In Context

Houda's school is part of a resurgence of Islam across the globe known as an "Islamic revival." As secular Arab states have largely failed to meet the needs of their citizens for domestic political reform and economic growth, an Islamic resurgence has swept through the region. According to writer and anthropologist Saba Mahmood (author of Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject), "Islamic revival" can refer to the activities of state-oriented political groups, but the phrase also typically refers to a religious ethos or sensibility that has developed within contemporary Muslim societies over the last three decades.

Practitioners like Houda see their efforts to encourage a return to Islamic observance as social and not political. They do not insist on imposing Islam on others or in creating theocratic states governed by Islamic law, though they would like their governments to reflect core Islamic values (in much the same way that many American Christians have supported political leadership that reflects their faith).

The Islamic revival is not related to the trend of religious violent extremism sometimes labeled "Islamist" (in contrast to "Islamic"). In fact, Muslims like Houda adamantly disavow political violence in the name of Islam.

While Islam is also often associated with the subjugation of women, the mosque movement is seen by many Muslim women, including Houda, as liberating. It offers an opportunity to gain intellectual ownership of Islamic teaching -- women are active and they're asking questions -- and is seen as a return to a "golden" age of Islam, when Muslim women were known as great teachers, philanthropists and religious leaders. Mahmood points out that the women of the movement are focused on cultivating a practice of personal piety rather than focused on embracing politics. However, Maan Abdul Salam, a Syrian women's rights campaigner, explains that female Islamic prayer groups (like the conservative Islamic women's society Qubaisiate) recruit women differently, based on their social status. For example, wealthy, upper-class women are often taught how to influence politics.

According to a recent New York Times article on the Islamic revival in Syria, religious teachers in the country say the growth in the number of girls' madrasas (Islamic religious schools) has outpaced the growth in those for boys. Weekly religious lessons held at home slowly moved to mosques, and women began memorizing and studying the Qur'an and other Islamic teachings. . While there are no official statistics about how many of Syria's 700 madrasas are for girls, a survey of Islamic education in Syria published by the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat suggests that there are about 80 such madrasas in Damascus alone, serving more than 75,000 women and girls. About half of those schools are affiliated with the Qubaisiate (an insular and conservative Islamic women's society in Syria, which has recently started to export its brand overseas), though Houda's school is not.

Caption: Riham Baalbaki, center, listens to a lecture at Al Zahra Mosque
Credit: Itab Azzam

» Gatestone Institute. "Syria's Choice: Murderous Secular Regime or Islamic Fundamentalists."
» Jadaliyya. "Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject."
» The Light in Her Eyes. "Resources."
» Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.
» Wilson, Scott. "Religious Surge Alarms Secular Syrians." The Washington Post, January 23, 2005.
» Zoepf, Katherine. "Islamic Revival in Syria Is Led by Women." The New York Times, August 29 2006.