Dr. Norbani Ismail: Female Muslim Preachers in Malaysia

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The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) invited Dr. Norbani Ismail to share her research on Malaysian women preachers on Nov. 18, 2015. Her talk was titled, “Female Muslim Preachers in Malaysia: Reaffirming Orthodoxy through Activism.”

Dr. Norbani is the Malaysia Chair of Islam in Southeast Asia at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, School of Foreign Service. She has a PhD in Islamic Studies from the International Islamic University Malaysia where she was also an Assistant Professor of the Qur’an & Sunnah Studies for six years.

Dr. Norbani began her lecture with a discussion of women and knowledge-based authority they have held historically in Islam. She spoke about the many female companions from the first three centuries who were teachers or whose advice was sought for various religious issues. The scene for women students and teachers remained fairly vibrant until the 14th or 15th centuries, she said.

However, in the 16th century, not only did the number of women teachers decline, females also had fewer educational opportunities in general. At the same time, Dr. Norbani gave the audience the good news that the trend is changing once again and now there are more and more prospects for both female education and scholarship, particularly in Malaysia. In a 2010 Higher Education Ministry of Malaysia report, it was cited that women make up more than 58% of enrolment at graduate school and 61% on the undergraduate level.

Da’wah activities, known as Dakwah, are very regulated in Malaysia. If anyone wishes to give public speeches, including jumu’ah khutbahs, they must be authorized to do so by the Religious Department or else face a penalty. In this way, the officials seek to distinguish between qualified and knowledgeable scholars as opposed to motivational speakers, Dr. Norbani explained.

After laying out the background, Dr. Norbani proceeded to discuss three prominent female Malaysian preachers: NorBahyah, Fatmaa, and Hayati. She shared each scholar’s background in Islamic Studies and showed the audience their styles through short video clips. All three appear on television and address mixed gender gatherings.

Norbahyah, Fatmaa, and Hayati strive hard to relate Islam with today’s Malaysia, focusing on family management, spiritual purification, highlighting the important dates of the Hijri calendar, Qur’anic stories, and women’s issues. In doing so, they “help shape Muslim identity in Malaysia in the contemporary society” while also showing how women preachers should behave, Dr. Norbani stated.

Indeed, all three women are also teachers, life coaches, and counsellors. They have gained not only authorization from the government, but also acceptance from their audience. “People really respond to them. They talk about them and they feel enchanted by them,” Dr. Norbani emphasized. The women ably quote in Arabic, they interpret fundamental sources of Islam, and they are grounded in authoritative sources of Islamic tradition.

As such, they have earned great credibility and popularity from their audiences and continue to attract followers through word-of-mouth publicity. Moreover, they are creating more opportunities for other female preachers, with competitive programs on television that select the best da’i.

Dr. Norbani’s presentation sparked a lively conversation during the Q&A session, with numerous audience members asking questions or sharing their own comments. Many of them chose to stay afterwards and engage with her, reflecting how relatable her topic was for the audience.