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Muslim Women and Interfaith Spaces: Pluralism as a Daily Practice

Line drawing of a woman wearing a hijab.Last week I attended Interfaith America’s Leadership Summit. One of the elements that struck me as I walked into the hall of hundreds of undergraduate students was the number of Muslim women who were in attendance, and I had the pleasure of speaking with them throughout the weekend. 

Embodied religious pluralism 

My own story in interfaith engagement started at 18 when I left for college in 1991. I was the only Muslim woman in my incoming class at my Quaker college and my story made it into the annals of American history, told by Diana Ek in her book, “A New Religious America.” She describes how my classmates fasted with me for my first Ramadan away from my family. Later on in 2000, I was the first Muslim professor hired by a particular Methodist  seminary, and now I am the first Muslim woman who was granted tenure and full professorship at another university, Lutheran in origin. My life has been one of firsts entering into spaces, what I have called in my writing elsewhere being “an embodied interruption.” 

I’ve written about what it means to be the first encounter with Islam many Christian students had, my body the first text they read of my tradition. I continued this trend of being one of a few,  later in a secular government space as an executive, the only Muslim woman who held a position of that particular rank. So it was a beautiful thing to see so many young Muslim women at this interfaith conference last week, so much changed since my own college years! And I am thankful to many Muslim women who broke barriers before I did, across the country so that I could occupy the spaces I have in my own life. 

Muslim women like myself are walking fonts of experience and expertise, in the very lived sense of that word of pluralism. I often talk about it as “embodied religious pluralism,” linked very much to Muslim women and our experiences of constantly being in spaces of difference. What is often seen as irreconcilable by others is inherently contained in our own bodies, and we learn how to create the capacity to exist with others, internally coalesce these identities and make them functional as whole. 

This type of experiential learning is powerful, we can all benefit from hearing the stories of how different Muslim women embody the very real challenges of religious identity and practice with complex social, political and educational contexts. It is not a one size fits all type of pluralism, nor is it dogmatic. It is pragmatic, lived out everyday and material in a very real sense. It is pluralism as a daily practice.

Storytelling and hearing more from a variety of Muslim women helps us see how pluralisms can be nuanced, deeply embedded in context, and how communities can learn from each other.

Interfaith leadership opportunities 

For many women, interfaith spaces are vital for their leadership and development. If one comes from a tradition without formal clergy, or where women are not ordained as clergy, then interfaith spaces allow for informal leadership opportunities that strengthen capacities to lead communities, collaborate across faith communities and solve dire problems of our time. 

Interfaith spaces can encourage women to lead and learn across religious lines. One of my favorite scholarly dialogues was between Orthodox Jewish women and Muslim women over a decade ago. We discussed topics ranging from our texts but also from our experiences figuring out how to be both within our own communities, preserve religious identities with the challenges of modernity and how scholarship on mutual concerns could benefit both our communities. 

In the context of higher education, it was a beautiful thing to see institutions play a hospitable role to Muslim women. I spoke with one young Muslim woman at the Interfaith America conference who went to a Catholic university and felt so supported by the institution and went on to lead on her campus. She is now on the road to being an interfaith professional, and I was really touched by the fact that this interfaith experience of being at a Catholic university strengthened her commitment to her own faith, and also her deep desire to continue to do interfaith service work to benefit all communities. 

Sometimes the issues may be specific to one’s perspective as a woman, and it is also powerful when in fact the concern is more universal. All of these young women at this conference were exercising their skills as interfaith leaders, and they just happened to be women. This excites me greatly because it means that they feel safe, are thriving and participating in building both their own communities and a joint reality that is kinder for all. 

Thankful to see how we move towards more just, equitable and inclusive futures and so  happy to see this happen in my own lifetime! 

Najeeba Syeed

El-Hibri Endowed Chair and Executive Director of Interfaith Institute