Can a Muslim Woman Lead the Congregational Prayers?

by Mumtaz Ahmad Faruqui, Islamabad

The Light (Pakistan), 8th/16th August 1976 Issue (Vol. 56, Nos. 30–31, pp. 6, 23–24)

In the 12th May 1976 issue of Paigham-i-Sulah (Urdu) Lahore, an Urdu translation is given of the address by Mrs. Jeannatte Salma Wyatt (Justice of Peace) at the Seventh Ahmadiyya Convention held in London some time ago, in the course of which, Mrs. Wyatt made an observation which needs notice. She said that the English Church has been ponder­ing for some time over the question of allowing women to become priests of the Church; and here and there some women have been awarded such duties. Amongst the Jewish people, a considerable number of women have been carrying on the reli­gious functions which were usually perform­ed by Rabbis of the Synagogue. “Will the Muslim world”, Mrs. Wyatt poses a question, “allow their women-folk to perform the functions of an Imam?” She observes that she did not find any verse in the Holy Quran which would render Muslim women ineligible for the position of an Imam. She did question some Muslim religious leaders who could only say that it is not customary to make women Imam — who could lead the other ‘faith­fuls’, in the five daily congregational prayers. “So it is only a man-made custom” sneers Mrs. Wyatt, “and why should customs and personal interpretation be allowed to influence Islamic Shariat?

I have a few observations to make on the above question: In verse 2:222 of the Holy Quran, some rules are laid down when a woman has her monthly courses. During the course, she is in a state of impurity until such time that the course is over and she has taken a bath to render herself clean and pure. On this are based certain rules and sayings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) on which the Muslim Ummah have been acting all along. A few of these are mentioned below:

Ibn-i-‘Umar has reported the Prophet to have said that a woman during her monthly course (menses) is in a state of impurity and must not handle the Holy Quran or read from it (Tirmizi).

Ayesha has reported the Holy Prophet to have said that a woman during her monthly course must not enter or use the mosque, until she is through with it and taken a bath to clean herself (Abu Dawood).

Zainab (wife of Abdullah bin Masood) has reported the Holy Prophet to have said that a woman should not smear scent or perfume herself before entering a mosque (Muslim).

Abu Huraira has reported the Holy Prophet to have said that for men the best and appropriate row (in a congrega­tional prayer) is the first or premier one; while for women the appropriate and suitable row is the last one (Muslim).

Ayesha has reported the Holy Prophet to have said that an adult Muslim woman must have a covering over her head and a cloth to wrap round her breast, etc., if her prayers are to be accepted by God. (Abu Dawood —Tirmizi).

Um-i-Salma, wife of the Holy Prophet, questioned him whether a woman wear­ing only a shirt and head-covering and without a proper pyjama or other dress, could say her prayers? On this the Holy Prophet replied; only if her shirt is long enough to come down right up to her heels (Abu Dawood).

Now Islam is a sensible and practical religion. A woman usually suffers her mon­thly course (menses) for about seven to ten days in a month. She can do all her household work; and meet and talk with people. But there are certain other restrictions. For instance, she can’t have sexual intercourse with her husband, she can’t handle or recite from the Holy Quran. In the month of Fasting [Ramadan], she cannot observe fasts. Now this concession or allow­ance has been given to her by God due to her physical disability over which she has no control. She is not held to blame for this. But it is obvious that with these disabilities during these seven or ten days she cannot possibly be the Imam if appoint­ed to lead the five daily congregational prayers in the mosque.

There could be other troubles too. In westernised countries where even Muslim women go about in miniskirts, with their hair loose and scattered over their shoulders, and with powder and scent to attract men’s attention, she would cause distraction if she visits a mosque, let alone leading the congregational prayers. This is all un-Islamic and hence taboo.

Islam enjoins on its Muslim women to wear a modest, clean and not too attractive or eye-catching a dress which could cover her charms and her hair too. Even so the Holy Prophet enjoined on them that when they come to a mosque for prayers then they should form a separate row of their own in the rear so that they can come and go unobserved and without disturbance. It is to preserve her modesty and honour that this is done. However, in all matters of religious duties and their rewards, they share alike with the men-folk. (See the Holy Quran 33:35). And didn’t the Holy Prophet observe:

‘The best of you (Muslims) is one who is the most considerate to his wife.’

‘Paradise lies under the feet of your mothers.’

However, in one respect I would desire to put the record straight: Says the Holy Quran:

“Men are the maintainers of women, with what Allah has made some of them to excel others and with what they spend out of their wealth ….” (4:34)

Islam is a sensible and practical religion, so to abide with the responsibilities and observance of mutual rights laid on the husband and wife, a miniature government has been recommended. Men have the privilege on women in the matter of physical strength so that man has been appointed to work and earn a living for his family. He also guards his home and hearth. Men spend their wealth on women, so that he earns and she spends. So ‘grie­vances must come before supplies’ as the saying goes. The man knowing more of the world and able to carry out the deci­sions made, is given the ‘Casting Votein the domestic or household affairs. Let the lady of the house run the home and attend to its day-to-day tasks, catering to the desires and wishes of her family. But when it comes to making a worldwide or vital decision, then man is given the ‘casting vote’. That is the way the worldly govern­ments are also run, as some man on the top makes the final decision, and so does the miniature government of the house. And ten to one, it is a smart and intelligent woman who somehow manages, very gently and imperceptibly, to prevail upon her ‘man’ to do what she wants him to do. So the peace of the household is not disturbed and the world rolls on.