In March, a group of American Muslims announced that Amina Wadud Muhsin would lead the jum’a prayers on Friday 18th of March in New York, delivering the khutba and leading the collective prayer. The announcement was impressive. Some see it as an awakening of the comunity, a revolutionary issue. For others, it is an infamous innovation. Amina Wadud is accustomed to disqualifications. She is woman, a «nigger», a muslima and a North American. Her knowledge of racism and human discrimination is due to multiple factors.
The reaction of the official communities of New York has been negative. The prayer was summoned at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery. A bomb threat forced the organizers to cancel the act. Finally, the yum’a prayer took place on the foreseen day, in a room provided by the Anglican Church. More than a hundred men and women attended the prayer, which took place among strict security measures.
The act has caused an authentic shock wave, and has been disclosed thoroughly in the Islamic world. Some see it as an awakening of the ummah, a return to the equalitarian way of Islam. For others, it is an infamous innovation. Among the differing voices, that of the imam of the mosque of the University of al-Azhar, Sheij Sayed Tantawi, the Great Mufti of Saudi Arabia, as well as the Imams of Mekkah and Medina, and other «religious authorities» of Morocco, Pakistan and Jordania.
After this simple introduction, we should begin by answering the question: is a woman able to lead men and women in prayer? For some, the question is simply offensive. We are accustomed to this kind of question, and answer patiently with the Qur’an at heart, and the example of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, as a mercifull guide:
1. There is no ayat of Qur’an or Tradiction of the Profet (saws) that states that a woman cannot lead men and women in prayer, or that denies their right to deliver the khutba.
2. The Qur’an affirms women’s capacity to direct a community, in the political and spiritual realms, even to the degree of prophecy.
3. The conditions required to deliver the khutba are: knowledge of the Qur’an and of the Sunna and teachings of islam, and the person’s interior condition (their imam or trust in God). None of these are gender related.
4. There is a hadiz where it is said that the prophet Muhámmad (saws) chose a woman to direct the collective prayers of his community.
This should be enough to close any debate. We should treat the prayer of the 18th as a historical event, as a recovery of genuine islam, and a break from the macho islam which has nothing to do with the Prophet’s teachings, peace and blessings be upon him. An event that encourages us to discern between genuine islam and historic or cultural influences, and to recover islam as a message of universal liberation.
This is enough for us, but the reaction among some scholars and institutions has been very agressive. On March 17th, a fatwa on the subject was issued by Yusuf Qaradawi, President of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, and published in Islamonline:
«Throughout Muslim history it is unheard of that a woman has ever led the Friday Prayer or delivered the khutba… It is established that leadership in Prayer in Islam is for men only… Prayer in Islam is an act that involves different movements of the body… Hence, it does not befit a woman, whose physique naturally arouses instincts in men, to lead them in Prayer and stand in front of them, as this might divert their attention and concentration, and disturb the required spiritual atmosphere.»
At the end of his fatwa, Qaradawi talks about «innovation», and makes this statement:
«My advice to the sister referred to in the question [Amina Wadud] is that she should revert to her Lord and religion and extinguish this unnecessary strife. I also advise my Muslim brothers and sisters in the United States not to answer this stirring call and to stand as one before the trials and conspiracies woven around them.»
In their statement, the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America has been more severe:
«There is unanimous consensus for the entire Ummah, in the east and west, that women cannot lead the Friday Prayer nor can they deliver the sermon. If anyone does takes part in such a Prayer, then his Prayer is nullified. It has never been found in any jurisprudential text of Hanafis, Malikis, Shafi’is or Hanbalis, nor even from Shiite scholars, that a woman can lead the Friday Prayer or deliver the sermon. This opinion [that a woman can lead the Friday Prayer] is an innovation and a heresy on any account, nullified by all scholars… and anyone who calls for it or helps implement it is a heretic.»
The arguments for this prohibition are the following:
1. A woman’s body is provocative, and it could distract the men during their prayer.
2. The prophet allowed women to direct the salat only before other women or relatives, and only in a private environment.
3. It’s an innovation, something unknown in the history of the islam.
4. A consensus exists among scholars that denies women’s imamate before men.
On the first point, I only can show my bewilderment. Opinions of this sort offer us a poor impression of Muslim men, unable to concentrate before a dressed and veiled woman. Since Qaradawi has never carried out the salat behind a woman, I can only refer him to my own experience, that salat is for Al-lâh, behind a woman or behind a man.
The limit imposed on the imamate of women is based on a very peculiar reading of the following hadiz:
«It is testified of Umm Waraqah —who had learned the Koran by heart—that the Prophet —peace and the blessings be upon him— used to visit her; he ordered she to act as imam for people of the house (ahlu Dariha), and she had a mu’adhin [person who did the call to prayer], and she was accustomed to act as imam for the people of the house.»
Qaradawi dedicates most of his fatwa to commentaries on this hadiz. The reason: since no text of the Qur’an or of the Sunna exists that forbids the imamate of women, he tries to carry out a restrictive reading. According to Qaradawi, this hadiz limits the feminine imamate to their own home, and only in case that she were the most versed in the Qur’an.
This opinion is based on a limited reading of the Arab term dar. This word means house in a metaphoric sense, like in the expressions to dar al-islam, or Darfur, the earth of the Fur. The necessity of a mu’adhin shows that the call to the prayer goes beyond the domestic environment. Also, other hadith show us that among the people of her house there were also men, including the mu’adhin. For this reason, I think that the restrictions are not in the hadiz but in the mind of the reader. Another posible interpretation could be: Umm Waraqah bint Abdullah, a woman of the Ansar, was designated by the Prophet —peace and the blessings be upon him— as imam of the Mosque of her area, located in Medina’s proximities, where men and women used to pray.
This is the interpretation provided by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, a indian born scholar, recognized as one of the most authoritative scholars in Islamic Law, writer of several books on islam and translator of the Qur’án in French and other languages:
«It is stated that the Prophet (peace be upon him) appointed her leader or imam of a mosque in her locality and that men prayed behind her. The mu’adhdhin, who calls the faithful to prayer, was a man. It is obvious that he too prayed behind the Imam. This account occurs in the Sunnan of Abu Da’ud and the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal.» (The emergence of Islam. Published by Adam Publishers & Distributors Shandar Market, Delhi, India, 1985)
About the «scholars unanimous consensus throughout history», we have to say that a honest study doesn’t allow for this statement. Among the outstanding scholars that have defended the woman’s imamate, it is necessary to mention Abu Thawr (died in 240 of the Hijra), of the school of Imam Shafi’i. There was also Abu Dawud al-Isfahani (died 270 H), founder of the Zahirí school, and Tabari (dead the 310 H), Qur’anic commentator and creator of a school of jurisprudence. ibn Rushd affirms in his Bidayat al-Muÿtahid that Abu Thawr and ibn Tabari are an exception among the scholars, since «they allow the women to lead men in prayer without restrictions» (Vol.1, pg.354).
Some of the defenders of the so called «consensus of scholars» don’t ignore these cases. They simply argue that the consensus was established with posteriority, and therefore cannot include Abu Thawr or Tabari. Here we must ask: when does this consensus take place, and who does it include? Our perplexity increases as we discover that there are many opposing definitions of what «consensus among the scholars» really means: there is no consensus on what a consensus implies.
It is surprising that even among the hanbalis, women’s imamate is acceptable, at least in certain cases. Qaradawi mentions az-Zarkashei:
«In accordance with Imam Ahmad [ibn Hanbal] and most of his followers, it is permissible that women may direct men in the tarawih prayers.»
Our confusion continues: how is possible that permission is granted in these cases and prohibited in others? How is this recognition of the feminine imamate included in a fatwa that begins saying that «it is established that the leadership in prayer should be for men», in a fatwa that claims that women cannot be positioned before men in prayer because they might excite them? Is a woman’s body less provocative for men in tarawih prayers than in other regular prayers?
We can also mention the words of ibn Taymiyah (died 728 H):
«A learned woman leading unlettered men in the night prayers of Ramadan is permissible in the well known statement of Ahmed [ibn Hanbal], and as for all other superagatory prayers, then there are two narrations.» [Radd al-Maratibul-Ijma, Ibn Taymiyyah, pg. 290, ed. Dar ibn Hazm].
Ibn Taymiyah refers to the narrations contained in the Musnad of ibn Hanbal, where it is affirmed that women can also direct the salat of the men in nafl prayers (that are not obligatory). It is necessary to point out that some specialists deny that ibn Taymiyah wrote this. However, also in the recopilation of his fatawa, ibn Taymiyah refers to the permisivity that women lead the prayer, when she is well versed in the Qur’án (Majoo al-Fatawa, Vol. 23, Pg. 248).
The so called «Sheikh of the hanbalíes», ibn Qudamah (died in 720 Hijra), states that a discussion existed among traditional scholars on women’s imamate, not only in the tarawih and nafl prayers, but also in general prayers. ibn Qudamah talked against those who defended the women’s imamate without restrictions (Al-Mughni, Ibn Qudamah, Vol.3, pág.33, ed. Dar al-Hijr), so in his time there was still a discussion on this matter.
In conclusion, the «scholars consensus» against the woman’s imamate is nonexistent, and there is no Tradition of the Profet or versicle of the Qur’an that forbids a woman from leading the Friday prayers.
In the issue of the imamate of women, all opinions are respectable. If some Muslims consider that it is illicit for a woman to deliver the khutba and lead the friday prayer, they are in their right to do so. The contradictions among scholars are not necesarily bad. We have to consider them as an expresión of the variety and vitality of islam, and never as a fitna.
In spite of their weak arguments, it’s acceptable that Qaradawi intervenes in this controversy by giving his opinion. If Qaradawi (or any other Muslim) considers this kind of prayer illicit, there should be no problem: he is not obliged to attend them. What is incomprehensible is that he reprimands Amina Wadud and other muslim women, advising them that they «should revert to her Lord and religion», as if she is no longer a Muslim or has strayed fom the path. As for the statement issued by the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America, we consider that attents to the human dignity and liberty of concience stablished in the Qur’án. To call someone «heretic» or «disveliver» to bolster their own opinion it remits us to a religion of totalitarian clergymen very far from the teachings of Muhámmad (saws).
The Secretary General of Islamic Commission of Spain, Mansur Escudero, supports the prayer, and gives his congratulations to Amina Wadud and the organizazers. Woman-led prayer during mixed-gender congregations is permissible, so long as the congregation agrees to it. We agree. Wa al-lâhu aalam.