Where is this going

  • What justifications are given by Islamic scholars to exclude women from leading prayers and giving a khutbah (sermon) to the congregation, as well as segregating women to the back of the prayer hall during jummah prayer?
  • Are the justifications religiously motivated or culturally motivated?

  • I argue that the justifications provided to have male-only khateebs and to seat the women behind the men in the prayer hall are often at odds with core Quranic principles, and reflect a cultural practice more so than one having a religious basis. The argument is composed of evidence gathered in three parts. Part one: the Quran, part two: the Hadith, and part three: selected scholarly opinions, written by both women and men, raised in the Western world as well as in the Eastern world, from sources written in the last 50 years as well as selected older sources.

Why this question matters

A Muslim’s life proceeds through three principal spheres. At the core, the first and most frequent interaction with Islam is through performing the five daily prayers in solitude. The anchor in a Muslim’s spiritual life is her personal relationship with God. Moving outward, the second sphere is the weekly jummah prayer conducted with the immediate, local, Muslim community of a dozen to a few hundred Muslims living in the area. Here, a Muslim finds support in times of spiritual weakness and doubt. The third and outermost sphere is the once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca to perform Hajj with 2.35 million other Muslims from around the world 1. In this sense, the weekly Friday prayer is the most consistent touchpoint where a Muslim engages with her community. Such a vital part of Muslims life ought to be one that is centering and spiritually gratifying, but instead is one where a full half of the community is quite literally silenced (not permitted to deliver the khutbah) and segregated to the back (not permitted to pray at the front of the prayer hall).

In the post 9/11 climate of the United States, with the media’s persistent conflation of “terrorism” with “Islam” coming to a head with the Trump administration’s attempted Muslim ban, women who choose to wear the hijab, or otherwise outwardly display their Islamic faith, are often subject to increased scrutiny and suspicion. A 2016 study that analysed Americans’ perceptions of minority faith and racial groups, reported that Muslims were the most disapproved group in America, with the disapproval of Muslims almost doubling from about 26 percent in 1996 to 46 percent in 2016 [15].

In a time when being a Muslim woman in America is difficult - it is even more important for Muslim women to feel heard and seen in their own community, rather than sidelined in the space where they deserve the most visibility. Yet, since Dr. Amina Wadud’s historic decision in 2005 to be the first American Muslim woman to lead a congregation in prayer, little has changed 3. Despite receiving support from Muslims in the US and internationally, such as the Egyptian Islamic thinker Gamal al-Banna, the writer and Harvard Divinity School Professor Leila Ahmed, the Islamic scholar Ebrahim E.I. Moosa, and the Professor of Islamic Studies at UCLA, Khaled Abou El-Fadl - little seems to have changed in the last 13 years. The predominant practice still remains to be that women pray behind the men, and that women refrain from delivering the khutbah or leading the congregation in prayer.

While there was support for Wadud’s “protest” prayer, the overwhelming response was negative 3. Onlookers felt that the issue was one of “westoxification” - the desire to push western values onto Islam, to stir unrest among Muslim women to feel as though they were being marginalized when in reality the traditional prayer set up was the most harmonious for the two genders - where men didn’t feel distracted, and women didn’t feel put on display4. Many criticized Wadud for fragmenting the Muslim community - inciting debate over a “non-issue” when there were more serious concerns facing Muslim in America in the wake of 9/11 that the ummah needed to come together to resolve as a united front 6. Anti-Muslim violence had spiked, with a record number of attacks on mosques and hate crimes against Muslims threatening the freedom to practice without fear 15. Perhaps most interestingly, many argued that Dr. Wadud’s decision (a scholar of Arabic and Islamic Studies) to give a khutbah and lead the prayer was heretical - that it “violated Islamic law”, more specifically that the prayer of a man led by a woman would be invalid [4].

The intention here is to unpack the arguments presented by the parties opposed to females leading jummah prayers, delivering khutbahs, and seating themselves in the front of a prayer hall. I argue that the restrictions against full female participation during jummah prayer has a cultural rather than religious basis, where the Islamic “leadership authorities” attempt to ascribe to religion what is there own personal opinion (or the personal opinions of their predecessors). We proceed by tracing the Quran, the hadith, and scholarly (academic and religious) takes on the matter.

Part 1

Examining the religious basis: The Quran

What the Quran Doesn’t Say

There is no Quranic basis for prohibiting women’s participation in prayer (public or privately) in any respect. To be concrete, there are 0​ verses in the Quran that state specifically and unambiguously that a) a woman cannot lead a congregation in prayer b) a woman cannot deliver a khutbah to the congregation or c) recommends that women should be seated in the back of a prayer hall during jummah.

Moreover, there are no verses in the Quran that in any way suggest that a women is less appropriate than a man for leading prayer or delivering a khutbah. There are no recommendations in the Quran for any of the technicalities for how a jummah prayer should be conducted in a technical or logistical sense. This point will be admitted by the consensus of the Islamic scholarly community - who derive their authority for rejecting female-led prayer from the hadith and sunnah, which is discussed in the following section.

What the Quran Does Say: The Quran is “complete” “fully detailed”

The Quran mentions salat (prayer) 67 times, and reserves a full surah (chapter) albeit a short one of only 11 verses, to the Friday prayer (Al Jumu’ah - Surah 62). The message of surah 62 is for a Muslim to be quick to leave their work to attend the community prayer, and to avoid talking about work/selling during the prayer. Notably - there is no mention of the idea that the jummah prayer is obligatory for men, but optional for women [a purported hadith makes this claim], nor that the khutbah should be given by a man, nor that the prayer should be lead by a man, nor that the women should stand behind the men in the mosque [a purported hadith makes this claim]. If these details were significant, it seems odd that an entire surah on the topic would not even broach the subject(s).

In contrast, the Quran mentions repeatedly that it is a fully detailed, “complete set of guidance” to humanity [Quran 6:38, 6:114, 7:3, 7:52, 12:111, 77:50 ] - as a consequence the omitted details would have to have been purposefully omitted - and as many prominent Quranist (Muslims who subscribe to the authority to the Quran alone) scholars such as Edip Yulksel have pointed out, the purposeful omission of details is an essential part of what makes the Quran timeless and applicable to people from every era, in every corner of the world [13].

On these grounds alone, we should be able to conclude the debate in favor of full participation of women, since everything that is not specifically prohibited in the Quran, is permissible, meaning that the absence of guidance on the specifics of how a jummah prayer ought to be conducted is deliberate and makes the practice flexible to the changing needs of the Muslim community across time.Yet, those that subscribe to the authority of the hadith for religious decision making do so because they hold the belief that the Quran is not sufficiently detailed on all matters. They point to Quranic verses saying to follow the example of Muhammad to support turning to hadith to reach decisions.

In contrast, the Quranists argue that those that elevate the hadith to the same level as the Quran are associating partners with God (one of the most reprehensible actions), and are skeptical of the authenticity of the hadith literature generally because of

  1. the long chains of transmission
  2. the collection of the hadith many years after Muhammad’s death
  3. the numerous examples of hadiths that contradict each other
  4. the numerous examples of hadith that contradict the Quran
  5. the influence of the ruling class in shaping which hadiths were excluded/preserved, thus shifting the emphasis of entire hadith literature 13.

Thus, there is a basis in the Quran as well as in Islamic scholarship for the rejection of the hadith - most conservatively only insofar that a hadith disagrees with the Quran, and most “radically” the entire body of hadith and sunnah on the basis that the Quran proclaims itself “fully detailed” and a “complete” guidance to humanity.

What the Quran Does Say: The Quran rejects religious authority figures

The Quran unambiguously rejects the idea of any human religious authority, past or present. The only religious authority is the Quran. No prophet is elevated to “God/divine” status, Muhammad is explicitly called out as a mortal, a messenger of divine guidance (not a possessor of divine guidance) - a conduit to humanity. Islam has no priesthood, there is no “intercessor” or intermediary between a Muslim and God [11]. It is every Muslim’s own personal responsibility to establish a direct relationship with God through prayer, and to understand how to live in conformity with the will of God through reading and understanding the Quran. In Islamic history, a class of religious “officials” arose because of a felt need by the community - namely preaching sheikhs, Quran reciters, imams, or leaders in prayer, and muezzins (the person who recites the adhan or call to prayer). But these officials do not form a closed profession, they may adopt any other profession, and they are encouraged to have families (in contrast to nuns or priests who are forbidden from marriage)[7].

It is important to underscore that these people do not have any special obligations, they are not guides of the public conscience, and most importantly their functions can be performed by any other Muslim just as well. There is no bond of consecration, no ordination that joins them with the founder of their faith in a spiritual union. All believers are equally priests, or there are none [6, 7, 11]. In other words, the analysis of a Islamic scholar is just as valid as the analysis of a layperson in the eyes of the Quran, where every Muslim is instructed to read and follow the Quran using their own reason and judgment.

Thus, there is a basis in the Quran to reject Islamic scholars most conservatively only where they disagree with a Muslims own reason and judgement, and most “radically” the entire field of Islamic jurisprudence since every human interpretation is as valid as any other human’s interpretation according to the Quran, and every soul will have responsibility for its own actions [8,13,14]. (Though other humans might see you as a tad arrogant for not finding anything of value in the libraries full of humans attempting to understand how to live life in conformity with Quranic principles).

What the Quran Does Say: The Quran discusses female prophethood

Imam Al-Qurtubi a famous mufassir (author of tafsir, Quranic exegesis), muhaddith (narrator of hadith) and faqih (expert in Islamic jurisprudence) scholar from Cordoba of Maliki origin explained in his commentary of the Quran, Tafsir al-Qurtubi, that Maryam was a female prophet mentioned by name in the Quran. Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, and Ibn Hazm – additionally agree that Maryam as well as other women, were prophets in Islam [6].

On this basis, the Arab Andalusian Sufi scholar of Islam, Ibn al-Arabi declared female prayer leadership to be absolutely permissible before his death in 1240.

“There are those who unconditionally permit women to lead men [in prayer], which is my opinion as well. There are those who completely forbid her from such leadership >and there are those who permit her to lead women, but not men. The reasoning (behind the unconditional permission) is that the Messenger of God (peace be upon him) >testified that some women attained perfection just as he testified regarding some men - even though the latter were more than the former. This perfection is in >reference to prophecy, and prophecy is leadership (imama), thus a women’s leadership (in prayer) is sound. The default state is that her leadership is permissible, and one should not listen to those who prohibit it without proof, for there is no text to support their claim, and any evidence they bring forth [is not female specific, and] could include them in the prohibition as well, thereby neutralizing the evidence in this regard, and maintaining the default state of her leadership’s permissibility” – Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Muhammad Ibn al-‘ Arabi, Al-Futuhat Al Makiyya [4].

Thus, there is a basis in the Quran as well as early Islamic scholarship to support that there were multiple female prophets, who by definition have authority to lead, and by extension to lead a congregation in prayer/deliver a khutbah.

Part Two

Examining the religious basis: The Hadith

Reasons to be skeptical of hadith: the notion that “women are taboo”

Jamal Al-Banna, an influential Egyptian Islamic thinker and author of “The Muslim Woman between the Emancipation of the Quran and Jurist-made Constraints,” highlights that the medieval zeitgeist considered women a taboo, a source of conflict and impurity that had to be veiled and locked up. We can see these same cultural sentiments alarmingly present even today, in the collection of Fatwas and Legal Opinions on Women Leading Prayers collected in 2005, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi writes, “Prayer in Islam is an act that involves different movements of the body… Moreover, it requires concentration of the mind, humility, and complete submission of the heart to Almighty Allah. Hence, it does not befit a woman, whose structure of physique naturally arouses instincts in men​, to lead men in Prayer and stand in front of them, for this may divert the men’s attention from concentrating in the Prayer…”[16].

Fortunately, other scholars see how this portrayal turns women into silenced sexual objects, the Sudanese scholar Hassan Turabi writes (in opposition to Qaradawi), “When there is a pious woman, … she should lead the prayers and whoever is distracted by her beauty should be deemed sick” 11. Similarly, Imam Mohammed Khaleel writes in his opinion on female prayer leadership, “It is extremely sad to see that some are advocating the sexist argument that a woman’s body can be distracting. One would assume that people going to pray would have communication with the Lord as the primary goal. One would also assume that the woman leading the prayers would be dressed in such garb that is solemn as opposed to sexy (of course, if one has a perverted mind, even a nun’s habit will be seen as sexy). If it is pointed out that the woman’s voice can be attractive, then one wonders about the effect that the male voice has on female worshippers?” 20. The presence of an all male leadership is felt - an utmost concern is given to making sure men are not aroused during prayer, while female sexuality is completely ignored as non-existent (surely women will not be aroused by men bending over in front of them, or by the male voice of the Imam). The mere presence of a female is viewed as causing fitna (Arabic: فتن ,temptation, distress) while the presence of a man raises no such alarm in jurists eyes [11, 14].

Reasons to be skeptical of hadith: the motivation for political gain

Moreover, several hadiths have come to be known as forgeries compiled for political purposes. An primary example is the forged hadith narrated by Abu Bakrah: “Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.” The majority of “scholars” of the past and (even some of the present) have used this “hadith” to gain support for banning women from the right to run and hold the highest public office in Muslim nations. Fatimah al-Mar’isi, in her book, Al-Hareem al-Siyasi (Political Woman), explains that Abu Bakrah was punished for false testimony (lying while under oath) by ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab (R.A.), and hence his narration cannot be accepted. The Hadith and Fiqh scholars neglected to look into this basic and most fundamental aspect of Abu Bakrah’s legitimacy for inclusion in the hadith literature, but waged forward to inscribe into Islamic law that women should be prohibited from taking on leadership positions on this false pretext [17]. In addition to al-Mar’isi, Al Banna also dismissed the Bakrah narration as fabricated. Banna explains that the inferior status of Muslim women, as coined in mainstream Muslim jurisprudence, is the outcome of a misogynistic Arab culture that has nothing to do with true Islam [3, 8, 11].

The point being made here is that the body of the hadith literature is far from airtight, and there is a historical precedence for entirely fabricated hadiths being used for centuries to oppress women where absolutely no authentic religious basis existed. This forged hadith is not a one-time anomalous incident in the past, but rather a disturbingly insidious pattern of hearsay, exaggeration, and misinformation. Even today, in the “Fatwas and Legal Opinions on Women Leading Prayers” collected in 2005, some of the supposed scholars include in their fatwa a citation to a hadith narrated by Ibn Majah on the authority of Jabir ibn Abdullah which states that (Muhammad said), “A woman should not lead men in prayer,” (Ibn Majah Vol:1, P343) — when other scholars in the same body of work acknowledge that the chain of reporters of this hadith is extremely weak, with some parties in the chain being known as dishonest through multiple independent accounts and their connection to other forged hadiths [16,17]. So again, we see the pattern continue of supposed scholars of hadith (to this day) basing their legal opinions on dubious hadiths to push forward their own misogynistic agenda that jives more with the culture they grew up in than the religion they claim to be a scholar of.

Reasons to be skeptical of hadith: the motivation to appease the ruling class

Echoing Banna’s sentiments, Jawdat Sa’id states that Islamic leaders and scholars have written most of their jurisprudence and interpretations of Islamic beliefs under the “shadow of the sword”, meaning that they were not writing their interpretations free from the desire to appease the rulers of the time. Banna argues that many of Muhammad’s sayings invoked to dissuade Muslims from challenging their leaders were falsified under the rule of dictatorial Muslim monarchs of the Umayyad and Abbassid times [14,15,17].

Hadiths explicitly prohibiting female prayer leadership: none

In “Fatwas and Legal Opinions on Women Leading Prayers” Qaradawi admits that “if we review the religious texts pertaining to the rulings of Prayer, we will not find a text that states point blank that women are not permitted to lead people in Prayer or deliver the Friday sermon.” For a full list of all hadiths employed by all authors included in the complete compendium, see the appendix. The absence of a prohibition is not enough to declare it permissible in the opposition’s eyes - they explain that despite the fact that 6 prayers a day and reciting the Quran in English during prayer is not explicitly prohibited - it is also not “permitted” or advisable.

Ironically, there is another hadith narrated by Al-Sadooq in Man Laa Yah Duruh Al-Faqeeh, vol. 1, pg. 317, hadith #937 that says,

“Everything is mutlaq (unconditional/halaal), until a prohibition arrives concerning it”.

So if one subscribes to the authority of the hadith - then it is clear that since there is no credible prohibition in the hadith and the matter is not mentioned in the Quran, then the matter of female prayer leadership is permitted.

Qaradawi (and others) (now devoid of any basis in the Quran or hadith) then resort to appeals to authority and tradition, they assert in their fatwas that “there is no single Muslim jurist ever heard to have agreed to women leading people in the Friday Prayer or delivering its sermon” - this is an easily refuted claim: the renowned Shafti scholars Imam al-Muzani (d. 877) and Imam Abu Thawr (d. 854) held the position that women possessed the right to unrestricted prayer leadership, as well as Dawud bin Ali al-Dhahiri (d.883), Muhammad ibn Jareer al- Tabari (d. 923), and Muhyiddin Ibn al-‘ Arabi (d. 1240)[4]. Imam Ghamidi points out in his opinion on female prayer leadership that, Imam Tabari (as narrated by Sanayee, in Subul al-Salam) and the Shafe’I scholars Abi Thur and al-Mazni (al-Majmu 4:52, al-Mughni 3:33, Bidaya al-Mujtahid 3:189) and Muhyeddin ibn al-Arabi (as reported by Muhammad Husain al-Jaberi in Bahth fi Imamah al-Mir’ah Li-Rijaal) also allowed women leading prayers for men [18].

While it is true that the majority of the past scholars did not allow women leading prayers for men, it is incorrect to claim it was the unanimous consensus of past scholars. Relatedly, while they ruled in their time (where the status of women would indeed be seen as second class today), perhaps female leadership in prayer wasn’t something their society would accept (despite there being no Quran or hadith to base their ruling on). The fact that in the past female leadership (in public or private) was uncommon (or rejected entirely) should not have any bearing on the purely religious opinion on the matter - it cannot be ignored that past scholars were coming to their rulings to suit a society in a very different time with very different values.

Counter arguments to a lack of consensus in the past scholarly history Imam Zaid of the Zaytuna Institute in his Sunni legal opinion argues that the scholars in the past who advocated for unrestricted prayer leadership cannot be trusted because “there schools of thought have not survived to today” (they have since become extinct) meaning that their histories are incomplete, so subsequent reversals and detailed documentation of their reasoning do not exist in a fully complete and preserved form. This is a reasonable criticism, however there is a strong track record that unfortunately exists to this day of minority (especially “progressive”) dissenting opinions being silenced through violence and intimidation.

Examining just a handful of the most influential “progressives” in Islam over the last half century - The Quranist Edip Yuksel was sent death threats not only personally, but also to the home of the publisher during the process of publishing his “reformist” Quran that sought to correct misogynistic mistranslations of the past (and his work was banned in many dominant Muslim nations).

Similarly Gamal al-Banna - who challenged the validity of hadiths that require women to be veiled (as well as those restricting their ability to seek the top-most political office)- scarcely averted multiple assassination attempts. Many Islamic scholars practicing in the US and Europe have been exiled from their home countries for their “progressive” views on Islam. In this regard, Imam Zaid’s criticism that their “preserved histories are incomplete” - shouldn’t be much of a surprise - academics even today are having their books banned, property seized, or lives threatened for presenting dissenting opinions. Given this present and past climate of violence and intimidation, it can be reasonably assumed that the surviving testimonies are just the tip of a larger iceberg of dissenting interpretations that were burned, silenced, or otherwise lost to history.

Hadiths supporting female prayer leadership: Umm Waraqa

The most commonly cited hadith supporting female prayer leadership is one of Umm Waraqa narrated by Ibn Kallad. The detractors dismiss it as an invalid hadith because Ibn Kallad, (the source) was “unknown”. While some scholars have considered it be weak, there are many others who have considered it to be hasan (Arabic: سن َح َmeaning “good” - hasan is used to describe hadiths whose authenticity is not as well-established as that of ṣaḥīḥ hadith, but permissible for supporting evidence).

Scholars who have supported the validity of the Umm Waraqa hadith are Hakim, Zahabi, Daruqtuni, Abu Hatam, al-Ayni, ibn Hajar, Shukani and also the contemporary scholar Imam Albaani. The basis of these scholars for accepting this narration is generally the fact that ibn Khallad was considered trusted by ibn Haban and also the fact that other than ibn Khallad, the Hadith is narrated by Layli bint Malik as well [19,20].

Supporters of full female prayer participation state that the Umm Waraqa hadith says that Muhammad appointed a women (Umm Waraqa) to lead the prayer in her community, and that a man was appointed to give the call to prayer (adhan) - which is used as evidence to support that the prayer was one of a (large) mixed congregation, because it would not be necessary to appoint someone to give the call to prayer if one only needed to gather the few people in a single home. Detractors argue that the prayer was within her home, and limited to the people in her house (the Arabic word “dar” is used in the hadith, which is used in the Quran to mean “area” or “community”, but in more common vernacular is used to mean “home”).

So the debate surrounding this hadith devolves into whether

  1. it should be considered valid based on the chain of transmission
  2. the various versions of the hadith that either include/exclude the muezzin (person who gives the call to prayer)
  3. whether the word “dar” should be interpreted to refer to “people of her home” or “people of the community”.

Again, whether one chooses to subscribe to hadith, and consider this hadith valid or not, it is undisputed among scholars that there is no hadith (or Quranic ayat) that expressly prohibits full female leadership, which means it is permitted by default. In the present day, Pakistani scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Dr. Abdullah Rahim, Hamza Yusuf - the American Islamic Scholar of the Zaytuna Institute, Shaykh Abou El-Fadl - the Professor of Law at UCLA who has taught courses on Islamic jurisprudence, Mohammad Fadel - the Professor of Law at the University of Toronto, Imam Khaleel Mohammad, as well as many others, support unrestricted female leadership.

Part Three

Counter arguments to female prayer leadership

The strongest argument from those in favor of the current practices prohibiting female imam’s (and most honest) rests in the idea of “istiṣlāḥ” (in Arabic استصلاح (which means “to deem proper”. Istiṣlāḥ is related to the term “maslaha” (in Arabic: مصلحة (which means “public interest” or for the common good. The issue of female prayer leadership is not one to be solved by referring to texts and precedents, but a question of istislah: does this affect the Muslim community in a positive way, by raising women’s motivation and level of knowledge, promoting the following generations— or in a negative way, by splitting an already segregated society even more, eventually creating two completely separate intellectual and spiritual worlds?

Those opposed to female prayer leadership worry that it will fragment the Muslim community, and result in too much variation in how prayer is practiced. They worry that it will result it fitna (temptation) for men in the community, and are quite literally concerned that it will result in extra-marital affairs. These arguments view women as sexual objects, and seem to ignore the many Muslims who are leaving their faith because they see it as incompatible with the life they are leading. Certainly a female CEO (or any other job title) living in America would find it uncomfortable that as soon as she enters the mosque (through the rear entrance), that she must veil herself, move to the back of the prayer hall, and not express her opinions to the congregation in order to be accepted by her community. In one sphere of her life her opinions are valued, her influence grows with time, while in the other it atrophies. Which one will she neglect, grow to distance herself from, and which one will she choose to dedicate more time to?

Examining the cultural basis Muslim women interviewed around the world, even in Western countries, feel that it is an

“ongoing struggle to ensure that the issue of women’s space in mosques receives significant attention” [3].

The men’s section in a mosque is almost without exception the main and most prestigious section of the mosque (the most well-lit, largest, closest to the speaker), while the women’s section is sidelined — it is common to not be able to see or hear the imam. Moreover, women are often excluded from mosque governing bodies (Board of Directors, etc) - despite commonly bearing the burden of organizing community events. The sentiment toward bringing women on to leadership committees is gaining support.

Focusing on the US, a 2009 paper reported that 77 percent of American Muslims that attended the mosque agreed that “women need a greater role in the mosque” while 18 percent were neutral and 6 percent disagreed. When drilled down to the specific issue of desegregating mosques or to moving women to the front of the prayer hall, support evaporates. A 2011 Pew survey found that only 20 percent of respondents thought women should pray alongside men in mosques. Furthermore, 48 percent wanted them to pray separately while a quarter wanted them to pray behind men. Still, these numbers in the US are higher than in most regions surveyed globally, which could point to why Muslim American women are some of the most active mosque reformers [9].

Since early 2006, Muslims for Progressive Values has had a continuous gender-equal prayer space in West Hollywood, California. Both men and women are allowed to lead prayers and deliver a khutbah. Although congregants may choose to position themselves wherever they like, there is no gender segregation policy during prayer. The first dedicated gender-equal prayer space in the United States was founded by Fatima Thompson and Imam Daayiee Abdullah in Washington D.C, as a sister mosque to the El-Tawhid Juma Circle 6. In addition to leading Friday prayers, Imam Pamela K. Taylor led the DC congregation prayers for Eid Ul Adha in 2010 at the All Souls Church. Islamic feminist scholar at Harvard University, Leila Ahmed when asked to provide her response to Dr. Wadud’s historic jummah prayer, said it was

‘the legacy of Islam in America’

and has likened it to the push by American Jewish and Christian women for greater leadership roles within their respective traditions that began four or five decades ago [3,5].Reformers in the Christian community sound remarkably similar to those in the Islamic community, Mary McAleese (former President of Ireland), said in a protest address,

“How long can the hierarchy sustain the credibility of a God who wants things this way, who wants a Church where women are invisible and voiceless in Church leadership?”, she went on to say (to cheering applause) “We are here to shout, to bring down our Church’s walls of misogyny” [10].

The fact that the Christian and Jewish community is also going through this same process of reform, of pushing for the inclusion of women in the highest level of leadership, for desegregation of their own prayer spaces, further supports that the exclusion of women in Islam from full Friday prayer participation has much more to do with pushing out the vestiges of a past oppressive culture, and an all male leadership imposing their values than on representing the Islamic religion honestly [10, 12]. The Professor of Islamic History at Georgetown University, Yvonne Haddad, has noted the relationship between the interpretative tendencies/actions of women who advocate for women-led congregational prayer as part of the greater ‘gender jihad’ movement [11, 14].


Ironically, there is quite a bit of agreement among the disputing parties in the female prayer participation debate.

Both parties agree that

  1. women and men are equals in the eyes of God,
  2. Muslims should guard against “innovation” in religion - Muslims should not bend to the trends of the time, but rather seek to conform as closely as possible to their understanding of God’s will.

The difference is that the camp opposed to full female prayer participation views women leading prayers and giving khutbahs as an “innovation” of recent times, while the camp in favor of full female participation sees the prohibition against full participation as an “innovation” architected by an all male leadership in a misogynistic era. Islamic feminists do not refer to their views as a re-interpretation, but rather un-interpretation, an attempt to un-interpret past gender biased readings done by male jurists and to offer alternative new perspectives toward justice and equality within Islam itself [5, 12].

In review, we see that there is no Quranic basis for the prohibition of female imams, but rather an explicit mention of the existence of female prophets (who by default have the right to lead a congregation in prayer).

Moreover, even members of the opposition admit that there is no credible hadith that prohibits women from leading prayers, reciting a khutbah, or seating themselves in front of the congregation.

Yet, despite there not being a basis in the Quran or hadith prohibiting women, since there is also nothing in either literature that explicitly and unambiguously recommends or permits full female participation, the Islamic (male) scholarly opinion primarily rests on the idea that a female body and voice is distracting for the male congregants. An honest state of affairs is that there is no Islamic scholarly consensus on whether women “should” lead a congregation in prayer, deliver a khutbah, or pray at the front of the hall, however, it is clear that there is no explicit prohibition on any of the three practices in the Quran or hadith.


  1. Associated Press. “The Muslim Hajj Pilgrimage in Numbers.” Inquirer News , Inquirer News, 2 Sept. 2017, newsinfo.inquirer.net/927487/muslim-hajj-islam-statistics.
  2. Bagby, Ihsan. “The American Mosque in Transition: Assimilation, Acculturation and Isolation.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Mar. 2009, pp. 473–490., doi:DOI: 10.1080/13691830802704640.
  3. Bano, Masooda, and Hilary Kalmbach. Women, Leadership, and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority. Brill, 2016.
  4. Elewa, Ahmed, and Laury Silvers. “‘I AM ONE OF THE PEOPLE’: A SURVEY AND ANALYSIS OF LEGAL ARGUMENTS ON WOMAN-LED PRAYER IN ISLAM.” Journal of Law and Religion Vol. 26, No. 1 (2010-2011), Pp. 141-171, www.jstor.org.stanford.idm.oclc.org/stable/41428236.
  5. Kennedy, Miranda. “The ‘Un-Mosquing’ of American Muslims.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 18 Oct. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/the-un-mosquing-of-american-muslim s/411103/.
  6. Krausen, Halima. “Analysis: Can Women Be Imams? - Qantara.de.” Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World, 15 Sept. 2005, en.qantara.de/content/analysis-halima-krausen-can-women-be-imams.
  7. Melchert, Christopher. “Whether to Keep Women out of the Mosque: A Survey of Medieval Islamic Law.” Authority, Privacy, and Public Order in Islam, 2004, pp. 59–69., islamspring2012.voices-old.wooster.edu/files/2012/02/Melchert_Whether-to-keep-w omen-out-of-the-mosque.pdf.
  8. “Muslim Women Debate Gender Segregation In Mosques.” NPR, NPR, 12 Mar. 2010, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124623737.
  9. Nowrasteh, Alex. “Muslim Assimilation: Demographics, Education, Income, and Opinions of Violence.” Cato Institute, 24 Aug. 2016, www.cato.org/blog/muslim-assimilation-demographic-education-income-opinions-vi olence. 21
  10. Pullella, Philip. “Catholic Women Urge Pope to Tear down Church’s ‘Walls of Misogyny’.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 8 Mar. 2018, www.reuters.com/article/us-womens-day-vatican/catholic-women-urge-pope-to-tear down-churchs-walls-of-misogyny-idUSKCN1GK2JZ.
  11. Sharify-Funk, Meena, and Munira Kassam Haddad. “Where Do Women Stand in Islam? Negotiating Contemporary Muslim Prayer Leadership in North America.” Feminist Review, vol. 102, no. 1, 2012, pp. 41–61., doi:10.1057/fr.2012.10.
  12. “What Is The Women’s Mosque of America?” The Women’s Mosque of America, womensmosque.com/faq/.
  13. YuÌksel, Edip, et al. Quran: a Reformist Translation. Brainbow Press, 2007.
  14. “Islamic Feminism, a Public Lecture by Liv Tønnessen, Regional Institute of Gender, Rights, Peace & Diversity, Ahfad University for Women, Sudan.” www.cmi.no/publications/file/5289-islamic-feminism-a-public-lecture-by.pdf.
  15. Penny Edgell, Douglas Hartmann, Evan Stewart, Joseph Gerteis; Atheists and Other Cultural Outsiders: Moral Boundaries and the Non-Religious in the United States, Social Forces, Volume 95, Issue 2, 7 December 2016, Pages 607–638, https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/sow063
  16. Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America, et al. “Fatwas and Legal Opinions on Women Leading Prayers.” 19 Mar. 2005, www.scribd.com/document/7125605/Fatwas-and-Legal-Opinions-on-Women-Leadin g-Prayers.
  17. Noor Mohammad Osmani, Ph.D, et al. “The Political Role of Muslim Women: Between Traditional Texts and Changing Realities.” AMSS 38th ANNUAL CONFERENCE “Islamic Traditions and Comparative Modernities” , Sept. 2009, https://naaims.org/uploads/Noor_Mohamammad_Osmani_-_38FP.pdf.
  18. Ghamidi, Javed. “Women Leading Men In Prayer - Javed Ahmad Ghamidi.” Foundation for Islamic Research and Education, www.javedahmadghamidi.com/questions/view/women-leading-men-in-prayer. 22
  19. Shaykh Abou El Fadl. “Fatwa: On Women Leading Prayer.” On Beauty and Reason in Islam, 5 Apr. 2010, www.searchforbeauty.org/2010/04/05/fatwa-on-women-leading-prayer/.
  20. Mohammed, Khaleel. “The Message of Islam / For People Who Think.” Female-Led Prayer , 10 Apr. 2005, www.forpeoplewhothink.org/.

[Quran 6:38] We did not leave anything out of this book.

[Quran 6:114] Shall I seek other than God as a law maker, when He has brought down to you this Book fully detailed?

[Quran 7:3] You shall all follow what has been brought down to you (QURAN) from your Lord and do not follow any allies besides Him. Rarely do you remember.

[Quran 7:52] We have given them a scripture that is fully detailed, with knowledge, guidance, and mercy for the people who believe.

[Quran 12:111] In their history, there is a lesson for those who possess intelligence. This (Quran) confirms all previous scriptures, provides the details of everything, and is a beacon and mercy for those who believe.

[Quran 77:50] So in what discourse, other than this (QURAN), do they believe?

(Translations by Yusuf Ali)

Hadith invoked by those opposed to full female participation:

Source: reported by Ibn Majah on the authority of Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah​ “A woman should not lead men in prayer,” (Ibn Majah Vol:1, P343). 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.

Source: Anas narrated in Bukhari​ states that the Prophet lead him and his mother or aunt in prayer. He said: “He placed me on his right, and let the woman stand behind us”.

Source: Malik has narrated from Anas ​states that the Prophet said: “I lined up with the orphan (boy) behind him (Muhammad), and the old woman stood behind us.”

Source: Muslim narrated in (Sahih Muslim) that Abu Huraira​ said: “The best row for the men is the first one and the worst one [for them] is the last one, and the best row for the women is the last one and the worst one [for them] is the first one.”

Source: Abu Dawud​: “Friday prayer is a due obligation upon every Muslim in congregation, except four: an owned slave, a woman, a male child, and a sick person”.

Source: Ahmad and Abu Dawud ​the Prophet said: “Do not prevent the women to go out to the mosques, and their homes are better for them” .

Source: Al-Sadooq, Man Laa YaH Duruh Al-Faqeeh, vol. 1, pg. 317, hadith # 937 “Everything is mutlaq (unconditional/halaal), until a prohibition arrives concerning it.”

Shafi’i school, Source: Mujtahid Imam [Kitab al-Umm by Imam al-Shafi ‘i rady Allahu ‘anh] ​”If a woman leads men, women and male children, the Salat of the women [the woman Imam including the women Ma’muns] are valid whereas the Salat of the men and the male children are invalid. This is because Allah (Glory and Exalted is He!) has made men supporters of women and has discouraged them from becoming protectors and so forth. It would not be permissible for a woman to be an Imam of a man in any prayer at any time whatsoever. [Umm, 1:292]