Sunday, June 14, 2015

Women as Spiritual Leaders

Ayah 35 of Surah 33, Al-Ahzab (The Confederates):

Innal-Muslimina wal-Muslimati
wal-mu’minina wal-mu’minati
wal-qanitina wal-qanitati
was-sadiqina was-sadiqati
was-sabirina was-sabirati
wal-khashi’ina wal-khashi’ati
wal-mutasaddiqina wal-mutasaddiqati
was-saa imina was-saa imati
wal-hafizina furujahum wal-hafizati
wadh-dhakirinal-laha kathiranw-wadh-dhakirati
a’addal-lahu lahum-maghfiratanw-wa ajran azima.

Verily, for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God,
and all believing men and believing women,
and all truly devout men and truly devout women,
and all men and women who are true to their word,
and all men and women who are patient in adversity,
and all men and women who humble themselves,
and all men and women who give in charity,
and all self-denying men and self-denying women,
and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity,
and all men and women who remember God unceasingly; 
for them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward.  [33:35]

Last week, the Muslim Women’s Alliance hosted a program entitled  “Inclusive Spaces for Women in Mosques.”   The speakers presented arguments for creating more inviting and equitable spaces for women to pray, and for more involvement of women in the leadership of mosques.  I congratulate the organizers of this event for their courage in highlighting the problem, and addressing some of the sad consequences for the Muslim community.  This will be an evolving process, and this was a great step. 

I do not believe, however, that we can talk about inclusion and increasing women’s attendance at prayers in mosques and raising the numbers of women in governance as long as we accept that women cannot be spiritual leaders at the same level as Muslim men.  The issue that no one addressed at that meeting was equal rights to religious leadership in the Muslim community.  I heard at least three of the women who spoke say "don't worry, we're not talking about a revolution.  We are not advocating for female Imams."  Equal access to spiritual leadership in the Muslim community is precisely the objective that we need to be honest and up front about.  Everything evolves from the premise of equality.  Skirting around the issue of women's equality before Allah by advocating for equal access to prayer space, but accepting second-class status when it comes to spiritual leadership is an equivocation. 

The women's suffragists in the United States in the early nineteen hundreds (my great aunt Bessie was one of them) did not ask for the right to vote as half a person, or three-quarters of a person, or vote only in local but not national elections.  They demonstrated - went to jail - for full voting rights.  During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Martin Luther King did not deliver his "I have a dream" speech and say "we should strive to get three-quarters of the way up the mountain.”  This is the only way I can see this issue.  Full and equal status.  Period.

I recently interviewed a very talented and ambitious young woman, who just graduated from the University of Chicago's Religious Studies program, who told me that her goal is to be a Muslim chaplain (a spiritual counselor) because “that is the highest level I am allowed as a woman.”  I was struck that someone so obviously talented could not allow herself to entertain any higher leadership goal in the Muslim religious community.  She and other women like her should be with the Usama Canon's and Hamza Yusuf's of Islam in America.  This is the future.  As I see it, without this, there is no sustainable future for Islam in America. 

There is historical precedent for this position in Islamic history.  But the fact that female scholars and the male scholars who supported women's rights and leadership throughout history have been marginalized is no surprise given the primacy of patriarchy in the Muslim world.   I have no illusions about the challenges ahead.

When American Muslim scholar and activist Dr. Amina Wadud delivered a Friday khutbah and led men and women in prayer in a mosque in New York City in March 2005, (organized by, she said it was “the continuation of her own spiritual struggle to realize Islam’s liberation of all people, an outgrowth of the African-American struggle for equality.”  Reactions were immediate and vehement, for and against.

Ulama (Muslim religious leaders) overwhelmingly condemned the act.   According to Hadith scholar and Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Jonathan A.C. Brown, “the response was clear:  the infallible consensus of the Umma prohibited women from leading mixed groups in any of the required daily prayers.  Moreover, a woman delivering the Friday sermon was inconceivable and unheard of in Islamic history.  As [Shaykh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt] wrote in a representative fatwa, these prohibitions had been agreed upon by ‘the people of knowledge from the four schools of law, nay the eight schools of law,’ referring to the four Sunni schools, the two Shiite, the Zahiri and the Ibadi Kharijite schools.”  (Misquoting Muhammad:  the Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy: pp. 189-190).

There are two approaches to addressing the ulama’s rejection of women as spiritual leaders.  The first is academic, and involves close study of the classical Islamic texts for evidence for and against this issue.  Jonathan Brown’s book presents a compelling case for re-consideration of their position.  The second approach is to re-consider how we think about our practice of the faith.  I will summarize some of Brown’s conclusions first, and address the second point at the end. 

Brown begins his analysis saying, “even Gomaa’s fatwa tacitly acknowledged the dearth of any real scriptural evidence against woman-led prayer.  This lay behind the decision by the epochal Sufi sage Ibn Arabi to actually affirm women’s categorical right to lead prayers.  Ibn Arabi was no lackluster jurist and Hadith scholar, and he noted that none of the ulama who prohibited woman-led prayer had any scriptural proof (nass) to support their views.  Thus, ‘they should not be listened to.’  Indeed, the Qur’an is silent on the question of woman-led prayer, and the only Hadith cited directly in classical and modern discussions, which quotes the Prophet as ordering, ‘A woman will not lead man in prayer, nor a Bedouin a townsman, nor an iniquitous man a believer,’ has never been upheld as reliable at all.  Rather, it has always been rated as ‘weak’ or even ‘feeble…. Much of the verbiage on the prohibition of woman-led prayer in classical works of Shariah law consists of derivative arguments.  Each leaves ample openings for objection”  (Brown, p. 190).

Brown goes on to detail several of the reasons citied by ulama for prohibiting woman-led prayer, and offers ways that these objections might be countered.  But, he concludes, “the main reason that men do not pray behind women in Islam is easily understood:  a woman bowing and prostrating on the floor in front of men, her posterior raised in the air, could hamper concentration for both parties.”  Dr. Brown then proposed that “a female prayer leader could be shielded by a screen:  the Shafi’i and Hanbali schools considered the prayer of a member of the congregation valid even if he was separated from the leader by a wall, barrier or street.  What mattered was being able to hear the commands of the prayer” (p. 191).

Even Dr. Brown did not note a more obvious response to this, which is that women have for centuries been required to concentrate on their prayers despite the fact that there are men’s posteriors raised in the air in front of them.  Is it so impossible for men to learn the same skill set?  Isn’t it insulting to men to expect that they could not?   That said, I am not advocating completely mixing the sexes during prayer.  I am just pointing out the absurdity of that rationale.  The interests of propriety and comfort can be accommodated in a way that ensures equal dignity, and equal access to prayer space and leadership in prayer.  For example, prayer space can be separated into two sides with an aisle between.  When a woman serves as prayer leader, she can stand, and pray, in front of the women. 

Brown raises another of the reasons ulama cite for disallowing women’s public religious leadership - that seeing a woman speak or hearing her voice in public would excite the “uncheckable male appetites in the audience and result in social strife (fitna).  By this logic, a woman’s voice is part of her awra - nudity, tempting men.”   He counters “there is nothing impermissible about hearing a woman’s voice.  Women spoke openly to the Prophet” (p. 191-192).  Again, this is the kind of thinking that is rooted in patriarchy, absurd and unworkable in the context modern American society. 

Brown enumerates several Islamic scholars who did approve of women leading prayer.  “The great tenth-century jurist Tabari (d. 923) allowed women to lead prayer categorically, as had two of Shafi’i’s leading students, Muzani (d. 878) and Abu Thawr (d. 854).  We have already mentioned Ibn Arabi’s position. …  Tabari was so respected a jurist in Baghdad and beyond that a madhhab [school of thought] formed around his teachings.  Although it eventually became extinct, Tabari’s madhhab flourished among Sunni ulama for two centuries after his death.  Abu Thawr also constituted his own madhhab, which attracted numerous adherents in Azerbaijan and Armenia.  Muzani was one of the main disciples of Shafi’i and his abridgement of Shafi’I’s teachings became the basis for all later books of substantive law in the Shafi’I school.   The claim of consensus made by Gomaa and others is unconvincing in light of this dissent.”  (Brown, pp. 192-193)

Brown undertakes an exhaustive analysis of transmission of the Hadith of Umm Waraqa, whom the Prophet instructed to lead her household in prayer.  There are two versions of this Hadith.  The more substantiated and stronger version is gender neutral, meaning that she could lead women and men.  A weaker version with only one transmitter claims the Prophet told her to lead “the women of her household in prayer.”  Not surprisingly, the version given more weight historically by the ulama has been the weaker version, where she was told to lead only women. 

Brown concludes, “Clearly, woman-led, mixed congregation prayers are not established practice in the Islamic tradition.  But they are not unprecedented or as controversial as many think.  The Hadith of Umm Waraqa proves that the Prophet commanded at least one woman to lead a mixed congregation in prayer.  A woman-led Friday prayer, with the sermon delivered by a woman, is clearly a novelty.  But none of the ulama’s objections to it rest on any firm, direct scriptural evidence, and solutions exist to the concerns they raise.  Muslims today thus find themselves faced with a question:  in the absence of opposing evidence from scripture, does simply adhering to how things have always been done justify denying half of the population the right to public religious leadership?  It is revealingly plain that if this issue did not involve the knot of gender and power, the evidence for permitting it would carry the day without controversy.”  (p. 199)

The question I have been examining here is the prohibition against women as full participants in the spiritual leadership of the Muslim community.  Brown provides us with scholarship from the classical Islamic texts that supports women leading prayer.  But it should be apparent by now that the response to this issue is part of a much broader question.  And that is whether Muslims in the 21st century consider the practice of the faith as a closed, tradition-bound process that has only to be studied and followed, or whether it is a living, evolving code of ethics that needs to be continually re-evaluated and adapted to changing circumstances.

Brown shares evidence that leads to the conclusion that it is also necessary to re-evaluate historical interpretations of Hadith.  He gives an example that is not related to woman led prayer, but that illustrates this point. Brown details a debate that arose among ulama about the length of time that women should abstain from prayer after childbirth.  “Early Muslim scholars were asked how long a woman should skip her prayers after delivering a child.  Finding no evident scriptural ruling on the subject, they used best judgment.  There was no reliable Hadith anywhere on this topic.  Yet we find chapters devoted to the issue in the canonical Hadith collections of the mid-ninth century.  These Hadiths then repeatedly appear as evidence in subsequent books of Shariah law.”  (p. 179)  In other words, when the Hadith were not available to support their position, the ulama made them up.  In Brown’s words, “Patriarchy could bend the law to its will.”  (p. 197)

No where in these discussions, at least as related by Brown, is there any reference to the possibility that there is no reliable Hadith on resumption of prayer after childbirth because God and the Prophet trusted the judgment of women to know when their post-partum bleeding had stopped.  This is just one example of many where the male ulama made rulings on how women should conduct their spiritual lives. 

In fact, there is evidence from the Prophet’s life that shows him as more inclined to trust women’s own judgment on women’s issues.  Bukhari included a Hadith narrated by Aisha that tells of a woman who came to the Prophet to ask how she should clean herself after her period had ended.  The Prophet told her to just clean herself.  She asked again, and again for specifics on the exact way to clean herself.  Finally, he told her, “Sobhan Allah [Praise God] just clean yourself.”  Then Aisha, who had witnessed the interchange, took the woman and told her, “I will show you how to clean yourself.”   The story as related does not tell us whether this woman was particularly dense, or she wished to make a show of submissive piety, which the Prophet clearly thought was exaggerated.  The ulama were faced with many such questions after the Prophet died, as the community grew and consolidated around a new set of values.  They developed rules and regulations that fit those needs and their own time and culture, many of which have been handed down over the generations without question or challenge.  They need now to be re-examined, re-evaluated, and revised or rejected as no longer relevant. 

Under the influence of our patriarchal past, half our population has been excluded from the process of interpretation, re-evaluation and reform.  I believe that it is possible to re-conceive Islam beyond patriarchy, and women are essential as leaders in that process. 

But it is easy for me to say that – to me it seems so obvious.  I was not born a Muslim, and my practice of Islam has been an evolutionary process.  For those who grew up in Muslim families, these issues are much more wrenching.  They are about heritage, culture and custom, and our most important relationships.  And yet, Muslim women, and men, are confronting them.  Like it or not, Muslim or not, Islam has become part of the fabric of society in the United States of America.  And Muslims in America cannot afford to blindly follow traditions that no longer make sense, and hope that our religious institutions can somehow survive.  We must evolve or they will eventually perish.  In America we have the freedom and social space to do that.  In my humble and always fallible but convinced opinion, that is the pre-ordained, natural progression of our faith tradition. 

Surah 57:  Al-Hadid (Iron)

Alam ya’ni lilladhina amanuu an-takhsha’a qulubuhum lidhikril-lahi wa ma nazala minal-haqqi wa la yakunu kalladhina utul-Kitaba min-qablu fatala alayhimul-amadu faqasat qulubuhum; wa kathirum-minhum fasiqun. [16]
I lamuu annal-laha yuhyil-arda ba da mawtiha.  Qad bayyanna lakumul-Ayati la allakum ta’qilun.  [17]
Innal-mussaddiqina wal-mussaddiqati wa aqradul-laha qardan hasanany-yuda ‘afu lahum wa lahum ajrun-karim.  [18]

Is it not time that the hearts of all who have attained to faith should feel humble at the remembrance of God and of all the truth that has been bestowed from on high, lest they become like those who were granted revelation aforetime, and whose hearts have hardened with the passing of time so that many of them are depraved? [16]
Know that God gives life to the earth after it has been lifeless!
We have indeed made Our messages clear unto you, so that you might use your reason. [17]
Verily, as for the men and women who accept the truth as true, and who offer up unto God a goodly loan, they will be amply repaid, and shall have a noble reward. [18]


  1. Thank you for this. It gives me hope!
    I really wish the information in the clip below and the support of the scholars would have been available to Amina Wudud when she needed it most.

  2. Wonderful khutbah, and that is so absolutely cool that you have remembered and cherished your suffragette ancestor. Looking forward to seeing the suffragette movie with you in October!!