A quiet Muslim community known as the Hui that has long been buried among China’s Buddhist majority has recently been receiving attention for its nu ahong – female spiritual leaders. While the spotlight is new, the concept is not. As early as the late Ming dynasty (around the 17th century), the faithful set up Muslim schools catering exclusively to young females and by the arrival of the late Qing dynasty in the 19th century, these schools had transformed into mosques operated by and serving women. In the coming decades, the practice of female Imams, if you will, permeated all Chinese Muslim societies.
Today the Hui, a traditional, unassuming community comprised largely of farmers, shopkeepers and craftsmen, continues to borrow from this egalitarian concept of both learned men and women piloting mosques. The Hui encourage their Muslim women to seek employment in mosques as nu ahong — the phrase is derived from the Persian word akhund, meaning “teacher.” Among these women are those who live in small apartments within the mosque or within an affiliated Muslim school and receive salaries, just as an Imam would, while a smaller number live with families and volunteer. Some nu ahong serve in mosques that are entirely separate from men’s mosques, but most cordon off and use rooms within men’s mosques.
In addition to presiding over nu si (women’s mosques), a nu ahong’s duties may include ritual guidance at marriages and funerals, preaching, resolving political and social disputes, and offering moral guidance and counseling. But perhaps her most important work, given how Islam values women as the first teachers of children, is that of educator of the Arabic language, the Qur’an and the Hadith.
The precise role of the nu ahong does not remain strictly defined or static, but rather varies greatly from mosque to mosque, school to school and region to region, depending on the needs of the community. A popular duty of a nu ahong is to provide girls from disadvantaged backgrounds a basic education, which opens the coveted door to a university education. Ambitious young women flock to the nu ahong to learn Arabic, partly for religious reasons, but also in hopes of landing a job as a private-sector translator, scholar or ahong. Although the newest positions as translators or interpreters in the blossoming Mideast–China trade can earn salaries of 3,000 to 10,000 yuan ($400 to $1400), the position of nu ahong remains a popular career choice as one that offers a measure of security and high community status.
Though the authority of nu ahong does not extend beyond the sphere of women and children (including young boys), it is nevertheless significant that Muslim women in China have such organized authority, training and separate facilities. Academic researchers like Shui Jingjun, a Hui sociologist and co-author of a history titled A Mosque of Their Own, tend to see an unspoken feminist agenda. “These women feel good and feel free at these mosques,” she explains. “They may be smaller than the male mosques but they are much better organized.”
The nu ahong occupy a unique position in the Chinese Muslim community as women who perform all the same functions and duties as a male Imam, but do so only for their female peers; as a result nu ahongs have successfully avoided criticism or harassment from their male counterparts and have carved out a niche for themselves as learned, respected leaders. Were nu ahongs to give lectures to a mixed congregation before Friday prayers or lead a mixed congregation in prayer, they would have likely been relegated to the margins of the community, dismissed as rebels who are deliberately thwarting the sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
While the Qur’an itself does not mandate that only men may lead prayer, three of the four Sunni schools of thought, as well as the majority of Shia schools, bar women from leading men and women in prayer, basing the prohibition on the example of the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him). There are several hadith which report that Hasrat Aisha and Umm Salmah led congregations of women in prayer, as do today’s nu ahong, but we find no record of the mothers of the believers leading a mosque’s mixed congregation in prayer. There is, however, evidence that the Prophet on more than one occasion allowed a woman to lead her household in prayer – although the household included men – when the woman was clearly the most learned in the faith, so the issue remains open for debate. However, because most Muslims are aggressively protective of the salat and the khutbah and consider the preservation of the exact manner in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) prescribed these rituals paramount, the nu ahong have wisely chosen to respect the views of the majority. By steering clear of reformulating these acts, nu ahong have garnered the affirmation and respect of their communities.
Some might argue that translating nu ahong to “female Imams” is a misnomer as these women do not lead mixed gender congregations in Friday prayers (a defining role of an Imam) but semantics are of secondary importance here; as trained spiritual leaders who educate, mediate and counsel, nu ahong are instrumental in keeping Islam alive among Chinese women and children and perhaps offer an example of female leadership that Muslim communities outside of China should consider.
Muslim women in the United States often complain of exclusion from their local mosques, citing inadequate space, male dominated governing bodies and poor access to the Imam – all of which make for a seemingly unwelcome atmosphere. By placing a learned female in a central position of leadership that allows her to interact directly with the mosque goers, Muslim American women will likely feel far more comfortable visiting the mosque and, more importantly, enrolling in Qur’an and hadith courses and seeking counsel when it comes to deeply personal issues such as discord in their marriage or rulings on menstruation. American nu ahong will not only handle such concerns with greater tact and compassion, but in doing so will dispel myths of the submissive, ignorant female in Islam.
Zehra Rizavi is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah. This article was first published on AltMuslimah on January 13, 2010.