Imamahs leading mixed congregations of the faithful.
On 10th June a report appeared in a British newspaper, The Independent, under the heading “First woman to lead Friday prayers in the UK”. The opening line of the report began, “A Canadian author will become the first Muslim-born woman to lead a mixed-gender British congregation through Friday prayers tomorrow”. Very helpfully, the newspaper published a picture of a mixed congregation with the imamah, Raheel Raza, sitting at the front.
Slightly tongue-in-cheek, I sent off a comment which was published at the newspaper’s website:
“Given that people who lead prayers in mosques are often self-regarding, unpleasant individuals, we should be talking about reforming the way prayers are conducted. Talking about appointment of imamahs is really a non-issue, at best a ridiculous imitation of the practices recently introduced in some religions.
The basic point that we need to grasp is that Islam is NOT a religion. It is a Deen, a Way of Life, a System, that we have to observe in our daily lives. When we remember Allah, our attention needs to be directed to Him alone, cutting out all distractions. Islamic prayers are not like Christian prayers where women sit demurely by the side of men. In Islamic prayers you rise and bow and prostrate, and you may become so absorbed in the remembrance of Allah that you become forgetful of proper decorum. If we have a mixed congregation it would become impossible to let go of our inhibitions and lose ourselves in the Zikr. It will be very difficult indeed to forget the presence of a member of the opposite sex near you as she/he rises from a prostate position and your eyes - inadvertently, of course - come to rest on the undulating form as it straightens up”.
Four days later The Guardian, another British newspaper, carried an article by Shaista Gohir (Gohar?) titled, “Women must be leaders in faith”. The full article is given below.
Women must be leaders in faith
A woman led Muslim prayers in Oxford last week. Her actions and those of others like her, across faiths, deserve our support
guardian.co.uk, Monday 14 June 2010 13.30
So far, it seems only Muslim women from abroad dare lead men in Friday prayers in the UK. A Canadian, Raheel Raza, became the second Muslim woman to do so at the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford last week. An African-American convert, Amina Wadud, was the first Muslim woman to lead mixed prayers at the same centre in 2008. It's not surprising that British Muslim women are not brave enough to follow their footsteps – both have been demonised after leading men in prayers in their own countries.
Why is the idea of female imams so controversial amongst many Muslims? When Amina Wadud shocked the world in 2005 by leading mixed-gender Friday prayers in New York, I must admit even I felt uncomfortable. I had been brought up to believe only men could be imams, something I never questioned until recently.
An honest study of Islamic texts reveals that women are not forbidden to lead men in prayer – the Qur'an does not even address this issue. In fact the conditions required are Islamic knowledge, skill and piety – none of which are gender related. However, (mostly male) scholars maintain there is consensus on the impermissibility of women leading men in prayer despite lack of evidence to back up their position. In many quarters, this issue is not even open to debate, despite the fact that centuries ago it was discussed without controversy and a diversity of opinions was respected. According to female scholar Halima Krausen, a number of male scholars, such as Abu Thawr al-Kalbi, Abu Isma'il al-Muzani, al-Isfahani, at-Tabari and Ibn Taymiyya, had nothing against women leading mixed prayers. One woman, Umm Waraqa, is known to have led men in prayers in her household during the time of Prophet Muhammad.
Male clergy often cite questionable hadiths or take them out of context to criticise women such as Wadud. One argument often marshalled is that women's bodily movements arousing desires in men. Are men really so weak that they can't keep their eyes off a fully covered woman's posterior during prayer? I believe men have invented arguments about their sexual excitement – it is only their ego that prevents them from praying behind a woman.
Despite these powerful arguments supporting the permissibility of women leading mixed congregation prayers, I doubt the practice will become widespread in the near future as religious institutions are controlled by men. And most Muslim women are more concerned about fighting for equality on basic grounds such as education and economic empowerment. I don't think leading prayers is a battle that many are yet ready to fight, even if they believe in it. But Wadud and Raza are paving the way for more female imams to come forward to lead other women in prayer. Last year Hawaria Fattah became the first female imam in Europe after being recruited to a mosque in Belgium. This is a pioneering appointment even though she only works with Muslim women.
Restricting women's role in religious structures and practices is not exclusive to Islam. Historically all the world's major religions have done this. The first female rabbi was Regina Jonas, who was only ordained privately in 1935 in Berlin. The next ordination came in the US, in 1972, when Sally Priesand was made a rabbi in the Reform tradition. Since then, all branches of Judaism, except Orthodoxy, have found a way to ordain women.
Female priests may have been ordained in various branches of Christianity. However, its largest denomination, Roman Catholicism, has consistently refused to allow women into the priesthood. Those ordained unofficially are often excommunicated. This status quo continues to be challenged – last week a group marched to St Peter's Square demanding a debate on this issue. Opening the doors to the priesthood would mean women could ascend to the papacy – and perhaps the possibility of a future female pope is too much for the Catholic church.
Women are suffering the consequences of oppressive misinterpretations of religious texts in all faiths. It's time more of us questioned their legitimacy. No topic should be out of bounds for discussion, including the question of female religious leaders. The act of attempting to break down the last barriers to female participation sends an unequivocal message about equality.
On reading this article I responded with the same comments as those I had made earlier in connection with the article in The Independent. I also gave a link to my blog. The author’s response, published at the website on 15 June, was:
“You have nicely illustrated my point about men making excuses about how easily they are supposedly aroused and distracted. If you are that deep in prayer, nothing should distract you. And if you have sinful thoughts, then why should women pay the price for being excluded? Shouldn't men be the ones excluded into another room who have such thoughts.
You conveniently forget to mention verse 24:30 in the Quran which commands men to lower their gaze. The Qur'an does not even remotely suggest that men are sexually more excitable than women. In fact I have discovered the following hadith which is conveniently ignored: “God has created the sexual desire in ten parts and he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” The same narration goes on to say, of shyness, women have been given nine parts of that too. So if women can control all nine parts of their desire when men are bending in front of them, sometimes wearing the tightest of jeans, it’s about time men took responsibility for their own urges too, and not hold women responsible.
So if you are having bad thoughts, please take responsibility.
I know there are many criticisms on here about all religions being patriachal which is true..........but they would be less so if more women were involved, especially in leadership roles. So even if you are against any form of religion, surely women's increased involvement is a good thing.”
Clearly we were not on the same wavelength. Ms Gohir, I could see, had read widely and she could take on most mullahs in a discussion on Islam as religion. Only, to me, Islam was not a religion and the feminists were making the same mistake that mullahs had made earlier. I carefully composed a reply:
Dear Ms Shaista Gohir,
Words are an imperfect means of conveying deeply held convictions. The way we use words, and interpret them, tend to reflect our own experience and it is easy to misunderstand another person’s point of view.
You talk about “sinful thoughts” – I am not sure what you mean. Do you have any control over the random thoughts that might occur to you? There are times when we think consciously and there are other times when thoughts just descend out of nowhere. Is a person responsible for the latter kind of thoughts?
The points I was trying to get across were:
1. There is no concept of priesthood in Islam that Muhammad Mustafa gave to mankind 1500 years ago. Having a priesthood is a distortion of Islam – a practice picked up from the Jews and the Christians.
2. In the early years of Islam mosques were not just places of worship – they were also what we might today call ‘community centres’, where the problems of the community would be addressed. The Caliph himself, or other leaders of the community, would be present to offer prayers to Allah and then to seek His Guidance in solving the problems of the community.
3. The kind of “worship” that is offered in the mosques today is, in my opinion, of very little value. I doubt if you have attended many prayer sessions or listened to the sermons that the Muslim priests deliver. Most are impractical and have been devalued through repetition. You will rarely hear anyone addressing the ills of so-called Muslim societies, which are anything but Islamic: widespread corruption, lies and deceit; and exploitation/ oppression of the general population by the privileged classes on a massive scale.
4. Remembrance of Allah is unlike anything else we might do. To receive and feel His Power within our ‘selves’ we need to reduce all kinds of distractions as much as possible and that means minimising the activity of our thinking mind. Thus, for example, the music that is played in many places of worship is considered inappropriate when it comes to remembering Allah. A direct link between the Creater and a created being is not dependent on such props [“He is closer to us than our jugular veins”]. It is in this sense that I consider men and women praying alongside each other to be a negation of true worship – simply because they will be too aware of each other’s presence and their minds will remain active - this has nothing to do with "sinful thoughts". I am sorry for the rather flippant comment I made in my previous post. However, I wasn’t just referring to men – my comments applied equally to women:
“It will be very difficult indeed to forget the presence of a member of the opposite sex near you as she/he rises from a prostate position and your eyes - inadvertently, of course - come to rest on the undulating form as it straightens up”.
I think you would appreciate my point of view better if you were to read the very first and the very last posts in the blog to which I provided a link. Would it be OK to use your article, and some of the comments thereon, in a future blog post? I don't suppose there will be any objections from the Guardian, which will be duly acknowledged?
Ms Shaista Gohir responded as follows:
"Thank you for such a detailed response. I will check out the links you have provided. And yes you should use my article to create debate whatever your take is on this. I think this issue should not be out of bounds and debated without it becoming too polarised which it did become back in 2005, when Amina Wadud first hit the headlines.
If men disagree and don't want to pray behind a woman for whatever reason then they shouldnt have to. However, they should not imply it is because of divine will and just be honest that it is simply male opinion on this issue. Likewise a woman should not have to accept the status quo and be able to challenge practices that she feels are man made without being demonised.
In terms of priesthood, I agree, in Islam we are not supposed to have intermediaterie between us and God and we give too much blind obedience to scholars / imams without checking out religious texts for ourselves."
I felt Shaista Gohir hadn’t quite appreciated the reason why I felt it served no purpose for men and women to offer prayers standing next to each other. It seems to me that the feminists have entered into a race with the mullahs to convert Islam into a meaningless religion similar to what Christianity has become. The feminists are trying to widen the mass of rituals we have today instead of cleaning up the mess and sending the mullahs packing from the mosques. I would be very happy if Shaista Gohir would deliver a Friday khutba about the plight of women in “Muslim” countries or about something else she feels strongly about. However, she should not then try to herd men and women into a room and get an imamah up front to “lead” them in prayer.