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The Qur’anic Value of Equality vs. Islamic Laws Limiting Women

Juliane Hammer’s article, “Performing gender justice: the 2005 woman-led prayer in New York”, describes the events of March 18th 2005, when Muslim men and women gathered for a historical Friday prayer. What made this event historical were namely these three things: the prayer and sermon was led by a woman, the call to prayer was done by a woman, and the absence of gender separation in the congregation. Sadly, with no access to a mosque the service had to be done at an Episcopal Cathedral. There was also high security due to threats, protests, and media coverage (93). The organizers of the event were hoping to change traditional views on women and worship. They expressed during a press conference that women have not yet reached full equality and participation in their communities.

The organizers had mixed views on the presence of the media. Some thought word of this event would inspire others, while others, namely Dr. Amina Wadud (the prayer leader), were more focused on the sacredness of the event in itself (94). Wadud had used divine authority from the Qur’an in her sermon to justify the equality of men and women (95). Even though Wadud felt the importance of this event for Muslim women, she wanted to retain its original intent of worship. “I was especially keen that I concentrate on the nature of public ritual as performance directed toward Allah, rather than an act of defiance against those who have created the necessity for a gender jihad by simply denying women the full human dignity with which Allah has created us (102).” Wadud and others were gathered to worship Allah, not to upset people, even though this was inevitable.

Hammer’s main argument is that the worshippers and organizers that day actively participated in creating a new image of Islam (92). This image was not only a new image for the world to contemplate but an image for Muslims to address as well. “The image of the oppressed and silenced Muslim woman is only second to the even more pervasive image of the violent Muslim extremist and its association with terrorism (96).” Muslim women in America have had great opportunities to speak for themselves and dispel such stereotypes even though they are rooted in the fact that women do not have the same rights to worship. Many Muslim women have published books that discuss the meaning of their religious identities. “American Muslim women, through these writings, have joined the existing tradition of religious American women sharing their stories. These memoirs are typically stories of questioning patriarchal forms of religion, as well as journeys of liberation and faith struggles (97).” Muslim women have used media in America to show that the Muslim woman is not monolithic. In the case of the female led prayer, media was used to portray these women as non-submissive and very proactive in fighting religious oppression. However, there is a backlash among Muslims to the creation of this image.

Imam Shakir’s “An Examination of the Issue of Female Prayer Leadership” opposes women who justify what took place on March 18th. He takes a lot of time refuting a particular woman, Nevin Reda, and her use of hadith to argue for female led prayer, by showing that her choice of text has questionable authority and has numerous interpretations.

He cites many hadith that show gender segregation has always been a part of Islamic worship, yet he never tests these texts as rigorously as the ones used by Reda. It is also unclear from what he has cited, the religious reasons (if any) behind this segregation. It just happens that men have always been in front of women, never mind that this might be more a product of the culture and time and not the religion.

Shakir says, “[I]t should be clear that a woman leading a mixed gender, public congregational prayer is not something sanctioned by Islamic law, in the Sunni tradition.” He notes that his evidence comes from a particular context. On pages five and six, he even notes disagreements between Sunni schools. I appreciated that he did this so one can see that views on women and prayer are not monolithic even though they all have same conclusion about public mixed gendered prayer.

I found it odd that he did not address any of Reda’s Qur’anic evidence. He justifies this by saying that it does not affect legal rulings (10). He just demonstrated the ineptness that hadith can sometimes have and he does not wish to look at a text which holds more authority. In his conclusion, he demonstrates that yes, Muslim women do need more attention just not necessarily power. “Perhaps, if the men of our community had more humility, we would behave in ways that do not alienate, frustrate, or outright oppress our women (11).” Perhaps, it was the inability of men in Muhammad’s culture to show humility to women that put them behind men in worship and in lower standing. If Shakir were to take this idea of humility seriously, then women would be given equal power. Surely, Shakir means having humility with limits.

He also stresses that Islam does not advocate this worldly liberation. “Our fulfillment does not lie in our liberation, rather it lies in the conquest of our soul and its base desires That conquest only occurs through our enslavement to God. Our enslavement to God in turn means that we have to suppress many of our souls’ desires and inclinations (11).” If men suppressed and conquered their base desires there would be no issue. Women will have liberation when men liberate themselves from their desire for power. Shakir’s conclusion confuses me because these statements seem to advocate equality. This makes me wonder whether the divine principle of equality is less important than the rulings derived from hadith. The United States seems to be a great environment for Muslim women to test the limits of the Islamic law against Qur’anic values.



10 thoughts on “The Qur’anic Value of Equality vs. Islamic Laws Limiting Women

  1. I appreciate the way your article quickly submerges the reader into the controversial issue of gender inequality in Islam. As the faith grows, and Muslim communities expand across linguistic, cultural, and political differences, one is forced to recognize that these differences generate new arguments for freedom, justice, and equality that do not conform to pre-established ancient practices. Your article leads us into Hammer’s writings which describe the notorious event that took place in New York when a Muslim woman decided to lead a prayer. This prayer received massive media attention since the role of a woman in Islam is not of a leader; thereby, many Muslims perceived this event as breaking the sacred standard rulings within the tradition.

    Your article transitions to Imam Shakir and his views on the issue of gender inequality. This transition is important because it provides the reader with orthodox standards which advocate for the need to comply with the existing rules even if these give one gender an inferior status. From a Western standpoint, these issues of gender inequality are socially and politically unacceptable; therefore, most of us view the upholding of inflexible traditions as a tool of oppression. Your article cleverly concludes by suggesting that the liberation of women still depends on the mercy of men within the tradition. This may be true (as a Westerner I agree with you); yet, one must continue to allow the voice of Muslim women speak on behalf of freedom, since our interpretation of liberty in the West differs from the Muslim interpretation of freedom and equality.

    Posted by alfredo71 | February 11, 2012, 2:20 pm
  2. The way you write about the topic and overall summary is a very clear and concise, as well as making it something simple and easy to understand. I liked reading it because of this. The first point I would like to mention is that in the part when you discuss Juliane Hammer’s article. The way you discuss it shows how this event was solely a Muslim women’s movement. This makes it a very one sided piece, because the only focus is on this event and these women. It does not address the consequences of this event or how it was received by other Muslim communities and their views. You do mention that this event could create back lash, but it would have been nice if you addressed more of these back lashes that occurred after this event or even other movements that were similar to what happened in New York
    The second point is you ask about Imam Shakir and that you are confused by how some of his statements advocate equality, but his overall article is focused on expressing why this event and women’s right to lead prayer is not accepted in certain Islamic communities. It is important to keep in mind that Shakir is laying out his argument based on the Hadith and historical Islamic sources. So while based on the sources he does not agree with women leading prayer his other statements express that the treatment and situation of Muslim women in the world does need to change. This is important to keep in mind because on one hand his opinion is based on the law and historical sources but on the other hand is his personal opinion expressing the need for change and adaptation. Another point you make is that the United States has been a good environment for Muslim women to test the limits of the Islamic law against Qur’anic values. This I would disagree with because we have seen that there are other places where Muslim women are making a stand and it is not just the United States that allows for this. Also a statement that makes it seem like everywhere else is oppressive of Muslim women and the United States is a utopia for women’s rights. It is essential to keep in mind that feminist movements can vary because of the specific situation, culture and location in the world making them all unique. There are a variety of feminist movements around the world and New York is only one example.

    Posted by tealam12 | February 11, 2012, 11:30 pm
    • Thank Teala and Alfredo for your comments! As you can see my writing on the issue was rather simple and clear. This is due to my unfamiliarity with the particular issue; however my writing is affected by my personal views on gender and religion. This manifests itself in my very short critiques of Imam Shakir. But, as I said, I require more knowledge before I can really formulate a solid critical position. The accessibility of the piece came naturally through the subject matter as well. We might be academics, but this debate is centered on real men and women, the practitioners of Islam. This is an issue which they struggle with in their communities, their families, and themselves.

      Teala, I purposefully included Wadud’s feelings about the event to show that the event was not simply a women’s movement but an act of worship. I think her quote clearly suggests that the event was not just to prove a point, this was the very least of Wadud’s worries, she just wanted an opportunity to praise Allah in a way she believes anyone should be able. You are very right, this is a men’s issue as well, they present at the event to both support and oppose. The reason why I mentioned backlashes right before discussing Imam Shakir, is due to the fact that his article serves as my backlash. By saying that the U.S. is a great environment, I did not mean that it was the only environment. There is a huge difference, but I can see how you could have read it that way. I was also referring to the fact the events mentioned took place in the U.S.

      Alfredo, I am very interested by your last comment. Are you suggesting that Muslim values should change or be reinterpreted simply because these particular Muslims are living in a Western culture? I agree with you that women should be allowed to speak out despite the opinion of people in charge, not because they are now in the U.S. but, because everywhere people should have the right to worship in any capacity. The problem is not necessarily in governments (although some do control religion) but in religious institutions. These women have the freedom and right to do worship as they please (in the U.S. and other countries) but they want to be recognized and validated by the powers of their religion. If the opinions of those in control of the religion do not change, then either women will have to submit to those constraints or they may have to forfeit “validity” for the freedom express themselves religiously. This is the true issue at hand.

      Both your comments will help me immensely as I rewrite and reformulate this review!

      Posted by cassidylp | February 12, 2012, 11:56 am
  3. Cassidy,

    There are two points in your post that I would like to reply to.

    First, you seem to be suggesting that the gender segregation in Muhammad’s time was based on culture rather than religious law. That is, that Muhammad’s acceptance of the segregation was an assent to custom rather than an enactment of God’s will. I think this is at the heart of Islamic feminist debates as well as at the heart of all Islamic intrepretive projects. The problem is that it is not easy to separate between the historical-cultural and the religious actions and worldviews. Thus, while some Muslims may seek to dismiss gender segregation or male-led prayer as cultural rather than religious, other Muslims will not be convinced. To many it is not a question of whether women are being treated “fairly” according to secular standards, but a question of what roles God has ordained for women and men within the Islamic community.

    Second, you address what you see as inconsistancies within Imam Shakir’s posiiton. I do not see inconsistancies here. When he states, “Our fulfillment does not lie in our liberation, rather it lies in the conquest of our soul and its base desires That conquest only occurs through our enslavement to God. Our enslavement to God in turn means that we have to suppress many of our souls’ desires and inclinations (11),” he is reminding Muslims that real liberation does not lie in worldy offices or leadership positions. In particular, he is reminding Muslims like Reda and Wadud that being a good Muslim derives from the acceptance of God’s will rather than a resistance to it. Thus, if he has demonstrated that women are not permitted to lead prayer, as he believes he has, then women ought to focus on accepting God’s design and fufiling their roles well.

    Imam Shakir’s position represents a Sunni majority opinion of God’s design for the Islamic community and should not be dismissed as just a scheme to continue male-domination and the oppression of women. Whether or not one agrees that this worldview offers the true or best vision of feminism, it is one possibility of what it means to be a woman based on solid religious principles and methods of interpretation.

    Posted by shannonwiese | February 12, 2012, 7:42 pm
  4. Thank you Shannon for your comments! I agree whole heartedly with you when you say that it is hard to separate between cultural and religious practices. This has been a problem for many religions as time passes and cultures change. It is very hard to let go of something that has become so intertwined with what we consider to be part of a divine will and at the same time it is very hard to hold on when women’s roles in other aspects of life are changing rapidly. The gap between women’s religious and secular roles are perhaps far more apparent for Muslims living in countries like the U.S. One has to wonder if women’s change in secular roles is not a clue saying this was a cultural construct.

    Secondly, I believe you have taken Shakir’s quote exactly the way in which he intended it to be taken. There is nothing wrong with this, but to me it seems as if men have been allowed, more so than women, to seek their desires. Shouldn’t this quote also apply to men seeking leadership, especially a leadership that is not equally open to all people? Also, I think it would have been nice to know what functions and roles Shakir would like women to fulfill instead. An issue probably more important and widespread among Muslim women is not access to leadership, but equal access to worship spaces. Many women are not even allowed this.

    Posted by cassidylp | February 13, 2012, 2:00 pm
  5. This was an interesting article. However, one issue I have with your treatment of this issue is the assumption that the segregation of men and women in the house of worship during the prayer is necessarily related to issues of gender equality and the oppression of women. In Christianity, it used to be customary to separate the men and women in the congregation as well, with men sitting on the north side of the church while the women used to sit on the south side. This did not have its cause in notions of the inequality of women (though, admittedly, the history of Christian theology has not been incredibly friendly towards women), but rather had to do with notions of propriety. It would be unseemly for men and women to be seated together because social norm relating to sexual relationships. Interpreting the practice of having women located behind men in a prayer service can be interpreted in this light. Putting yourself in the place of a Muslim woman at such a service, the idea of going through the necessary motions and prostrations to perform the prayer while directly in front of a male could make the woman uncomfortable for reasons that should be fairly obvious. While this is ultimately cultural, it seems to be a somewhat benign practice. Perhaps it is even useful because it would allow for the worshipper to be less self-conscious and more attentive to the practice of the prayer itself. While such practices could be cited as evidence of sexual repression in such societies, it does not lend itself particularly well towards discussions of gender equality.

    Posted by woolmanjc | February 13, 2012, 6:42 pm
    • Thank you Josh! The absence of gender segregation is simply one of the reasons that made this a historical event, according to Hammer which is why I only mentioned it briefly at the beginning. As you can see my writing was much more focused on the issue of women and prayer leadership. Your answer as to why gender segregation occurs makes a lot of sense, but as you say it is mainly a practice of preferance and culture. I think those worshipping at the female led prayer probably did away with segregation to show solidarity among the men and women present. If segregation is done to make people feel more comfortable there is nothing wrong but it should not be forced. There can be something special about worshipping along side family members or spouses. As I said I did not address it much in my writing but you have given me more material to think about.

      Posted by cassidylp | February 13, 2012, 7:16 pm
  6. I appreciate this article’s presentation of the material, and see that it represents a certain approach to the renegotiation of power which is currently unfolding in the world in many different spheres, Islam being particularly timely.

    I find that this kind of conversation almost always entails a claim of adherence to the will of God vs. claims of basic human rights/equality (which should not be in opposition to the will of God, in most theologies wherein God is seen as being omnibenevolent). Neither camp in this disagreement will see changing their stance at all as a possibility, as that signifies an abandonment of their core beliefs. This is important to keep in mind in analyzing this type of argument.

    I would like to think also about the suspicion of “outsider” narratives. When both camps consider themselves in the right and the others as being wrong, some amount of othering occurs, creating an outsider group that claims the same identity. These “outsiders” have a particular narrative which relates the content of their faith in a particular set of relationships – however, it is often suspected that these “new” and “heretical” narratives are an attempt at either gaining or maintaining political and social power/advantage. Those who currently are aligned with the authoritative position will see the “new” interpretations as a political maneuver to usurp the power of their group. The other group sees the tendency of those in power to defend and maintain that power at all costs, including distorting sacred beliefs and theology.

    Abstracting the concept even more, in order to remove the particulars of the situation as much as possible, we see that there is a particular field or sphere of influence wherein authority is being renegotiated. Different parties are competing for the same resources (political and religious authority). The way this battle will play out will depend on the opponents’ use of history and legitimizing their particular narratives. The suspicion of narratives noted above makes this situation increasingly complex. Understanding the complexity of the discourse, rather than just positing that it is a disagreement in theology or a political antagonism, will enable analysts to take a serious look at the different levels of investment of the participation and the conscious and unconscious motivations of the opposing parties.

    Posted by fetheras | February 13, 2012, 7:21 pm
  7. Your argument raises some good points about the ideas behind the woman-led prayer in New York City. You do a good job of showing the conflict within the organization about the extent to which the media should be involved. It might not have come across as effectively in my review, where I argued that the whole event could be seen as a media spectacle, but I agree that Wadud was probably not viewing it as such (however, it seems likely that creating a “media spectacle” was in fact Nosmani’s agenda). Shakir is unquestionably arguing from a Sunni perspective steeped in a tradition that holds woman-led mixed gender prayer to be inadmissible. His argument from the prevailing Sunni perspective does not leave a lot of “wiggle room” for this to be the case, but Reda wants to prove her exegesis within Sunni Islam. This ultimately ends up being her biggest problem (and is in all likelihood why no tangible results came from this event which was ultimately based on her interpretation of the hadith of Umm Waraqa) due to the quantity of instances where this was ruled on by the Sunni juridical schools. You claim that Shakir never actually addresses Reda’s Quranic interpretation of the hadith in question, but he does to some extent disagree with her interpretation of specific words or at least point out where other rulings have decided upon other interpretations of the word in question. The evidence that Shakir does not touch because he claims it to be ancillary is the positions held by now-defunct schools of jurisprudence that certain members of ulama have claimed at one time supported woman-led mixed gender prayer. He claims that because these schools are so long defunct and have no surviving records that it is unclear whether their position on the topic changed.

    Posted by drewcostello | February 13, 2012, 7:22 pm
  8. You make a very good point about the United States being perhaps a place where Muslim women can test the limitations which have been imposed upon them by those who would restrict their participation. The freedom to practice one’s religion unhindered by the enforcement of a state religion and therefore the lack of intervention on the part of governmental authority in the case of heterodox practice allows and encourages this. I use the word heterodox in this case because the idea of a woman leading a congregation prayer is heterodox. This is not to say that it is not reasonable or viable, just that it falls, at present, outside of normative Islamic practice. Heterodoxies and orthodoxies are, perhaps oddly, quite fluid.

    The early Islamic philosopher al-Jahiz is said to have made the much-quoted comment that Islam is like pure water poured into clear glass bottles. It takes on the color and shape of the vessel into which it is poured, but its essence remains the same, it’s truth unchanged. I’ve often thought that this is an excellent characterization for what is happening with Islam in the United States. This environment, because it allows freedom of expression, encourages the adaptation of what is meant to be a universalist religious tradition to some of the cultural and social norms which have been allowed to develop there. There is certainly backlash amongst those who would say that it is too far outside what is permissible to allow or encourage women to lead prayer. They can also do as they like and protest this, but it is of little import to those who have reinterpreted the practice of leading prayer in a way which allows men and women equal access.

    On another note, I was outside the Sayyida Zainab Mosque in Cairo one afternoon just before Duhr prayer on a Friday and men started going into the mosque. The women’s entrance was separated from the men’s on the outside of the building by an iron fence and there were gates in the fence which ringed the entire building. The gate which allowed access to the women’s entrance was chained shut and locked with a big padlock. As the iqama began to announce the khutba and then the prayer to follow, there were about 40 women pushing and pulling at the gate shouting to be let in. No one opened the gate for them and they missed the congregational prayer. For me, it was a stark visual metaphor for the way that women’s access to their religion is often restricted. Here was a group of women who wanted to attend the prayer and apply themselves in devotion to Allah, but were left outside the gate, literally shouting to be let in, forgotten.

    Posted by johndmartin | February 13, 2012, 7:42 pm

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