Mirjam Künkler (Uppsala/Bonn): Women as Judges, Jurists and Legal Advisers in the Islamic Tradition


The field of religio-legal authority, whether in Islam, Catholic and Eastern Christianity, or Judaism, is still by and large a field that lacks gender diversity. Rarely are women accepted as interpreters of religious law, as prayer leaders in front of mixed congregations, or as religious leaders whose advice is sought beyond questions pertaining to the private sphere. But in Islam the field is slowly changing, and has been for the better part of a decade now, as in several states programs are underway that train women as Islamic juristic authorities: the women ayatollahs of Iran come to mind, as do the murshidat of Morocco, female jurists that have joined fatwa boards in pre-war Syria and Indonesia, and women who have been appointed judges to Sudanese and Malaysian courts applying Islamic law.

This lecture will offer an overview of new initiatives promoting women’s juristic authority in Islamic law and the jurisprudential as well as political justifications that are given in each of these contexts. It will discuss the extent and forms of these programs and offer a typology of what type of authority women tend to be trained in. It will be suggested that contrary to public perceptions, in many of these contexts local Islamic legal traditions are more permissive regarding women’s religio-legal authority than current social practices would indicate.

Prof. Dr. Mirjam Künkler

Curriculum Vitae

Prof. Dr. Mirjam Künkler studied Political Science, African Studies, Oriental Studies, and Economics at the Universities of Leipzig, Paris (ESC), and Cape Town. In 2008, she earned her Ph.D. at Columbia University, NY, with a dissertation on “Democratization, Islamic Thought, and Social Movements: Coalitional Success and Failure in Iran and Indonesia” under the mentorship of Charles Tilly, Alfred Stepan, and Said Arjomand. Subsequently, Mirjam Künkler taught Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University for nine years, where she also directed the Oxford-Princeton research cluster on "Traditional authority and transnational religious networks in contemporary Shi'i Islam” and co-directed the Luce Program on "Religion and International Affairs.” She has also been a guest professor at the University of Tehran and the Islamic State University of Makassar in Indonesia.

Her books include Indonesia, Islam and Democracy, (co-edited with Alfred Stepan) Columbia University Press, 2013, published in Arabic as Al-Dimokratia va al-Islam fi Indonisia, All Print Publishers, Beirut, 2015; A Secular Age Beyond the West. Religion, Law and the State in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. With an Afterword by Charles Taylor, Cambridge University Press, 2017; and Women’s Juristic Authority in Islam (co-authored with Devin Stewart), Edinburgh University Press, 2018. Künkler has guest-edited special issues and symposia for the journals Party Politics (March 2013), Modern Asian Studies (March 2014), the American Behavioral Scientist (July 2016), Asian Studies Review (December 2016), the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (January 2018), the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion (January 2018), Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democracy Theory (July 2018), and the Cambridge Journal of Law and Religion (August 2018). Along with her colleague Mehrzad Boroujerdi, she founded the Iran Social Science Data Portal, which today has become the most visited international web portal for social science data on Iran.

Since July 2017 Prof. Dr. Mirjam Künkler is Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities “Law as Culture”. During her remaining time at the KHC Bonn, Mirjam Künkler will complete a book on the Islamization of Iran’s legal system following the 1979 Revolution.