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Women as Imams

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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, although the Maliki school does not allow this. 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

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."

A hadith commonly cited in this connection is that of Umm Waraqah, described by Abu Dawud as "an esteemed woman of Ansaar, who had memorized the Qur’an". Abu Dawud reported: "The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to visit her in her own home; he appointed a mu’adhin for her, and ordered her to lead the members of her household (in Salah)" (Sunan Abi Dawud #592). He also gives another version of this hadith through a different narrator (#591) which does not mention an order to lead her household in prayer. Variants of this hadith are recorded by several of the hadith collectors: Imam Ahmad, al-Hakim in his Mustadrak, ibn al-Jarud, ibn Khuzaimah, al-Bayhaqi in al-Kubra and al-Sughra, Abu Dawud, al-Tabarani and al-Daraqutni; according to Qaradawi, the latter "reported that the order the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) gave to Umm Waraqah here was that she lead the women among her household in Prayer." This hadith's reliability is variously described as "weak" or "good" by different scholars. Since Umm Waraqah's household included men, this hadith is used by supporters of the claim that women can lead men in prayer; some even suggest that the word translated as "house" (dar) should be taken to refer to her whole area (else, they reason, why appoint a muezzin?) However, most scholars regard this as an invalid deduction, believing that, even if the hadith is correct, it would apply only to a woman leading her immediate family in prayer (where, they state, the issue of the men being aroused by her presence is effectively nullified), or that this privilege was given only to Umm Waraqah and has no general applicability.

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 (peace be upon him) (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 (peace be upon him) 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 (peace be upon him) 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.”

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 madhhabs—Shafi'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 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 congregations


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

Modern Islamic academician such as Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, based on the Umm Waraqah hadith mentioned above, considers 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 specialists and religious experts. Traditional scholars caution against Yusuf Qaradawi's Fiqh (jurisprudence) 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 Jumu'ah prayer and every night in Ramadan for the special Tarawih 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 jumu'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 Jumu'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 lectures, one each by a male and a female.

North American "Queer Muslim" community (1999 to date)

Organizations in the Gay Muslim community in Canada and the US have had female imams for a few years. Ghazala Anwar led the Friday congregation at the Al-Fateha conference in New York City in 1999, and at the Salaam Conference in Toronto in June 2003. The latter congregation had over one hundred and fifty people, both straight and queer, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Over seventy people joined in the Maghrib (sunset) prayer congregation at the Salaam iftar (fast-breaking) in in Ramadan in October 2004 led by Nur. Women regularly lead congregations at Salaam Juma's and zikr sessions.

Toronto, Canada (mainstream mosque; 2004)

In 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. Not long after, in the same mosque, 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.

Bahrain (attempt, in disguise; 2004)

In an aborted attempt of a woman delivering a Jumu'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 7,000 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. [10]

USA (March 18, 2005)

NOTE: The incident discussed in this item got a lot of news coverage, but all of the above instances pre-date the congregation in New York described in this section

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, [11] under the leadership of Asra Q. Nomani, and by the website "Muslim WakeUp!". 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 that "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 that "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; one said to a reporter "These people do not represent Islam. If this was an Islamic state, this woman would be hanged, she would be killed, she would be diced into pieces."

Afterwards, the general 'ulama response from across the world has been similar to that of of the widely watched Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who responded that, while a woman could lead other women and even possibly her family in salah, she could not lead a mixed group including non-mahram males: "The different 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’an 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."


Another woman imam led mixed-gender prayers in Toronto, Canada. Pamela Taylor, a Muslim since 1986, led the congregation on Canada Day.




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