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Women in the Mosque

Although the Qur'an and the Hadith, the traditions attributed to the Prophet (Pbuh), allow for women to pray in mosques, in most parts of India, Muslim women are denied this right. This owes to various factors, including deeply rooted patriarchal practices as well as to the injunctions contained in the books of fiqh or jurisprudence that were developed in the centuries after the Prophet's (Pbuh) death. While, in general, most Hanafi 'ulama, the legal school to which most Indian Sunnis adhere, explicitly discourage women from praying in mosques, the minority Ahl-i Hadith school insists that women have as much right to pray in mosques as do men. Overall, the Ahl-i Hadith School seems to adopt a more open attitude on women's issues, including considering the practice of three talaqs in
one sitting to institute a divorce, which the Hanafis allow for, as un-Islamic.

The Mumbai-based Maulana Mukhtar Ahmad Nadwi is a noted Ahl-i Hadith scholar. In a recently published Urdu booklet titled, Kya Musalman Khawatin Ka Masjid Mai Ana Fitna Hai? (Is the Entry of Muslim Women Into Mosques A Source of Strife?') (Maktaba al-Dar us-Salafiah, Mumbai, 2003), Nadwi quotes from the Qur'an and the Hadith to press his case for allowing Muslim women to enter and pray in mosques. He bitterly criticizes those who insist that doing so would lead to strife (fitna), asking that if allowing women to colleges, to work in offices and factories, voting in elections, going to the market or using public transport, all of which entail mixing with men, are not considered sources of fitna, how could praying in a mosque, 'God's house', be considered a dangerous threat? He refers to Muslim communities elsewhere in the world, including in Arab countries, where women, too, regularly offer congregational prayers in mosques, although separate from men, and says that there is no reason why this should not be allowed in India as well. Nadwi goes so far as to assert that those who claim that women are 'the aunts of Satan' (Shaytan ki khala) and that if they are allowed to pray in mosques all sorts of fitna would result, actually 'deny the piety and faith of their own mothers and sisters'.

Nadwi recognizes that his proposal would raise a storm of protest among conservative sections of the Indian 'ulama. He says that such a demand might well be condemned as 'a global conspiracy against Islam', and as a menacing 'threat to the faith'. Nadwi has no time for such critics, however, dismissing them as 'narrow minded' and 'unrealistic'. He has ample theological resources to back his claim, which he marshals to provide an Islamic argument for allowing women to worship in mosques.

Islam, Nadwi tells his readers, gives absolutely equal rights to men and women to pray in mosques, the only exception being menstruating women, who are not to enter the mosque until their period is over. To back up his claim, Nadwi refers to the early Islamic period, to the times of the Prophet himself, when women, too, would participate in congregational prayers in the mosque. He quotes a hadith narrated by Ayesha, wife of the Prophet, and contained in the books of Bukhari and Muslim (considered by most Sunnis to be authoritative compilations of Hadith), who is reported to have said that women used to attend even the early morning (fajr) congregational prayers in the mosque along with the Prophet, although it was still
dark outside. He cites a second hadith, narrated by Hazrat Anas, and mentioned again in the collections of Bukhari and Muslim, to suggest that women used to worship in the mosques along with their children. He adduces a third hadith, related by Abu Hurayra, companion of the Prophet and contained in the collections of Bukhari and Muslim, according to which women even had the right to admonish the imam by clapping their hands if he made any mistakes in reciting the prayer. Nadwi refers to yet another hadith that clearly suggests that at the time of the Prophet, women would also attend the Friday prayers in the mosques. He acknowledges the existence of counter reports that frown on this practice, but asserts that these are weak and are, therefore, not fully reliable.

Likewise, Nadwi does admit that some hadith reports do suggest that it is better for a woman to pray at home rather than in a mosque. He also accepts a report attributed to Ayesha, according to which she is said to have claimed that if the Prophet were alive to see the condition of women after his death he would have forbidden them from entering the mosque. Nadwi argues that this was actually intended as a critique of women who unnecessarily wandered out of their homes, and was not intended as an outright denial of their right to pray in the mosque as such. He asserts that it was certainly not meant to apply to those women who faithfully observed the rules of modesty of the shari'ah, and abstained from provocative dress and indecent behaviour. Nadwi adduces additional support for his claim by referring to a report contained in the Sahih Muslim and attributed to Abdullah bin Umar, according to which the Prophet is said to have declared that women should not be debarred from praying in the mosque. When Bilal, Abdullah's son, heard this, he replied that he would certainly forbid women from worshipping in the mosque. Abdullah was greatly incensed at his son's assertion, for it directly challenged what the Prophet himself had laid down. So angry was he with his son's reply that is said that for the rest of his life, Abdullah refused to speak to him.

The Prophet, Nadwi reminds his readers, laid down two sources of guidance for his community-the Qur'an and his own practice (Sunnah). Both of these sources clearly indicate that women could pray in the mosque, and, therefore, Nadwi writes, to deny them this right is to challenge the fundamental sources of the faith. It is also tantamount to keeping Muslim women ignorant of Islam, for if they were allowed to worship in mosques, he says, they would be able to learn about their faith and practice it properly. On the other hand, because they are denied access to mosques, the vast majority of Indian Muslim women, he says, remain mired in ignorance and superstition (jahiliyat), polytheism (shirk) and un-Islamic innovations (bid'at). They must, therefore, get back the right that men have denied them but which Islam granted them more than 14 centuries ago. To deny them this right, Nadwi asserts, is to openly defy the Qur'anic verse that speaks of those who debar people from worshipping in the mosque as oppressors (zalim). The Qur'an warns such people that they would be the victims of divine wrath in the hereafter.

Nadwi remarks that some of the writings of later 'ulama, the corpus of post-Prophetic fiqh, discourage women from praying in the mosque, but he says that in the face of counter- arguments in the primary sources of Islam-the Qur'an and the sunnah-there is no reason why Muslims must 'blindly follow' (taqlid) the writings of the medieval scholars in this regard and refuse to allow women to worship in mosques. Nadwi takes on the arguments of his opponents who, while recognizing that at the Prophet's time women did pray in the mosque, claim that in today's age of great licentiousness women should be forbidden from doing so for fear of fitna. This, Nadwi says, is an 'interference' in the shari'ah while also being simply a 'lame excuse' The logical implication of this argument, says Nadwi, would be that 'Islam is not a religion that would last and could be practised till the Day of Judgement', for some of its teachings, including many important aspects of the sunnah of the Prophet himself, would then be said to have been limited in their applicability only to the time of the Prophet. Only those teachings would be applicable in later times which the scholars (fuqaha) of the schools of law (Mazaahib) of later times consider as essential, while the rest of the shari'ah would be discarded as 'impractical'. This, of course, would go completely against the Prophet's own statement that he was leaving behind his Sunnah, in addition to the Qur'an, as a source of guidance for his followers.

Another flaw in the argument of his opponents, Nadwi writes, is that while those 'ulama who insist on strict taqlid of past jurisprudential precedent claim that in today's age of fitna, women should not pray in the mosque, they allow women to travel to Makkah for the Hajj pilgrimage. If women coming out of their homes and praying in the neighbourhood mosque would cause fitna as some 'ulama who insist on rigid taqlid argue, Nadwi asks, then how do they allow women to travel all the way to Makkah? After all, he says, the long journey to the Arabian Peninsula involves more risks and dangers of fitna than a short walk across the street to the neighbourhood mosque. If the 'ulama who oppose women praying in the mosques are consistent in their argument, he writes, how is it that they allow women to participate in congregational prayers with men, although separately, at the two major mosques of Islam, the Masjid al-Haram in Makkah and the Masjid Nabavi in Madinah, where women have always been allowed to pray? 'How can they explain this contradiction', Nadwi chides his opponents, 'that in one place they allow [for women to pray in mosques] but in another place it is declared as strictly forbidden.?

Nadwi concludes that these convoluted arguments to deny women the right to pray in mosques are simply a 'ruse to circumvent the shari'ah', and he appeals to Muslims to 'free themselves from the shackles of blind imitation of fiqh' and seek guidance directly from the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet instead. To debar them from the mosque, he says in conclusion, is a 'great crime' (zulm-i 'azim)'. Those who forbid women from worshipping in the house of God, he says, winding up his argument, 'will be held answerable in God's court'.



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