The Life of Two Mujtahidahs: Female Religious Authority in 20th Century Iran

26 Pages Posted: 4 Sep 2012

See all articles by Mirjam Künkler

Mirjam Künkler

Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study

Roja Fazaeli

Trinity College, Dublin

Date Written: July 12, 2010


The paper introduces two Iranian female mujtahidahs, Nuṣrat Amīn (1886-1983) and Zuhrah Ṣifātī (1948-), who represent like few other contemporaries the status of female religious authority in 20th century Iran, divided by the important cesura of the 1979 revolution. Nuṣrat Amīn is one of the most influential Shī‘a female religious authorities of modern times, who in her own right granted men ijāzahs of ijtihād and riwāya. Zuhrah Ṣifātī is the most prominent female religious authority of the Islamic Republic and a long-time member of the Women’s Socio-Cultural Council (shūrā-yi farhangī ijtimā-i zanān), where she heads the committee on fiqh and law. Both women’s work was strongly influenced by the socio-political environment in and against which they defined themselves. While Amīn underwent her formative period as an Islamic scholar at a time when madrasahs were slowly replaced by secular public schools and religious courts by the apparatus of a modern state judiciary, Ṣifātī experienced the reversal of some of these reforms when the 1979 Revolution sought to Islamicize the entire legal system and expand the status of religious learning. A comparison of the two women’s lives and works shows the extent to which political circumstances have shaped the opportunities for women to aspire to and acquire religious authority. In the case of both women, their own initiative was key to propel them to the knowledge and scholarship they produced. The state, despite its strong regulation of religion and of education both before and after the 1979 revolution, played a surprisingly small role in facilitating the scholarly achievements of the two women. State intervention in both cases, across the reign of Muḥammad Reza Shah and the Islamic Republic rather obstructed than facilitated women’s theological training and did not offer opportunities for women to specialize in the generation and transmission of religious knowledge.

Keywords: Iran, Shiism, female religious authority, Nosrat Amin, Zohreh Sefaty

Suggested Citation

Künkler, Mirjam and Fazaeli, Roja, The Life of Two Mujtahidahs: Female Religious Authority in 20th Century Iran (July 12, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Mirjam Künkler (Contact Author)

Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study ( email )

Korte Spinhuissteeg 3
Amsterdam, 1012 CG

Roja Fazaeli

Trinity College, Dublin ( email )

2-3 College Green
Dublin, Leinster D2

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