Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

In defence of female preachers?

The issue of female preachers is a highly controversial one in Egypt even as more and more women are qualifying to take their places in the pulpit, writes Rasha Geddah

Female preachers attend training sessions under the ministry’s supervision

Female preachers appointed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments were allowed for the first time to give sermons in mosques on female fasting, beliefs and ethics on the ministry’s instructions during this year’s Ramadan. Some 300 female preachers were sent out across the country after passing exams and training in preaching under the ministry’s supervision.

The criteria for choosing who could study for a licence included graduating from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, an Islamic studies college, or the ministry’s own Preachers Academy. The candidates had to pass all the relevant tests and have an extensive knowledge of religious studies.

Assem Qubaysi, director of private mosques at the Ministry of Religious Endowments and in charge of female preachers, said that since Mokhtar Gomaa had become minister he had taken a special interest in female preachers, including the qualifying requirements.

“The ministry sponsors a competition to choose the top preachers in terms of knowledge and culture, as well as a moderate perspective. The exams are overseen by Al-Azhar scholars, and those who pass become licensed preachers,” Qubaysi explained. “A large number of female preachers will be appointed this year. They are currently studying to pass the ministry exams and join the existing 300.”

Female preachers are well-trained, he continued, including at the Al-Nour Mosque in Abbasiya and the ministry’s Abi Bakr Al-Siddik Centre in Alexandria. However, this training may not be enough, according to Zeinab Abdel-Salam Abul-Fadl, professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Tanta University.

“The female preachers chosen last year were not well-trained. The role of the preacher must be based on real learning and extensive in-depth studies at the hands of established scholars. Islamic studies are extensive and multi-disciplined, and they need years of hard work, effort and reading. I have been studying since I was five years old, and it takes time to prepare properly. I cannot imagine that two years of studies at the Preachers Academy is enough to qualify as a preacher,” she said.

Abul-Fadl said she had met 30 female preachers at conferences. “They were enthusiastic and wanted to serve God, but good intentions alone are not enough,” she said. “Some didn’t recite the Quran correctly. If this is the state of female preachers in Cairo who are attending conferences, I wonder how qualified others elsewhere are.”

Al-Ahram Weekly met one licensed female preacher in a village in the Daqahliya governorate who preferred to remain anonymous. She graduated with an engineering degree in 1986 and attended the Preachers Academy in 1996 where she qualified for a licence. She was assigned a mosque where she preached twice a week in her village for eight years until she stopped for health reasons. Her studies included jurisprudence, hadith (the prophet’s sayings), interpretation, tajweed (pronunciation) and public speaking.

“The instructors from Al-Azhar University started me on the path and I continued reading regularly and extensively,” she said.

Female preachers were assigned to mosques and supervisors attended unannounced to see how well they had prepared their sermons. The supervisors would sit at the back of the mosque, evaluate the sermon, and ask the congregation (of women) their opinions. “We discussed many general issues, mostly pertaining to women, often answering questions that they are too shy to ask male preachers,” the Daqahliya preacher said.

Despite criticising the abilities of some female preachers, Abul-Fadl said it was good to have female preachers from a variety of colleges “as long as they have a strong background in knowledge”. All male preachers in Egypt are required to be Al-Azhar graduates, “though I don’t agree that this should be a precondition to become a preacher. What is important is to be well-qualified, studious and an avid reader,” she said.

Always Existed: While Qubaysi believes female preachers are forging ahead because Gomaa is making the issue a priority, Abul-Fadl believes female preachers have always existed except during times when women were banned from playing any educational or cultural roles.

According to Fatemah Rizk, herself a preacher, women played a key role in Islamic proselytisation such as during the Hudaybiyah Peace between the Prophet Mohamed and the Quraysh tribe in Mecca. “The Lady Aisha [the prophet’s wife] was also a pioneer in jurisprudence and Sharia Law,” continued Rizk. “The prophet’s companions would ask her about religious laws, and she would give religious opinions and interpretation of the Quran due to her knowledge and proximity to the prophet. It is sometimes said that the Lady Aisha is the source of one quarter of the Islamic Sharia,” she added.

Other women in the early period of Islam, such as Hafsa and Umm Selim Al-Ansariyah, also conveyed religious laws and the prophet’s rulings to the people, Rizk added. “Women have preached throughout history. More recently, there has been Zeinab Al-Ghazali and Abla Al-Kahlawi and Soad Saleh who have influenced a great many women by using new media such as satellite TV.”

“The role of the female preacher is important because some women may be too shy to ask a man about female issues. Women are more empathetic to other women, and they can understand marital problems from a woman’s perspective better,” she continued. Rizk believes that the ministry has also realised the importance of female preachers, which is why it has licensed so many recently.

Qubaysi believes it is important to have more female preachers in order to protect the minds of the young and the religious culture offered to women. It also shows the ministry’s appreciation of the important proselytisation role played by women, especially on jurisprudence regarding female, family and children’s issues. “The ministry’s goal is to fight radical and destructive views and opinions that take advantage of women to influence them and their children,” he said. “It wants to banish extremist views from infiltrating mosques or the minds of children, young people, and women.”

Amna Noseir, an MP and a professor of Sharia Law and philosophy at Al-Azhar University, agrees. “It was crucial that the ministry took this step because of unqualified female preachers. Although some of them are hard-working, preaching is not a good fit for everyone nor is it a path to stardom on television. It is a responsibility now and in the hereafter,” Noseir said.

One former female preacher said that in the past they were allowed to prepare their own sermons without interference from the ministry, although there was constant supervision. “Today, I hear it is different and the ministry decides topics beforehand,” she said.

Qubaysi explained that female preachers discuss topics approved by the ministry for Friday sermons and lessons pertaining to morality, human interaction, health education, views on women and contemporary issues on young people and children. He said that the ministry’s female preachers comply with these criteria and cannot go to any mosque without a confirmation letter from a supervisor specifying the mosque and topics.

“Anyone who breaks these rules is banned and their licence revoked,” he said. “A police report is filed for breaching the laws on preaching.”

Abul-Fadl concurred that female preachers are guided by the ministry. “It could be a way for the ministry to control what is being said in mosques,” she suggested. “No one should improvise, which could do more harm than good. I believe that is a good thing.” The other possibility is that the ministry is not confident the female preachers are well-qualified and is therefore reluctant to have them independently research a topic or give a religious opinion.

“It may think that is also a good way to handle the situation so wrong information is not given,” she added.

Altogether, Abu-Fadl continued, it is not good to have an unqualified preacher because he or she cannot research or answer questions from the congregation. “Their performance depends on their qualifications, and some people believe that not all the current preachers in Egypt are properly qualified, which does more harm than good,” Noseir said.

“They have to be well-read and knowledgeable, especially since sometimes their male peers are waiting for them to make mistakes,” she added, saying that preachers should not only know their subjects well, but should also have extensive general knowledge about Islam and good conduct.

 “When I met them at a seminar, I told them they had great responsibility. ‘I wish you success and to continue reading and expanding your knowledge,’ I said. I asked them to be wise and conduct themselves well at work.”

She gave an example: “if a woman wants to test you and ask questions unrelated to the day’s lesson, you should stick to the subject at hand and say that ‘this is today’s topic, but I promise that next time I will give you an extensive response to your question.’ This would give time to research the question and prepare clear answers,” Noseir said.

Female preachers

INFLUENCE: Abul-Fadl wants officials to focus on this category of preachers because they can have great influence over a large segment of the population.

“I am not satisfied with their qualifications or performance at the moment. The state should focus more on qualifying and supporting them. This is a serious matter, as sometimes I see students who need their minds cleansed,” she said.

Qubaysi, however, believes the ministry did very well during this Ramadan. “The performance of the female preachers was excellent, and they were very successful in mosques and at seminars,” he said. “They also participated with the National Women’s Council in door-knocking campaigns to enrol new attendees. They continue to serve their religion and their country.”

He confirmed that there had been no complaints against the ministry’s volunteer female preachers because they are “very well-qualified” and did their job well.

However, Nevine Mohamed, a woman in her early 40s, disagreed. She told the Weekly that she had attended a sermon during Ramadan given by a ministry preacher at a mosque close to her house in Imbaba.

“She talked about the rules of fasting for women, but her delivery was very quick as if she was regurgitating something she had memorised,” Mohamed said. “Several women tried to stop her and ask questions, but she would not pause, as if she was worried she would forget something. To be honest, I did not stay until the end. She was not convincing, and I didn’t learn anything — just general information that we already know, and her delivery was not good. I never went back to the sermons and only attended prayers at the mosque.”

Mohi Mahmoud, a member of the board of the Al-Rahman Mosque in Dar Al-Salam, said there was a shortage of male imams and preachers affiliated to the Ministry of Religious Endowments, “so you can imagine how it is with female preachers.”

Mahmoud explained that the ministry had fired many stipendiary preachers, and the female preachers were too few to cover the whole country. “There is a woman called Umm Walid who has been giving sermons at a mosque for 12 years without being affiliated to the ministry. We gave her file to the ministry, showing she was certified to read and interpret the Quran, which is all she does, and she is not allowed to talk about anything else. We closely monitor everything she does, and she does not cross any boundaries,” he said.

He said the mosque had lessons throughout the week by experts from Al-Azhar and the ministry on various topics. “We were recognised by the ministry and the Nasser Bank for our activities, including Quran memorisation and literacy.”

The former female preacher who spoke to the Weekly said compensation was still minimal. “In the 1990s, we received LE67 a month for our work,” she said. Mahmoud noted that Umm Walid and the preachers at his mosque do not receive a specific salary. “The board collects money and does not get charity donations, and we give them what we can. In Ramadan, we give them Ramadan boxes or meat during the Eid. They have been part of our community for years,” he said.

Gaber Tayie, director of the religion division at the ministry, told the press recently that female preachers played a key role in religious discourse in Egypt. He said that since 1995 there had been 45 female preachers appointed by the ministry, and that these have the same rights as imams except for giving the Friday sermon. He said hundreds of women had applied to become preachers. 144 of them had passed the preliminary exams and would continue to be tested by top scholars. They would receive LE120 to cover their transportation, he said.

Abul-Fadl insists that this is too little. “The state must certify more preachers and support them financially due to the important job they do so they can focus on their work,” she said.

“They can’t be preachers in the morning and work in a bakery at night to make a living. This is a very delicate job because it influences people and shapes their thinking. It requires time, reading and learning at the hands of senior scholars. If we want the best-qualified people, the state must support them financially so that they can focus on this critical work.”

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