Since the article by Yasmin Mogahed where she argues against female-led prayer (google it) has been making rounds again and it has some misleading and false statements, here’s a response to it, point by point. Collectively written by me, Zahra K., and someone else. Yasmin Mogahed’s points are in red, and our responses follow. Please note that this post is only a response to Mogahed’s claims and not entirely on female-led prayer. For an article on female-led prayer and how Islam does actually permit it, please click here (it includes references – and I’m gonna link to this a few times below because).
Mogahed begins with: “On March 18, 2005, Amina Wadud led the first female-led jum`ah (Friday) prayer. On that day, women took a huge step towards being more like men. But did we come closer to actualizing our God-given liberation?”
And her response is a simple “I don’t think so” followed by some oversimplified ideas about what it means to be woman—and the too often invoked reference to female biology, as though that ever explains anything, as though anything in female biology indicates even remotely that female-bodied persons cannot or should not do a certain thing or want a certain thing, like leading prayer.
In none of her points does Yasmin Mogahed tell us where it is that God has prohibited women from leading prayer. This is where most Muslim speakers and writers fail—from the very beginning. In all things else, it seems, we must safely assume that something is permissible unless explicitly prohibited, but conveniently, when it comes to women’s rights or women’s choices, everything becomes prohibited unless explicitly made permissible.
To attribute this prohibition to God is a statement against God. It’s an accusation against God. God never said it’s prohibited for women to lead prayer, mixed or not. Humans did. Men did (and other men did not. See here (p. 167 of the PDF) for a bunch of examples of how so many scholars in the past permitted female-led prayer of mixed congregations, outside their household members. Including, by the way, Tabari. This is important. You might also check out the chapter in Brown’s book Misquoting Muhammad, where he literally says on p. 199, “woman-led, mixed-congregation prayers are not established practice in the Islamic tradition. But they are not unprecedented or as controversial as many think.” Read this whole section for how the scholars invented the prohibition out of thin air with no Qur’anic or sunnaic evidence whatsoever.)
“What we so often forget is that God has honored the woman by giving her value in relation to God—not in relation to men.” Who’s “we” here? Certainly not Amina Wadud or any other woman who has ever led a prayer or fought for the right to do so. So this is confusing to me. What about a woman’s choice to lead a prayer indicates that she has forgotten what her God-given value is? In fact, I would argue that by demanding to reclaim such a basic right to such a practice is a very real, full recognition of the fact that she recognizes what her God-given value is.
Besides, how is feminism (western or not) the fight to be like a man? If person A has greater access to resources, more freedom to make choices, and a greater financial independence, then wouldn’t we all want that for ourselves–and shouldn’t we want that for everyone else? It just so happens that the vast majority of “person A’s” in this world are men. This is one of the most basic elements of patriarchy.
“But as Western feminism erases God from the scene, there is no standard left—except men.” First, Amina Wadud is not a Western feminist. She’s an Islamic feminist. In fact, she defines patriarchy as shirk because its putting men between women and God. And second, the right to lead a mixed prayer isn’t a western thing; it’s an Islamic thing. It’s an inherently Islamic thing, actually. The only way anyone can convince me otherwise is to give me proof that God said women cannot lead prayer. So female-led prayer isn’t a western secular feminist practice; it’s an Islamic practice.
Also, let’s please stop with constantly attributing all works for gender equality and justice to westerners. Westerners didn’t invent the idea of equality. Quite far from it.
“As a result, the Western feminist is forced to find her value in relation to a man. And in so doing, she has accepted a faulty assumption. She has accepted that man is the standard, and thus a woman can never be a full human being until she becomes just like a man.”
It’s convenient that this idea is applied almost only to the case of female-led prayer, the idea that you want to be like a man or be a man if you want to lead prayer. But not to other human/women’s rights things, like education, equal say in marriage, equal access to divorce, etc.
But besides that obvious fact, Amina Wadud, as all other Muslim women who lead prayers and want the right to lead prayer, does believe in God, so the whole point of removing God from the picture is moot.
“When a man cut his hair short, she wanted to cut her hair short. When a man joined the army, she wanted to join the army.”
Actually. Not only is there nothing wrong with women wanting to cut their hair short, the idea that they’re doing it to be like men or because they think that’s the correct way to be a human (?) is preposterous. That’s silly. What about women, inherently biologically or not, requires that women’s hair be long? And that men’s hair be short? (The Prophet s.’ hair wasn’t short, by the way.) Women have no long hair and men short not because there’s anything inherently biologically naturally right about it or because that’s the way to be, but because that’s how society decided things should be. And society isn’t always right about things. Beauty standards are oppressive, and restricting people’s choices is a part of that oppression. But this is beyond the point of female-led prayer, so.
Also, funny story: there were women who fought alongside the Prophet s. in battles! In fact, there are accounts of Muslim women who physically literally saved the life of the Prophet s. and were themselves wounded. Were they western feminists, too, now? Not to glorify wars and warriorship, but only to point out that no, women wanting to join the army isn’t because men are doing it or because it’s “western” (lol)—we have the legacy of our own Muslim foremothers as well, and why is it not possible that they do it because they truly believe in the cause of serving their people in that way? When men fight, they’re heroes; when women fight, they just wanna be men. What’s with the hate!
“She wanted these things for no other reason than because the “standard” had it.”
Wow. I’m just going to leave this statement here and let its arrogance speak for itself. “For no other reason than.” May God forgive us all and prevent us from arrogantly claiming to know why others do what they do, aameen.
“What she didn’t recognize was that God dignifies both men and women in their distinctiveness – not their sameness. And on March 18, Muslim women made the very same mistake.”
If this was a “mistake”, then it was made 1400 years ago during the time of the Prophet by Umm Waraqa (and if you think she led only women or her household, I’d recommend Simonetta Calderini’s research on this, a summary of which is here). It was also a mistake when several respectable Muslim male scholars throughout Islamic history said women can lead mixed-gender prayer, unconditionally, not like they needed to be more qualified or anything..
But hold on – can we stop speaking for God here? Who’s to say how God recognizes whom? It’s one thing for it to be your own personal opinion what God means when and how and to recognize that with some humility, but to speak for God as though it’s clear like that isn’t okay. Simply, what’s even the evidence for the claim that the dignity lies in our distinctiveness and not in our sameness?
But this is all assuming that Mogahed is correct in her claim that “she” (Amina Wadud) didn’t recognize how God dignifies women and men.
“For 1400 years there has been a consensus of the scholars that men are to lead prayer.” False. What’s a “consensus”? Not only is there no consensus on the meaning of the word itself, but most Muslims (including some scholars) that I’ve spoken to will say it means the agreement of all of the ummah and/or all of the scholars. Yasir Qadhi holds this definition of the consensus. I’ll have to write a separate response to Qadhi’s claims about female-led prayer (in a nutshell, he says there was never a respectable scholar in the history of Islam who disagreed with this “consensus” and that therefore, this consensus is valid and binding for all Muslims everywhere at all times. Turns out, Ibn Rushd actually names some of the scholars who disagreed with this consensus, so is the consensus still valid then? But more on that another time.)
Conservative Muslims who disagree with a lot of my views commonly tell me, “If Scholar X of the past who is such a big deal and contributed so dearly to Islam holds Opinion Y, who are you to disagree with him?!” If I may, I’d like to express that same idea here – if Tabari said that women could lead mixed prayers without any restrictions, who is anyone else—even Yasmin Mogahed—to disagree with him?
For more references, read a whole chapter about it in Jonathan Brown’s book Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy (specifically pp. 189-199). Even he, who otherwise holds rather patriarchal ideas about women, agrees that there’s no prohibition on mixed-gender female-led prayers and that the scholars had nothing to stand on for prohibiting it.
But another important point is that just because the majority of scholars or Muslims or people anywhere support something doesn’t make it right. Let’s not kid ourselves: Enslaving people and having sexual relations with enslaved people *outside of marriage* as well as forced child marriages were totally absolutely acceptable in the last 1400 years of Islam, and the majority of scholars (if not all of them?) claimed these things were Islamically acceptable and permissible. (See Ibn Rushd for evidence on child marriage if you’re doubtful that entire legal schools endorsed forced child marriages.)
“As a Muslim woman, why does this matter? The one who leads prayer is not spiritually superior in any way.”
Excellent. Then why this very strong opposition to women who do it then? If it really means nothing and isn’t about how better anyone is than another, then why not let women do it? Then why can only men and little male children do it?
“Something is not better just because a man does it. And leading Prayer is not better just because it is leading.”
Have you ever led a prayer even of women only? It’s incredibly empowering and spiritually fulfilling. Besides, what of the women who want to be led by women? Leading prayer is not the only part of Jum’a. There’s also the sermon. Why should men’s voices be the only ones given space at the pulpit? We, as lay women, want to hear the wisdom of women scholars reaching Muslim men and women alike with all the weight that a Friday sermon has.
Anything that’s open exclusively to one group of people and closed off to another is about power and privilege, especially when the group that decided which group should be excluded is the one that has the privilege!
“Had it been the role of women or had it been more divine, why wouldn’t the Prophet ﷺ have asked Ayesha or Khadija, or Fatima—the greatest women of all time—to lead? These women were promised heaven—and yet they never led prayer.”
This is interesting. If we had evidence that Aisha or Khadija or any other woman in Islamic history did lead prayers, would you then support it? I highly doubt it. Just like how Aisha led an entire battle but still people will say women aren’t allowed to serve in the army or lead anything at all. Let’s not be so disingenuous.
But, yes, Aisha did lead prayer. We have evidence she led at least a female-only congregation (see my other article on this topic) but I assure you that there are Muslims who don’t think women are allowed to lead even other women. (There are scholars who believe that, too – and the Hanafi and Maliki schools are among those who don’t allow women to lead even other women in prayer.)
“But now, for the first time in 1400 years, we look at a man leading prayer and we think, “That’s not fair.”
How can anyone be so certain and confident that this is “the first time in Muslim history”? Besides, this is just assuming that precedence is a legitimate source of validation or permissibility (which, don’t Muslims also constantly say “just because Muslims do it doesn’t mean it’s right”?). If it is, we have a big problem because there are a LOT of things that Muslims did in the past and that they continue to do and surely, that’s not Islam?
“…although God has given no special privilege to the one who leads. The imam is no higher in the eyes of God than the one who prays behind.”
Yasmin, if it’s not a privilege to lead a prayer, then why is allowing women to do it such a big deal? Why can’t women do it? Why this almost violent (and actually violent in other cases) resistance to women who lead prayer? But alas, leadership IS a privilege! To be a leader, to be able to lead an entire community, to be able to lead people in prayer IS a privilege! I don’t know what you mean by privilege, but to me, if someone is trusting you to guide them in prayer, to recite certain parts of a prayer on their behalf, to trust you to give them a beautiful, moving sermon, that’s absolutely privilege!
“On the other hand, only a woman can be a mother. And God has given special privilege to a mother. The Prophet ﷺ taught us that heaven lies at the feet of mothers.”
Wait, there’s no correlation whatsoever between being an imam/prayer leader and being a parent. Heaven can lie beneath the feet of a mother who also is the leader of her mosque, her community, her home, her nation even. Isn’t a part of the reason why this honor of having heaven lie beneath her feet that society is so oppressive to women and especially mothers (including by denying her basic human rights)?
And what about childless Muslim women? Can we go ahead and lead prayer since heaven apparently doesn’t lie beneath our feet?
“But no matter what a man does he can never be a mother. So why is that not unfair?”
… Men can be fathers. Why’s that not a privilege? I’m not sure what’s going on here.
“When asked, “Who is most deserving of our kind treatment?” the Prophet ﷺ replied, “Your mother” three times before saying “your father” only once. Is that sexist? No matter what a man does he will never be able to have the status of a mother.”
No, that’s not sexist because the idea here is to recognize the hardships that mothers go through, to recognize that motherhood is a difficult task. Of course there should be a reward for motherhood! Absolutely motherhood should be rewarded and appreciated. The female body goes through utter hell to make a baby and then nurture it, socially and biologically, and anyone dare think it’s sexist?
In an ideal world, whoever wants to have a child should be able to have one and share parenting equally. If men could give birth, perhaps many men would choose to and many would not. It’s a blessing in many ways, and a huge hardship in many ways. However, this is not a design choice women made to single-handedly be in charge of pregnancy and birthing, but we *can* design and decide who gets their voices heard at the pulpit – why not ensure equal sharing of privilege and responsibility there?
But I always find it fascinating that when women want to have access to something or a right, the opponents go, “but you can give birth! What more do you want?” Really? Is that the idea, or am I missing something?
And can we please begin to recognize that men need to be fathering better? That women’s role as mothers isn’t the be-all, end-all of a woman’s life, or that it shouldn’t be? That we need to stop making life such hell for mothers that they can’t do anything else because they have babies? If men stepped up a little more and did a tiny bit more than they already do, women wouldn’t have to struggle as mothers so much.
“And yet, even when God honors us with something uniquely feminine, we are too busy trying to find our worth in reference to men to value it—or even notice. We, too, have accepted men as the standard; so anything uniquely feminine is, by definition, inferior. Being sensitive is an insult, becoming a mother—a degradation. In the battle between stoic rationality (considered masculine) and selfless compassion (considered feminine), rationality reigns supreme.”
I’m lost. What’s so unfeminine about leadership? And who said becoming a mother is a degradation? And where do Islamic feminists like Amina Wadud and others who support female-led prayers denigrate these traits? Who exactly has said being a mother makes one inferior? Can you point me to where Islamic feminists tout being a mother as being somehow inferior? In fact, feminists are the ones rallying for attention to better healthcare for women, equal pay for equal work, longer parental leave, affordable childcare, etc.
“In the battle between stoic rationality (considered masculine) and selfless compassion (considered feminine), rationality reigns supreme.””
This is something you agree with Islamic feminism on! Feminists are absolutely against this idea that all things feminine are inferior and all things masculine superior, that knowledge/rationality/reason are masculine and thus superior, or superior and thus masculine, and compassion/empathy (somehow the “opposite” of rationality!) are feminine and thus inferior. And especially that mothering or motherhood is inferior!
“As soon as we accept that everything a man has and does is better, all that follows is a knee-jerk reaction: if men have it, we want it too. If men pray in the front rows, we assume this is better, so we want to pray in the front rows too. If men lead prayer, we assume the imam is closer to God, so we want to lead prayer too.”
Who is we in this situation? Can you see and hear as well from the back rows? I can’t. Besides during Hajj anyone can pray anywhere so why is it such a big deal to not have women in front in a mosque? And an Imam may not be close to God spiritually, but an Imam has a tremendous amount of power in being able to speak to the masses and influence and guide them. There’s a lot of research that shows the relationship between leadership, authority, and gender. It’s important to speak from a place of awareness on issues like these, so I hope you can gather the humility to read the scholarship in question to have informed opinions on prayer leadership and better understand what the fuss is all about.
Note that you’re ignoring the needs of the congregation especially in Western countries where Imams are community leaders that have influence over the spiritual development of local Muslims. Why should the ummah be denied the opportunity to learn from the unique perspectives of women imams?
“Somewhere along the line we’ve accepted the notion that having a position of worldly leadership is some indication of one’s position with God.”
Well, here’s another thing, Yasmin: When Muslim scholars of the past said women can’t lead prayers, they actually gave the supposed inferiority of women! They actually said it’s because women are incapable of leadership. In fact, did you know that some mufassireen/ulama had such a hard time with the idea that a woman (e.g., Bilqis) could be a queen, a leader of a nation, that the only way they could make sense of it was to figure that Bilqis must have been half jinn and half human. Otherwise, what else could explain that *men* would allow a woman to lead over them? (For more on this, see Asma Lamrabet’s book on women and the Qur’an.) They used circular reasoning like, “Men are superior because they can be imams and women are inferior because women can’t be imams. Men can be imams because men are superior.” And somehow that made sense to them. (For more on this, check out some chapters from this great book called Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition.)
My point is that while you’re right and I totally agree that men are hardly decent enough to be the standard for anything, especially leadership (I mean, look at where the world is! Men are far from being competent leaders!), our scholars of the past had no problem making claims like ahh, men are superior, ahh men are better, ahh we the best, and therefore they can do anything and be anything and women can’t. Any tafsir on 4:34 is sure to remind you of this. The mufassireen had no problem insisting that women are stupid and therefore in need of disciplining. And you know that famous misogynistic hadith about how women are deficient in aql and deen because menstruation and the half testimony stuff? Yeah, there’s that, too, and scholars had no problem invoking the hadith to make their points about how intellectually deficient you and I are solely because we are women.
So forgive me, but I’m not buying this whole “just because men are leading prayer doesn’t mean it’s because men are better” nonsense.
And fine – don’t let women lead prayer just because men lead it. Let women lead prayer just because. Like, let’s leave men out of the picture, and let’s make this happen for women’s sake, with no relation to men whatsoever. Cool?
“A Muslim woman does not need to degrade herself in this way.”
Being a leader isn’t degrading to anyone, except to those who can’t lead well. Tr*mp comes to mind… as do virtually most men who have ever led anything, including prayer and giving sermons.
“In fact, in our crusade to follow men, we as women never even stopped to examine the possibility that what we have is better for us.”
Please speak for yourself. Please don’t speak for anyone else, especially for the Muslim women you disagree with. What you as an individual Muslim woman with so much influence in the Muslim community have might be better for you, but it’s not better for all other Muslim women, or even for any other Muslim woman.
“In some cases we even gave up what was higher only to be like men.”
“Fifty years ago, society told us that men were superior because they left the home to work in factories. We were mothers. And yet, we were told that it was women’s liberation to abandon the raising of another human being in order to work on a machine. We accepted that working in a factory was superior to raising the foundation of society—just because a man did it.”
Actually, this is hardly true. First of all, women (including and especially Muslim women) have always worked in all of history. But our labor isn’t and wasn’t always compensated, and we have rarely been recognized for it. This is actually part of why women still make less than women for the exact same job. Second, Western women didn’t join the work force because men were doing it. That’s silly. If that were so, they would’ve started centuries ago. But industrialization was a major factor, as were the world wars. When men returned from the war and demanded to get their jobs back and push women back into their homes, the women were like wtf, bruh, no!
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a LOT to condemn in western feminism and in the way women are treated in the West and in the way working women have been dealt with. But the idea that women are working or started working because men were doing it is false. You don’t have to make things up to make a point about how terrible western secular colonialist classist-ass feminism has been for the world and especially for women.
(P.S. This would be so much easier, Yasmin, if you read the plethora of books and articles on every single sub-topic we’re addressing here. This is terribly exhausting.)
“Then, after working, we were expected to be superhuman—the perfect mother, the perfect wife, the perfect homemaker—and have the perfect career. And while there is nothing wrong, by definition, with a woman having a career, we soon came to realize what we had sacrificed by blindly mimicking men.”
The expecting is coming from patriarchy! The expectation that women should be perfect mothers, wives, homemakers, AND perfect careerwomen doesn’t come from feminism; it comes from patriarchy. Women don’t have careers to “mimic” men. Too many women have careers out of necessity. You live in the U.S.; you should know how difficult it is to maintain a living with one income.
“We watched as our children became strangers and soon recognized the privilege we’d given up.”
This is again a very presumptuous statement. Yes, most parents/most mothers wish they could spend more time with their children and it hurts to watch the babies you brought into this world grow up with not as much attention and care from you as they deserve. But to assume that it’s mothers’ fault or that if only women just didn’t work so this problem wouldn’t exist is false and unfair. Not only do many children being raised by single mothers because men are too incompetent to be good/compassionate husbands and partners and fathers, but even in the households run by two incomes, a profound loss remains the absence of fathers who are paying attention to their children and who are equally contributing to household chores. It’s not a privilege that just women/mothers “give up” when they can’t be around their kids 24’7; it’s time to also hold men accountable for their lack of active presence in their children’s’ and families’ lives.
“And so only now—given the choice—women in the West are choosing to stay home to raise their children. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, only 31 percent of mothers with babies, and 18 percent of mothers with two or more children, are working full-time.”
What a privilege to be able to survive without having to earn an income! Good for them!
“And of those working mothers, a survey conducted by Parenting Magazine in 2000, found that 93% of them say they would rather be at home with their kids, but are compelled to work due to ‘financial obligations.’ These ‘obligations’ are imposed on women by the gender sameness of the modern West, and removed from women by the gender distinctiveness of Islam.”
Oh my God, Yasmin, this is so wrong! Astaghfirullah. Financial obligations shouldn’t be in quotes! That’s a serious issue for so many women and families–all over the world, and all over history, not just in the modern west! And it’s not “imposed on women by the gender sameness” (huh?) of the modern West; it’s imposed by capitalism. It’s imposed on us by things that are literally not in our control. And women all over the Muslim world work due to financial pressures. Your attitude towards this is disturbingly classist, and that’s not very compassionate, even though you say you choose compassion over “stoic justice.”
I’m so confused, though – is this article about leading prayer and why women shouldn’t lead prayer or about working women/mothers and why women shouldn’t work? Because there’s no relationship whatsoever between working women and women who lead prayers.
But anyway, have you ever asked men if they like to work? If they like the obligation of working and providing for their families (assuming the men you ask are responsible men)? Unless someone loves their job and is being paid excellently, most people, I imagine, would rather just chill and do whatever they like instead of having to work and be financially responsible for someone else. This burden is stressful AF.
“It took women in the West almost a century of experimentation to realize a privilege given to Muslim women 1400 years ago.”
Ugh, I can’t with this. What’s this “privilege” you’re speaking of? Can we Muslims please stop with this whole “haha, the west gave women the following rights recently and Islam gave them to women 1400 years ago” already? What, when it becomes acceptable in the mainstream to support female-led prayer in the near future, are we gonna go all “haha, Islam gave women that right 1400 years ago, and Christian and Jewish and other poor women only got that right recently and had to fight hard for it”? Muslim women have had to fight for everything, too. We’re sick of this claim that Muslim women have everything they could ever want and need! We don’t.
“Given my privilege as a woman, I only degrade myself by trying to be something I’m not – and in all honesty – don’t want to be: a man.”
That’s great. I’m sure Amina Wadud would agree with you that she doesn’t want to be a man, either. I mean, have you seen how men are?! And I still don’t know what “privilege as a woman” it is that you keep speaking of.
Besides, having economic independence where my personal autonomy is not tied to having a good husband or family is not degradation. You’re also ignoring the many many women doing incredibly meaningful work that they find very fulfilling and which benefits the world as a whole.
If working women degrade themselves, please do not demand a female doctor the next time you’re at the hospital. And please be sure to let Al Maghrib know that you cannot accept monetary compensation for your labor as a teacher with them (as, what, the only female teacher they got?), because women don’t need to be working.
“As women, we will never reach true liberation until we stop trying to mimic men, and value the beauty in our own God-given distinctiveness.”
You haven’t told us in this article at all what this distinctiveness is. Is it motherhood? I want to say that’s what you’re thinking of, but if so, where women can be mothers, men can be fathers. Just because male-bodied people don’t or can’t give birth doesn’t mean they aren’t fathers or have no responsibility. The male equivalent of a female imam is a male imam, and most imams I know are fathers. The male equivalent of mother is not imam but father. This is simply a biological difference where men have their own particular biological advantages.
“If given a choice between stoic justice and compassion, I choose compassion.”
Me, too. Now I wish you’d show that compassion to Muslim women whose approach to Islam you disagree with, and to women who work, and so on.
“And if given a choice between worldly leadership and heaven at my feet—I choose heaven.”
That’s cool, but… that’s not the choice. You’ve made a strawman and proceed to knock it down. You can have both. Being an imam does not prevent you from being a mother or vice versa. And again you’re ignoring women without children. Women without children clearly have nothing going for us by your stance. Besides, that’s the beauty of being a woman: you can be a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a nurturer, a teacher, a leader, an imam, and anything else you want to add to this list. Most of us already are many at a time.