The Woman-Led Prayer that Catalyzed ControversyOn March 18, 2005, Dr. Amina Wadud made waves when she led Muslim prayers in New York City, a ritual almost always reserved for men. Wadud is an African-American activist and a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is a well-known scholar of Islam and is also author of the book Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. Contrary to most followers of Islam, she believes Muslim women should be able to lead prayers. Wadud's research of the Qur'an and the customs of Prophet Muhammad demonstrate that nothing prohibits women from leading prayers and, furthermore, that Prophet Muhammad approved such practices. Wadud seeks to reaffirm the role of women as spiritual leaders, a position that has been lost over the centuries.
Negative Reaction & ReasoningIn reaction, unsurprisingly, Wadud received warnings from sheiks that called her actions heresy, and death threats prompted by fatwas (legal opinions by Islamic scholars) issued against her. Sheik Yousef al-Qaradawi, a leading Islamic scholar based in Qatar, commented in reaction to Wadud's actions: “[All Islamic scholars] agree that women do not lead men in (performing) religious duties...one wishes our sisters who are enthusiastic about women's rights would revive the practice of women leading women in prayers, instead of coming up with the heresy of women leading men in prayers" (1). Islam, according to such critics, forbids women to lead prayers unless it is in private and solely in the presence of other women. Muslim religious leaders in the Middle East similarly complained that Wadud's prayer violated centuries of tradition. Opposition to woman-led prayers is indeed more widespread than support for such acts. Many opponents cite the potential for fitna, or the sexual power that women possess over men, as a primary reason to deny females this practice. According to the Islamic faith, fitna, which causes uncontrollable desire in men, is dangerous because it can lead to social chaos. UCLA Law Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl points out, however, that A'isha, the Prophet's wife, at one time slept next to the Prophet when he was leading prayers (2).
The Argument for Muslim Women as Religious LeadersThe argument for Muslim women as potential religious leaders, however, finds contextual support in Islamic texts. Um Salama, a woman of the Prophet's time, was a religious authority as was A'isha, the Prophet's wife. "According to El Fadl, 'About 30% (if not more) of Islamic jurisprudence was created by these two women'"(2). The Muslim Women's League (MWL) cites, furthermore, that for Sunni Muslims, a large part of hadith literature (a narration about the life of the Prophet) is based on the testimony of one of the Prophet's wives, A'isha (his favorite). For Shi'ite Muslims, there is a similar sense of importance connected to hadith narrated from Fatima, the prophet's daughter (2). Examples such as these were referenced in papers by the Muslim Women's League in 1995 in preparation for its participation in the United Nations' 4th World Conference on Women. The MWL also notes that the Qur'an does not have much to say on the issue of women leading prayer, except for one example in the Traditions compiled by Abu Dawud. In it, Prophet Muhammed instructed Umm Waraqa bint Abdullah to lead her household and its inhabitants, which included at least one man, in prayer because she was the most knowledgeable Qur'anic scholar in her community (6). Many Islamic traditionalists, however, dismiss such evidence and cite Um Salama and A'isha as exceptions to the patriarchal standard. They note that because no woman today is close to the Prophet as Um Salama and A'isha were, no woman is comparable.
Adapting Islam in the West: Dr. Wadud's PerspectiveTraditional interpretations of Islam face challenges in the US where women's suffrage movements and advocacy for social equality comprise a significant portion of recent history. Moreover, the Islamic faith in general has become subject to premature assumptions due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks committed by an isolated group of fundamentalist Muslims. In the Pluralism Project's CD-Rom On Common Ground: World Religions in America, Dr. Wadud reflects on the image of Islam in the West: “[T]he funny thing is that in America, people know less about what the Qur'an says than they know anything else about Islam. The sad thing is that Muslims know more about a lot of stuff than they know about the Qur'an...They know tradition, culture, lies, history; they don't know the book.” Wadud seeks to correct this imbalance in her work as both a teacher and an activist.
Acts of Muslim Women's Advocacy: Asra Nomani & OthersDr. Wadud is one of many Muslim women raising their voices and letting their message of gender equality in the Islamic faith be heard. Asra Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter as well as the author of a book on Muslim women entitled Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She has spearheaded efforts to give Muslim women a platform. Nomani, described by many as a liberal feminist, created the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour which co-sponsored Wadud's service. The Washington Post reports that one caller left Nomani a threatening message in Urdu noting: "If you want to stay alive, keep your mouth shut." The message went on to say that if Nomani did not comply, her throat would be slit and her parents slaughtered. The caller added that he knew where they all lived. Ten minutes later, he called her parents to reinforce his message.
Status QuoThe question of whether woman-led prayer in the Islamic faith is permissable remains open to debate. While some critics and scholars maintain that such acts are blasphemous, the progressive movement argues that denying women the right to lead Islamic prayers is blatant social injustice. According to such progressives, prohibiting the existence of female imams, or prayer leaders, alludes to the greater marginalization of Muslim women within their own faith. The benefit of having female imams, moreover, is significant as female imams can better represent and empathize with Muslim women. Organizations such as the Muslim Women's League also recognize the broader significance of woman-led prayer. They hypothesize that the disillusionment that many women have about Islam in general could perhaps be assuaged if women in the Muslim community played more important roles in their religious communities.
Pluralism Project References / Resources___________________________________
Religious Diversity NewsReligious Diversity News Articles: Women Lead Islamic Prayers
On Common GroundEck, Diana L. and The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, "Aminda Wadud" in On Common Ground: World Religions in America [CD-ROM]. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.