Friday, June 29, 2007

Women lead Prayer 05-03-25

Muslim Women Leading the Friday Prayer

Mirza A. Beg
Sunday, March 20, 2005

Al Jazeerah, Friday, March 25, 2005

It certainly is a notable event, Earth shaking, perhaps not. From some perspectives it is a long overdue recognition of the right of women to participate fully and on equal terms with men. It is a minority view and goes strongly against a tradition that held sway for fourteen centuries. While in other perspectives held by a vast majority of Muslims around the world, it is wrong. The degrees of "wrong" range from it being considered: complete abomination, blatantly against the religion, an unnecessary innovation, against the authoritative texts, an attempt to grab headlines and appease the modernist detractors of Islam.

It is important to keep in mind that the foundation of Islam is "Shahada", that is the proclamation, "There is no deity except God and Muhammad was his messenger". The word of Quran Islam's holy book is the ultimate authority and the practices of the Messenger (Hadith) are the guide. One cannot negate the Quran and still be called a Muslim. However, the text has been interpreted with nuances of differences over the centuries. The practice and sayings of the Messenger have also been a subject of great debate throughout Islamic history. So much so that different interpretations have spawned many sects and schools of jurisprudence.

This event has taken place in a pluralistic, civil society; therefore, it cannot be stopped by legal or draconian means. This event can only be minimized and marginalized as being improper and wrong, by convincing a vast majority of the Muslims after a long and spirited debate. Those who want to can and will propagate and build on this event. Those who are opposed will and should marshal intellectual and religious arguments. Simply asserting that it has never been done and is against the traditions will not be a winning argument in the long run, and those who support this new development should not merely claim that it is modern and with the times. This is not a valid or decisive argument. Remember, many modern ideas popular at the time, end up on the dust heap of history. In a healthy society one should be able to discuss the religious and social issues in spirited debates, calmly with intellectual honesty and probity.

The debate has ensued. There are and will be knee jerk reactions. It will take some time for the arguments, both for and against, to crystallize and reach the people who really want to explore the intricacies and nuances of Islam honestly and logically. It is a very important that we participate in such a discussion. The Quran does not prohibit women from participating or even leading the prayers. Obviously the holy messenger was a man. Simply saying that the Messenger Muhammad (May God shed his grace on him) did not ever ask a woman to lead the prayers, would not be enough because traditionally women were not part of the public arena. From his character we know he was mild mannered and just. He was supporter of the downtrodden and women's rights. The question would hinge on, whether he specifically prohibited women to ever lead in prayers or not.

Historically, by and large, the very nature of societies have been for men to hold the temporal power and to be in the vanguard of priestly power as well - making them also the interpreters of the religion. The exceptional women have held power only temporarily and only by the support of men for specific reasons. The priestesses in the primitive religions were based on a female principle and were always supported and exploited by men.

With the exception of modern times, educational opportunities were available only to the very small upper crust of the population, and among them overwhelmingly only to men. So the women had to follow the rules adjudicated by men, as did the vast poorer sections of the population, males included. It is too simplistic to blame men as anti-women. Men have loved and cared for women as mothers, sister, wives and daughters, but a male mindset is imprinted in the laws of society. Powerful men held sway over the weaker men and all women.

This mindset persisted even in patent disregard of religion advocating and enjoining against injustice. In the case of Islam, we legitimately celebrate and take pride in the egalitarianism of Islam and that Islam gave women social and economic right, not available to others in contemporary societies. Yet those rights were substantially eroded over the centuries, and in most societies the atavistic tribal rights not only persisted, but were enforced by the guardians acting in the name of Islam.

Modern times have brought a great dilemma to the traditionalists. The right to literacy is a recognized universal right and education is spreading fast. The Internet has brought knowledge as close as the push of a button. Women particularly have made great strides. They are aspiring and succeeding in all fields of human endeavor, including, law and theology. They are not going to take a back seat, nor should they be inhibited.

Therefore the die has been cast' and the only option is for all sides to marshal their arguments, which should be based on the most sacred and binding texts. Simply throwing epithets, - such as women haters for traditionalists and Western stooges for those insisting on change, - is an insult to our intelligence and the comely spirit if Islam and civil society. People like me, who are not religious scholars but are willing to be educated welcome such a dialogue.

Mirza A Beg can be contacted at

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