Q. Recently Amina Wadud raised a firestorm when she led a mixed-gender congregation in prayer. In general, Muslims agree that women can lead a female-only congregation in prayer. However, the majority of Muslims argue that there was no authentic precedent for a woman leading mixed-gender prayers, and that the Prophet Muhammad would have allowed for this if he approved of such a thing. Another argument is that a woman imam can be distracting to the worshippers and they would not be able to concentrate on their prayers. As such, they advocate that women imams cannot be justified for mixed-gender congregations using either the Qur'an or Sunnah. While Muslims acknowledge that changes are inevitable as societies progress, they draw the line when it comes to ritual worship, positing that the Prophet set the example for all time. What is your opinion on this matter?

A. Many Muslims fail to realize that the Qur'an is a seventh century document, and the Prophet was a seventh century man. The minutiae of the Qur'an must be placed in time and spatial context, and we must interpret the Qur'an in terms of its philosophy. For example, the Qur'an contains verses on slavery, but no Muslim with a functioning brain argues that we should have slavery today. This is because the philosophy of the Qur'an militates against such injustice. Several Muslims argue that the Qur'an advocates equal rights for women, and I certainly agree with them. They will also argue that there is no difference between men and women when it comes to spirituality. Yet for some strange reason, despite all these arguments, they refuse to let a woman lead the prayer. What is their argument, that there is no precedent? There is no verse in the Qur'an prohibiting this. And in the ahadith -- problematic as that source of information is -- the only material we find suggests that a woman (Umm Waraqa) led a mixed congregation in prayer. If she could do it then, why canít a woman do it now?

The argument that if the Prophet permitted it, we would have known about it, is baseless. Firstly, there is the issue of the trustworthiness of the ahadith in general. Secondly, we have to assume that the Prophet would have been asked about it in order to approve or disapprove. Given the mores and practices of seventh century Arabia, it is highly unlikely that that matter would have come up, and it is therefore wrong to seek guidance from the ahadith, especially since, as we have already noted above, that source is problematic in terms of its historical reliability. The Qur'an and its philosophy is where we should seek guidance, and there is NOTHING there that forbids a woman leading prayer. Even if we follow the Qur'an in its most stringent interpretations, the issue of lowering the gaze could only make sense if the men and women are together. I make this apparent digression only to show that unless the Qur'an is interpreted in full light of its sitz im leben, we can have erroneous conclusions, such as the one in vogue among some Salafis that insist men and women should not be in common gatherings.

The Qur'an tells Mary to "bow with those who bow," showing she is part of the assembly of prayers. A hair splitter may argue that the verse does not indicate that she should lead the prayer, since the infinitive used is "ma" (with -- as in ma al raki'in) as opposed to "bi" -- the common infinitive used if one were to indicate leading the prayers. But once again, the Qur'an states that God has specified for you that which He has forbidden (wa fassala lakum maa harrama alaykum). One would expect that if a woman leading mixed-gender prayers was forbidden, then God would have mentioned it. That God chose NOT to forbid it means that it is a matter to be judged by culture and in the spirit of permissibility.

It is extremely sad to see that some are advocating the sexist argument that a woman's body can be distracting. One would assume that people going to pray would have communication with the Lord as the primary goal. One would also assume that the woman leading the prayers would be dressed in such garb that is solemn as opposed to sexy (of course, if one has a perverted mind, even a nun's habit will be seen as sexy). If it is pointed out that the woman's voice can be attractive, then one wonders about the effect that the male voice has on female worshippers? Note that in the Qur'an, the verses below are typically cited by many regarding this issue about the woman's voice:

"O Consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women: if ye do fear (Allah), be not too abject of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak ye a speech (that is) just."

"And stay quietly in your houses and make not a dazzling display like that of the former Times of Ignorance; and establish regular Prayer and give regular Charity; and obey Allah and His Apostle.  And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, ye Members of the Family and to make you pure and spotless."(Q33: 32-33)

Even in the most literal interpretation, we cannot fail to notice that the verses are applicable to the Prophetís wives and NOT to all women. For those who say that the wives are exemplars for all Muslim women (and I don't entirely disagree with this view), the fact is that we must arrive at one of two conclusions: either there is a reason for the specification or there is not. If we say there is not, then we must also conclude that God is verbose or wants us to be confused, since if the verses above are addressed to all of us, then why should God use diction indicating specificity? The only logical conclusion I think is pellucidly obvious.

Nonetheless, let us follow the majority interpretation since the (male) jurists have ruled that "the criterion lies in the generality of the diction, not in the specific reason for revelation." The translation of the word "yakhda'na" in the ayah as "abject" is problematic in terms of a functional translation; the word used should indicate one that is somehow in a tone and timbre that could be misinterpreted as suggestive, or as Yusuf Ali puts it, "complaisant." Our emphasis is on the second part of the verse: In whose heart there is sickness -- this is significant, because the problem is not the woman's voice per se, but rather the perversion of the listener. A Muslim taking this verse into consideration should realize that unless the woman is deliberately trying to be seductive through her voice, there is no problem with her reciting the Qur'an in public. Of course, once again, we run into the presupposition that the male imam does not, cannot, and will not use his voice in a seductive manner. And once again, when we have these assumptions about the woman, I fail to understand why those who seek to deny her imamate do not perceive that they are making her into a purely sexual object. First they want her covered from head to toe, then they want her to not leave the house, then they don't want her to lead the prayer..., all the while claiming that Islam has somehow made her position better.

I also find it rather peculiar that nowadays we have women reciters, and even recordings of women reciters of the Qur'an (especially in Indonesia), and that one of the things for which Umm Kulthum (the Egyptian singer) is most famous is her rendition of Qur'anic verses. Why are we okay with the voice in private, but don't want for the woman to lead the prayer? There is also the classical male argument that we are equal but different; that is certainly a truism that is misused. We know of the differences in anatomy and functions related to those anatomical dissimilarities. But the idea of roles being based on gender has largely been disproven, as evidenced in the Qur'an by the story of the Queen of Sheba. We can only assume that medieval views of sexuality and sensuality still permeate the overwhelmingly testosterone-endowed thinking apparatuses of those who raise questions about the propriety of a woman being in command. Fittingly, Dr. Amina has drawn attention to the story of Sheba in her book "The Qur'an and Woman." My support is with Dr. Amina and I pray that she will have the strength to continue teaching the men (and women) of Islam the need to not only break out of the static mentality of the past, but to prevent themselves from backsliding into retrogression.

February 24, 2019 update: Islamic law recognizes that in social interaction, time, place, and custom are often factors that make absolutes very problematic. In this era where the discussion about gender equality is very much at the fore, we certainly feel that the criterion for leading the prayer ought to rest on intellectual qualifications, and that gender should not be a disqualifying factor. Of course, the dress for the occasion should denote respect for the congregation's view of propriety.

When it comes to mixed seating, the matter is a bit more nuanced. The view may, in the ideal situation, be taken that the genders should not be segregated. However, we deal with what people are. And if a particular community feels that this is not in its best interests, then we would go with the majority. I remember seeking the advice of Professor Norma Joseph (Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec), about the issue of segregation in conservation synagogues, given that theJewish mehizza principle is probably the origin of the Muslim segregation. She explained that it may be possible that women may crave their personal space, and that mixing, while it may seem progressive, might actually impinge on certain "norms" that women take for granted. In Sikhism too, a religion that preaches absolute equality between genders in the eyes of God, there is segregation, wherein there is one side for women, and another for men. This takes into account that our conditioning has not evolved to the point where the majority of us can be in close proximity to the other gender without it possibly affecting our worship attention, so this is worthy of consideration. As Fatima Mernissi pointed out years ago, the concept of the women being behind in the traditional mosque structure had to do with functionality, they needed to be close to the exits to tend to children at home, etc.

We observe that at the height of debates on issues, people often take polarized positions. It is our view that we have to understand this and allow mosque committees the right to make their own decisions, if such is based upon consulting with the community rather than some authority ascribed to traditional practice. Worship is supposed to be done in a manner that presents calm, compassion, and understanding rather than bias and coercion. And Allah knows best.

Posted April 10, 2005