International: On a Muslim woman leading the congregational prayer

Islam and Modern Age
Amina Wadud, an Islamic scholar of repute from US led the mixed congregational prayer on 18th March 2005 in New York and also delivered khutba' (i.e. sermon).
It was a historic step as it was a unique development in history of Islam. Not that it was first time but it happened after centuries.
Amina Wadud invoked principle of spiritual equality of men and women in Islam. She led some 130 women and men in prayer. Subsequently another woman led Jum'ah prayer and delivered a sermon in Canada too. Ms. Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street journalist also led prayer in University of Brandeis, near Boston in USA. In fact Asra was main motivator behind the movement for a woman leading the mixed gender prayer.

It greatly disturbed conservative Muslims who denounced it as against Islam. Fatwas were also issued against it. Some extremist Muslims in USA even threatened to throw bomb and hence the venue had to be changed. Libyan leader Gaddafi in condemnation of a woman leading mixed gender prayer went to the extent of saying that women led prayer 'creates millions of Bin Ladens' according to Daily News (March 24, 2005). There was time when Gaddafi was fervent advocate of gender equality and used to say that gender inequality in the Muslim world is a western colonial conspiracy to immobilise half the Muslim population. That time Gaddafi was more of a rebel and now perhaps he is finding back his mainstream roots in Islamic world. He has also given up his militant image and has come closer to USA.

In Egypt the Great Mufti (Mufti-e-A'zam) Ali Goma also denounced a woman leading the mixed congregational prayer. He said it is not permitted in Islam. He said no woman can lead mixed congregational prayer, much less a jum'ah prayer and she cannot deliver khutbah. He said that majority of imams and muftis agree that a woman cannot lead mixed congregational prayer. However, all 'ulama agree that she can lead only women in prayer.

It is important to examine this claim from the Qur'anic viewpoint. Is there any authoritative argument (nass) against a woman leading mixed gender prayer in Qur'an? Certainly not. All agree that there is no such denial in Qur'an. Though the Qur'an does not refer to the issue directly, there are verses in Qur'an, which can support a woman leading such mixed congregational prayers. We will throw more light on this little later.

Prophet's hadith also allows a woman to lead congregational prayer. The Holy Prophet had asked Umm Waraqah bint Abdallah to lead prayer in her dar, which included men. She was well versed n Qur'an compared to others, including men, and hence the Prophet (PBUH) asked her to lead the congregational prayer. Now generally dar (house) is interpreted as her family and according to this interpretation she was asked to lead her family members in prayer including her husband. But it is also stated in hadith that the Prophet (PBUH) appointed a mu'addhin (caller to the prayer) who was a man. This means it was not her family but most probably her locality. Here dar should not mean household or family but locality as dar al-Islam would not mean family of Islam but a locality, even a country of Islam.

This hadith relating to Umm Waraqah has been narrated by Abu Dawood, also by Ibn Khuzaimah, who rates it as 'sound' (i.e. authentic). Umm Waraqah was also one of the few who handed down the Quran before it was compiled in written form. It was because of this hadith that jurists like Al-Mozin, Abu Thawr, and Al-Tabari held the opinion that a woman can lead prayers of mixed congregation. Ibn Taymiyyah, another noted jurist, was of the opinion that a woman can lead Tarawih prayers of mixed congregation.

Though there is unanimity among ulama' and jurists that hadith relating to Umm Waraqah is authentic but then there is debate whether permission by the Prophet was specific to Umm Waraqah or it implies permission for all women to lead mixed congregational prayers. However, there is noting to indicate that it was specific to Umm Waraqah. Since she was an 'alimah who was well versed in Qur'an and elements of salah (prayer) so she was asked to lead prayer in her locality. It was certainly her ability and sincerity, not her tribe or standing in the society which earned her that distinction.

It is well-known principle of jurisprudence that of the two one who is greater 'alim would lead prayer and of the two one who is physically more sound would perform function of imamah and of the two, one who is from the same locality would lead the prayer. Extending this to sex, the 'ulama concluded that since woman is physically weaker than man so man is superior and hence must lead the prayer. However, on this basis all 'ulama and jurists agreed that woman can lead other women in prayer.

But a woman can be greater 'alimah than a man and it was on this principle that the Prophet (PBUH) allowed her to lead mixed congregational prayer. It was 1400 years ago and now in 21st century there is such opposition to a woman leading the prayer. It is really strange. Stranger reasons are being given to oppose a woman leading mixed congregational prayer.

A leading Arab 'alim Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi says in his fatwa that "Throughout Muslim history it has never been heard of a woman leading the Friday Prayer or delivering the Friday sermon, even during the era when a woman Shagarat Ad-Durr, was ruling the Muslims in Egypt during the Mamluk period. It is established that leadership in prayer in Islam is to be for men."

With due respect to the Sheikh I must say first of all Muslim men, particularly 'ulama have decided that a woman cannot be ruler or head of the state. How then Qardawi is approvingly quoting that during a woman's rule in Egypt no woman led congregational prayer. Qardawi, like other traditional 'ulama, I am sure, considers woman's rule as illegitimate. And if he does not, then he should not object to a woman leading mixed congregational prayer.

Secondly his argument that it is well established that "leadership in prayer in Islam is to be for men." The question is who has established that? The Quran? No. The holy Prophet's Sunnah? No. And every one agrees that Islamic Shariah is based on Qur'an and Sunnah. It is not for anyone to establish Islamic rules. This assertion on the part of Yusuf al-Qardawi is not right and certainly not based on Islamic sources.

Sheikh Qardawi, in order to justify traditional practice that man alone can lead congregational prayer comes out with very strange logic, even obsession with sex. He argues "Prayer in Islam is an act that involves different movements of the body.Moreover, it requires concentration of the mind, humility, and complete submission of the heart to Almighty Allah. Hence, it does not befit a woman, whose structure of physique naturally arouses instincts in men, to lead men in prayer and stand in front of them, for this may divert the men's attention from concentrating in the prayer and the spiritual atmosphere required."

I really wonder on the Sheikh's logic. On one hand he says prayer is an act of concentration and submission to Allah and humility to Him and on the other he argues that woman's sexuality will interfere with this concentration. Of what use is a Muslim's concentration if he gets sexually excited even in the sacred and spiritual act of prayer and submission to Allah. Better he des not pray. Allah says in the Qur'an that "Surely prayer keeps (one) away from indecency and evil." (29:45) and our Ulama are arguing that a woman through her posture in prayer will excite a man's sexual desire. Whom should we listen to? To Ulama or to Allah who says prayer is antidote for all indecency and evil?

Qardawi further argues "Hence, it is to avoid the stirring instincts of men that the Shari'ah dictates that only men can call for Prayer and lead people in the Prayer and that women's rows in Prayer be behind the men." This may be Sheikh's view; it is certainly not the Qur'an's and Sunnah's view. Qardawi thinks the Prophet did not know what he knows about the men's sexuality and permitted Umm Waraqah to lead prayer. And he also thinks that only men's sexual feelings can be stirred, not women's when they pray behind men.

The problem is not with sexuality but with men's ego that he does not want to pray behind a woman. Men have total control on all social and religious institutions and in no case wants to give up this control. Islam came as a liberator for whole humanity, much more for women who were totally subjugated. The Prophet of Islam (PBUH) was personally great supporter of women's cause. Apart from revelation he did what he could for women and their liberation. He wanted women to be equal to men both in material and spiritual sense. The Qur'anic verses as well as the Prophet's conduct are clear proof for that. Not only that he wanted women to pray inside the mosque but also wanted them to lead men in prayer. When some men obstructed women from entering into mosque to pray he said do not prevent Allah's servants (amatullah) from praying inside Allah's house. Men do not allow women to enter into mosque in several countries even today, particularly in South Asian countries like India, Pakistan and Bangla Desh.

Who do they follow? Their own version of Islam or Qur'anic and Prophetic Islam? The Qur'an stands for complete equality in human dignity, freedom, duties and rights as far as women are concerned. The Qur'an puts in four words when it says wa lahunna mithlul ladhi 'alayhinna (i.e. And women have rights similar to those against them in a just manner. 2:228).

These four words are of great significance. These words ushered in revolution in gender relations in a period of darkness in the world. These words gave women what the world could give them in early twentieth century. The Prophet (PBUH) naturally brought these words into practice in their true spirit. The world until then had believed animals and women have no soul. The Qur'an, on the other hand, not only preached men and women have been created from what it calls nafsin wahidin (from one soul) but also accorded them full human dignity.

The Qur'an made another revolutionary statement wa laqad karramna bani Adam (And surely We have honoured children of Adam. 17:70). Children of Adam being collective noun all are included including men and women, black and white, Arab and non-Arab. Thus to the Qur'an all human beings have equal dignity and no gender discrimination is allowed as no colour, racial or linguistic discrimination is permitted.

But when Islam spread to other parts of the world where all forms of discriminations, including gender discrimination, were practiced this revolutionary message of Islam was lost and all prejudices sexual, racial and linguistic began to be practiced. The Muslims who embraced Islam with their pre-Islamic prejudices could not appreciate the Islamic spirit and there was no person of the Prophet's (PBUH) spirit among them or status of immediate companions of the Prophet to infuse true spirit of Islam among them.

Women enjoyed very low status in all cultures and races and this low status continued despite acceptance of Islam among those people who embrace Islam decades or even centuries after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions. The new generation of 'ulama from Persian, Roman and Turkish stock too engaged themselves in formalistic juristic issues without fighting their deeply embedded cultural prejudices against women. And to serve these deeply embedded gender discriminatory opinions new ahadith (sayings of the Prophet) came into existence and qiyas and ijma' (analogical reasoning and consensus) being purely human institutions too were influenced by these cultural prejudices.

Thus all sorts of discriminations began to be practiced against women. The early dynamism of women was severely restricted and she was confined to home. The Prophet (PBUH) had even allowed them to participate in the war, Umar, the 2nd caliph had appointed a woman as inspector of markets and now she, wrapped in black cloth could not move out without a mahrim (i.e. with a man closely related to her whom she could not marry).

Now all this was thought to be strictly Islamic and the 'ulama and jurists issued fatwa after fatwa (legal opinion) making this low status of women as Islamic. She then became mere appendage of her father or husband after marriage. Her salvation lay only in submission to authority and pleasure of her husband. She could not even step out without his specific consent. She lost her individual dignity. A hadith circulated wherein the Prophet (PBUH) was made to say that if it were permissible to prostrate before anyone except Allah I would have required wife to prostrate before her husband.

Thus one can see how later generations of Muslims immersed in their cultural values and completely alien to the Qur'anic spirit, degraded woman's status. No wonder if she was not permitted to lead congregational prayers as she was thought to be inferior to man. Yusuf Qardawi's argument that no woman in history of Islam had led congregational prayer is based on this kind of logic, not on the Qur'anic spirit.

During the Prophet's time the women did not accept their degradation and fought for their Qur'anic rights. Once when an argument ensued about their status they went to the Prophet (PBUH) and inquired whether they are inferior to men. The Prophet waited for divine injunction and Allah responded: "Surely the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, and the humble men and the humble women, and the charitable men and the charitable women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard their chastity, and the men who remember Allah much and the women who remember - Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and the mighty reward." (33:35)

If one reads this divinely revealed verse can he still argue that women are in any way inferior to men? If one still does then all one can say is that he is either not appreciative of Qur'anic teachings or that he is deeply immersed in his male-dominated values. To him Qur'anic message is not as important as is own values in which he has been brought up. The real tragedy is that one is born in a Muslim family and formally accepts Islam as religion without being deeply affected by the Qur'anic spirit. Or Islamic message reaches him through not only his cultural filter but also through the conservative 'ulama themselves quite alien to real Qur'anic spirit.

After deeply studying the import of the verse 33:35 can one still seriously argue that women cannot lead mixed congregational prayers? That is why all those who are opposing women leading mixed congregational prayer are simultaneously admitting that there is nothing in the Qur'anic and hadith against women leading prayer. But since they are immersed in male values rather than Qur'anic values, they maintain women cannot lead congregational prayer and invent strange arguments like sexual excitement by looking at the back of a woman. What is much more surprising is that such arguments are advanced by the 'alim of the status of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi.

They do not realise that such arguments are external to the Qur'anic spirit. The Qur'an does not even remotely suggest that men are sexually more excitable than women and so women should be wrapped in cloth from head to toe to spare men the sin of rape or adultery. The Qur'an treats both man and woman equal even in this regard and proposes same punishment for both for such offences.

Even in case of polygamy men use such arguments. It is often argued that polygamy saves men from resorting to illegitimate relationship with other women. The Qur'an does not refer to any such argument. On the other hand the Qur'an reluctantly permits polygamy to take care of orphans and widows (4:3) and warns that "if you fear you cannot do justice then (marry) one." Not only this in yet another verse 4:129 it says " And you cannot do justice between wives, even though you wish (it), but be not disinclined (from one) with total inclination, so that you leave her in suspense. And if you are reconciled and keep your duty, surely Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful."

The message of this verse is very clear and if one reads both the verses i.e. 4:3 and 4:129 together it becomes quite clear that he can take more than one wife only in some exceptional cases but otherwise one should take one wife. Yet the 'ulama throughout history made it almost a privilege for men to marry up to four wives and justice never remained an issue. On the other hand such arguments totally external to the Qur'anic spirit that one need to marry more than one wife to avoid life of sin were usually made.

Now women are much more educated and conscious of their rights and time has come to put in practice the real Qur'anic spirit and understand the Qur'anic teachings in right perspective and small steps like Amina Wadud and others leading mixed congregational prayers should be taken. The Islamic world urgently needs certain reforms and for that internal debate will be very helpful.

This all step has stirred feelings and from the heated debate will come the much- needed light for healthy change. The vast gap between Islamic spirit and Muslim practices need to be bridged through dialogue and discussion. There is constant attack from non-Muslims about gross injustices perpetrated by Islam against women. Non-Muslims are not aware of Qur'anic teachings and hence they blame Islam for these injustices. Those Muslims who understand the Qur'anic teachings must come forward and initiate discussions both with Muslims and non-Muslims.

Muslim women also need to be properly educated in the Qur'anic teachings and we urgently need women theologians to spread awareness among them. Thus both Muslim men and women committed to human dignity and gender justice will have to seize initiative to bring about much needed changes in Muslim society. Thus we should welcome the initiative taken by sisters like Amina Wadud and others and spread this message.

A believer (m'umin) must be totally committed to justice, benevolence, compassion and wisdom as these are oft repeated Qur'anic values and any injustice to women cannot be acceptable to a believer. Throughout medieval ages Muslims lost the true message of Qur'anic values and now in the age of human dignity and human rights Qur'anic message of gender justice needs to be revived.

If we do not bring the real Qur'anic spirit even in today's circumstances we will miss the bus forever. Allah will never forgive us for this indifference to His Message. We have always sidelined reformers like Muhammad Abduh of Egypt who stood for gender justice and true Qur'anic spirit. We need not one but many Abduhs.

by Asghar Ali Engineer
Islam and Modern Age, May 2005