Title Shifting Allegiances – Networks of Kinship and of Faith
Author Moyra Dale
Publisher WIPF and STOCK, 2016
Reviewed by Margaret P
Oppressed, housebound and unaware are widely held views of Muslim women. In Shifting Allegiances – Networks of Kinship and of Faith Dr Moyra Dale exposes the changing identity of the Muslim woman as an emerging allegiance to her community of faith competes with her traditional allegiance to home and family.
This book is an ethnographic study of the women’s mosque movement in Syria – in particular in the Garden Mosque under the leadership of Anisah Huda prior to the outbreak of war in that country. While an ethnographic study is always a snapshot of a particular time in life’s ever-changing pattern, the change in context from peace to war does not diminish the value of this study as a poignant and insightful examination of the developing practices of Muslim women in this changing world.
Dr Dale spent 3 years attending classes for women in Anisah Huda’s home and in the Garden Mosque in Damascus, Syria 2005 -2007. Her research is based on conversations, interviews, observation and document analysis. Dr Dale has sought to use participants’ actual words and has had her notes checked by one of the mosque leaders to ensure that this work represents actual practice rather than the understanding of an external observer.
This study is a unique picture of da’wa (call to true Islam) and the work of a da’iyah (Islamic teacher or missionary) that outsiders rarely witness. The observations and conclusions drawn from this study are consistent with those from other mosques in the Muslim world and so give all who work among Muslim women insights into the changing attitudes and practices of Muslim women throughout the world.
The women’s mosque movement is one aspect of growing worldwide Islamism. For women who attend the mosque programme their understanding of God, community, life and faith is shaped within their allegiance to the mosque community rather than within their families and communities of origin. Dr Dale shows how the new community of allegiance is a fulfilment of what has been rather than a contradiction to it. The activities of the mosque movement are performed in parallel to traditional expectations, for example, a woman’s role in the family, or her submission to text and sheikhs.
‘The woman’s primary role is mother and nurturer of family (and thereby the extended community of ummah)’ p74.
Once family duties are completed the woman is responsible for the completion of her religious duties.
With great clarity, Dr Dale has ordered her observations into five conditions that promote this expanding movement.
- Muslim women are now more connected to the imagined community of faith, the world- wide ummah through technology and improved education. This imagined community is realised in the local community of faith as opposed to the family unit being the primary sphere for social and religious interaction.
- The da’ya is seen as God’s mediator to people and a successor of the Messengers. Rather than her mother, the teacher is the one a woman imitates (as well as Muhammad) in order to access blessings and power. Their identity then is formed by their role in the faith community rather than the family (where the woman is always subordinate).
Authority over their behaviour now emanates from the faith community as does their personal support. Prayers and celebrations now take place in the faith community who are seen as extended family.
- The faith community (not the family) now determines the ways of being and doing that bring honour. These include dress, use of voice, meaning and practice of salah in the mosque and the home, as well as purity requirements. The women’s community provides a context for female leadership. Religious celebrations in the home become opportunities for da ‘wa (mission) to their families. Women now have the authority to challenge the values and practices of their families and traditional communities.
- Priority is given to memorisation, recitation and interpretation of the Qurán – now accessible to women along with the associated blessings and power to negotiate life’s challenges.
- Prayer as an essential part of life is both taught and practiced in this faith community. Dhikr (recollection of God by repetitive recitation of his names; songs poems, silence, tears) and du’a (presenting requests to God) do not require ritual purity and in them women seek access to the characteristics of God they need (healer, forgiver, protector).
Dr Dale has described the intricacies and priorities of such a movement in a way that provokes the reader to examine her own networks within the Muslim community afresh.
- Is there evidence of such a movement here? Are Muslim women becoming more devout and earnestly seeking to understand their religion? Are they seeking community outside their family? Do they gather in mosque spaces or homes around a teacher? What is the impact of this in our conversations about faith? Is there evidence of more spiritual empowerment among our friends or the resultant stress of competing loyalties?
- How can we engage with our Muslim friends and their teachers in meaningful ways that capture the issues that are increasingly occupying their thoughts and desires?
- Can we capitalise on this movement which legitimises the exploration of faith and celebration of faith in new spaces, away from the home and family?
- What spiritual Christian practices can we engage in that may connect us to and provoke interest from our friends?
Dr Dale comments on the reasons for such developments among Muslim women, namely the need for spiritual empowerment in their daily life tasks and accessibility to traditional means of blessings (e.g. recitation of Qurán) which were previously closed to them. Together with traditional family roles women are now “accessing moral and religious authority for their actions and also the power of blessing for the needs of the everyday life roles.” P207
This leaves the reader with the question … if these are the contemporary Muslim woman’s needs, how can we communicate to her the true source of empowerment and blessing for this life and the next?
This is a book for all who love and serve Muslim women. While written in an academic style, the narrative and descriptive observations ensure these insights are accessible to all. It gives a unique picture of the developing spiritual world and thought world of Muslim women which must not remain in the province of academia alone but be the basis for authentic practice where we truly connect and communicate with our Muslim friends.
Margaret P lives and works in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Australia.