First of all, it should be clear that the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah bear witness to the fact that woman is at least as vital to life as man and that she is neither inferior to him nor a lower species. When the Shari`ah restricts some positions to men, it does not mean discrimination, but should be understood within the framework of the general objectives of the Shari`ah, which are set by the Law-Giver (Almighty Allah) to order the lives of men and women in a way that best suits their natures.
Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, states I wish to stress from the outset, the following two points which, I believe, are crucial while discussing any issue that has any bearing on gender relations in Islam:
1. The question of imamah (leading) in Prayer has nothing to do with the issue of gender equity or equality between the rights of men and women. In Islam, we do not have a male priestly elite acting as intermediaries between man/woman and God. So, to consider imamah as a privilege that confers some special spiritual prerogatives on a person is enigmatic to Islam.
2. It is true that women need to claim their God-given rights in Muslim society—rights, which although granted to them by the Lawgiver, are either denied to them or restrained in the wake of the general decline of Muslim standards. Therefore, all those who wish to achieve a genuine Islamic renaissance should welcome each and every move by Muslim women to reassert their rightful role as active participants and partners of males in all aspects of Islamic life. It is not an exaggeration to state that the Muslim women during the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) were not at all silent witnesses, but rather they were active participants in society—a fact which has been fully documented in the authentic sources of Islam.
After having said this, however, we must state that using Prayer to demonstrate the above point is at best a poor choice, if not an outright aberration. For it serves only to distract us from focusing our attention on real issues that have direct bearing on gender equity and justice for females, thereby helping to improve the lot of women in Muslim communities.
Now, coming to the issue of a woman leading Prayer, we ought to remember the following
- Prayer in its entirety, including its basic format and details, has been fixed by Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) in such a way that it cannot be subject to any modification whatsoever. We are told in the authentic sources that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was wont to reiterate, “Pray as you have seen me praying.” In other words, we cannot depart from the precedents and examples set by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in regards to Prayer. Prayer belongs to those rather limited areas of Islamic Shari`ah that have been immutably fixed. Imam Shah Waliullah has rightly called it maqadir (fixed forms), which cannot be altered or tampered with. While the same immutability does not apply to the vast majority of rules of Jurisprudence, it does apply to the form and method of `ibadat (acts of worship), Prayer being the most important of these. Thus, we cannot modify the format or method of Prayer; by doing so we are interfering with the part of religion that is destined to remain unchangeable.
- The rules of Prayer established by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) provide no precedent for allowing women to lead a mixed gathering of men and women who are considered as non-mahram (unrelated through blood or marriage). Our Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) however, did set a precedent for women to lead members of their own family in Prayer if they are specially qualified. The hadith of Umm Waraqah, which states that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) appointed her to lead the members of her own household in Prayer, establishes the precedent for this issue.
- Likewise, we also have precedents from the early times for a woman leading prayers an exclusive gathering of women; such was the practice of the wives of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) such as `A’ishah and Umm Salama (may Allah be pleased with them) who were known for their profound knowledge and eminence in religion. Therefore, there cannot be any objection for women organizing their own Prayer spaces or even Jumu`ah (Friday Prayer) if there is a necessity or if there are specific benefits to be derived from the same, as has been done in some Muslim communities.
- If it had been permissible for women to lead a mixed gathering of men and women, it would have certainly been done by at least some of the eminent women such as `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her), who never lagged behind anyone in her assertiveness and positive affirmation of women’s rights in Islam. We know that while she led women in Prayer, she never did so when it was a mixed gathering. Rather, in such cases she always appointed a man to lead, in spite of the fact that he was less knowledgeable than her. For instance, she appointed her mawla (freed slave) to lead in Tarawih (night Prayers of Ramadan), even though he was reading from a mushaf (copy of the Qur’an). Moreover, if it had been permissible for a woman to lead a mixed gathering, then `A’ishah, again, would have led at least some of the Prayers in the Prophet’s Mosque, as she was eminently qualified because of her preeminence in knowledge, as we can infer from the overwhelming testimonials of the Companions and their successors regarding the same.
- It is, therefore, safe to conclude that there is no justification in the sources for a woman leading a mixed congregation or Jumu`ah Prayer. Moreover, in the case of Jumu`ah, there is another point to be considered. Thanks to the compassionate aspect of the Shari`ah, women are not religiously obligated to attend Jumu`ah Prayers because such a duty could be in conflict with their vital duties of caring and nurturing the future generations—a function which is far more ennobled and dignified in Islam than anything else.
In light of the above, it is only reasonable to conclude that the stance of a woman leading Jumu`ah for both men and women is inconsistent with the sound understanding of Islam grounded in the authentic sources. It is also contrary to the precedents of the early generations, whom we are to take as our role models in matters of religion.
Before concluding, it behoves us to point out that Muslim women’s claim to gender equity cannot be served by pitting men and women against each other as if they were rivals. It is, rather, better served by assuming their complementary roles. The entire issue of woman’s imamah seems to be driven by a secular paradigm that is predicated upon an assumption of competition and rivalry between the genders, rather than on the tawheedi (based on Oneness of God) paradigm. The perspective of tawheed, as established by the Qur’an, characterizes both men and women as protective friends and partners under the Lordship of Allah, fulfilling complementary, not overlapping, roles.