International: The woman-led prayer - views from Europe

Muslim WakeUp
An article which highlights the opinions of two North-African Muslim intellectuals residing in France. Leila Babès and Abdelwahhab Meddeb are regular commentators on the Morocco-based radio station Medi 1.
As a professor of the sociology of religion at the French Catholic University of Lille, Leila Babès has regularly contributed to the debates over Islam in the European scene. She is the author of “Le Voile Démystifié” (The Veil demystified) and co-author of “Loi d’Allah, Loi des Hommes” (Law of Allah, Law of Men).
In one of her latest programs on Medi 1, she responded to Dr. Yusuf Al Qaradawi’s stance on Amina Wadud and the unprecedented woman-led Friday prayer. Babès started by presenting Dr. Wadud to her audience as a scholar that has been struggling for Muslim women’s rights for years. The New York event was thus a natural transition from theory to practice. Babès maintains that equality between men and women is central to the Islamic message; however the interpretations of the male Muslim jurists in their patriarchal contexts compromised the original élan of the religion. This unfortunate state of affairs continues to this day as witnessed by the fatwa of Al-Jazeera’s fiqh expert Al-Qaradawi.

When asked about the woman-led prayer in New York, the highly influential Egyptian jurist responded that “being Imam in a mixed prayer is reserved for men only, it is inadequate for a woman to perform the movements (of Salat) in front of men. The Divine wisdom wanted the body of a woman to be different from that of a man. The body of a woman has certain characteristics that excite the libido of a man thus allowing for marriage in order to perpetuate the human species. It is normal that the wise Legislator aimed at protecting men from temptation by banning the causes of this excitation.”

In Babès’s opinion, when Al Qaradawi speaks of the “wise Legislator” he clearly illustrates how the Divine will is automatically and erroneously equated with the deficient human interpretation. In other words, a group of human interpreters agreed upon something, made their opinion sacred and therefore closed the door to any subsequent interpretations or needed reforms. The famous Egyptian scholar added that “the four Islamic juristic schools, even the eight, affirmed that a woman could not lead men in any prescribed prayers even though some allowed a Quran-memorizing woman to lead prayers in her own family knowing that the men behind her are her mahrams…No Muslim jurist of any known school authorized women to deliver the Friday sermon and to lead men in prayer.” Babès shows her astonishment that Al-Qaradawi failed to mention the names of jurists who actually saw the practice as permissible. Famous early jurists like Al-Muthani (d. 878), student of Shafii and contributor to the establishment of the Shafii juristic school, Ibn Thawr (d. 854) mufti of Iraq, and At-Tabari (d. 922) historian, exegete and founder of a now defunct juristic school all allowed women to unconditionally lead men in prayer. In addition, the Hanbalis permitted that a woman leads men in taraweeh prayers.

Al-Qaradawi advises those women who want to lead prayer to do so in a group of women instead of committing this heinous innovation of leading men and creating fitnah. According to Babès, this is a hypocritical stance since the same Al-Qaradawi authorizes and even encourages suicide bombings committed by Muslim women in Israel. In other terms, a Muslim woman may legitimately kill herself and take innocent lives but may absolutely not lead men in prayer because of the libido. And as everybody knows, the libido is the cause of the destruction of the community!

Al-Qaradawi even leaves the impression that Amina Wadud might be an apostate when he calls upon her to return to her Lord and religion and to condemn this act of conspiracy against Islam. Babès views this statement as more than simple preaching; it is almost a call to murder.

Similarly, in his program on Medi 1, Abdelwahhab Meddeb tackles the same issue. Meddeb is a novelist, poet and editor of the journal “Dédale”. He is also professor of comparative literature at the University of Paris X-Nanterre. One of his latest books is “the Malady of Islam” in which he argues that contemporary Islam suffers from a disease that negates the richness of its tradition.

Meddeb starts his commentary by arguing that one of the conditions of the needed reform within Islam is the ability and willingness to re-enter the debates of the Muslim jurists and theologians of the Classical period and to re-invigorate them with the latest achievements of the human mind. In this way, the modern mufti will be capable of dealing with the paradox of the importance of ancient symbols and cults and the necessity to live in the contemporary world in the midst of a changing human condition. It is in this context that Meddeb sees Amina Wadud’s decision to deliver the Friday sermon.

After briefly mentioning that all the New York mosques refused to host Wadud and that it was finally in a church that the event took place, Meddeb described the violent reaction recorded throughout the Muslim world. Many religious scholars and groups viewed the event as the condemnable Americanization of Islam. Meddeb insists on telling these “blind guardians of the temple” that nothing in the sacred texts of Islam forbids a woman from leading a prayer. In the face of these strong cases of amnesia, he finds it necessary to continuously remind his co-religionists of certain facts and traditional points of view.

To start, praying in a church is itself in accordance with a traditional gesture. This has been practiced many times including when Muslims entered Damascus in the 7th century. Before buying the church that would eventually become the Umayyad mosque, the Muslims prayed in a corner of the church next to the Christians.

To discuss the issue of women leading prayers, Meddeb cites the famous work of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) entitled “Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa Nihayat al-Muqtasid” (usually known in English as the Jurist’s Primer but that could be translated as “the Start of he who makes the effort of studying and the end of he who chooses to limit it”). He notes that he intentionally chose the fiqh manual of this 12th century Muslim philosopher who viewed himself as a mujtahid. By picking this title for his book, Ibn Rushd is openly calling for ijtihad because he understands that the sacred texts naturally need interpretation and create the possibility of divergent opinions. Meddeb notes that the section dealing with women leading prayers starts with the verb “ikhtalafu” (they disagreed). Ibn Rushd writes that “[the jurists] disagreed on the permissibility of a woman unconditionally leading prayers. The majority (al-jomhour) think it is impermissible. They also disagreed over the permissibility of a woman leading other women in prayer. Shafii allowed it but Malek forbade it. On the other hand, Tabari and Abu Thawr distinguished themselves by allowing women to lead men in prayer while the majority forbade it.” Those who allow it base their opinions on the tradition of Umm Waraqa narrated by Abu Dawud in which the prophet gave her a personal Muezzin (prayer caller) and called upon her to lead her household in prayer.

In addition to stating the different opinions as outlined by Ibn Rushd, Meddeb also mentions the viewpoint of the other 12th century Spanish Muslim theologian and Mystic Ibn Arabi who writes in his “al-Futuhat al-Makkyah” (Meccan Spiritual Conquests) that he adheres to the opinion of those who absolutely permit women to lead prayers. Ibn Arabi goes on to give a “psycho-metaphysical” legitimacy to his view by arguing that men leading prayer engage the intellect while women leading prayer engage the soul. According to him, intellect is a masculine principle while the soul is a feminine one.

In conclusion, Abdelwahab Meddeb contends that it is legitimate for a modern reformist vision to base itself on juristic minority views. These views can be reformulated in the spirit of our time and practiced on the ground exactly like what happened in New York.

Meddeb and Babès represent a trend within the Muslim world and the Muslim diaspora in the West trying to create some space for a new vision. These ideas need to be respectfully engaged. More importantly, Muslims have to strive to give as many voices as possible the opportunity to participate in shaping the future of Islam and Muslim societies and communities. Only a pluralistic culture similar and even superior to the one created during the Classical age of Islam will give us all a chance to prosper and will spread some hope in an otherwise frightening world.

Article by Amine Tais and originally published online in Muslim WakeUp on April 18, 2005.

Amine Tais is a bookseller, freelance writer and a student of Comparative Religion and Islamic Studies based in Seattle, Washington.