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Women participation in Masjid: A textual examination
By Shah Abdul Halim
Thu, 21 Sep 2006, 07:54:00

Women constitute fifty percent of the population. Without the active participation of women no society can make any meaningful progress, neither materially nor spiritually. Our society however hardly realizes this. We therefore see that women, with a few exception, are still not been allowed to enter the Masjid (mosque) in Bangladesh although nobody can think of changing this morbid society without the active participation of the half of its population.

Women, being mothers, are the first teachers to impart moral teachings to the new born babies. Unless they have access to the mosque how they can learn the teachings of Islam. It is important that when the general curriculum is secular, imparting no ethical values to the new generation of students, we open the door of the mosque to the women so that they can learn the primary teachings of Islam from the mosque Imams and keep the home environment essentially close to Islam. Only the vibrant Islamic families can guarantee the renaissance of Islam in the days ahead and salvage Muslim societies from the onslaught of materialism and consumerism. It is also important that we keep alive the age old tradition of teaching the fundamentals of Islam to the children in the family in view of the U.S. agenda to destroy the Islamic seminaries, the Madrasas which it thinks are the breeding ground of Islamic fundamentalists, militants and terrorists The reality however is that it is these centers that have kept the Islamic culture alive in the society. U.S. is pressing the government of Pakistan to change the curriculum of the religious schools, and urging President Pervez Musharraf to divert all donations from religious seminaries and at the same time asking the government of Pakistan to takeover the endowment properties, the Walkf, that belongs to these institutions. U.S. is also trying to influence the leadership in Bangladesh to materialize its agenda.

Two-three years back my friend Dr. Muhammad Ataul Karim, Dean, School of Engineering, City University, New York came to visit Bangladesh, his home country. It so happened that Dr. Karim and his daughter were at Sonargaon Hotel at the time of Maghrib prayer. Leaving his daughter, Dr. Karim wanted to go to nearby Kawran Bazar mosque to pray Salatul Magrib, but the daughter insisted that she will also pray Magrib at that mosque. Dr. Karim fully aware of the socio-cultural and religious scenario of the country went to the mosque Imam for permission so that his daughter could offer Salatul Magrib at that mosque. But the girl raised a very pertinent question: Why such permission shall at all be needed when she can pray in any mosque in U.S. and no permission is required.

Every year thousands of women of our country visit Saudi Arabia to perform Umra and Hajj. They pray both at Baitullah at Makkah and Masjid An Nawabi at Madina. Our women leaders, notably Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, perform Umra and Hajj and our television channels broadcast these religious rituals and we see them performing Umra and Hajj and praying at Masjid An Nawabi. We see in the television screen ladies performing Salat in the mosque during two Eid festivals in Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco and other Muslim countries, but still we do not encourage our women participation in the mosque.

Why is this sorry state of affairs? Why are the ladies barred from entering mosque? Is there any Shariah bar on women entering the mosque? This needs in-depth study and misgiving, if any, need to be removed.

If we look at Baitullah we find that even today women pilgrims have complete access to this mosque and women can pray wherever and whenever they like, no barriers separated the men and women. In the Masjid An Nawabi built by Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) prayers were conducted in the vast empty courtyard and significantly there appears to have no walls or other barriers separating men and women, and there was no other partition or screen as evidence of gender segregation at least at the time of noble Prophet. This will be clear if any one consults the early books on the architectural design of Masjid An Nawabi, a simple rectangular structure. The description of the mosques' layout and the Quran indicate women's complete access and participation.

Here in this article I shall examine the verses of the Quran and Hadiths - sayings, actions and tacit approval of the Prophet, things happening before him but he did not oppose- which supports women's access to the mosque and also those verses of the Quran and Hadiths which often misquoted to discourage the presence of the women in the mosque.

A close examination of the Quran shows and depicts that some verses address man in general terms that include woman, male plural which in Arabic grammar and lexicography can include women. Female plural does not include men. Some verses address woman specifically either by the female plural or by referring to particular woman as Hazrat Maryam.

Al Quran states: you should face Him only in each and every place of worship in prayers [7(Surat Al Araf):29]. In another verse Al Quran states: O children of Adam wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer [7(Surat Al Araf):31]. Here in these two verses all Muslims are commanded to pray at every mosque and take adornment, beautiful attire - clothing, attar etc.

Several verses talk negatively of those who prevent believers from mosque and warn them of severe punishment as for example Al Quran states: And who is more unjust than he who forbids mention of God's name from any of His houses of worship and strive for their ruin although they have no right to enter them save in fear of God. For them, in this world, there is ignominy in store; and for them, in life to come, awesome suffering [2 (Surat Al Baqarah):114].

In another verse Al Quran states: But what have they now in their favor that God should not punish them- seeing that they bar the believers from the Sacred Mosque, although they are not its rightful guardians? None but the God-conscious can be its guardians; but most of them do not know [8 (Surat Al Anfal):34].

In another verse Al Quran states: Behold, as for those who are bent on denying the truth and bar others from the path of God and from the Sacred Mosque which We have set up for all people alike - both those who dwell there and those who come from abroad - and all who seek to profane it by deliberate evildoing, all such shall We cause to taste grievous suffering in life to come [22 (Surat Al Hajj):25].

Al Quran in another verse states: They are the ones who disbelieved and hindered you from the Sacred Mosque and the sacrificial animals, detained from reaching their place of sacrifice. Had there not been believing men and believing women whom you did not know that you were trampling down and whose account a guilt would have accrued to you without your knowledge, Allah would have allowed you to force your way, but He held back your hands that He may admit to His mercy whom He will. If they had been apart, We should certainly have punished the unbelievers among them with a grievous punishment [48 (Surat Al Fatah):25].

The aforementioned verses [2:114, 8:34, 22:25 and 48:25] indicate the right and obligation of every Muslim to participate in the mosque activities. The context of these verses indicates and suggests that this applies to all believers regardless of gender although participation of women has not been mentioned in explicit terms in the aforementioned verses.

Other verses however specifically mention women's participation in group prayer. Al Quran states: The believers, men and women, are protectors (Arabic word used awliya) of one another, they enjoin what is just and forbid what is wrong; they perform regular prayers, pay zakat and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah will have His mercy on them. Surely Allah is All-Mighty, All-Wise [9 (Surat At Taubah):71].

The above verse signifies togetherness in prayers as well as in enjoining good, forbidding evil, giving charity and obeying God and His Prophet. These activities clearly have a public aspect to their fulfillment and are mandated for both men and women.

The term awliya have different meanings: helpers, allies, supporters, friends, protectors, neighbors, followers or close unto one another and also used to describe relationship between Ansar and Muhajirun [8 (Surat Al Anfal):72] and also relationship between God and His close ones [10 (Surat Yunus):62].

This responsibility of counseling (awliya) is not restricted of giving advise by man to man and woman to woman but also man to woman and woman to man. This responsibility has been fulfilled by the woman who was present in the mosque when she opposed the fixation of dower mahr by Caliph Umar ibn al Khattab while giving sermon in the mosque on the ground that the Quran does not limit this [4 (Surat An Nisa):20]. This incident also indicates that women were present in the mosque during the time of Caliph Umar ibn al Khattab.

In another verse Al Quran specifically addresses Hazrat Maryam to offer prayer in congregation. Al Quran states: O Mary! Worship your Lord devoutly, prostrate (Arabic word irkai) yourself and bow down in prayer with those who bow down (Arabic word ar-rakiun) [3(Surat Al Imran): 43].

Here in this verse the term used with those who bow down is ma'a al rakiin. Rakiin is the masculine plural form. According to Arabic grammar and lexicography, as also mentioned earlier, it may or may not include women, but must include men.

The feminine plural would have been rakiat, which is not used in this verse. It is thus clear that Hazrat Maryam is ordered to pray with a group that includes men. The words used in the verse with those who bow down- Arabic words ma'a al rakiin. Rakiin is interesting. The word ma'a means with and not behind or away from or segregated from. Thus it is also crystal clear and established that Hazrat Maryam was asked to pray with men and not behind men or away from men or segregated from men.

The presence of Hazrat Maryam in the mosque is further indicated in verse 3 (Surat Al Imran): 37. The word mihrab used in this verse is not the prayer direction commonly used but 'a place of praying or private room'. [Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Interpretation of the meanings of The Noble Quran In the English Language, King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Quran, Saudi Arabia.] That a woman is depicted as being present in its inner most sanctum means that she had full access to the mosque.

This verse also present Hazrat Maryam as not being segregated from men, since Prophet Zakariya entered the mihrab when she was there and talk to her and then offered prayer [3 (Surat Al Imran): 37-39]. This clearly illustrates the position of the Quran as regards the presence of women in the mosque.

That Prophet Zakariya was praying in the mihrab [3 (Surat Al Imran): 39], he came out of mihrab [19 (Surat Maryam): 11] and Prophet Dawud was present in the mihrab [38 (Surat Sad): 21-22] establish that marhab was not a ladies' chamber.

The Quran testifies to the legitimacy of the women's using the mihrab and entering with men in Masjid al Aqsa, the third major Muslim shrine. General and gender specific verses indicate that women had full access to the mosque and that praying next to men was considered normal and legitimate. The material and textual sources dating to Islam's ideal period point that women had full access to the mosque.

We can conclude from the aforementioned evidence that material and textual records appear to support full female access to the mosque during the time of Prophet, both Makkan and Madinan periods. What is noteworthy is that at the two earliest and most important shrines, there were no barriers separating women from men and no separate entrances. Although some changes took place during the time of Caliph Umar ibn al Khattab, there was however no walls or barriers separating men from women within the courtyard.

The first one in which partitions separating men and women was introduced was al Aqsa mosque for there were three maqsurat (separate enclosures or compartments shut off by wooden lattices or even by balustrades) for women in 912-913, the first maqsurah probably built during the early Umayyad era that was an enclosure near the mihrab that separated the ruler from the people and this was disapproved by the scholars.

We shall now examine the Hadith literature which is often misquoted. Eminent Islamic scholar Muhammad Nasiruddin Albani in his book 'Sifatu Salatin Nabie Minat Taqbire Ilat Taslim Kaannaka Tarahu' quoted a Hadith from Muslim, Abu Dawud, Ibn Khojaimah in which Prophet is reported to have said: A dog, an ass and a woman interrupt prayer if they pass in front of the believer, interposing themselves between him and the qiblah [Muhammad Nasiruddin Albani, Rasulullahr Namaj, Shatabdi Prokashoni, 491/1 Moghbazar Wireless Rail Gate, Dhaka-1217, 1998, p 45]. This Hadith seems to aimed at placing women behind men during prayer. Hazrat Aisha, mother of the believers, however contradicted this Hadith saying: You compare us now to asses and dogs.

In the name of God, I have seen the Prophet saying his prayers while I was there, lying on the bed between him and the qiblah and in order not to disturb him, I did not move [Fatima Mernissi, The Veil & The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam, Perseus Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, p 70]. She criticized the lumping together of women with dogs and donkeys which she regarded as insult on the person and personality of women.

In another Hadith the Prophet is reported to have said: The better rows for men are front ones, and the worst are the last ones. The better rows for women are the last ones and the worst are the first ones.

This Hadith however does not clearly prohibit women from the mosque and only seeks to place women behind men in prayers and not intended to prevent women from praying next to men in most crowded mosque. This Hadith also need to be reconciled with another Hadith in which the Prophet is reported to have said: The first rows [of the prayers] were perceived as superior, specially the first one, for God and the angles bless the first row and the first few rows. To interpret this Hadith in a way that goes against the principle of human equality as enshrined by Islam cannot be acceptable for this is against the very spirit of Islam and principle of natural justice of which Islam is exponent. Prophet in all fairness cannot deny blessings to women keeping them in the rear rows. In fact some scholars got confused and compared the best rows with the prayer rows. In fact the Hadith has been explained in a misplaced context. The best row is the first row of the battle. In other words, the Prophet encouraged women to stay behind the lines during the battles. This becomes clear if the aforementioned Hadith is read together with Quran. Al Quran states: God loves those who fight in His cause in row, as if they were an ordered structure [61 (Surat As Saff): 4]. The problem with this particular Hadith arose as later compiler of Hadith categorized this Hadith with the chapter of prayer, salat.

That woman is not barred from the mosque is clear from the Hadith in which Prophet is reported to have said: O women. When the men prostrate themselves, then lower your gaze, so you do not see the private parts of the men due to tightness of their loin cloths.

Al Fanjari cites a tradition showing that a beautiful woman used to pray behind the Prophet and in front of other men. [See al-Hafiz 'Amad al-Din Abi al-Fida' Ismail ibn Kathir al-Qurashi al-Dimashqi, Tafsir al-Quran al-Azim (Cairo: Dar Ihya al-Kutub al-Arabiyah), 548-50; and al-Fanjari, Ikhtilat, 46, quoted in Nevin Reda's Women in the Mosque: Historical Perspectives on Segregation, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, vol. 21, no. 2, spring 2004, p 88 ]

Did any woman lead prayer in which male participated in any point of history. According to Hadith Prophet had commanded Umm Waraqah bint Abd Allah ibn al Harith al Ansari to lead people of her area (dar) in prayer. She had her own muadhdin, and she used to lead the people of her area (dar) [Al Banna, Fath, vol. 5, 3:1375, quoted in Nevin Reda's Women in the Mosque: Historical Perspectives on Segregation, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, vol. 21, Spring 2004, no. 2, p 91]. The use of muadhdin indicates that she lead prayer in which a good number of Muslims were present.

The aforementioned Hadith of the Prophet is also recorded in the Hadith Compilation Sunan Abu Dawud which reads: The Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) used to visit her (Umm Waraqh daughter of Abd Allah b. al-Harith) at her house. He appointed a muadhdhin to call adhan for her; and he commanded her to lead the inmates of her in prayer. Abd al-Rahman said: I saw her muadhdhin who was an old man. On the basis of this tradition a group of scholars maintain that a woman can act as imam for the people who reside with her in her house, although they include males [Sunan Abu Dawud, vol. 1, Chapter 212-The Imamate of Women, Hadith No. 592, note 260, English tr. by Prof. Ahmad Hasan, Al-Madina Publications (P) Ltd, C 11 Preet Vihar, New Delhi- 110092, First Edition in India 1985, pp155-156].

Eminent Nigerian Islamic scholar and jurist Barrister Adeleke Dirisu Ajijola commenting whether a woman can become Imam wrote: "There are no priests in Islam. there is no ritual in Islam which cannot be performed by any believer of sound mind, either a man or a woman, some functions, such as that of prayer leader (Imam) may fall to a particular person because of knowledge, particularly of the Quran, respectable, of repute or age but could be performed by anyone, male or female with required qualification. Therefore, during the Prophet's time, women prayed in the mosque. They were not separated from men by any screen or curtain in the mosque; they did not wear veils although they were dressed decently In fact, they have acted as Imams while men followed them in prayers" [The Concept of Family in Islam, Chapter 3- Can a Woman Become an Imam? Adam Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi, 2002, pp 227-230].

In Islam women could be confined to home only as a measure of punishment if the charge of fornication is proved by four witnesses [4(Surat An Nisa):15]. This verse of the Quran need to be read together with saying of the Prophet: Do not stop Allah's women slaves from going to Allah's mosques [Sahih Al Bukhari, Vol. 2, Book of Jumua- XIII, Chapter 11, Hadith No. 23, Dar Al Arabia, Beirut, p 10]. Because of this tradition of the Prophet, Caliph Umar ibn al Khattab, despite personal dislike of his wife going to mosque, refused to prohibit her from going to the mosque and she continued to attend prayer in the mosque.

I shall conclude the article narrating the prayer arrangement in one of the mosque in Toledo, Ohio, U.S. in which "the main prayer is conducted with women and men praying together separated by a three-foot partition that runs through the centre of the hall. The women therefore do not pray behind the men but along with them" [Akbar S. Ahmed (Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington, DC), Islam Under Siege, polity, U.K. in association with Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003, p136].

(The writer is the Chairman of Islamic Information Bureau Bangladesh. The author is greatly indebted to Nevin Reda, University of Toronto, for using her scholarly research work.)



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