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Women as imams



There is a current controversy among Muslims on the circumstances in which women may act as imams—that is, lead a congregation in salat (prayer). Three of the four Sunni schools, as well as many Shia, agree that a woman may lead a congregation consisting of women alone in prayer. According to all currently existing traditional schools of Islam, a woman cannot lead a mixed gender congregation in salat (prayer). Some schools make exceptions for Tarawih (optional Ramadan prayers) or for a congregation consisting only of close relatives. Certain medieval scholars—including Al-Tabari (838–932), Abu Thawr (764–854), Al-Muzani (791–878), and Ibn Arabi (1165–1240)—considered the practice permissible at least for optional (nafila) prayers; however, their views are not accepted by any major surviving group.

Some Muslims in recent years have reactivated the debate, arguing that the spirit of the Qur'an and the letter of a disputed hadith indicate that women should be able to lead mixed congregations as well as single-sex ones, and that the prohibition of this developed as a result of sexism in the medieval environment, not as a part of true Islam. However, those who hold on to such views are the vast minority in the Muslim world.


Canonical position

The Qur'an does not address this issue directly; relevant precedents are therefore sought for in the hadith, the traditions attributed to Muhammad. The only hadith that unequivocally states that women may not lead mixed congregations is Ibn Majah (Kitab iqamat is-salat was-sunnati fiha) #1134, narrated through Jabir ibn Abdullah: "A woman may not lead a man in Prayer, nor may a Bedouin lead a believer of the Muhajirun or a corrupt person lead a committed Muslim in Prayer." However, Qatar-based scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, [1] states that "The eminent scholars of Hadith say that the chain of reporters of this hadith is extremely weak, and hence, it is not to be taken as evidence in the question in hand."

An indirectly relevant hadith is widely considered to be crucial, as Qaradawi goes on to state, since the imam stands at the front of the congregation. The hadith in question is #881 of Sahih Muslim:

Abu Huraira said: The best rows for men are the first rows, and the worst ones the last ones, and the best rows for women are the last ones and the worst ones for them are the first ones.[2]

The sunnah—actions of Muhammad (including but not limited to hadith)—is a more general source of precedent; it is usually considered to militate against women leading mixed congregations, as there are no reports of it happening in Muhammad's time, unless, as Amina Wadud suggested, the aforementioned Umm Waraqah hadith is interpreted to apply to her town rather than to her household alone. However, as noted above, there are also no reliable reports of his forbidding it.

A third source of precedent is the principle of ijma—consensus—supported by the hadith "My community will never agree upon an error." This is also generally quoted against it, since the consensus of the traditional jurists is overwhelmingly against it; however, supporters of the idea argue that this consensus is not universal.

With regard to women leading congregations of women, however, several hadith report that Muhammad's wife Aisha and Umm Salamah did so, and as a result most madhhabs support this. According to Qaradawi:

The hadith of `A’ishah and Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with them). `Abdur-Raziq (5086), Ad-Daraqutni (1/404) and Al-Bayhaqi (3/131) reported from the narration of Abu Hazim Maysarah ibn Habib from Ra’itah Al-Hanafiyyah from `A’ishah that she led women in Prayer and stood among them in an obligatory Prayer. Moreover, Ibn Abi Shaybah (2/89) reported from the chain of narrators of Ibn Abi Layla from `Ata’ that `A’ishah used to say the Adhan, the Iqamah, and lead women in Prayer while standing among them in the same row. Al-Hakim also reported the same hadith from the chain of narrators of Layth Ibn Abi Sulaim from `Ata’, and the wording of the hadith mentioned here is Al-Hakim’s.

Furthermore, Ash-Shafi`i (315), Ibn Abi Shaybah (88/2) and `Abdur-Raziq (5082) reported from two chains of narrators that report the narration of `Ammar Ad-Dahni in which he stated that a woman from his tribe named Hujayrah narrated that Umm Salamh used to lead women in Prayer while standing among them in the same row.

The wording of `Abdur-Raziq for the same hadith is as follows: “Umm Salamah led us (women) in the `Asr Prayer and stood among us (in the same row).”

In addition, Al-Hafiz said in Ad-Dirayah (1/169), “Muhammad ibn Al-Husain reported from the narration of Ibrahim An-Nakh`i that `A’ishah used to lead women in Prayer during the month of Ramadan while standing among them in the same row.

Further, `Abdur-Raziq reported (5083) from the narration of Ibrahim ibn Muhammad from Dawud ibn Al-Husain from `Ikrimah from Ibn `Abbas that the latter said, “A woman can lead women in Prayer while standing between them.”

But, all of the hadiths state that the given women lead the other women in prayersd while standing among them in the same row, and not standing on the first row of the prayers as Imams do, and also states that they were only among the women and not all the worshippers such as males.


Women imams in women-only congregations

The schools differ on whether a woman may be imam (leader) of a Jama'ah (congregational) prayer if the congregation consists of women alone: three of the four Sunni madhhabsShafi'is, Hanafis, and Hanbalis—allow this, while Malikis do not. In such a case, the woman stands among the congregation in the front row, instead of alone in front of the congregation. In 2000, six marjas among Iran's Shia leadership declared that they too allowed women to lead a woman-only congregation, reversing a previous ban in that country. [3]

An unusual feature of Islam in China is the existence of nüsi, mosques solely for women. The imams and all the congregants are women and men are not allowed into the mosques. On the other hand, in at least some communities where these mosques operated, women were also not allowed in the men's mosques. A handful of women have been trained as imams in order to serve these mosques. [4] In recent years, efforts have been made to establish similar mosques in India and Iran. [5]


Women as imams of mixed-gender congregations


In the Hanafi madhhab, women are allowed to lead mixed congregations in the optional tarâwîh prayers in Ramadan if they are well-versed in the Qur'ân; however, they are to stand behind the men, in the women's rows, rather than in front. The Hanifite jurists stipulate that this to be permissible only for old women and only when no man knowledgeable in the Qur'ân is present. They do not consider it permissible for the Jum'ah (Friday) prayer (as this is an obligatory prayer, which is not enacted upon women).

In the early years of Islam, one sect of Kharijites founded by Habib ibn-Yazîd al-Harűrî held that it was permissible to entrust the imamate to a woman if she were able to carry out the required duties. The founder's wife, Ghazâla al-Harűriyya, even commanded troops, following the example of Abu Sufyan's daughter Juwayriyya at the battle of Yarmuk.

Modern Islamic academicians such as Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, based on the Umm Waraqah hadith mentioned above, consider it permissible for a knowledgeable woman to lead mixed prayers within her own household, as he considers this to largely obviate the danger of the men being aroused by her presence. This view, however, is rejected by the vast majority of Fiqh "jurisprudence" specialists and religious experts. However, few fatawa exist permitting women to lead a mixed gender congregation regardless of familial relationship- most notably one by Dr. Khaled Abou el Fadl, who recommends that the placement of the imam be made with greater modesty in mind for a female imam. Some traditional scholars caution against Yusuf Qaradawi's methodology and especially his excessive leniency to the point of laxity. He does not limit himself to the relied upon positions of the four Sunni schools of fiqh and is notorious among scholars for his many aberrant positions. They respect him as a scholar; they are cautious and caution others about those positions of his that depart from the mainstream.


South Africa (1994 to date)

One of the earliest reported cases of a woman imam in the West occurred in 1995 in Johannesburg, South Africa. For about two years, a congregation met every Friday for the Jum'ah prayer and every night in Ramadan for the special tarâwîh prayer in a building owned by the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa (MYM). [6] The khutbah for the Jumu'ah was delivered by either a male or female khatib and the imams for the prayer also included men and women. One of the prime movers behind this congregation was well-known South African Muslim women's rights activist Shamima Shaikh (1960–1998). [7]

A year earlier, Amina Wadud (see below) became the first woman in South Africa to deliver the jum'ah khutbah, at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town. Farid Esack discusses this event in his 1997 book Qur'an, Liberation, and Pluralism. [8] Following that event, both the Claremont Main Road Mosque and Masjidul Islam, in Johannesburg, often have had women speakers for Jum'ah.

In January 1998, as per her wishes, one of the four funeral prayers for Ms. Shaikh was led by a woman friend.

In 2003, a new venue for Eid prayer was established in Durban by a group of individuals and was later taken on by an organisation called Taking Islam to the People (TIP). The venue is designed to allow entire families to attend the Eid prayer together in a pleasant and comfortable atmosphere. Located at Durban's North Beach, the Eid prayer is an open-air event performed against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean. Each event includes two khutbahs, one each by a male and a female.

To date five women have offered khutbah's at this venue. They are Lubna Nadvi, Zaytun Suleyman, Fatima Seedat, Fatima Hendricks and Dr Mariam Seedat.



2004: 20-year-old Maryam Mirza, delivered the second half of the Eid al-Fitr khutbah at the Etobicoke mosque in Toronto, Canada, run by the United Muslim Association.

2004: Yasmin Shadeer led the night 'Isha prayer with her congregants including men and women. [9] This is the first recorded occasion in contemporary times where a woman led a congregation in prayer in a mosque. The United Muslim Association is determined to continue this practice of having women delivering the khutbah and leading the salah.

2005: Raheel Raza led a Friday service, delivering the khutbah and leading the prayers of the mixed-gender congregation organized by the Muslim Canadian Congress [10] to celebrate Earth Day in the backyard of the downtown Toronto home of activist Tarek Fatah, under Police protection, after refusal by Mosques to host such a prayer and threats by Islamists to stop it.

Pamela Taylor, a Muslim since 1986 gave the Friday khutbah and led mixed-gender prayers in Toronto, Canada at the UMA mosque at the invitation of the Muslim Canadian Congress [11] on Canada Day.

The former Mufti of Marseille, Sohaib binCheikh, requests that either Raheel Raza [12] or Pamela Taylor lead him in prayer during a visit to Canada. The prayers are sponsored by the Muslim Canadian Congress [13] and held in a private venue with a mixed gender congregation.



2004: In an aborted attempt of a woman delivering a Jum'ah khutbah, Bahraini police arrested a 40-year old woman in 2004 for trying to deliver the khutbah at one of the biggest mosques in the island state. The incident took place on the last Friday of Ramadan. The would-be khatib was wearing full male dress with an artificial beard and moustache. The mosque was packed with 7000 worshippers. When sat on the minbar just before she was to deliver the khutbah, some worshippers realised that the new imam was a woman in disguise. They and the mosque's imam, Sheikh Adnan Al-Qattan, handed her over to the police. [14]



The Wadud Prayer: (March 18, 2005) NOTE The Wadud prayer is not the first woman-led mixed-gender congregational prayer (see the above noted events), but the first to gain national and international attention.

In early 2005, it was announced that Amina Wadud, an African American Muslim, and a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, would lead a congregation in Friday salat prayer in New York, sponsored by the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour, [15] under the leadership of Asra Nomani, by the website "Muslim WakeUp!," and by members of the Progressive Muslim Union. Nomani has written that she was inspired to organize the event after reading Michael Muhammad Knight's novel The Taqwacores ISBN 1-57027-167-4 in which a burqa-clad punk girl leads her male housemates in prayer. The Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America responded by issuing a fatwa reiterating the traditional view:

A unanimous consensus for the entire Ummah (Muslim community) in the east and west [is] that women can not lead the Friday prayer nor can they deliver the [sermon]. Whoever takes part in such a prayer, then his prayer is nullified, whether he was an Imam or a follower.

Supporters of the event insisted that, to the contrary, it was a long overdue change; Khaled Abou El-Fadl, professor of Islamic Studies at UCLA, California (apparently unaware of previous cases of women leading mixed congregations), said,

What the fundamentalists are worried about is that there's going to be a ripple effect not just in the U.S. but all over the Muslim world. The women who are learned and frustrated that they cannot be the imam are going to see that someone got the guts to break ranks and do it.

Three mosques refused the group; the event was then scheduled to be held at an art gallery in the SoHo district of Manhattan, but this site was changed after a bomb threat. The final site selected for the service was the Synod House owned by and adjoining the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

On Friday March 18, Amina Wadud acted as imam for a congregation of about 60 women and 40 men seated together, without the traditional separate male and female sections. The call to prayer was given by another woman, Suheyla El-Attar. Wadud stated,

I don't want to change Muslim mosques. I want to encourage the hearts of Muslims, both in their public, private and ritual affairs, to believe they are one and equal.

A small number of protestors gathered outside.

Afterwards, the general ˤUlamâ' response from across the world has been similar to that of the widely watched Shaykh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who responded that, while a woman could lead other women and even possibly her family in salat, she could not lead a mixed group including non-mahram males:

The currently extant juristic schools agree that it is not permissible for women to lead men in the obligatory Prayer, though some scholars voice the opinion that the woman who is well-versed in the Qur'ân may lead the members of her family, including men, in Prayer on the basis that there is no room for stirring instincts in this case.

The Progressive Muslim Union followed the Wadud prayer with a Woman-led Prayer initiative. The initiative sought to bring together the varied Progressive opinions on the prayer as well as engage more conservative Muslims by encouraging further debate, highlighting legal opinions in support of the prayer (as well as giving space to the overwhelming negative opinions), facilitating Muslims who would like to organize future prayers, and documenting those events as they heard of them. Progressives and others sympathetic to bringing about a transformation of gender privilege in Islam continue to work for the establishment of woman-led prayer.

Many perceived the Wadud prayer to be an inevitable reaction to the deplorable situation of women in mosques in North America. The attention garnered by the event forced more conservative Muslim organizations to publicly acknowledge the situation and call for changes. ISNA responded with guidelines for Women-Friendly Mosques. Scholars such as Imam Zaid Shakir and Dr. Louay M. Safi have been calling attention to and working to change mosque conditions for years. For example, see Imam Zaid's essay "Flight from the Masjid", and Safi'sWomen and the Masjid between Two Extremes and Towards Women Friendly Mosques. Progressives and others would argue, though, that mosque conditions are merely a symptom of a widespread sense of male entitlement following centuries of male privilege in the intellectual and political power centers of Islam.

Women continue to lead prayers in the United States in Queer and Mainstream communities with or without media coverage such as Nakia Jackson's 2006 Eid al-Adha prayer.



·         Spanish Muslims have been some of the greatest supporters of the woman-led prayer movement in Islam. Spanish Muslim religious scholar Abdennur Prado responded immediately to the Wadud prayer with a supportive legal opinion. In October of 2005 Wadud led a mixed gender congregational prayer in Barcelona. The Progressive Muslim Union's Woman-led Prayer Initiative

·         Female-Led Prayer, website under the theologian and specialist in classical Islamic law - "Allama Dr. Abu Yusuf Khaleel Al-Corentini" pseudonyms "Mohamad K. Yusuff" and Khaleel Mohammed]

·         The Islamic Basis for Female-Led Prayer, article on Muslim Wake Up

·         A rebuttal by

·         Fatwa by Qaradawi

·         Articles on Women's Right in Islam by Louay M. Safi

·         Fatwa by Muhammad Nur Abdallah

·         Muslim women in Europe

· Abdullah Hamid

·         A Critique Of The Argument For Woman-Led Friday Prayers by Dr. Hina Azam

·         A Critique of A Critique Of The Argument For Woman-Led Friday Prayers by Umm Yasmin

·         Fatwa by Ali Gum'a of Al-Azhar

·         ruling by Zarabozo (includes Arabic quotes)


·         An Examination of the Issue of Female Prayer Leadership by Imam Zaid Shakir

·         Women in Society: Political Participation

·         Women as Imam

·         A Treatise on Maliki Fiqh

·         Dr. Khaled Abou el-Fadl's fatwa on women leading prayer

·         The First Muslim Woman on Record to Lead a Public Mixed-Gender Jum'ah Prayer

·         A Statement from the Organizers of the March 18th Woman-led Jum’ah Prayer - MWA!

·         [16]

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