Dr. Amina Wadud led a mixed gathering for Friday prayers in New York recently. A comment. ZIYA US SALAM
MIXED REACTIONS: Dr. Wadud at the historic prayers. Photo: AFP
THOUGH largely ignored by the international media, a little piece of Islamic history was created in New York recently with a woman leading a mixed gathering of men and women for Friday prayers. In an unprecedented lead, Dr. Amina Wadud, associate professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led a congregation of more than 100 men and women, drawing extreme reactions from the orthodox schools and those who would interpret Islam in the light of the West.
While in the U.S., scholars like Dr. Riffat Hassan and Husn Ara disagreed with the action, back home in India, renowned writer Dr. Suraiyya Begum nee Kamla Das does not see any merit in Dr. Wadud's deed.
Says Kamla Das, "I would never do it myself. The best prayer for a woman is at home. If women stand in prayer alongside men, it might deter men from devotion to God and a mosque is no place for enjoying the beauty of a woman. I don't lay much store by tradition, and I believe woman is not inferior to man. I would welcome Dr. Wadud if she were to lead a prayer of women; I would like to lead a prayer of women too. I am a total Muslim. I do not go visiting mosques. When a woman kneels behind an imam, she is unlikely to yield to temptation but if a woman is leading the prayers men kneeling behind might look at her haunches, at her curves. Why give them such a chance?"
Interestingly, even as Islam forbids free intermingling of men and women one exception being the Hajj pilgrimage there was no separate entry for women at the site, as is the practice in mosques across the world, including the Prophet's mosque in Medina. Nor was there a curtain or a screen to divide the men and women at the prayer. And in another first of sorts, another woman with her hair flowing freely off her shoulders pronounced the call for prayer, Adhan. The prayer was conducted largely in English with verses from the Quran in Arabic.
A little before leading the prayers, Dr. Wadud emphasised the equality of men and women asking for removal of "inconvenient restrictions" on Muslim women. But for all her tough talk, Dr. Wadud is in unenviable company. She gets little support either from religion/tradition or her contemporaries. The Grand Mufti of Al Azhar, an authority of matters of Islamic jurisprudence, has denounced her action. Throughout Islamic history no woman has ever led a mixed gathering of the devout. None of the four schools of Islamic thought has any such precedence nor is there is an approval, tacit or explicit, from the jurists of Medina. The Prophet himself is reported to have said, "Establish prayers the way you have seen me". And never did in his lifetime, or that of the Caliphs who followed, a woman lead any prayers for men.
In fact, the Friday prayers or even prayers in a mosque are not compulsory for any woman importantly, they have been exempted, not prevented, from coming to mosques for regular prayers. Islam has provided equality of status and rights to women. A woman has similar rights to a man with regard to her life, honour, dignity and freedom. She is free to create and control property as a man does. She is as respectable in the eyes of God as a man and equally shares the responsibility of being the vicegerent of God. Her position is not inferior or subservient to that of man. At the same time Islam recognises and provides for the biological, psychological and functional differences between the two sexes.
The need of the hour is to follow the teachings of the faith in their spirit and not just letter. There is a need to look within because, in countries across the world, religion has become subservient to local tradition and women have been victimised in a patriarchal society. The Quran states, "They have the same rights unto you as you have unto them".
The question of Dr. Wadud leading the prayers should not be seen as a clash of gender or an upsurge of feminism among the faithful. Instead, one has to take recourse to history and tradition and learn from them. After all, believing men and women have been declared by Allah to be the friends and supporters of each other and the faithful have been instructed to "Give to man what is his and render to woman what belongs to her".
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