Sherin Khankan Q&A: “If I had to define myself by one title, it would be activist”

The imam talks activists as politicians, her Syrian refugee father, and a non-digital world.

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Born in 1974 in Denmark, Sherin Khankan is one of the world’s few female imams. She founded Copenhagen’s Mariam Mosque, the first mosque for women in Europe. She was named one of the BBC’s 100 Women of 2016.

What’s your earliest memory?

I’m in the childhood home I was born in, and it’s Christmas. We’re playing outside, and the snow is almost up to my neck.

Who is your hero?

My mother. She raised us without raising us: she allowed us to become who we are, not who she wanted us to be. I never had to live up to any expectations, and she never raised her voice. To me, that makes her a superhero.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Not a book, but Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”. It says “loss is no disaster”. I identify with that: my father is a Syrian refugee. We lost a house in Syria, we lost family who escaped to different countries, and we lost the community that we had.

Which political figure do you look up to?

To me, activists are also politicians. Rabi’a al-Adawiyya (714-801 AD) was a great Muslim leader: the way we practise religion also affects politics in the end. She said in a beautiful poem, “I carry a lamp of fire in one hand, a bottle of water in the other.” She wanted to set fire to heaven and extinguish hellfire. She said, “God, if I worship you because I fear hellfire, let me burn, if I worship you because I long for paradise, close the gates.” She takes the ultimate image of opposition, and deconstructs it. It’s an important message: we live in a world where people manipulate dichotomies, like those between Islam and the West. To live together, we must deconstruct those dichotomies.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A non-digital world. Sometimes I feel that when you’re online, you’re off-life.

What TV show could you not live without?

I don’t have a television.

What’s your theme tune?

Fairuz’s song “Wa Habibi”, about the crucifixion. When I lived in Damascus, during Easter, you’d hear it everywhere – in the taxis, in the streets. It takes me back to another time, another place, before the war.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

My father told me, “This too shall pass.”

What’s currently bugging you?

I swim in the ocean every morning, all year round, just after taking my children to school. If something is bothering me, when I dive into the ocean it disappears.

What single thing would make your life better?

My four children are all healthy and happy, so nothing would make my life better.

When were you happiest?

I’m happiest when I’m with my children.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A ballet dancer. I love to dance.

Are we all doomed?

No. Sometimes we think it’s impossible to change the world, but it’s not. For me, it’s very important to transform knowledge into action: if I had to define myself by one title, it would be “activist”. I’m fighting patriarchal structures at many different levels. Right now, I’m focused on nine pieces of reform, which include granting Muslim women the right to divorce and inter-faith marriage, protecting the rights of homosexuals, and fighting against FGM. If we are brave enough to challenge injustice, we’re not doomed at all. l

Sherin Khankan’s book, “Women are the Future of Islam”, is published by Rider

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact