International: Women's place in Islam debated

Islam Interfaith
The recent controversy over the leading of Friday prayers by an African-American woman has brought the gender issue to the forefront of the Muslim world, writes Imtiyaz Yusef.
On 18 March 2005, a female African-American professor, Amina Wadud, led a group of New York Muslims in the obligatory Friday congregational prayer.
This was the first time that a woman had performed as an Imam prayer leader, causing much controversy within the Muslim world. The incident raised an intense debate ranging from the ritualistic to the legalistic aspects of the act, covering issues such as whether the Islamic religion allows a woman to lead in the prayer service, what are its implications for Islamic law and gender issues in the Muslim world.

Islam does not nullify a prayer on the basis of who leads the service; the acceptance of prayer is based on the intention of the individual participants. Yet it is interesting to look into the debate, for it reflects the state of internal affairs within the Muslim world.

The Qu'ran takes a strong stand on the equality of gender. The creation story as depicted in the Qu'ran talks of the simultaneous creation of Adam and Eve, the latter was not created from the rib of man. The spiritual equality of gender is also unequivocally mentioned in the following verse of the Qu"ran:

"O' men who surrender unto God, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere (in righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember God much and women who remember _ God hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward." _ Qu'ran 33:35

Looked at in the above light, it is clear that the arrangement of rows in Muslim prayer is not based on gender and that the Prophet Muhammad did not intend to lower the status of women when he prescribed that the men should occupy the first rows followed by children and women.

Furthermore, Muslim men and women pray side by side when in the holy mosque in Mecca. Yet, as with any religion, in the course of its development many interpretations based on local cultures and geographical contexts have been added to the body of Islam, leading to a variety of different practises worldwide. Hence, the current debate over the status of female Imams.

The debate is also the product of the influence of modern trends such as feminism and globalisation on the Muslim world.

There are two sides to the debate on whether a women is suitable as an Imam. Both base their position on the traditions of Islamic history, culture and contemporary contexts.

Firstly, it is interesting to note that the debate has occurred chiefly in America, which has a population of about seven million Muslims, mostly from the Middle East and South Asia, plus the large African- American Muslim population. The multi-ethnicity and cultural variety of the American Muslim population, residing as they do in a country which stands for the values of freedom, equality and modernity, has played a significant role in the background of the debate.

Immigrant American Muslims have brought into the American environment cultural attitudes from a range of Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, India and Nigeria, etc, which in general have gender restrictive interpretations of Islam. This raises crucial conflicts for first generation American Muslims.

On the other hand, the large African-American Muslim community which is native to America, and has its own historical, cultural and religious contexts, is also engaged in interpreting Islamic teachings and practices within its own socio-historical experience.

Hence, the question of female Imams has much to do with the evolution and shaping of multi-ethnic Islam in America.

This contrasts with the situation in Muslim Southeast Asia, where comparatively the role of Muslim women is much more liberated, though there are certain problems, especially in the area of marital fidelity. Overall, Southeast Asian Muslim women have excelled as reciters of the Qu'ran and engaged in unrestricted political and economic activities. They are also generally more mobile than their Middle Eastern or South Asian counterparts.

During a recent visit to Singapore I was impressed by the fact that several mosques in the city are named after Muslim women luminaries such as Khadijah and Fatima, the wife and daughter of the prophet Muhammad respectively. Even some business establishments are named after a wife or daughter. Such practices are general and not exceptional in Southeast Asia.

Scholars in disagreement

The American Muslims who support the role of female Imams complain of the marginalisation of US Muslim women from public religious life, deprived of engaging in religious education and discourse and sequestered in remote sections of the mosques. Their social roles are restricted to the home and child rearing, while the men take the dominant position in all religious, educational and social activities.

Amina Wadud's supporters base their position on an event reported from the life of the prophet Muhammad. It is written that he permitted a Muslim woman of his community named Umm Waraqah to lead a prayer service.

The advocates for socially engaging Muslim women cite the opinions of legal scholars such as al-Tabari, al-Muzani, Abu Thawr, Ibn Taymiyya and Muhammad Hamidullah, who accept the role of women as Imams. Following the 18 March event, Egypt's Grand Mufti (a professional jurist who interprets Muslim law) Shaikh Ali Guma declared that it is permissible for women to lead prayers provided the congregation agrees to it.

On the opposing side is Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi of Qatar, a respected Muslim jurist and scholar. He vehemently rejected the 18 March event on the grounds that a woman's physique and bodily movements would be a cause for deviating men's attention during prayer. He has also remarked that such an event has never occurred in the Muslim history!

Some American Muslims base their opposition on the opinion that there is not enough textual and scholastic proof in support of such a practice. They feel that a religiously educated woman may lead an exclusively female congregation or her family members in prayer, but there is no scholarly basis for agreement that she can lead the Friday obligatory prayer. In their opinion, a distinction should be made between the sanctity of the act of worship and a publicly active religious life. They hold that women can engage positively in religious study sessions and discussions, may even write the Friday sermon if it is to be delivered through a man, with proper attribution to the author, and also engage in managing activities of the mosque, but that the tradition of a man as the prayer leader of a mixed congregation should be kept.

In many ways the conflict exemplifies the relationship between the religious ideas that people hold and the social world they create.

The evolving debate sometimes gets into a hair-splitting nature and moves away from addressing the real issues, such as the marginalisation of Muslim women in a socio-religious context.

The story of Amina Wadud reflects the Muslim woman's attempt at claiming her status as a liberated human being under Islam.

Though there may be no agreement on a common platform, this and other similar debates between Muslim traditionalists and modernists (who might prefer to call themselves progressives) also points to the vitality of Islamic life and thought.

The purpose of prayer is to build unity and fellowship.

Hopefully, the matter will not be politicised and allowed to create dissension. This event should lead to addressing crucial gender issues pertaining to Muslim culture.
Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf teaches at the Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University in Bangkok. He can be contacted on