Debate About the Status of Women
Dr. Aslam Abdullah
Dr. Aslam Abdullah
is editor of the Muslim Observer, director of the Islamic Society of
Nevada and the director of the Muslim Electorates' Council of America.
He can be reached at
The Quran and the Prophet's
example show that women and men are endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable rights, and that woman is not inferior to man. For
certain situations when the Shari'ah restricts or gives preference to
men or women, it does not mean discrimination. This should be understood
within the frame of the general objectives of the Shari'ah, which are
set by a Devine Law that is not subject to political correctness. These
directives are given by the Almighty God who knows our disposition
better then ourselves and has given us guidelines to order the lives of
men and women in a way that best suits our natures.
On the issue of women-led Friday prayer, men and women alike, have
challenged the validity of the action and the sanctity of the motives of
The overwhelming majority of Muslim women who questioned the rationale
behind such an action and refused to be part of gender politics imposed
by some is commendable. They demanded references from the Quran and the
sayings of the Prophet and they followed the actions of the mothers of
the believers (wives of the Prophet) who refused to lead the Friday
prayers to mixed gatherings even when they were in a position to impose
their leadership in prayers over the Ummah.
During the battle of Jamal (Camel), mother of the believers Ayesha bint
Abu Bakr was in charge of the army she had raised to seek justice in the
murder of the third Caliph Osman bin Affan, the son-in-law of the
Prophet. She was the commander in chief. However, when it was time for
the Friday prayer, she herself nominated a man to lead the prayer. Would
the supporters of mixed gender women-led prayers call this action
hypocritical or intellectually inferior?
Ironically, those who advocate women-led Friday prayers failed to give
any sound argument on the basis of the Quran and Sunnah in support of
their action. Some of them presented an event narrated in the Sunan Abu
Dawood in support of the claim that the Prophet allowed Umm Waraqa to
lead the prayer for her family members.
It is said that the Prophet used to visit Umm Waraqa in her own home; he
appointed a Mu'adhin (one who calls the adhan for Prayer) for her, and
ordered her to lead the members of her household (in Prayer)." Umm
Waraqah-as stated in the sources-was an esteemed woman of Al-Ansar who
had memorized the Quran. 'Abdul-Rahman Ibn Khalid, the narrator of the
Hadith, further states: "I happened to see her Mu'adhin, who was a
person advanced in age."
Based on the above evidence, some scholars have concluded that a woman
is allowed to lead her own family members in Prayer especially in the
cases where she is qualified over others who may not be so well versed
in the rules of Prayer and knowledge of the Quran.
Paradoxically, people who have made women-led Friday prayers as a center
piece for women's rights also refuse to accept those parts of the Quran
and sayings of the prophet on issues for which they have developed their
own thinking. For instance, many of the supporters of women-led prayers,
also promote the right to validate same sex marriages.
What they have proven through this approach is that they have double
standards in their selection of the Quran and the sayings of the
Prophet. They choose whatever suits their desires and they twist the
meaning of the verses when it does not fit into their intellectual
paradigm. Obviously, such people cannot be taken seriously in their
efforts to reinterpret religion for the betterment of the people,
By applying double standards in their approach to study the Quran and
Sunnah, they have shown critical inconsistencies in their arguments.
Anyone or group who assumes superior intellect and is driven by
superficial standards of gender equality cannot be trusted on a highly
sensitive issue such as the status of women.
Le us look at the hadith that is often quoted by the defenders of
women-led Friday prayer in more detail. It reads:
Umm Waraqa said, "I said: "O Messenger of Allah! Permit for me to
participate in the battle with you. I'll nurse your sick. Perhaps Allah
will grant me martyrdom." He said: "Remain in your house. For verily
Allah will grant you martyrdom." And she asked his permission to take a
muadhdhin in her home. And he allowed her." (Sunan Abu Dawood)
In another version Abu Dawood reports: "The Messenger of Allah used to
visit her in her house. And he assigned to her a muadhdhin who would
make the summons to prayer (adhan) for her. And he asked her to lead the
inhabitants of her home."
The hadith was reported by Baihaqi, Hakim and Daraqutni. Hakim said,
"Muslim advanced Al-Walid ibn Jami' (one of the narrators) as being
authoritative. But this is a hadith with a single chain of narration (sunnah
ghariba). I don't know of any hadith with a connected chain to the
Prophet (Musnad) in this chapter other than this one." Imam Dhahabi
concurred with his findings. According to another Islamic scholar Al-Mundhiri,
"Al-Walid ibn Jami' is the subject of dispute (fihi maqal). However,
Muslim has reported through him." Ibn Al-Qattan said, "Al-Walid's state
isn't known." Ibn Hibban mentioned him in (his book) Al-Thiqat
(Trustworthy Narrators). But Ibn Hajar said, "In his chain is 'Abdur-Rahman
ibn Khallad (a second questionable narrator). And his status is unknown
The opinions of scholars on the trustworthiness of this hadith cannot be
dismissed. Even if the hadith is accepted as it is, there are several
other facts that need to be taken into consideration. At the time, when
this permission was being given to Umm Waraqa, there were two very
learned and prominent companions of the prophet present in Medina,
Salman al Farsi and Osman bin Affan. Salman did not go to the battle as
his slave master denied him permission to leave and Osman bin Affan was
tending his wife who was suffering from some major ailment. None of
these two companions were asked to pray behind her. In fact, they led
their own prayers in the mosque of the Prophet. Umm Waraqa's house was
said to be a few miles from the mosque of the Prophet. In the absence
from Medina of a majority of Muslims including men and women, who were
given the permission to join the battle, the Prophet must have chosen
the most learned scholar of the Quran in her household with the
leadership role in prayers. In fact, it was a very bold statement in a
male chauvinist society, a statement that re-emphasized the point that
women are as equal in their spirituality as men.
The fact that Umm Waraqa led the prayers for her household until the
time of Umar, the second caliph, speaks of the respect Muslims accorded
to the action and sayings of the Prophet. Interestingly, her household
members attended Friday prayers led by the Prophet or Abu Bakr or Umar
in the main mosque of Medina as their is no account to substantiate that
Umm Waraqa led the Friday prayers to a mixed congregation of her own
household members. We also do not see reference to any debate among the
women of Medina declaring their intent to lead the Friday prayers or
regular prayers in the mosque of the Prophet or any other mosque during
the time of the Prophet or his successors. They understood the
circumstances that led to the decision of the Prophet.
Still, if there are people who have a different understanding of the
Quranic message or the sayings of the Prophet, they need to bring out
their argument in a rational way and try to build a consensus of Muslim
scholars over the nature and scope of the debate. They cannot impose
their opinions upon others. Nor can they intimidate Muslims for holding
a different viewpoint.
Those who claim to be Muslims and follow the monotheistic concept of God
and believe in His message are not entitled to edit Him for their
convenience. Among the defenders of women-led prayers are those who
believe that this is the single most important issue that the Muslim
world faces today. This argument is also rejected by the Muslim masses
that believe that there are several other issues that deserve other
priorities. The Friday led prayer by Dr. Wudud will not solve any of the
problems pertaining to the status of women in the world. The supporters
of this initiative are suggesting that people who are on their side are
the only ones who understand how to prioritize Muslim issues. Seemingly,
these people have little regard to the voices of the Muslim masses.
The divine decreed upon the followers of His message that they would not
discriminate among people on the basis of their gender, race or status.
He challenged human beings to rise above their interests to create an
egalitarian society where women and men will be respected for what they
are. The divine commanded them to complement each other rather than
fight each other for the roles given to them. The divine recommended
them to construct their relations on the basis of respect, love and
Some think that by standing in the front row of a mosque during the
prayer, the status of women will improve. Perhaps, we all can find more
spirituality standing in front of those houses where women are abused.
Perhaps we can all attain better spirituality by providing shelter to
homeless men and women. Perhaps we can all find a better meaning in our
religion by feeding those who go without food for days.
According to our belief as Muslims, the message of God as given to us in
the Quran and shown to us by Prophet Muhammad will remain unaltered with
us until the end of time. History has shown that the majority of the
Muslim community has always rejected those who have explicitly shown
double standards in their approach to preach the Quran and Sunnah.
Instead of creating fictional gender equality let us prepare ourselves,
for the real work. Let us organize ourselves, men and women of
conscience to ensure that no woman (men as well) is left uneducated, no
woman (men as well) suffer from the pain of dependency, no woman (men as
well) ever has to lead an unhealthy life in a ghetto and that no woman
(men as well) ever denied the rights that God has given to us all. How
do we do it? It is a challenge to our generation.
The world of Islam, and indeed the entire world awaits the emergence of
a selfless group of workers dedicated to real change.
Many of our leaders and religious establishments have failed us. They
have used the masses to promote their egos. They have deceived the
Muslims in to serving their own narrow agendas and in many cases have
distorted the divine message to make us more dependent on them. But our
Creator and His messenger with his words of wisdom are there to guide us
and lead us to the right path. Let us join hands men and women together
for a better world.