“Nothing in the Quran Forbids a Woman from Becoming an Imam”

Kahina Bahloul was born in 1979. Her mother is French and her father is a Muslim Berber from the Kabyle region of Algeria. She decided to move to Paris at the age of twenty, and after studying Islamology, she became France’s first female imam. She has just published Mon islam, ma liberté, a work whose title reflects both the author and her stance.
Kahina Bahloul. © Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

France-Amérique: Is it easy to be a Muslim in France today? Do you feel discriminated against?

Kahina Bahloul: I chose to live in France because of its democratic values, gender equality, and freedom of expression – values that resonated with my vision of Islam. I experience no discrimination, but it may be because I have fair skin and don’t wear a hijab. Other Muslim women who have darker skin and wear Islamic clothing are less fortunate and often mistreated. This discrimination is stoked by media and political narratives that create hype by presenting an incredibly simplified version of what Islam really is and reflecting extremist views. These extremists, who support political Islam, are given the widest coverage. Unfortunately, they are also the ones who are invited to speak and with whom we debate. I admit that there are days when I am tired of all this simplification. And of course, after every terrorist attack, all Muslims are considered suspects. I began my training to become an imam to fight against this oversimplification following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings.

How does one become an imam?

I belong to Sunni Islam, and unlike the Shiite branch which has its roots in Iran, there is no clergy. Each Muslim speaks with God through the intermediary of the Quran. The imam is therefore a mediator leading a community. It is the community which, by democratic means, chooses its imam. In my case, I studied for many years and now offer an enlightened version of Islam inspired by Sufism, focused on meditation and self-betterment. Unfortunately, many imams are ignorant and spread a horribly reductive or completely political form of Islam. For now, I am the only female imam in France, but nothing in the Quran forbids a woman from becoming an imam. Anyone reading the texts will see the same thing. Generally, imams work within a mosque, but I do not. My mosque – Fatima – is virtual due to the pandemic. What’s more, in France, it is difficult to open a mosque, find sufficient financing, and obtain administrative authorizations.

The French boast about their own brand of secularism, laïcité, but it does not seem neutral compared to the United States. Would you say that it is in fact hostile to Islam?

In theory, laïcité is perfect. It grants total freedom of worship. In practice, it is increasingly undemocratic and Muslims are suffering as a result. Wearing a hijab is a good example, and French law now regulates this act in public spaces. Those who voted for the law banning the hijab have played into the hands of radical Islamists, who have made the hijab their symbol; they are obsessed with women’s bodies and want to control them at any cost. We must respond with intelligence and nuance, distinguishing between the hijab chosen by certain women for reasons of identity, and the imposed hijab, which is often forced upon little girls by Islamists. When faced with the politicization of the female body by radicals, we should not have retaliated by inversely politicizing the hijab. Under the cover of laïcité, we are outlawing instead of educating.

The Arab-Muslim world went through a renaissance in the 19th century with a progressive, liberal Islam driven by scholars and statesmen such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi and Muhammad Abduh in Egypt. In the 20th century, this reformist movement was usurped by a politicized Islam rejecting progress and the West. What caused this shift?

The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the caliphate after World War I left Arab-Muslims leaderless. They therefore turned their efforts to creating new states. Nationalism and Islamism were the result of this change of direction, as well as a reaction against Western colonization in the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa. Liberal reformism was forgotten and replaced by a nationalistic, anti-Western Islam that was therefore hostile to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and even to any form of progress. Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 only made things worse with its extremist and political version of anti-Western Islam.

The ummah, the community of believers, is one of the founding principles of Islam. Yet not a single Muslim nation has spoken out against the Uighur genocide carried out by the Chinese government. How do you explain this lack of solidarity?

I believe that ummah goes beyond Muslims; it encompasses all of humanity. I speak out against all injustice, whether carried out against Muslims or non-Muslims. In reality, the leaders of Muslim countries only uphold the concept of ummah when it suits them. The Turkish government, for example, presents itself as the protector of French Muslims despite the fact that they have not asked for such treatment. Yet it remains silent about the fate of the Uighurs who are both Muslims and of Turkish culture. Meanwhile, the Saudi leaders who protect holy sites used the profits made from pilgrimages to Mecca to buy a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci [Salvator Mundi, a portrait of Christ, purchased in 2017 for 450 million dollars by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia].

You adhere to Sufism, a mystic, meditative movement that has always been popular in the West. Is this the true Islam?

According to the late Algerian Islamic scholar Mohammed Arkoun, Islam is whatever Muslims do with it. In their relationship with God, Muslims have always used the path of Sufism, particularly in North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and India. It’s true that Sufism reassures Westerners, and for good reason. This Islam is open to the world; it is in dialogue with other religions, offers an approach rooted in self-betterment, and is therefore universal.

You have written that Islam is not an identity in itself but a part of Muslim identity. Are Muslims therefore always something else, such as Berber and French in your case?

Westerners generally have a simplified vision of Islam. For example, in France, people still confuse Muslims and Arabs because most Muslims in France are from North Africa. But in the United States, people instead confuse Muslims with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. This reductive perspective is inherited from colonization. In North Africa, the French decided that everyone was an Arab, which is untrue. I am a Berber [an ethnic group originally from North Africa], not an Arab, and my family speaks Berber. We therefore have multiple identities. Using Islam as your sole identity is a fantasy of the rootless, which has been exacerbated among young people through a process of acculturation. In my mosque, I invite young people to rediscover their roots, to recognize themselves as French, Muslim, Arabic, Berber, or Senegalese, all at once. It’s a lot of work!

Mon islam, ma liberté
by Kahina Bahloul, Albin Michel, 2021.

Interview published in the June 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.