According to the general consensus of jurists, a woman is not allowed to lead men in a mosque or congregation. She is, however, allowed to lead a congregation consisting only of women. In the latter case, it is not only permitted for women to do so, rather it may even be considered highly recommended because of the greater rewards of praying in congregation as compared to praying individually.
Dr. Ahmed Shleibak, Dean of Academic Affairs at the Islamic American University, member of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America, and member of the Fiqh Council of North America, states: We as Muslims have to follow the practice and guidance of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), as Allah commanded and ordered us to do: (O you who believe, obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those in authority among you. And if you are in dispute over any matter, refer it to Allah and His Messenger if you are actually believers in Allah and the last day. That is better for you and more seemly in the end) (An-Nisa’ 4: 59).
Almighty Allah also says: (It is not for a believer, man or women, when Allah and His Messenger have decreed a matter that they should have any option in their decision. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger he has indeed strayed into a plain error) (Al-Ahzab 33: 36).
Allah Almighty says: (And whatsoever the Messenger gives you, take it and whatsoever he forbids you abstain (from it). And fear Allah, verily, Allah is severe in punishment) (Al-Hashr 59:7).
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whoever commits an act that does not conform to our matter (religion), then it will be rejected of him.”
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “I have left among you two matters, that if you adhere to them, you will never be misguided: The Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Prophet.”
He also said, “All of my nation will enter Paradise except those who refuse.” His Companions asked, “Who would refuse?” He (peace and blessings be upon him) answered, “Whoever obeys me will enter Paradise, and whoever disobeys me has refused (to enter Paradise).”
All these verses and hadiths emphasize following the path and guidance of Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) if we want to have Allah’s mercy and blessing in this life and in the Hereafter.
It is allowed for a woman to lead women in Prayer, regardless of whether it is a fard (obligatory) Prayer or nafl (supererogatory) Prayer. But it is not permissible for a woman to lead men in the Prayer. This is the opinion of the four schools of fiqh, and the seven jurists of Madinah among the Tabi`in (Successors), and then those who followed them.
This is due to the following reasons:
- If it is permitted by Allah or His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him), then such permission would have been transmitted from the first generation of Islam.
2. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) never said to a woman or chose a woman to lead Prayers in the mosque during the whole 16 years between the prescription of Prayer in Makkah and his death in Madinah. He could have chosen `A’ishah, the Mother of the Believers, or Fatimah, the master of the women of Jannah (Paradise), to lead the Prayers in his mosque, even just one time to show us that this is acceptable, especially that his mosque was a part of his home. Also, his Companions and their followers did not do this either, showing that it is not permissible for a woman to lead the Prayer at the mosque.
3. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “No nation shall succeed that is led by a woman”(Al-Bukhari and Muslim). This is even more binding in Prayer, since the imamate of Prayer requires a far more slavish imitation and following than the greater imamate.
4. The known practice in Prayer is that women should stand behind men; therefore it is obvious that their being at the front is not permitted.
- The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Keep them (women) behind insofar as Allah has kept them behind.”
- The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The best of the men’s rows is the first, and the worst is the last; and the best of the women’s rows is the last, and the worst is the first” (Muslim). The last rows are the best for women because they are farther away from the men as against the first rows that are nearest to the men. This explicitly states that if women are in the front they are in the worst position to pray. So how can she be delivering the khutbah (sermon) facing the worshipers and then praying ahead of even the first row of men?
- Narrated Anas (may Allah be pleased with him): “Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) prayed and an orphan and I prayed behind him and Umm Sulaim (may Allah be pleased with her) was behind us” (agreed upon).
5. It is better for women to pray in their houses than to attend congregational Prayer, even though it is permissible for them to attend the mosque. And it is not right that the leader of the Prayer be precluded from such excellence to begin with.
- The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not prevent the women from going to the mosques although their houses are better for them.”
- Umm Humaid As-Sa`diyyah came to the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) and said, “O Messenger of Allah, I love to pray with you. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “I am aware of that, but your Prayer in your residence is better for you than your Prayer in your people’s mosque. And your Prayer in your people’s mosque is better than your Prayer in the (larger) congregational mosque.” In this hadith the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) encouraged the women to pray in their houses because it is better for them, and whatever the Prophet chose for his Ummah is the best for them, because the source of the Prophetic knowledge is divine, and it is free from all kinds of error. If it is better for them to pray at home, then for women to lead the Prayer at the mosque would not be permissible.
6. `Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “A woman does not lead as imam.”
7. It is not allowed for anyone to make the Adhan or the Iqamah except a Muslim male who is adult and sane, who can pronounce the letters of the Adhan and the Iqamah properly. And the proof for that is that women were never asked to make the Adhan for men. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said addressing his male Companions,
“If you start Prayer, one of you should make the Adhan, and the oldest (male) of you or the most versed in Qur’an should be your imam.” So, if the woman is not allowed to make the Adhan or the Iqamah, how can we say that she is allowed to lead the Prayer?
8. The hadith of Umm Waraqah does not have clear indication that women can lead men in the Prayer at the mosque. `Uthman ibn Abi Shaibah said: Waki` told us, Al-Walid ibn `Abdullah told us that his grandmother told him and `Abdur-Rahman ibn Khalid Al-Ansari about Umm Waraqah that when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) carried out the battle of Badr she said, “Would you allow me to go with you so that I take care of the wounded and look after the sick? Perhaps Allah will grant me the bounty of martyrdom.” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Stay in your home, Allah will grant you martyrdom status.” So, he (peace and blessings be upon him) used to call her “the martyr.” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) then ordered her to lead the Prayers at her home. She used to have a muezzin to call the Adhan for her, and she used to lead her family until a slave boy of hers and a female slave killed her. We can conclude the following from this hadith:
- The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) explicitly told her to stay home and not even to go out to the mosque to pray. How can this be seen as evidence for women to go out and lead Prayers in a mosque? He could have asked her to go to the mosque and be the imam(ah). Instead, he (peace and blessings be upon him) instructed her to stay home.
- Scholars of usul al-fiqh call the explicit meaning of a text the “zhahir,” which is the meaning that is explicitly mentioned in a text even if the text is not specifically stated for it. The nass of a text is what the text was specifically intended and said for. Nass is stronger than zhahir and has to be considered before it in the case where the meaning appears to conflict. In this hadith, staying home is nass, as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was explicitly answering a request to go out to war.
- The claim that this hadith proves that women can be imams is unsubstantiated, as that meaning is not a zhahir of the text; that is, no word in the hadith states that women can be imams in mosques and that men can pray behind them. This is an implicit meaning that is much lower in consideration to both zhahir and nass, and has to be considered in consolidation with other evidence of Shari`ah.
- Al-Qurtubi said, “Ash-Shafi`i said a man who prays behind a woman has to repeat the Prayer. Abu Thawr said, no he does not have to repeat it (this does not mean that it can take place in the first place, it only means that if it happens by mistake he does not have to repeat it). Our scholars consented upon the ruling that women cannot lead Prayers, not even for other women. They look at the hadith of Umm Waraqah as a special case that stands alone, specific to her status as a living martyr, so she was ordered to stay home and lead her family in Prayers … not other people.”
- The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) ordered her to lead only the members of her household in Prayer, but he did not order her to lead the Prayer in the mosque. If it had been permissible for her to do that, or she had understood that from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), then she would have done it to show us that is permissible to lead the Prayer in the mosque.
- The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) allowed Umm Waraqah (may Allah be pleased with her) to lead the women of her household in Prayer as ibn Qudamah said in Al-Mughni, just as `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) used to lead women in Prayer and stand with the women in the middle of the first row. Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with her) would also do so.
From all of the above it becomes very clear that it is not permissible for a woman to lead the prayer in the mosque. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “A woman may not be an imam, and a wicked sinner may not be imam for the believers, except if he has overpowered him with authority, or he fears the whip or sword of the latter.” Even though the hadith is weak, the majority act according to its implication.