Q. I have often wondered why women must pray behind men at prayers? Is this stated in the Qur'an? If it is true, I have been to mosques where women are separated and in actuality pray beside men (men on the left, women on the right). Also, I have seen pictures of pilgrims at hajj where it looks like men and women are intermingled during prayer. Please respond soon as I am very interested in this matter.

A. Certain facts need be known about the development of the prayer in Islam in order to answer the matter at hand. The first is that much of what we learn about the development of the prayer from the hadith must be taken with full cognizance that such hadith often fulfills the role of the polemic/apologetic. And such an agenda takes away from the Qur'anic truth, clearly ascertained by analyzing some verses in the Qur'an. We will not write in great detail on this subject here, but we suggest you refer to the article by Khaleel Mohammed in the journal "Medieval Encounters", under the heading "The Foundation of the Muslim Prayer" (Vol. 5, No 1, March 1999). Here the researcher shows that the Salat was not something that came into being overnight -- not in concept, nor in form. It was rather a development of the known Jewish patterns at the time.

We are quite aware that such a statement often riles our fellow Muslims since they wish to dissociate Islam from any Jewish influence. But we are not concerned here with Jewish influence, for the Prophet Muhammad's (s.a.a.w) claim to authenticity lay, inter alia, in continuity of the monotheistic tradition represented at his time at least in prayer in the Jewish forms. This is not to say that Islam took all its forms from that. There are certain common motifs though, and we see for example that Mary, a Jewish woman, is told to make Ruku and Sujud. And Jewish prayer has all of these things, along with the exhortation to calmness, etc.

All of the foregoing is to lead up to our contention that the prayer forms then were structured on an existing pattern. In this pattern, women stayed behind the men. Regardless of the fact that the woman in Islam is not inferior to the man, could the Prophet (s) preach this immediately? That would have been impossible in the male-dominated, indeed, misogynistic society of sixth century Arabia. And so the Qur'an -- Allah's word -- had to be revealed in the spirit of gradualism. Things had to develop gradually. One could not tell a person who thought good manhood meant to drink, beat his wife, and kill his daughter that all those things had to stop overnight. One had to develop that person gradually, molding him spiritually and philosophically until the time was right to give him the full message.

The full brunt of this can be seen in a previous occurrence: Paul says in the Bible that in Christ there is neither man nor woman. When the women heard this, they began to act in a way that offended the men, and for reasons of maintaining peace, Paul had to backtrack and mention that he will not suffer a woman to raise her voice above that of a man. If we take a more extreme example, we know well the story of Aaron wherein he does not seek to correct the people in their polytheism, for fear that he would be accused of causing dissension. Likewise in early Islam, the woman, in keeping with the norms of her society and historical context, was to pray behind the man. The synagogue ruins that we have all show that the buildings were so that the women were behind or separate from the men. The mosques were built according to this pattern, for the historical context of the time raised no objection to this.

The Qur'an does not tell us that the woman must pray behind the man. But the fact that this does not occur must not be removed from its context: the book was revealed to the sixth century people, and the question would not have even been addressed. But as Islam developed, questions began to be raised, and the answers given range from the thoughtful to the downright stupid. Shafi' allegedly does not allow it on the basis that men are the protectors of women (you can read a good refutation to the normal translations of this in Amina Muhsin's "The Qur'an and Woman). Al-Tahawi also states that Abu Hanifa did not like it. Ali is reported to have said that there is a hadith wherein a woman, an ass, and a dog breaks the prayer if they pass in front of the praying person. But Aisha is also reported to have responded to this by swearing that she was in front of the Prophet (s) when he prayed -- he in fact would touch her -- and it did not break his prayer. Ibn Muflih allows it with certain conditions, that she be a close relative, or an old woman, or that she does so from behind. All of the above show a single thing, that the jurists were having problems with the issue.

To add to their problem was the hadith reported by Umm Waraqa (Abu Daud, and deemed Sahih by Ibn Khuzaimah) that the Prophet (s) ordered her to lead the people of her household in prayer. Some jurists claim that there were only women in her household. But their position is clearly weak, since there was a muadhin -- an old man -- and the only logical conclusion is that he prayed behind her, since she would have been the one to authorize the iqama. The majority of the jurists rule against a woman leading the men in prayer, but Abu Thawr and Al Muzani supposedly allowed it, with al-Tabari allowing it in Tarawih if there were no qualified men present.

We realize that the question you ask in not directly related to the imamate, but the position of the woman is to be determined by this. Thus far, we have established that tradition and historical context are what determined that the woman should pray behind. One also takes into consideration Ibn Abbas' narration that after prayer, the men would make tasbih and the women would leave. In the society of that time, this made sense, for it prevented needless mixing, something that was very much frowned upon in Arab society. In fact we see reports that much allude to Max Weber's theory of post-prophetic stringency being imposed on society: Umar apparently did not like the men and women making wudu together, and took such steps to eradicate this.

One would surmise that with the world view of equality that Islam inculcates in the mind of any thinking person, a question such as yours would be out of place in today's world, that Muslims would already have women imams. But let us not forget that tradition has the authority of continuity, and that means a great deal in all religions. It would take great ijtihad and willingness on the part of the Muslims to make the step forward. Unfortunately, the majority of our umma seems to dwell on rigid, petrified stagnation of man-made rules, based on a foundation of illogic and misogyny. Even a modern work such as the Law Compendium of the Kuwaiti scholars use a patently false hadith to prevent the imamate of a woman: that the Prophet (s) claimed that any nation which appointed a woman as its leader would never succeed. This means, inter alia, that a woman may not stand in front.

It would seem that the aspect of space has evolved into one of headship in our religion. That is to say that the woman at the back, while probably a pragmatic idea in the past since the doors of the mosque were at the rear, has now come to denote her lowly status. There is, however, nothing to show that she cannot stand at the side, as occurs in many mosques in the Caribbean. It is probably too early to assume we can go back to the past when there were not screens in the mosques built at the time of the Prophet. But if in our mosques today, women were put at the side, when men in the last lines could leer at a woman in the front line, it would give rise to some problems. And the rule in Islam is that "affliction is removed," or "the ridding of evil is given precedence in pursuit of good."

In this case, the pursuit of good would be to do what the Qur'an has, by its message shown us, that women are equal to men. The evil would be that many men would object and create a problem in the mosque. In the interest of preserving peace, one sticks to tradition then. One gradually seeks to remedy the situation by preaching and showing to the people what Islam inculcates is not a rigid adherence to jurists' opinions which were formed in the Middle Ages. As for your observation about the Kaaba, you are right, but once again, our astute jurists put that as an unavoidable matter, the constant traffic there does not allow lines to be drawn. Of course you could counter argue that at Allah's holiest site, one would expect to see a rule, if it were truly from Allah, being in place. From the foregoing, it should be clear that we are, from the ideological viewpoint, of the opinion that the separation is something that is outdated. From our analysis of movements, however, that have attempted reform in this area, albeit in another religious tradition, one notes that in conservative Judaism there are many women who prefer to be in their own space.

And having looked at Reform Judaism, wherein Abraham Geiger tried to get rid of many things of the past, including the separation of the sexes, the end result was one that he abhorred. Reform Judaism became another sect, clearly identifiable from mainstream Judaism. Similarly, we feel that if any radical reform is attempted in the mosques, the schisms and divisions that will occur will harm even the facade of unity to which we cling. If our answer has seemed long and discursive, it is because we recognize the question as being truly thought-provoking. We hope that our extensive discourse may assist in your decision. If we have erred, truly it is only because we seek to understand Allah's wisdom through our human minds. And our Lord is Merciful, Forgiving, granting forgiveness to those who, in search of truth, may err. And Allah knows best.

Posted August 24, 2000