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Women Leading Mixed Congregations

Keywords: Juma, Jumuah, lady imam imamate, mixed congregation, Amina Wudud

Question:
Was the recently held Juma prayer, Islamically correct, whereby a lady led both men and women as Imam of a congregation? Why do some people feel the need to bring about changes in the traditional understanding of Islam?

Response:
There are some traditions, according to which, Prophet Muhammad (sws) allowed at least one elderly woman to lead the prayers, while other women and children of her own household as well as her neighbourhood, stood behind her in congregation. Women leading other women and children thus, seems permissible, should there be a need.

However, if men are to join the congregation too, then as per the tradition of the Prophet - that has come down to us through his days - only men can lead. Even while men and women stand in congregation, women are to be positioned behind men, so a lady Imam standing ahead of men would seem contradictory to this tradition. This seems to me to be a decent arrangement, not to mention, very natural too. Allowing women to lead prayers while men are around, would unnecessarily make her the focal point of the congregation, as Imams definitely are. This would encourage more and more inter-mingling between the genders, while the same could have been avoided with the male Imam. It is to be noted the Prophet (sws) made it clear to the believers not to stop their women from approaching the mosques for prayers. Indeed, they would flock mosques at times of prayer, and would always form their own rows behind the rows of men; once the prayers ended, the male worshippers would be extra considerate in letting the women disperse behind them, before they themselves prepared to leave.

Of course, if men and women were to stand together during prayers, it would not be acceptable; moreover, neither of them would be able to concentrate on their worship effectively.

Another reason why it seems women cannot lead men in prayers owes itself to the fact that they are not required to offer Salaah every four weeks or so.

All in all, there seems no doubt in the understanding that it is only the men who lead the prayers when both men and women are present for congregation.

Incidents like the one that has been witnessed in New York, can be attributed to two reasons:

i) We, Muslims, seem to be, at times, over-influenced by the goings-around in the West - the reforms and constant evolution of "human freedom and liberty". This movement of "emancipation" and "social reform" in the name of human rights has really been a reaction to the extremely oppressive and limiting rules imposed on society, at the time that the Church meant power and authority in Western Europe. There were many intellectuals who reacted sharply to the confining tendencies of the church. This reaction got translated into movements in the name of liberty and freedom. Most certainly, a greater part of the system that was designed under the influence of the medieval church was extremely restrictive and had got nothing to do with the religion of God Almighty. It was ironical that the reactionary movements to the church were extreme in their own origin as well. Indeed, all reactions are extreme and exaggerated. So, there is this very strong tendency in the West to let people believe that men and women are complete equals of other, and therefore, what men can do, so can women - no questions asked. This opinion may be true in some cases, not all. It is God Almighty who knows what human nature is, and in His message, He has given us a balanced understanding of the roles of men and women. Should we choose to adopt a lifestyle opposed to this guidance, we will be reaping ways to land into trouble after trouble along the way.

The extremism that was adopted in following the Church in Medieval Western Europe, and in parts of the Muslim World in present times does not depict the Message of the Almighty. Likewise, the extreme form in which "freedom" is being called upon, in the name of human rights and liberty, too, is a curse and an evil. As a consequence, as is being witnessed in the West, the woman has not been given her rights; rather, save a few rights given to her that weren't previously there to cherish, other rights have not been granted to her. The end result is an unbalanced society where men and women do not complement each other towards a decent life; instead, they compete each other.

ii) Muslims have been guilty of keeping their women aloof from the mainstream events of life. As a case in point, they, for whatever reasons, have not been coming to the mosques to say their prayers, as used to be the routine in the city of the Prophet. This, most certainly, is not an Islamically correct tradition. Women should be allowed to offer prayers in the mosques just like men presently can; and there seems no reason why they should be confined to completely separated and secluded areas of the mosque, with no glimpse of what the Imam is doing or what the speaker is communicating. During the Prophet's times, female worshippers used to share the hall with male worshippers. Although they used to occupy a separate portion of the hall, they were not deprived of the facility of asking questions, seeking advice, getting direct opportunities of learning. Unless we give a proper Islamic understanding of how women can participate in the affairs of life and religion, how they can contribute to the best of their abilities, we will be invoking the Western movements of "liberalism" and "emancipation", inviting them to influence Muslims. But once we are able to give the true and balanced picture of what a healthy Islamic society looks like, I think all such influences would cease to be.

Therefore, I think it is important for Muslims to recognize that reactions such as those of the lady Imam leading a mixed congregation, would continue to happen unless we wake up and revert to the true Islamic teachings and traditions - that allow a very healthy balance between the male and female responsibilities and roles that should be followed.

Courtesy: Questions and Answers. Renaissance A Monthly Islamic Journal, Pakistan http://www.renaissance.com.pk/

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