birth and rebirth. All chapters in the Quran start with “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.” In Arabic, the words for “gracious” and “merciful” come from the word that refers to the womb. God is merciful and shows mercy—like the womb, which contains life and gives life. This was also one of the things that I thought about when choosing the name.

Were there naysayers?
Many people told us that it would be impossible and that it wasn’t necessary. Many said that it would create too much chaos. It did not. Mariam Mosque has really given me hope because now we have an international voice. I view this as a huge responsibility, not only to challenge the patriarchal structures within the religious institution but also the growing anti-Islamic rhetoric and propaganda.

Was the fact of the mosque being women-only always a given?
I actually voted against having the mosque exclusively for women for Friday prayer. I wanted to have it mixed, but the board voted me down. And today, I feel very happy about that. It was a wise decision. I realized that when you want to create change, you have to do it very carefully while understanding the community you are a part of. With Mariam Mosque being a women’s mosque, we are on safe ground. Women love this space because it’s sacred, only for them.

What did you see that changed your mind?
Magical things happen when you are in a room that’s exclusively for women. Women dare to go further. We’ve talked about issues and taboos that we would never have talked about if there were men in the space. Many women seek Islamic spiritual care for very sensitive issues, and the fact that it’s a women’s mosque on Fridays makes it possible for us to serve them in a better way. Ultimately, being an imam is about servitude.

“I respect any woman’s right to cover the hair or not to cover the hair.”

The history of female Islamic leaders isn’t something that gets brought up very often. Can you tell me more about it?

Female imams are not a new phenomenon. Many people—and many Muslims—don’t know that. The idea of female imams isn’t a recent revolution. It actually goes back to Islamic roots, to the time of the Prophet. We’ve had female imams in China since the 1820s. There are female imams in Somalia, South Africa, Germany, Canada and the United States. These are the stories we have to tell—the stories that are left untold.

Did you always plan on becoming one of the imams at the mosque?
Actually, in the beginning, I only wanted to recruit female imams and be the woman behind the mosque. But slowly, I grew into the role. I had a lot of experience in Islamic spiritual care—I had taken a course at Copenhagen University in 2014. I started with the Islamic spiritual care, then Islamic marriages and then eventually I just started doing all of the things that imams do. Finally, I took the title upon me. Saliha Marie Fetteh was one of the other recruited imams at the mosque, and together we led the first Friday prayer when it opened in 2015.

The mosque was 15 years in the making. What was leading that first Friday prayer like for you?
It was really amazing. There were 70 women in the room—40 Muslims and 30 non-Muslims. It was so beautiful having the non-Muslims praying together with us. When they went down in sujood [kneeling in prayer] with us, it was truly a metaphor for the unifying force that the mosque was based on.

I’d like to touch on this issue’s theme. Hair has become a divisive topic when it comes to mainstream dialogue on Muslims and Islamophobia.
Well, I’d like to say that I respect any woman’s right to wear the scarf or not to wear the scarf, to cover the hair or not to cover the hair. It’s an integral part of the [U.N.’s Universal] Declaration of Human Rights. It’s stated very clearly that anyone has the right to practice his or her religion in the private and public sphere. When the scarf is denounced and the center of discussion, I think it’s very problematic because you’re actually denying a woman a basic human right—the right to choose. But of course, if women are forced to wear the scarf, I fight for their right not to wear it. In Mariam Mosque, I have young women coming to me to talk about whether to wear the hijab or to take it off. We have female spiritual leaders who wear the scarf and those who do not. We leave the choice up to them, and I think that’s very important. There’s that fairy tale about the woman with long hair, I don’t know if you know it? She’s locked in a tower.

Yes, I think it’s the story of Rapunzel.
I had many thoughts about it when I was little. She’s trapped, and locked up in a tower. She’s not allowed to go outside, and a person climbs into the tower using her hair. I think the story could be used as a metaphor both for empowerment but also restraint. And someone cuts her hair in the end, right?

I think it was a witch that cut her hair to prevent her from seeing anyone from the outside world again.
I’ll have to read it again. There are also stories of women who do not want to cut their hair, ever, because they feel that they become an adult, somehow. There are different metaphors you could use. It’s interesting—I’ve had many discussions about the scarf, but not about hair. I love hair. I love long hair. I’ve always had long hair. I think I cut my hair once when I was very young, but since then, it has always been long.

You’ve mentioned a few times that Mariam Mosque offers Islamic spiritual care. This is the first time I’ve learned about this concept in Islam. Is it a practice related to self-care?
They are the same thing—Islamic spiritual care is self-care. The Prophet said that you have to know yourself in order to know others. And in order to help others, you must help yourself first. Islamic spiritual care is about meeting people on their own terms, without judgments, without valuations. It’s about guidance. There’s a beautiful poem by Rumi, the Sufi poet, called “The Guest House.” Do you know it?

Khankan grew up in a household that combined two different cultures. Her father is a Muslim refugee from Syria, her mother is Christian and from Finland.

“I’m very good at taking care of my own needs. I know what I like.”

Khankan sees her training in cognitive psychotherapy as a natural extension of her duty of care as an imam.

“In the beginning, you always think it’s impossible to change the status quo.”

Yes, I love that poem. It compares the human experience to a guest-house, meaning that all “guests”—like difficult emotions, experiences and so on—should be welcomed with open arms. It’s very comforting. Yes, it is. “The Guest House” is the essence of Islamic spiritual care. It’s about acceptance. It’s like [Reinhold Niebuhr’s] “Serenity Prayer”—about finding the strength to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things that you can and the wisdom to know the difference. We don’t get to decide our families or where we’re born. There are some conditions that are very difficult. We have a lot of people coming to Mariam Mosque that have very deep wounds because of things that have happened in their family. All their lives, they have been repeating unhealthy patterns or else trying to fight bad patterns.

How do you help them? In some cases, we use stories from the Quran or from Islamic tradition. But Islamic spiritual care can be totally different in other cases. It depends on the person. Sometimes, the stories don’t comfort the woman in front of me. The comfort comes from somewhere else. Cognitive psychotherapy can be more useful in these instances. This summer, I’ll finish my studies in cognitive psychotherapy. I mix cognitive psychotherapy with Islamic spiritual care, and it has become very successful as more and more people hear about it.

How do you take care of yourself? I’ve recently realized that I’m very good at taking care of my own needs. I know what I like—and my self-care is swimming in the ocean. I swim in the ocean all year-round, except for two months [in winter] when it’s very difficult for me. I need it. It’s what keeps me alive and somehow it gives me strength, spiritually. In the summertime when it’s warm, I swim two or three times a day—one time with the children, and the other times either when it’s very late and they are all asleep, or early in the morning before everyone wakes up. But self-care is a tricky question for a mother of four children who are between the ages of six and 13 years old [laughs].

Mashallah [God bless]! Yes, so of course I am very focused on their needs. There’s a difference between doing things that are meaningful, and doing things that make your soul blossom. I work full time at the Mariam Mosque, and it gives great meaning to my life. But what makes my soul truly blossom is being with my children.

How do you stay organized with everything you have on your plate? Actually, I have a huge calendar, and people laugh when they see it. I carry it with me everywhere. And I always carry pencils with me in 10 different colors. I don’t write anything on my phone, and actually very little on the computer. I’m traditional in that sense, and it works very well for me.

Going back to that first Friday prayer you gave at Mariam Mosque, what was it like for your children to see you do that? When I gave the first Friday prayer, all my children were standing beside me while I was preparing. They knew it was a historic day. That something big was happening. Halima, who was five at the time, had one of her friends over who was Danish. She whispered to Halima, “What is happening? Why is your mother dressing like that? What is an imam, anyway?” Halima looked at her with very proud eyes and said loudly, “An imam is a woman who is doing great things.” I’ll never forget it. It gives me hope. In the beginning, you always think it’s impossible to change the status quo. But actually, it is possible.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 28

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