July August 2005Leading Posts

Women Leading Congregational Prayers

Rashid Shaz

Can a Muslim woman lead Friday Congregation, and that too in a situation where the congregation includes many men, in addition to women? This is the vital, juridical question which is agitating the Muslim world, and on which the jurisprudents and other influential personages of the world are engaged in putting across their views from their own individual perspectives. Shaikh Yusuf Al-Qarzawi who holds special place of prestige in the Muslim world because of his erudition has strongly opposed such a move, characterising it as a deviation from the true Islamic path. On the other hand, the Shaikh Al-Azhar and many other religious scholars do not reject or dismiss the idea of women leading congregational prayers out of hand, but rather put forward the view that the imamhood by women should be limited to all-female congregations. The Ulema belonging to traditional schools of thought in Saudi Arabia and India, however, have declared it to be a sinful act. These scholars are infuriated by the fact that at a time when the Muslim world is under severe attack from external forces, these women have chosen to attack the community from within. What, after all, they want to achieve by raising this issue at this juncture? They fear that such an ill-advised move will, in the final analysis, benefit only the enemies of Islam. And the entire community of Muslims will be thrown into utter chaos and confusion.

What is really needed is that rather than getting agitated and worked up over the issue, we must reflect over it calmly as to how best to address it. This is what the situation demands and, indeed, this is what the Qur’an exhorts us to do – i.e., we must not leave the path of moderation and mature reflection even if the provocation is unusually grave. From the point of view of jurisprudence, if one reflects on the question as to who is entitled/ qualified to lead a congregational prayer, the following factors will be taken into consideration: (a) a person who is superior in piety (taqwa); (b) one who has a better understanding of the religion and who possess deeper insight into it; and (c) one who knows better how to read the Qur’an, keeping its phonetic and semantic properties in mind. The gender question will not acquire primacy here, that is to say, whether the person possessing the above qualities is a man or a woman. This is because the Qur’an never endorsed any racial or gender discrimination. In the Qura’nic way of thinking one does not find any corroboration of the view that being a woman by itself becomes a demerit or disqualification, either socially or in matters of religion. This is the Qura’nic perspective as far as the question of imamhood of women is concerned. As for the question as to how the jurisprudents think on the issue, it should be kept in mind that history is replete with instances in which they (i.e., the jurisprudents) have declared as “strictly forbidden” (haram) acts that were merely “undesirable” (mubah). The basis for such injunctions was the fear that perpetuation of such “undesirable” acts might be the cause of some mischief in the community. Take for instance, the question of women’s entry into the mosque, the most basic social institution of Muslims. The history of Islam down the ages and the continuing practices by the Ummah bear witness to the fact that right from the time of the Prophet up to the contemporary times, there has been provision for women’s entry into mosques, if it was considered necessary or expedient. This tradition still continues at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. Even though some rulers and Islamic scholars in the past tried to put a ban on the circumambulation of the Ka’ba by both the sexes constituting the same congregation, but these efforts proved futile. In this context, history books even record widespread condemnation of a renowned traditionist (muhaddith) like A’tta. However, in places that were away from the sacred site of Hijaz, local influence prevailed over the thoughts of jurisprudents and they restricted the role of women in society. They did this with one specific objective in mind — that the increased independence of women and their unrestricted entry into the mosque might not cause further dissensions and conflict in the already decadent Muslim society. If the socio-cultural status of Muslim men was low and pitiable, then the logical thing was to strive for its correction and improvement. On the contrary, it so happened that women were penalised for it and they were ejected from such central sites as the mosque.

The story did not end here. In the age of decadence when a general atmosphere of gloom and despair prevailed in the Muslim society, to preserve the religion in its true form, it was felt necessary that women should be subjected to additional modes of hijab in addition to the compulsory veiling (hijab). In consequence, exposure of palm and face which was considered permissible in the early era of Islam, and many arguments from books of tradition and history can be adduced in support of this even today, was declared to be impermissible. Even though the exposure of face is still an unresolved issue among the Muslim scholars, it cannot be denied, however, that as a result of the widespread public perception that veiling the face is the most appropriate and cautious step for preserving the Faith, a vast segment of the Muslim community began to take it to be the correct interpretation of the Faith. The same attitude of caution is at work here – that is, even after covering the entire body, if the face remained exposed, it would not be possible to stop mischief from taking place in the society that was already on the path of decadence. To make matters worse, in some circles one finds the idea fairly common that it is forbidden for strangers to even hear the voice of women. In some Muslim societies, it is still considered against the Islamic values to reveal the name of women or introduce them to others. Muslim women suffered most grievously because of this cautionary philosophy. Its perpetuation for centuries has rendered them faceless, nameless and without any voice. She had to forgo her social and religious role as a Muslim woman. While those who had taken up the project of arresting the process of decadence in the Muslim community concentrated all their efforts on how to control Muslim women, and correcting the ways of men disappeared from their programme of action. Even today, those who want to reject the social, political and religious leadership of women simply because they think that this will open floodgates of dissensions and conflicts in the community are merely following the path of the ancestors that had, in fact, speeded up the process of decadence in the community.

The core of Islamic belief lies in self-surrender – and this self-surrender is demanded of men as much as of women. We should not have the slightest reservation in admitting the fact that Allah and His Prophet know much better (than us) which particular thing can cause mischief in the society and which particular act or practice will help maintain peace and a kind of equilibrium. If Allah had allowed the Muslim women the right to participate in the social and religious life in the mosque, and if the Prophet endorsed and maintained it during his lifetime, then we do not have the right to deprive women of this right after so many centuries on the basis of our inferior understanding of the tenets of Faith. Even an ordinary student of Islamic history knows that it was usual for women during the Prophet’s time to move about freely, their names and faces were known to people, and that they conducted business and trade. During the period of the Pious Caliphs, their advice was sought on political matters. A nondescript, flat-nosed woman thought it her duty – and could take the liberty – to reprimand Caliph Omar in public on what she considered an error in his interpretation during a congregational address. If we keep in mind this environment of comparative openness in the initial stages of Islam then the idea of a woman leading a congregational prayer does not seem to be such an astonishing one. Dr Hamidullah, in his Bhawalpur address, has mentioned two such instances of women leading congregational prayers in the first century of Islam. Even if these instances were not recorded in books of history, we should not have much difficulty in appreciating the fact that the benchmark of piety (taqwa) that Islam has made mandatory for all those who want to be spiritually elevated, leaves no scope for discrimination on the basis of race, region, complexion or gender. The Qur’an has made it abundantly clear that the good acts of a person cannot be dismissed or undervalued simply because he belongs to a particular group or sex. The Quranic verse – يا أيها الناس إنا خلقناكم من ذكر و أنثى وجعلناكم شعوبا وقبائل لتعارفوا إن أكرمكم عند الله أتقاكم إن الله عليم خبير
promises every human being that none of his good actions will be lost. Further, the verse – ,ولا تكسب كل نفس إلا عليها ولا تزر وازرة وزر أخرى – states that every person will have to face the consequences of his actions. And that – كل نفس بما كسبت رهينة – i.e., very person will be rewarded according to his deserts, and all external identities will be useless. Moreover, when both for men and women the same principle of صبغة الله (“Take the colour of Allah”) is to be applied, how can a man can offer only his “manhood” to claim superiority over a woman who is superior to him in terms of her good practice and piety? The Qur’an announced destruction for such a mighty monarch as the Pharo, and such a powerful man as Abu Lahab. On the other hand, it announced good tidings for the entire people of Saba under the leadership of the truth-loving queen of Saba. In other words, all distinctions of sex, colour, race, region that human beings inherit by birth have been declared to be invalid, and it was made crystal clear that what is dear to Allah is one’s good actions or practices (amal-e saalih). This is the only quality that will determine the position of Muslims in the Islamic society. The Qur’an goes so far as to exhort that even good people from other communities should be treated with respect, and that their good actions, too, would not go waste. We are adherents of the Book that repeatedly, and at many places, affirms that all unnatural distinctions of colour, race, gender, territory, north and south, Arab and non-Arab, have been rendered invalid. What will come to one’s rescue on the Day of Judgement, when Allah Himself will decide what is genuine and what is fake, are one’s good actions and practices. Prior to this, no responsible or God-fearing person can dare to declare someone to be a sinner or a denizen of hell, because Allah has reserved this decision for that Day. (إن الله يفصل بينهم يوم القيامة.)

From the stage of a totally disempowered entity (بأي ذنب قتلت ) to the stage of religious and political leadership, women have travelled a long way. The humanist movement initiated by the Prophet had had far reaching consequences for people living in distant corners of the world. Not only have the Muslims been benefited from the good results yielded by this movement but that other disadvantaged sections of the society belonging to other religions too benefited from them. Families suffering under the weight of usury for generations heaved a sigh of relief; the institution of slavery slowly disappeared from the face of the earth. Similarly, the barbarous tradition of keeping women enslaved to men came to an end. The revolutionary message of the assertion that “believing men and women are helpers of one another” (والمؤمنين والمؤمنات بعضهم أولياء بعض) ignited the idea that in the path of total surrender to Allah by the members of the Muslim community, both men and women would be equal partners.

The foundation of revolution that was laid at the time of the Prophet did not yield all its results immediately, or during the life of the Prophet. Had it been so, then the final Prophet and the history of the succeeding ages would have lost much of their importance. Those who think that the results that were not visible during the Prophet’s lifetime should not have come to light in the later ages, or those who insist on the idea that the acts not performed during the Prophet’s time and performed in the later ages should be taken as signs of the approaching doomsday, are not really aware of the significance of the concept of the last Prophet, and do not understand the real import of the eternal nature of the Qur’an. If it were not so, then what answer they can possibly have to the question that the way the Qur’an exhorts the followers of Islam to treat slaves cannot be implemented in the present day context as the old institution of slavery is no longer there. How can we deny the fact which is crystal clear that the inevitable consequence of the Qura’nic exhortations regarding compassionate treatment of slaves and freeing them from bondage was the gradual disappearance of this institution? In other words, these exhortations signalled the beginning of a great social revolution, not its end. Their real impact could be seen not at the moment but many years later. Similarly, after reading instructions in the Qur’an regarding Zakah no one draws the conclusion that the Qur’an intends to perpetuate poverty, i.e., a section of the people in society must remain poor so that rich people can show kindness towards them and thus discharge their duties. The case of the evolutionary status of women is somewhat similar to this. During the Prophet’s time women were taken to be equal to men and they were accorded social roles. One inevitable consequence of this was that in the coming years women would claim their position of dignity and prominence in society on the basis of their knowledge and piety. The foundation that Islam laid for the empowerment of women had had far-reaching results, even outside Muslim societies. The movement for women’s emancipation in the west, their participation in social and political processes, right to express their individual opinions, guarantee for individual freedom etc. did not come to them out of the blue one fine morning. Behind them, too, can be seen the impact of the revolution initiated by the Prophet that had reached the west through cultural exchanges spanning over centuries. Of course, because of indifference to the message of the Divine Revelation, the west is now a victim of the excesses of individual freedom.

Human society is always in a constant process of evolution. The movement for human rights that the Prophet had started in Mecca was, in fact, unstoppable. In the march of human history, those whose gaze cannot see beyond Magna Carta or those who think that human history was like a stagnant pool before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights give evidence of their own ignorance only. Today, all the concerns that are being voiced for preserving human rights and dignity – be it about saving the earth from nuclear destruction, saving the environment, concerns about the extinction of not only human beings but some endangered species of animals, air pollution, maintaining the natural warmth of oceans etc – could be traced back to the teachings of the Prophet. In the Muslim society today, if the women have a feeling that they have been pushed to the margins in the patriarchal system, and in the effort to restore their rightful position muster up enough courage to claim such positions as leading congregational prayers, it cannot be considered to be an entirely alien thought in the light of the past history of Islam. The need of the hour is that instead of behaving like strangers to our own cultural heritage, we should see the issue in a larger perspective. In the context of any human practice, not excepting the attitude characterised by the instruction – “compete with each other in good acts and try to take precedence in it (فاستبقوا الخيرات), people might commit excesses, but they need not alarm us as these can always be corrected. However, if we simply reject such efforts by saying that it is a plot hatched by the enemies of Islam or that it is an evil thought emanating from the over-active imagination of misguided Muslims, then we will not be able to arrive at a correct understanding of the issue.

It is true that in the history of Islam spanning over fourteen centuries, if we leave out some exceptional occasions, there has been no continuing tradition of having women as imams leading congregational prayers. However, alongside this fact it cannot be denied too that Muslim men had shown very little reservations about accepting women as jurisprudents, thinkers or teachers. If we abide by the principle that all the impact of the Islamic movement was not manifested during the Prophet’s time, and that some of its impact manifested itself in succeeding years and ages too, and that the dream of establishing a global society based on the teachings of the Prophet is yet to come about, and this is precisely the raison d’etre for the last Prophet and his followers, then a significant transformation would take place in our way of thinking. And then, rather than branding the issue of women’s claim to imamat as a mischief and a sign of the approaching doomsday, we will try to assess it in the light of insights derived from the Qur’an. We feel that those who consider women’s claim for imamat as destructive of the Faith do not have the courage to assess the issue in the light of the Qur’an or do not feel the necessity to do so. For them the interpretation made by the ancients and the edicts issued by them constitute the final verdict on every issue, so much so that they consider any debate on such verdicts to be an exercise in mischief-mongering. Such an attitude cannot be supported as a principled stand simply because for a futuristic religion like Islam, a religion that has to lead mankind till the Last Hour should not be made subservient to the interpretation of the ancients. If we do so, it will be tantamount to suspending the message of the Divine Revelation and its main objectives. Unfortunately, for a long time, it has become customary for Muslims to see the Qur’an simply as a book of benedictions rather than one of reflection and contemplation. We are not ready to accept the fact that our ancient predecessors, too, were human beings like us, and were liable to error in their readings and interpretation of the divine verses, in their efforts to derive commandments and in their efforts to correlate/ reconcile contending traditions, and in their efforts to decide things through intuition or expediency. We are not compelled to carry on the burden of their mistakes of omission and commission. Aren’t our own mistakes cause for enough worry for ourselves that we should consider it necessary to carry on the burden of mistakes left by our predecessors? The need of the hour is that instead of operating within the axis of the old jurisprudence, and fretting and fuming over the problem, we must try to resolve this delicate, sensitive and extremely important issue in the light of Islam’s evolutionary journey through fourteen centuries. However, for the new thinkers it will be necessary that just as they should adopt a sceptical attitude towards the old system of jurisprudence and the contemporary social and political impact on it, they must also refuse, as far as possible, to accept the influences exerted by current social and political trends and thoughts.

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