The Woman-Led Prayer that Catalyzed Controversy
On 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.
The service led by Wadud was held at Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal church in Manhattan. Three mosques and an art gallery had previously turned down Wadud after receiving bomb threats. 80 to 100 people were in attendance at the service, with men and women equally represented. Most of the women were wearing the hijab (headscarf). In traditional Islamic custom, women are required to pray in rows behind men or in an entirely different part of the mosque. Many theologians believe that it is inappropriate for a woman to kneel in front of men during prayers. Such theologians explain this by citing that a woman’s (sexual) presence can distract a man, particularly because Muslim prayers are more physical and involve bending, bowing and prostrating.
The March 18 prayer led by Wadud and co-sponsored by muslimwakeup.com
and the Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour catalyzed both positive excitement and negative outrage among the Muslim community worldwide. According to the Progressive Muslim Union of North America (PMU): “The goal of the New York City woman-led, mixed gender prayer was not to impose this particular style of prayer on others, but to be part of a challenge of the current status quo, which attempts to dictate one style of prayer on everyone, namely where men lead, and women stay behind. Our point in endorsing woman-led prayer and launching the Prayer Initiative is not so much to dictate how people should pray, but rather to insist that a wide spectrum of interpretations be respected and discussed.”
Negative Reaction & Reasoning
In 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.” 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.
The Argument for Muslim Women as Religious Leaders
The 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.'” 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. 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. 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 Perspective
Traditional 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.
The On Common Ground profile of Dr. Wadud notes that she adopted Islam at age 20. She had been raised Methodist, but after living in a Buddhist community for a year (which expanded her spiritual understanding) and receiving a Qur’an, she converted to Islam. Islam has since remained at the center of her life. Wadud is also quoted as emphasizing, “Islam clarified for me that no, I don’t have to turn the other cheek to oppression. I can stand up for what is just and what is right. It doesn’t mean that I have to violently resist, but it does mean that I’m allowed to say, ‘I don’t go for that. I don’t have to go for that. That’s not how God intended it, that’s not a part of basic humanity.” Refusing to ‘turn the other cheek to oppression’ has translated into Wadud’s role as a core member of Sisters in Islam, a social advocacy group that promotes gender equality and challenges sexism within the Islamic faith. An alternative interpretation of the Qur’an, one that incorporates the female voice, is also explored in Wadud’s book, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective.
In a 2002 PBS Frontline Interview (2002) with Amina Wadud, the scholar comments on gender leadership in Islam: “My contention is that patriarchy is one way of survival, but that its time has ended; that it is no longer possible for us to save the planet, to sustain our lives on the planet, to be able to have healthy relations, whether in families or in communities at large or between nations, if we maintain our projection on a patriarchal framework. We need one that is a lot more cooperative. I think that this is one of the reasons why it has been palpable that more women have been involved in many areas of progression, not just in terms of Islam, but also coincidentally in terms of Islam. Islam, in its original articulation, is very patriarchal. There are aspects of Qur’anic articulation that corroborate the patriarchy of the time. Yet I do [not think] that patriarchy is an aspect of Islam’s universality. I think it is a functional displacement, which allowed for it to fit into the time….”
Acts of Muslim Women’s Advocacy: Asra Nomani & Others
Dr. 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.
In addition to participating in the first woman-led prayers in New York, Nomani has also prayed in the male section of mosques such as at the Washington Islamic Center and the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles. Nomani also organized a prayer service on March 25, 2005 in Boston led by Boston resident Nakia Jackson. The event made Jackson the second woman ever to lead the sacred Friday prayers. Vehement protestors appeared at the event to voice their disapproval. On April 8, 2005, Nomani and a female Maryland tax attorney named Rahat Khan prayed beside men in Washington’s Islamic Center, a core center for American Muslims. At 12:30 PM there were 600 men in the Washington mosque and 100 women in the basement. Nomani and Khan were told by a handful of men to go downstairs, but they stood their ground and were able to remain peacefully in the main hall and to pray alongside Muslim men who made space for them. The prayer leader, furthermore, did not interfere with the women’s symbolic act of defiance. Despite fears of violence and warnings from friends, Khan was prompted to pray alongside the men in the mosque because she believes that Islam has given her a sense of equal status.
Egyptian Islamic law official Ali Gomaa and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi are a couple of Nomani’s critics whose backlash Nomani has had to confront. These men cite that a woman-led prayer is in direct opposition to Islamic law and unacceptable. Nomani has responded to such criticism by remarking, “The violent reaction we’re getting from people in power is the result of efforts to maintain their power and their control over the masses…[w]e won’t accept their corrupt thinking anymore. We’re confident in the validity and righteousness of what we’re doing.”
Since the actions of women such as Wadud, Nomani, and Khan, woman-led prayers in North America have spread. On July 1, 2005, Pamela Taylor became the first woman to lead Friday prayers in a Canadian mosque. Taylor is an American convert to Islam and co-chair of the New York-based Progressive Muslim Union. More than 100 people of mixed gender attended the service at the United Muslim Association mosque in Toronto on “Canada Day.” In addition to leading the prayers, Taylor also gave a sermon on the importance of equality among genders, races, sexual orientations and people with disabilities. Protestors threatened to show up to the service, but never did. Formerly, in April 2005, a different Canadian woman became the first to lead a mixed-gender congregation in prayer, but the event was moved to a back yard after vehement protestors swarmed the mosque.
The 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.
 Eltantawi, Sarah and Zuriani Zonneveld.
“The Women-led Prayer Initiative: Eltantawi and Zonneveld’s article on the Town Hall Meeting.” Progressive Muslim Union. 22 June 2005. Accessed August 2005. Available from http://www.pmuna.org/archives/2005/06/eltantawi_and_z.php. ↩︎
 Abdo, Geneive. “When Islam Clashes with Women’s Rights.” The Boston Globe. 9 April 2005. Accessed August 2005. Available from http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2005/04/09/when_islam_clashes_with_womens_rights/. ↩︎
 Eltantawi, Sarah and Zuriani Zonneveld.
“The Women-led Prayer Initiative:
Eltantawi and Zonneveld’s article on the Town Hall Meeting.” Progressive Muslim Union. 22 June 2005. Accessed August 2005. Available from http://www.pmuna.org/archives/2005/06/eltantawi_and_z.php. ↩︎
 Ibid. ↩︎
 Ibid. ↩︎
 “Muslim Women’s League’s Response to Woman-Led Friday Prayer.” Muslim Women’s League. 17 March 2005. Accessed August 2005. Available from http://www.mwlusa.org/responses/womanledprayer.htm. ↩︎
 “PBS Frontline Interview: Amina Wadud.” (2002)WGBH Education Foundation. Accessed August 2005. Available from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/muslims/interviews/wadud.html. ↩︎
 Iqbal, Anwar. “Muslim Women Bring Prayers to Washington.” The Washington Times. 11 April 2005. Accessed August 2005. Available from http://washingtontimes.com/upi-breaking/20050408-070423-4489r.htm. ↩︎
 “Women-led prayers is a ‘milestone of woman liberation in Islam.'”NewsIslam.org on Asranomani.com. 24 March 2005. Accessed August 2005. Available from http://asranomani.com/media/archives/2005/03/newislamcom_wom.↩︎
3. “Friday Prayer Led by Dr. Amina Wadud @ NYC.” Muslim WakeUp! Inc. Accessed August 2005. Available from http://www.muslimwakeup.com/events/archives/2005/03/friday_prayer_l.php.
4. Iqbal, Anwar. “Muslim Women Bring Prayers to Washington.” The Washington Times. 11 April 2005. Accessed August 2005. Available from http://washingtontimes.com/upi-breaking/20050408-070423-4489r.htm.
5. Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour. Asranomani.com. Accessed August 2005. Available at http://asranomani.com/freedom/.
Pluralism Project References/Resources
- Religious Diversity News Articles: Women Lead Islamic Prayers
- Religious Diversity News, International Article: “Country’s First Woman-Led Islamic Prayers Held at United Muslim Association Mosque (Canada)“
- “Aminda Wadud” in On Common Ground: World Religions in America [CD-ROM]. Diana Eck, The Pluralism Project at Harvard University (New York: Columbia University Press), 1997.
Photograph by AFP