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Real Debate About the Status of Women


By: 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 organizers.

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, including women.

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 (fihi jahala)."

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 compassion. 

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.



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