Woman-Led Friday Prayer
On Friday, March 18, 2005, Dr. Amina Wadud, noted Muslim
scholar, will deliver the sermon and then lead the congregational prayer
at an undisclosed location in New York City.
This event has sparked international debate among Muslims, many of
whom oppose female leadership in public Islamic worship, as well as many
who support such leadership generally, but have textually-based concerns
about women leading mixed congregational prayers.
Even among those who support women leadership in both issues, many
are debating the strategic wisdom behind this event, and what ultimate
impact it will have in the Muslim community.
This debate also extends to the Board of Directors of
the Muslim Women’s League which, like the Muslim community in general,
is a group of people with diverse religious and social perspectives.
MWL Board has been discussing the issue of this Friday’s congregational prayer, and we
believe that this event brings forth key issues that must be addressed.
of Women In General: The absence of women in
positions of religious authority in the Muslim world is one contributing
factor to the degree of oppression experienced by Muslim women.
religion is too often used to justify cultural practices such as spousal
abuse, honor killings, female genital cutting and forced illiteracy.
Moreover, the very individuals who perpetuate such abuse are loath
to consider women in positions of authority in any context.
The major challenge facing Muslims who seek to alleviate the
injustices perpetrated by Muslims and perpetuated in the name of Islam is
finding the proper way for creating positive change for large numbers of
women and their families.
The Muslim Women’s League, in 1995, in preparation for
its participation in the UN 4th World Conference on Women,
issued several position papers on matters of concern to Muslim women (all
are available on the website at
In the papers we detail how the Qur’an gives several examples of
women as leaders in matters of state and in matters of religion. Most
notable are the stories of Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba and Mary, mother of
Jesus (see Qur’an, 27:33-44). In
fact, Mary, as an example of true devotion to God, is cited as an example
that all believers, not only women, should emulate.
Furthermore, the authentic, undisputed traditions of the Prophet
Muhammed do not include any hadith or sayings that prohibit the role of
women in leadership generally.
Muslims are indebted to the role of women as sources of
religious authority and knowledge from the earliest days of Islam.
For Sunni Muslims in particular, a huge body of hadith literature
is based on the testimony of the Prophet’s wife, Aisha.
For Shi’i Muslims, the same high regard attaches to hadith
narrated from Fatima, the prophet’s daughter. These
women-narrated hadith contribute to numerous aspects of Muslim life, not
only those that pertain to women.
Leading Prayer: Muslims do not have a clergy. Any knowledgeable, respected Muslim is qualified to perform
our important socio-religious tasks such as leading prayer or officiating
a wedding. It was, however,
not customary for women to lead prayer during the Prophet’s time, but we
believe it is important to ask whether this was a reflection of custom or
religious edict. In our paper
on the participation of women in politics and leadership the MWL reviews
the literature on the subject and concludes that, based on the Qur’an
and authentic traditions of the Prophet, it is not forbidden (haram) for a woman to lead a mixed congregation in prayer .
Some would say in fact that it is allowed (but whether or not it is
recommended may be debated.) The Qur’an is completely silent on the matter of women
leading prayer, and there is one example, as cited in the Traditions
compiled by Abu Dawud, where Prophet Muhammed instructed Umm Waraqa bint
Abdullah to lead her household and its environs (which included at least
one man) in prayer because she had the best knowledge of the Qur’an in
is Needed: We recognize that not only
allowing but encouraging women to take a position of leadership in public
congregational prayer provokes an emotional response that may interfere
with advancing the rights of women in other areas.
However, we believe that, specifically in the United States, change
is long overdue when it comes to making the mosques and Muslim communities
accessible and inviting to women. Many
mosques, shura (consultation)
councils, and even major Muslim American organizations in this country are
still debating and often denying the participation of women on governing
boards, as interpreters (mufassirs)
of Qur’an, or as speakers in any context.
There is no basis for the exclusion of women from these areas, even
if we can’t agree about the role of women as Imams (congregational prayer leaders).
The disrespect and disregard for the role of women in the
Muslim community in the US and abroad is an important factor that
contributes to the disillusionment that many women have about Islam in
general. Young women don’t
understand why they are treated with more respect for their ideas and
contributions by non-Muslims than by fellow Muslims who run the mosques or
Muslim student groups on campuses.
They also witness a double standard when some Muslim men refuse to
allow women leadership positions at the mosque but have no problem
respectfully working with and for non-Muslim women as their bosses,
CEO’s or professors.
of the March 18 Event:
While the MWL position has been that Islam creates the possibility for
women to lead mixed-gender prayers, some of us are not convinced that this
Friday’s much-publicized event is the best way to advance the cause of
Muslim women who are in distress here or around the world.
There is a felt concern that the women this event is intended to
uplift will become even more cut off from public access and leadership
roles than before. It may be that for many, this event may ultimately
hinder the work currently in progress on improving accessibility and
opportunities for leadership for Muslim women in the US.
There is also an argument that other problems that are so severe
and pressing (such as violence against women, illiteracy and poverty)
should take precedence over insisting on women leading public
congregational prayer. Finally,
some wonder how Friday’s event will mark the beginning of positive
change regarding the role of women as participants and leaders in
religious life around the country without a clear follow-up plan that
outlines what must be done for change to occur.
At the same time, there are many in our ranks who
congratulate Dr. Wadud for her courage to follow through with her
convictions and feel that such an event is long overdue.
She has been an admired role model for this organization since the
publication of her book, Qur’an
and Woman. Several
members are persuaded by her arguments promoting the role of women as
Imams if they meet the same requirements fulfilled by men.
In addition, some members feel that the severity of other problems
faced by Muslim women around the world does not negate the importance of
Friday’s event which they feel represents the aspirations of many Muslim
women, especially in the United States.
All of us hope that Dr. Wadud’s actions will be a catalyst that
generates greater access and opportunity for women throughout the Muslim
community in America and abroad.
is Paramount: As always, the MWL supports discourse and debate
according to the highest standards set by Islamic ethics. With that in mind, we unequivocally condemn any and all
attempts to silence Dr. Wadud and her supporters through intimidation and
threats of violence. This has
no basis in Islam and will work against the interests of the Muslim
community. To think that we
cannot handle difficult and complicated subjects that require in-depth
analysis and discussion is an insult to intelligent Muslim women and men
alike. Forceful imposition of
certain views coupled with the suppression of dissent is a hallmark of
weakness, ignorance and despotism that violate the principle of “la
ikraha fil deen” (“There is no compulsion in religion.” 2:256)
involved with the woman-led Friday prayer are a group of individuals
dedicated to enhancing the lives of Muslim women here in the US by
attempting to change attitudes and break through a long historic cultural
norm that has excluded Muslim women; we must respect them and each other
as we are part of the same Ummah (family of Muslims). Our
organization is committed to the same goal and will work with the local
communities and other organizations here and abroad so that we can realize
our vision of Muslim brothers and sisters reaching their full potential
and working side by side doing righteous deeds and striving to become more
Ours is a faith that promotes the partnership of men and
women in working for the cause of God, thereby advancing the human
condition: “The believing men and women are protectors, one of another,
enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, are constant in
prayer, render the purifying dues and pay heed to God and His Apostle. It is they upon whom God will bestow His grace; verily God is
almighty, wise.” (9:71)
In the end, the voice of justice will prevail as that is
voice of God who has said clearly, “Be Just, this is the closest to
being conscious of God.” (5:8)
March 17, 2005