This is a call for Muslims to stand behind women in prayer as a matter of “civil” disobedience in the face of a clear injustice, even in the face of the discomfort.
By Laury Silvers, May 12, 2005
Professor Hina Azam and Imam Zaid Shakir have presented well-argued pieces upholding the prohibition against woman-led prayer. Although it may seem to some of their readers that the matter has been settled, the question of woman-led prayer is still open to debate. In fact, Prof. Azam challenges the progressive movement to locate a new approach to the question of woman-led prayer since she finds it cannot be resolved through the currently accepted principles of interpretation. This essay is not an answer to that challenge, but a two-part call. First, it is a call for that challenge to be taken up by scholars of Islamic jurisprudence. Second, it is a call for Muslims to stand behind women in prayer as a matter of “civil” disobedience in the face of a clear injustice, even in the face of the discomfort of both men and women in the community at large. Through the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, we will, God willing, find a broadly accepted path that will permit woman-led mixed gender public congregational prayer.
The progressive movement argues that there is a clear social injustice arising from the prohibition of woman-led congregational prayer. Prof. Azam herself has admitted the desirability of having women lead the Friday prayers. She says, “Heaven knows I have wished for women to be able to lead salat al-jumu’ah.” The prohibition of female imams is part of the larger problem of women’s marginalization in the Muslim community. Prof. Azam says that women are considered good Muslims when they are most invisible:
“Women in the Muslim community generally, and in the mosque in particular, are seen as being “good Muslims” when they are most silent, most unobtrusive, most compliant with male-driven policies. Walls and curtains, crowded and substandard prayer areas, prohibitions from entering the “main” area or going through the “main” door, lack of comfortable and direct access to imams/scholars, gender separation of couples and families upon entrance into the mosque — all of these contribute to a feeling of alienation among Muslim women.”
Imam Zaid Shakir likewise comments:
“Saying [that women are not permitted to lead the prayer], we should not lose sight of the fact that there are many issues in our community involving the neglect, oppression, and in some instances, the degradation of our women. Until we address those issues, as a community, in an enlightened manner, we are open to criticism, and will likely encourage various forms of protest.”
The marginalization of women is so deep-rooted that even Imam Zaid, whom I know to be a long-time supporter of women’s rights in Islam, demonstrates a habituated paternalism when he uses the phrase “our women” in the passage above. The alienation of women explains in part why so many Muslim women and sympathetic Muslim men do not attend the mosque, nor participate actively in the Muslim community. If one of the goals of the congregational prayer is to bring about social cohesion—our shoulders meeting to bar against the divisive influence of Iblis—then the present order of the mosque works against an important purpose of the congregational prayer.
The social benefits of woman-led congregational prayers are likewise clear. As women assume positions of religious authority, they will join working women and homemakers as role models in the community. Disrespect of women in our community is related to the high value that is placed on their invisibility in the public sphere and in the mosque. Women are best when not noticed, even working women and homemakers, and so it follows that women and their needs end up being forgotten in the community. With women religious leaders in our community, women’s concerns will be directly represented by other women, rather than second-hand (if at all) by men. Simply put, women imams are not invisible. The presence of female religious leaders will habituate members of the community to accept the worth of women in all arenas of Muslim life. Young women and men who grow up in Muslim communities in which women of authority are visible and treated with respect as a matter of course will be less likely to disrespect themselves and other women. Young people will grow up knowing that a person’s knowledge and love of God are what is most valued in the community, rather one’s gender.
Prof. Hina Azam and Imam Zaid Shakir’s essays demonstrate that the prohibition is in part based on the lack of a clear, specific permission for a woman-led public mixed-gender congregational prayer. Prof. Azam argues that there is a lack of clear permission for a woman-led Friday prayer specifically, but not a woman-led mixed-gender congregational prayer in some other cases. Imam Zaid Shakir argues that there is a lack of clear permission for a woman-led public congregational prayer in general. He also indicates that while there is no clear prohibition against woman-led prayer in the Qur’an or in the Sunna, there is sufficient legal reasoning on different aspects of the issue to indicate with certainty that woman-led mixed-gender prayer is prohibited. According to the interpretive principle that “certainty cannot be cancelled by doubt,” the doubt that is raised by the lack of a both a clear permission and a clear prohibition does not allow us to argue that the prayer can be permitted. I do not dispute this legal principle, nor the legal reasoning that leads Prof. Azam and Imam Zaid to uphold the prohibition. But several scholars of jurisprudence have considered the matter in a different way. They state quite simply that since there is no clear prohibition in the Sources, woman-led mixed-gender prayer is permissible if a particular Muslim community agrees to it. I hope that these will be the first of many voices supporting the validity of woman-led prayer.
I would argue that the presence of doubt articulated by Prof. Azam and Imam Zaid, as well as the approval of the prayer by several scholars, allow us to keep pressing the issue in the face of continuing injustice. Islamic jurisprudence is a human system developed out of a human struggle to interpret the Divine intent from our sacred sources, the Qur’an and the Sunna. But there is nothing sacred in the scholars themselves. Prof. Azam asks us, “Is it possible that all of those jurists over hundreds of years were wrong and you are right?” There is a tendency in Prof. Azam’s and Imam Zaid’s pieces to honor the legal tradition by refusing to question it even in the face of social wrongs that they themselves admit. I share their love of the Islamic legal tradition, but I cannot sanctify human interpretation by imputing infallibility to the process. Neither it seems could many scholars of Islamic jurisprudence over the years. There are examples past and present demonstrating that jurists have understood their obligation to use their minds and their consciences to work in creative ways to counter injustice that had been previously been supported by clear legal permissions. For instance, consider the long-standing Qur’anicaly established practice of slavery. Objections of conscience to the practice of slavery over time led scholars to restrict the conditions of its practice so as to make it prohibited in all but name only. The scholars never found a clear ground for the prohibition of slavery from within the logic of Islamic jurisprudence, but in following their conscience they found an alternative mode to restrict the practice to the point of prohibition. A student of Islamic legal theory would argue that slavery is an example from mu`amala not `ibada, so the situations are not comparable. I argue that we should think beyond these divisions, as important as they are, to remember that scholars were willing to finesse a “prohibition” from a clear legal permission derived from the Qur’an itself in order bring practice in line with their consciences. Prof. Azam has challenged the progressive movement to find an alternative mode of interpretation so that she might one day attend a mosque with a woman imam. I in turn challenge scholars on the basis of their consciences to work within the system to find a way to permit woman-led mixed gender congregational prayers.
One does not need to leave the tradition to find this legal possibility. There are innovative modes of legal interpretation well-established in the history of Islamic jurisprudence. For instance, the notion of maslaha may end up being of some use in correcting matters of clear injustice in our community. Maslaha can be summarized, from one perspective, as a principle of legal interpretation resting on the notion God is Just, He has commanded His servants to enact His justice in the world, and that He has not disclosed every possible legal cause from which we may derive rulings in the Qur’an or through the Prophet’s practice (even those causes that can be induced through analogical reasoning from these Sources). While legal theorists differ on whether maslaha stands as an alternative to the already established usul a-fiqh or as a necessary component of it, it nevertheless provides a theoretical tool to approach critical issues affecting the Muslim community as a whole.
Lastly, I would like to address the matter of fitna raised by Imam Zaid. He argues that the community is in disarray, indeed some Muslims’ faith has been challenged, because a woman led a congregational prayer. I would like to draw a parallel with the Civil Rights movement in order better explain why supporters of woman-led prayer are willing to challenge the comfort of the community at large. Seen in the light of the courageous Rosa Parks, women who have led mixed-gender congregational prayers have dared to come forward from their place in the back of the mosque to stand in front of men. Just like whites, Muslim men have not been eager to give up their legislated privilege to stand in front of women in prayer and to lead women in other matters. Like the supporters of the Civil Rights movement, all of us would say that the fight is worth it. With the greatest respect to Imam Zaid, I would like to recast his closing words in the context of the Civil Rights movement only to elucidate how supporters of woman-led prayer understand the situation. Please read the following passage as if he had written it in response to Rosa Parks’ courageous act.
“We must also understand that Islam has never advocated a liberationist philosophy. Our fulfillment in this life will never come as the result of breaking real or perceived chains of oppression. That does not mean that we should not struggle against oppressive practices and institutions. However, when we understand that success in such worldly struggles has nothing to do with our fulfillment as human beings, we will be able to keep those struggles in perspective, and not be moved to frustration or despair when their outcomes are counter to our plans.
Our fulfillment does not lie in our liberation, rather it lies in the conquest of our soul and its base desires. That conquest only occurs through our enslavement to God. Our enslavement to God in turn means that we have to suppress many of our souls’ desires and inclinations. Therein lies one of the greatest secrets to unleashing our real human potential. This is so because it is our spiritual potential that separates us from the rest of this creation, and it is to the extent that we are able to conquer our physical nature that we realize that spiritual potential.”
Read in this light, the passage should give a better sense of how women and their allies experience women’s relegation to the invisible in our community and our dismay at Imam Zaid’s call for quietism and maintenance of the status quo.
Opinions against woman-led prayer typically argue that a woman bending over in front of men will promote fornication and adultery. Though I decline to discuss the absurdity of this argument, at least in the contemporary North American context, as well as the grave insult it constitutes to the character of men, I suggest several formations of the prayer the last two of which would nullify this concern. Particular communities can organize the prayer in any number of ways according to their sensibilities. A woman imam could stand in front of mixed-gender lines, in the center of men and women in separate but side by side sections, in front of the woman’s section side by side, or in front of the women in a woman’s section entirely separate from the men—in which case, the prayer could be delivered over loudspeaker and television to the men’s section as it is now for women.
Serious social upheaval is not likely to occur as our community confronts the question of woman-led prayer. Several scholars have approved woman-led prayer if the congregation agrees to it. I argue that this stipulation will lead to a greater discussion of women’s role in the community in general, not just the desirability of women leading the congregational prayer in particular. Even if a specific community of Muslims ultimately decides against woman-led prayer for themselves, the discussion will benefit all Muslims since it will encourage communication about women’s concerns. It will moreover ensure that a particular community will come to terms with the issue before a woman-led prayer takes root among them.
In the meantime, I argue that Muslims should gather to pray behind women as a matter of “civil” disobedience whether or not they understand the prayer to be permissible at this point. One can simply perform the “valid” prayer later if one is concerned about it.
We can challenge this and other injustices in our community on two fronts, (1) by working within the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence—and here I would like to echo Omid Safi’s call in the PMU statement for women to be educated in the madrasa system—and (2) by acting as conscientious objectors to rulings that are destroying the fabric of our community and hampering the growth of faith and practice among Muslims.