About the Friday Prayer led by Amina Wadud
Secretary of Islamic Council (Spain)
In March, the Progressive Muslim Union announced that Amina Wadud Muhsin would
lead the yum'a prayers on Friday 18th of March in New York, delivering the
khutba and leading the collective prayer.
The announcement was impressive. Some see it as an awakening of the ummah, a
revolutionary issue. For others, it is an infamous innovation. Amina Wadud is
accustomed to disqualifications. She is woman, a “nigger”, a muslima and a North
American. Her knowledge of racism and human discrimination is due to multiple
The reaction of the official communities of New York has been negative. The
prayer was summoned at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery. A bomb threat forced to
cancel the act. Finally, the yum'a took place on the foreseen day, in a room
provided by the Anglican Church. More than a hundred people attended the prayer,
men and women, which took place among strict security measures.
The act has caused an authentic shock wave, and has been disclosed thoroughly in
the Islamic world. Some see it as an awakening of the ummah, a return to the
equalitarian way of Islam. For others, it is an infamous innovation. Among the
differing voices, that of the imam of the mosque of the University of al-Azhar,
Sheij Sayed Tantawi, the Great Mufti of Saudi Arabia, as well as the Imams of
Mekkah and Medina, and other “religious authorities” of Morocco, Pakistan and
After this simple introduction, we should begin by answering the question: is a
woman able to lead men and women in prayer? For some, the question is simply
offensive. We are acostumed to this kind of question, and answer patiently with
the Qur'an at heart, and the example of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon
him, as a merciful guide:
1. There is no ayat of Qur’an or hadiz that states that a woman cannot lead men
and women in prayer, or that denies their right to deliver the khutba.
2. The Qur'an affirms women's capacity to direct a community, in the political
and spiritual realms, even to the degree of prophecy.
3. The conditions required to deliver the khutba are: knowledge of the Qur'an
and of the Sunna and teachings of Islam, and the person's interior condition
(their imam or trust in God). None of these are gender related.
4. There is a hadiz where it is said that the prophet Muhámmad (saws) chose a
woman to direct the collective prayers of his community.
This should be enough to close any debate. We should treat the prayer of the
18th as a historical event, as a recovery of genuine Islam, and a break from the
macho Islam which has nothing to do with the Prophet's teachings, peace and
blessings be upon him. An event that encourages us to discern between genuine
Islam and historic or cultural influences, and to recover Islam as a message of
This is enough for us, but the reaction among some scholars and institutions has
been very agressive. On March 17th, a fatwa on the subject was issued by Yusuf
Qaradawi and published in Islamonline:
Throughout Muslim history it is unheard of that a woman has ever led the Friday
Prayer or delivered the khutba... It is established that leadership in Prayer in
Islam is for men only... Prayer in Islam is an act that involves different
movements of the body... Hence, it does not befit a woman, whose physique
naturally arouses instincts in men, to lead them in Prayer and stand in front of
them, as this might divert their attention and concentration, and disturb the
required spiritual atmosphere.
At the end of his fatwa, Qaradawi talks about “innovation”, and makes this
My advice to the sister referred to in the question [Amina Wadud] is that she
should revert to her Lord and religion and extinguish this unnecessary strife. I
also advise my Muslim brothers and sisters in the United States not to answer
this stirring call and to stand as one before the trials and conspiracies woven
In their fatwa, the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America has been more severe:
There is unanimous consensus for the entire Ummah, in the east and west, that
women cannot lead the Friday Prayer nor can they deliver the sermon. If anyone
does takes part in such a Prayer, then his Prayer is nullified. It has never
been found in any jurisprudential text of Hanafis, Malikis, Shafi`is or Hanbalis,
nor even from Shiite scholars, that a woman can lead the Friday Prayer or
deliver the sermon. This opinion [that a woman can lead the Friday Prayer] is an
innovation and a heresy on any account, nullified by all scholars... and anyone
who calls for it or helps implement it is a heretic.
The arguments for this prohibition are the following:
1. A woman's body is provocative, and it could distract the men during their
2. The prophet allowed women to direct the salat only before other women or
relatives, and only in a private environment.
3. It’s an innovation, something unknown in the history of the Islam.
4. A consensus exists among scholars that denies women's imamate before men.
On the first point, I only can show my bewilderment. Opinions of this sort offer
us a poor impression of Muslim men, unable to concentrate before a dressed and
veiled woman. Since Qaradawi has never carried out the salat behind a woman, I
can only refer him to my own experience, that salat is for Al-lâh, behind a
woman or behind a man.
The limit imposed on the imamate of women is based on a very peculiar reading of
the following hadiz:
It is testified of Umm Waraqah —who had learned the Koran by heart—that the
Prophet —peace and the blessings be upon him— used to visit her; he ordered she
to act as imam for people of the house (ahlu Dariha), and she had a mu’adhin,
and she accustomed to act as imam for the people of the house.
Qaradawi dedicates most of his fatwa to commentaries on this hadiz. The reason:
since no text of the Qur'an or of the Sunna exists that forbids the imamate of
women, he tries to carry out a restrictive reading. According to Qaradawi, this
hadiz limits the feminine imamate to their own home, and only in case that she
were the most versed in the Qur'an.
This opinion is based on a limited reading of the Arab term dar. This word means
house in a metaphoric sense, like in the expressions to dar al-Islam, or Darfur,
the earth of the Fur. The necessity of a mu’adhin shows that the call to the
prayer goes beyond the domestic environment. Also, other hadith show us that
among the people of her house there were also men, including the mu’adhin. For
this reason, I think that the restrictions are not in the hadiz but in the mind
of the reader. Another posible interpretation could be: Umm Waraqah bint
Abdullah, a woman of the Ansar, was designated by the Prophet —peace and the
blessings be upon him— as imam of the Mosque of her area, located in Medina's
proximities, where men and women used to pray.
This is the interpretation provided by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, writer of a Sira
and transaltor of the Qur’án in french:
It is stated that the Prophet (peace be upon him) appointed her leader or imam
of a mosque in her locality and that men prayed behind her. The mu'adhdhin, who
calls the faithful to prayer, was a man. It is obvious that he too prayed behind
the Imam. This account occurs in the Sunan of Abu Da'ud and the Musnad of Ahmad
(The emergence of Islam. Published by Adam Publishers & Distributors Shandar
Market, Delhi, India)
About the “scholars unanimous consensus throughout history”, we have to say that
a honest study doesn't allow for this statement. Among the outstanding scholars
that have defended the woman's imamate, it is necessary to mention Abu Thawr
(died in 240 of the Hijra), of the school of Imam Shafi'i. Also Abu Dawud (died
270 H), founder of the Zahirí school. And Tabari (dead the 310 H), Qur’anic
commentator and creator of a school of jurisprudence. ibn Rushd affirms in his
Bidayat al-Muÿtahid that Abu Thawr and ibn Tabari are an exception among the
scholars, since “they allow the women to lead men in prayer without
restrictions” (Vol.1, pg.354). According to an article published for Emmanuel-Yamin
Dubuc in www.oumma.com, at least three schools have defended the possibility
that women can lead men in prayer.
Some of the defenders of the so called “consensus of scholars” don't ignore
these cases. They simply argue that the consensus was established with
posteriority, and therefore cannot include Abu Thawr neither Tabari. Here we
must ask: when does this consensus take place, and who does it include? Our
perplexity increases as we discover that there are many opposing definitions of
what “consensus among the scholars” really means: there is no consensus on what
a consensus implies.
It is surprising that even among the hanbalis, women's imamate is acceptable, at
least in certain cases. Qaradawi mentions az-Zarkashei:
In accordance with Imam Ahmad and most of his followers, it is permissible that
women may direct men in the tarawih prayers.
Our confusion continues: how is possible that permission is granted in these
cases and prohibited in others?
How is this recognition of the feminine imamate included in a fatwa that begins
saying that “it is established that the leadership in prayer should be for men”,
in a fatwa that claims that women cannot be positioned before men in prayer
because they might excite them? Is a woman's body less provocative for men in
tarawih prayers than in other regular prayers?
We can also mention the words of ibn Taymiyah (died 728 H):
“A learned woman leading unlettered men in the night prayers of Ramadan is
permissible in the well known statement of Ahmed, and as for all other
superagatory prayers, then there are two narrations." [Radd al-Maratibul-Ijma,
Ibn Taymiyyah, pg. 290, ed. Dar ibn Hazm].
ibn Taymiyah refers to the narrations contained in the Musnad of ibn Hanbal,
where it is affirmed that women can also direct the salat of the men in nafl
prayers (not obligatory). It is necessary to point out that some specialists
deny that ibn Taymiyah wrote this. However, also in the recopilation of his
fatawa he refers to the permisivity that women lead the prayer, when she is well
versed in the Qur'án (Majoo al-Fatawa, Vol. 23, Pg. 248).
The so called “Sheikh of the hanbalíes”, ibn Qudamah, states that a discussion
existed among traditional scholars on women's imamate, not only in the tarawih
and nafl prayers, but also in general prayers. ibn Qudamah talked against those
who defended the women's imamate without restrictions (Al-Mughni, Ibn Qudamah,
Vol.3, pág.33, ed. Dar al-Hijr), so in his time there was still a discussion on
this matter. He died in 720 Hijra.
In conclusion, the “scholars consensus” against the woman's imamate is
nonexistent, and there is no hadiz or ayat of the Qur'an that forbids a woman
from leading the Friday prayers.
In the issue of the imamate of women, all opinions are respectable. If some
muslims consider that it is licit for a woman to deliver the khutba and lead the
friday prayer, they are in their right to do so. The contradictions among
scholars are not necesarily bad. We have to consider them as an expresión of the
variety and vitality of Islam, and never as a fitna.
In spite of their weak arguments, it is licit that Qaradawi (or any other
Muslim) intervenes in this controversy by giving his opinion, interpreting the
Sunna and giving his advice. If Qaradawi considers this kind of prayer illicit,
there should be no problem: he is not obliged to attend them. What is
incomprehensible is that he reprimands Amina Wadud and other muslim women,
advising them that they “should revert to her Lord and religion”, as if she is
no longer a Muslim or has strayed fom the path. As for the statement issued by
the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America, we need say no more.
In the end, the same 18 of March, Secretary General of Islamic Comission of
Spain, Mansur Escudero, suport the prayer, and the Mufti Sheikh Ali Gum'a,
Egypt's main Islamic authority, declared that woman-led prayer during
mixed-gender congregations is permissible, so long as the congregation agrees to
it. We agree.
Wa al-lâhu aalam