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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. 

The 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.

Leadership 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.  Unfortunately, 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 www.mwlusa.org/publications/index.html).  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.

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 .  (see http://mwlusa.org/publications/essays/polirights.html)  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 her community.

Change 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.

Impact 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.

Tolerance 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)

Final Thoughts:  Those 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 God-conscious.

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

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