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'As You Are, You Will be LeAd

By Sarah Eltantawi and Zuriani Zonneveld



Khaled Abou El Fadl Leads a Town Hall Meeting on Woman-Led Prayer in Los Angeles

Since the March 18th prayer led by Amina Wadud in New York and co-sponsored by and the Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour, the Muslim community’s excitement, confusion, and even outrage led the Progressive Muslim Union of North America (PMU), which endorsed the prayer, to take two concrete actions in an attempt to alleviate our community's confusion. First, we started a Prayer Initiative which houses information about female-led prayer, including arguments for and against it and first hand accounts of the New York prayer. Secondly, we committed ourselves to organizing as many town hall meetings around the country as we could on the subject of female led prayer. PMU put on its first such town hall meeting in Los Angeles on June 5, and invited UCLA Law Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl to give the keynote speech.

Our goal was to act as a conduit of information to the Muslim community in order to encourage Muslims to make informed decisions about this issue. The goal of the New York City woman-led mixed gender prayer was not to impose this particular style of prayer on others, but to be part of a challenge of the current status quo, which attempts to dictate one style of prayer on everyone, namely where men lead, and women stay behind. Our point in endorsing woman-led prayer and launching the Prayer Initiative is not so much to dictate how people should pray, but rather to insist that a wide spectrum of interpretations be respected and discussed.

El Fadl spent the first 45 minutes or so of his two-hour presentation making precisely this point. Calling Muslims a “lost” people due to the depth of alienation from our rich intellectual traditions, and decrying the lack of quality and high standards in our religious leaders’ reasoning and intellectual integrity; it was as if El Fadl felt he needed to engage in a collective deprogramming of the 70+ in attendance before he could start to lay down his research on female-led prayer. Why?

We believe part of El Fadl’s point was that the swift denunciation of female-led prayer by most of our religious leaders was quite likely more a product of knee-jerk polemics and an expression of deeply-held patriarchy than the product of intelligible legal reasoning.

At one point in his introduction, El Fadl reminded the audience that “Shariah is supposed to be a fountain of God’s wisdom from which we can all draw from.” The image of Shariah as a fountain was one that we had some difficulty with, as we are more used to Shariah being represented as a quasi-mysterious, unyielding code of conduct usually regarding the most obscure, mundane, and deeply personal of issues. Moreover, this mysterious code is usually dictated to us by self-appointed religious gurus who somehow possess one of few keys available to its decoding, and whose decisions tend to reflect their interests as men and authority figures. Yet the statement set a tone. El Fadl took us through this kaleidoscope by focusing on the one issue of female-led prayer and led the audience into different schools of thought, including extinct ones, different debates that took place within those schools, different geographical locations, different centuries, and finally highlighted the influence of politics on these debates.

In his survey of the history of discussion of the issue of female led prayer in Islam, El Fadl divided the arguments against female led prayer into two categories: ones that questioned women’s intellectual capacity to lead prayer, and others that argued that women led prayer would create fitna due to the potential to sexually excite men.

Intellectual Capacity of Women

Um Salama, a woman of the Prophet’s time, enjoyed a very high degree of religious authority, as did A'isha, the Prophet's wife. In fact, according to El Fadl, “About 30% (if not more) of Islamic jurisprudence was created by these two women.” When jurists later wrote about these two women, many “exceptionalized” them in order to get around the potential legal implications of the fact that these two women were certainly of the highest intellectual capacity at the time of the Prophet. Jurists later argued that the status of A’isha and Um Salama could not be instructive for laws regarding women, since these women were close to the Prophet, and it is therefore impossible to find any women of comparable intellectual ability in any other period.


The other major reason jurists gave for a prohibition on woman-led prayer is the potential for fitna caused by sexual distraction. El Fadl emphasized that on this point, what is needed is an understanding of the sexual anthropology of Muslims during that period, and a recognition that sexual mores – including what is considered sexually enticing – changes over time. It may well have been that in certain Islamic societies in certain geographical locations at certain times to bend over would be too close to a sexual act; and it may well be that such prostrating does not produce the same effect or have the same symbolic place in our culture today. Ironically, El Fadl told us that A’isha, the Prophet’s wife, at one time slept next to the Prophet as he led prayers.

Not all jurists, by any stretch, argued absolutely against female-led prayer, and some believed female-led prayer was permissible at all times, including the five daily prescribed prayers and for “extra” prayers, such as Taraweeh prayers during Ramadan. Al Tabari for example, is one such scholar who believed woman-led prayer to be acceptable at all times. He and other jurists created schools of thought that were powerful in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries – at one time their power surpassed that of the Hanbali school – but that later became extinct.


One of the oft-repeated refrains supporters of woman-led prayer hear is that the Muslim community in general, and Muslim women in particular, are facing “more important issues,” and that woman-led prayer is, at best, cosmetic. What it takes to disprove this assertion is to demonstrate that not only is female spiritual leadership is in itself important, but that female spiritual leadership has implications beyond the realm of the spiritual. Is it possible that women are being kept from positions of spiritual authority in order to limit their power in other arenas?

El Fadl argued that from early on in Islamic history, leadership of prayer was recognized as a form of social and political leadership. This view is consistent with a particularly revealing quote from Nasr Fareed Wassel, the former mufti of Egypt, who told Egypt Today in their January, 2005 issue, "In order to lead Muslims in their worldly affairs, the ruler must be eligible to lead them in their prayers, and since by consensus of the Muslim community women never lead men in prayers, they cannot rule them.” El Fadl also observed that women rights issues tend to surface in contexts of political oppression.

We believe it would have been hard to walk out of that lecture without a renewed appreciation of the kaleidoscope of conversations, debates and legal rulings, all influenced by political and social factors, that make up the corpus of Islamic intellectual history. Islamic intellectual histories, like all historical narratives, are first and foremost human products, in this case the product of the sum total of Muslim attempts to uncover the essence of the divine. Indeed, there is not one system of human endeavor that has not grown, evolved or been shaped by the challenges of their day, be it other religious laws such as Jewish law or Canon law, or the legal history of the United States with its constitutional amendments, countless rulings and laws, trends and lasting social movements. To deny this history in Islam and instead advocate for some kind of ahistorical, salafi approach to texts as literal guidebooks or cookbooks for Muslims (a pinch of this good deed here, ½ a cup of prayer there will lead to heaven…) is to ignore basic truths about how social norms and truths are shaped in human history.

Why can we Muslims no longer afford this salafi approach? Because external problems we are facing starkly remind us that we must become more politically and intellectually sophisticated, and we must do it fast. Interestingly, when we asked El Fadl his advice about what contemporary Muslims can concretely do with the picture he painted for us that day, El Fadl replied that we absolutely had to demand the highest possible quality from our political and spiritual leaders.

Educating ourselves about our own tradition is an important first step in the imperative to transform our community into a more internally tolerant and just one. We believe that only when we make these strides internally will we be able to more strongly advocate for justice from external forces, forces that exert too much influence over our lives, livelihoods and even our intellects.

As human beings, it is easier to just continue with the Islam we think we know. Learning and debating is often too much work and too much effort. Some people are too afraid to take the time to learn because then they as Muslims are required to speak up for what is right – not necessarily what they are familiar with. By launching the Prayer Initiative and organizing these town hall meetings on the issue, PMU hopes to become a reliable and constant source of information and knowledge. What individual Muslims choose to do with that knowledge is up to them.

Sarah Eltantawi is the communications director, and Zuriani Zonneveld a board member, of the   Progressive Muslim Union of North America.

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