In fact, the status of woman in Islam constitutes no problem. The attitude of the Qur’an and the early Muslims bear witness to the fact that woman is as vital to life as man himself, and that she is not inferior to him nor is she one of the lower species. Had it not been for the impact of foreign cultures and alien influences, this question would have never arisen among the Muslims. The status of woman was taken for granted to be equal to that of man. It was, of course, a matter of fact, and no one then considered it as a problem at all.
As for the `ibadat (acts of worship), we have to carry out them in the same and exact way prescribed by Allah Almighty and taught by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). There are some slight differences in carrying out some acts of worship between men and women, in a way that best suits their different natures. For example, in Hajj women are allowed to wear their normal clothes or attire regardless of whether they are with seams or not, while men are not allowed wear clothes with seams. This is, of course, in favour of women’s nature and need to cover their entire body with the exception of the face and hands.
Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, former president of the Islamic Society of North America, states: Islam places no restriction on women to teach, preach, and guide both women and men. The Qur’an says, (Men and women are supporters of each other. They command what is right and forbid what is wrong) (At-Tawbah 9:71). There are many women today who are fully qualified to be jurists (faqihah) and give religious opinions (fatwas). They do issue fatwas and teach Qur’an and Hadith in schools, colleges, and universities all over the world. Many Islamic organizations, Islamic centers, and mosques in America also have very learned and knowledgeable sisters who participate in their masjids’ boards and involve themselves in administration, teaching, preaching, and counseling. Muslims should give them more opportunities, allow them and encourage them to become full partners in Islamic work.
Leading salah (Prayer), however, is restricted to male imams only when the congregation consists of men and women, whether the Prayer is performed in the mosques or outside mosques, whether they are daily Prayers or Friday and `Eid Prayers. Women are not allowed to lead such Prayers.
This has also been the practice of Muslims all over the world since the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). This Shar`i ruling is not because of any notion of spiritual deficiency among women. Men and women both are equal in the sight of Allah and both of them must be fully respected and honored. Women are allowed to lead the Prayer when the congregation is all women. They are also allowed to lead the Prayer in their homes among their family members, if they are more knowledgeable of the Qur’an and Islamic rules.
Recently some people have started a controversy about this matter of Shari`ah. Questions are being asked about the Islamic reasons why women are barred from leading the Prayers of men and women both. In order to understand the rules and wisdom of Shari`ah in this matter, following points are in order:
1. There is a difference between salah and du`aa’ (supplication) in Islam. Salah is a fixed and formalized form of prayer. Its timings, positions, postures, style including the wording and recitations were all fixed by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). It is not permissible to introduce any new style or liturgy in salah. Du`aa’, however, is another form of Islamic prayer that is informal and there is no restriction as to who performs it and how and when it is performed. It can be performed in any language. It can be done individually or collectively. It can be led by males or females. In salah we are supposed to follow the Sunnah. We cannot add or delete anything from the salah if we want our salah to be valid and acceptable to Allah.
About du`aa’ one can say that since we are not forbidden to do our du`a’ in a particular manner, we are allowed to do it the way we want it; but in salah everything is forbidden unless it is allowed. For example, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did not say that salah cannot be performed in English. He did not say that you cannot have salah in congregation six times a day. Now, based on this argument, we cannot start having our salah in English or six times every day.
2. In our salah, we stand very close to each other or as we say “shoulder to shoulder and ankle to ankle” almost touching each other. We stand in straight lines. We make ruku` and sujud. We are supposed to pray with sincerity and devotion concentrating our heart and mind towards the Prayer. For this reason the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told us that men and women should have separate lines. The lines of men should be in the front area, then the lines of children and then women. The imam should stand in front of the congregation and should make ruku` and sajdah before the congregation and they should follow the imam.
The ideal way in this structure of Prayer service is to separate men from women and not allow a woman to be ahead of all men and bow and prostrate in front of them. Haya’ (modesty) is a special character of Islam. It is emphasized that men and women both must observe haya’ always and especially in their places of worship. The Prophet’s wife `A’ishah and his Companion Ibn `Abbas are reported to have said that a woman leading other women in Prayer should not stand in front of them like a male imam, but in their midst.
3. Some people refer to the hadith of Umm Waraqah who was allowed by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to lead the salah. According to the Sunan of Abu Dawud, the hadith says: “Umm Waraqah wanted to accompany the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to the battle of Badr, but the Prophet told her to stay in her home.” Further in this hadith it is said that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to visit her in her home. He appointed a person to give the Adhan (call for Prayer) for her and he told her to lead the Prayer for the people of her house. `Abdur-Rahman ibn Khallad (the reporter of this hadith) said, “I saw her muezzin who was a very old man” (Abu Dawud 500). In other reports of this hadith it is said that the Prophet told her to lead the Prayers of the women of her house (Ad-Darqutni).
This hadith does not give permission to women to lead the salah of men in the masjid; it is restricted to home and according to some versions only for the women of the home. Most of the scholars of Hadith and fiqh did not use this as a general permission of the Prophet for women to be imams of the mosques and lead men and women in Prayers. If this would have been the general case, then many other very able and qualified women in the time of the Prophet and after him would have been leading salah in the mosque.