Dr. Amina Wadud and the Progressive Muslims:
Some Reflections on Woman-Led Prayer

Answered by Ustadha Zaynab Ansari


In the Name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Praise be to Allah. May the peace and blessing of Allah shower upon our Beloved Messenger, his family, and companions.

[pdf version of article also available]

Many of you have probably heard of the controversy stirred when Dr. Amina Wadud, author of Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective, led a mixed-gender Jumu'ah prayer on March 18, 2005 in New York. This event was hailed as an opportunity for Muslim women to fight for gender justice as they "reclaim their right to be spiritual equals and leaders. Women will move from the space tradition has relegated them in the back of the mosque and pray in the front rows."[1]

To understand what happened, it is crucial to examine the background of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America (PMUNA), which sponsored the prayer cum media spectacle. The members of PMUNA have set themselves apart from the majority of Muslims, taking an approach to Islam that is highly influenced by secular Western liberalism. They believe that Islam needs to be freed from centuries of male-dominated, conservative scholarship to adequately address issues of human rights and gender equality. While this idea might appeal to some, it certainly has its flaws. Many of the Progressives' ideologues envision a wholesale reformulation of Sacred Law. This divine gift of guidance has withstood the test of time immemorial. It is sheer folly for any Muslim to claim the right to alter the Sharia of Allah. Allah Most High says in the Qur'an, the primary source of Sacred Law, "This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt, a guidance unto those who ward off (evil)." (Al-Baqarah, 2:2) As Sidi Nazim Baksh so eloquently put it, "Any movement, artistic or scholarly, whether an idea or a book, that lures people away from the principles of Divine guidance embodied in the Prophetic era, is degeneration - a regression, not progression."[2]

Dr. Wadud has also generated controversy over certain of her views pertaining to the Qur'an, women, and Sharia. Approaching the Qur'an from a feminist perspective, Dr. Wadud is not exempt from her own biases. She recently went on record as objecting to particular verses in the Quran that do not accord with her conception of universal justice and human rights. I do not wish to quote Dr. Wadud out of context, so I am including her words on the issue:

"As for "no" to the Qur'an, let me summarize the work I have been doing to overcome some of the apologia of Qur'an and Woman. Yes, the Qur'an I believe and love is considered a form of Allah's self disclosure, but I do not believe God is locked into the 7th century Arabian context with its limitations based on coherency in that context, including Arabic to have a universal underpinning of TRUTH, justice and love.

I accept every word as sent by revelation from Allah to the Holy Prophet whose own example embodied and demonstrated those underpinning universal (he never literally beat any of his wives, for example). When I say "no" it is not the integrity of the literal text, it is to the implementation of some practices which is a 14 centuries long debate. That is why the jurist "set conditions upon" things like "beating" and "cutting". I consider that an interpretive intervention. Other interpretive interventions, like Qur'an and woman encourage the polysemic nature of reading and understanding and offer egalitarian interpretations against patriarchal ones, with no ONE having the final word. That belongs only to Allah and Allahu A'lam. But now I wish to point more directly that anything other than literal reading is a demonstration of agency to Allah, working in concert with the text, as words and intent to sustain the underlying principles and values, such that today, the Qur'anic approval of Slavery, for example IS NOT IMPLEMENTED. I wish to state my acceptance of certain problematic moral practices but with out and out refusal to implement them. AND to stop lying to make other people feel comfortable, I say so, with out losing a single ounce of my love of the Qur'an and my devotion to Allah.[3]

Clearly, Dr. Wadud approaches the Qur'an from a vantage point that conflicts with the well-established methodology of Islamic scholarship and exegesis of the Qur'an. Mainstream Sunni and Shi'i scholars alike accept the principles of the universality, immutability, and applicability of the Qur'an's edicts. Saying yes to the Qur'an is very much at the core of Muslim faith. This affirmation is at once an acceptance of divine guidance and a realization that fallible human beings are in absolute need of Sacred Law.

The movement for female-led prayer has its origins in the agenda of Asra Nomani, another Progressive Muslim, who gained attention when she marched into the main hall of her local mosque and demanded the right to pray in the same room with the men. Titled the "Muslim Women's Freedom Tour," this type of feminist activism purports to restore the rights of Muslim women to pray in the main halls of mosques alongside males. Indeed, the Progressives view the way Muslims have always prayed, with men in the front and women in the back, as a form of rigid gender discrimination. Asra Nomani, for her part, has advanced an "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque," demanding that "Women have an Islamic right to pray in the musalla without being separated by a barrier, including in the front and in mixed-gender congregational lines." Ms. Nomani also has an "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom," which asserts, "Women have an Islamic right to exemption from criminalization or punishment for consensual adult sex."[4]

What is most troubling about this latter "Bill of Rights" is that it directly goes against the Qur'anic and Prophetic proscriptions on sex outside of marriage. This apparent appeal to sexual license does little to aid the credibility of Ms. Nomani's movement. It may be easy for some to dismiss Ms. Nomani's Islamic Bill of Rights for Women; however, her willingness to place sexual liberation on the same agenda with women in the mosque is illustrative of the extremes inherent in the Progressive philosophy.

Granted the Islamic Bill of Rights has some merits. In a very public way, Asra Nomani and Amina Wadud have uniquely managed to draw attention to the marginalization of Muslim women. Ultimately, however, the airing of this particular dirty laundry only serves to reinforce the stereotypical portrayal of the oppressed Muslim female and her Muslim male oppressor. It is also noteworthy that the most ardent supporters of this event are non-Muslims, many of whom stand in complete opposition to traditional Islamic values.

Although some commentators have dismissed this matter as of little significance, it is important to be aware that Dr. Wadud has tampered with a core pillar of the faith: prayer. The way of the Prophet, peace be upon him, was to exercise the utmost caution, discretion, and balance in matters of worship. Although the Progressives have advanced the hadith of Umm Waraqa[5] as proof for their position, there is no other evidence from the vast hadith literature or Sunna of the Prophet that it was common practice to have female prayer leaders. In Umm Waraqa's case, all that is evident from the hadith is that the Prophet, peace be upon him, permitted Umm Waraqa to lead the "people of her house" in prayer, and he appointed a muezzin for her. It is not clear if the people she led were males or females or both. Furthermore, there is no other hadith to support the imamate of women over men in prayer. For this reason, Imam Malik, founder of the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence, seeing no habit of women leading even women in prayer regularly among the Companions and the subsequent generation, whom he met and studied with, did not hold it valid for women to lead even other women in prayer, much less men. The Hanafi School holds that it is prohibitively disliked for women to lead other women in prayer; in other words, women are strongly discouraged from forming their own congregations. On the other hand, the Shafi'i School holds congregational prayer to be recommended for women; however, it certainly does not provide for female imamate of male followers.

The Progressives refute any hadiths which contradict their stance, namely, that of Abu Bakrah, "No nation shall succeed that is led by a woman," contending that Abu Bakrah's testimony was not reliable. However, according to established Sunni scholarship, Abu Bakrah's narrations were beyond reproach. For this reason, Abu Bakrah's hadith appears in Bukhari and Muslim, both rigorously authenticated collections of Prophetic traditions. [6] Any hadith that comes to us through these two Imams cannot be disregarded. Centuries ago, hadith experts, like Bukhari and Muslim, established a rigorous methodology for hadith scholarship that contemporary scholars simply cannot replicate. Blessed with proximity to the age of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), his companions, and subsequent generations, these scholars were able to preserve a rich corpus of Prophetic thought and action.[7] Who are we to disqualify their immense achievements by arbitrarily rejecting and accepting hadith?

Although Abu Bakrah's hadith appears to refer to the political leadership of women, (he quoted this hadith when recollecting the Prophet's comments on Kisra's daughter), there is another hadith which specifically talks about female imamate, "Lo! Let absolutely no woman lead a man in prayer!" The Progressives reject this hadith because of weakness in its chain. However, when used in tandem with the hadith of Abu Bakrah, these hadiths constitute the biggest argument against female imamate.[8] Most significantly, the Prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace, commanded us, "Pray as you have seen me pray." (Bukhari) It was his practice to have men pray in front of women. The greatest female companions and Ahl al-Bait - the likes of Aisha, Fatima, Zaynab, Hafsa, Umm Salama, and others, all deeply learned, courageous, and pious women, never went on record as having led a congregation of men, when even leading companions, like Talha and Zubair, followed Aisha into battle, may Allah be pleased with them all.

Furthermore, the vast majority of Sunni and Shi'i scholars are agreed that women are not permitted to lead men in prayer. One can assume, as the Progressives have, that these men simply were not as enlightened as we are or were influenced by existing gender prejudice in their societies. On the other hand, one can also give these scholars the benefit of the doubt instead of impugning to them base motives of male prejudice. I believe that if they had been aware of an established Prophetic precedent for female imamate, then they would have supported it unanimously. As it were, only a few scholars, such as Imam Abi Thaur and Imam Muzani, allowed female prayer leaders. This allowance was not blanket permission for women to lead men in prayer, but contingent on certain circumstances, the details of which were not transmitted with the same clarity as the majority consensus. Some scholars of the Hanbali School allowed women to lead men in the non-obligatory Tarawih prayer, provided that the women are learned and the men ignorant. However, this is a minority position at best and was not adopted by the majority of scholars who understood it to be at variance with the example of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).[9]

Even if one were to consider the issue of female imamate, many questions would naturally arise:

1. Is it wise to make the prayer a bone of contention among Muslims? The Imam should be someone who can unite the congregation, not divide them. The issue of female imamate has the potential to divide rather than unite. Ustadh Recep Senturk, associate professor of sociology specializing in human rights in Islam, recently spoke to an audience in Atlanta where he reiterated the clear positions of the Qur'an, Sunna, and scholarly consensus regarding female prayer leaders. For Ustadh Recep, the issue is not one of power. Salat, or prayer, is about putting ourselves in front of God. It is an expression of piety, the humbling realization that in front of God, we are nothing. Prayer has to be examined from within the framework of deen, not power relations, gender politics, or postmodernism. Our concern should be: what is most pleasing to Allah? Which way echoes the sunna of His Beloved, upon whom be peace? Ustadh Recep recollected the story of Iblis, defying Allah's command to bow down to Adam. Iblis tried to use the 'aql, or intellect, in matters of worship. But for Ustadh Recep, this debate represents a misuse of 'aql; such issues are beyond the realm of human reason, though not contrary to reason. Thus, we do not model our religion after social change. We have to maintain authenticity, because what happens when these changes become outdated [as they surely will]? In response to the Progressive argument that religious law is the product of a patriarchal, androcentric worldview, Ustadh Recep expressed the view that Sacred Law, in some very fundamental respects, privileges women. He believes that "the Shariah puts the burden of financial responsibility on the husband and the father to take care of the wife and children, even if the wife is rich and making money. This rule, which openly works against the interests of men, makes it clear that the Islamic principles governing relations between sexes could not be man-made. Otherwise, the men would have put the entire responsibility on the women in the family, and deprive d them of the right to own property and inherit, which was the norm in that age in Arabia and in almost all cultures around the world. Why would men want to change this well-established rule and burden themselves with such a big responsibility? This is an illuminating example to prove that we should look at the rules in Islam as the 'deen from Allah,' not as a man-made ideology which strives for more power for a particular class or group."[10]

2. What happens when the female imam is menstruating or experiencing postpartum bleeding? What happens when she is pregnant and not able to perform the complete prayer, in terms of bowing and prostrating? As a woman, I am aware of the sensitivity of this situation. Should the whole congregation be apprised of the fact that the imam is menstruating? Interestingly enough, the Progressives assert that there is nothing prohibiting a woman praying while menstruating![11] Once again, the dangers in the Progressive approach are evident. What gives any Muslim the right to subvert centuries of scholarship with the baseless contention that purity from menstruation is not a prerequisite of prayer? Allah Most High says, "O ye who believe! When ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; Rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles. If ye are in a state of ceremonial impurity, bathe your whole body. But if ye are ill, or on a journey, or one of you cometh from offices of nature, or ye have been in contact with women, and ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands, God doth not wish to place you in a difficulty, but to make you clean, and to complete his favour to you, that ye may be grateful." (Al-Maidah, 5:6) Sexual intercourse, menstruation, and postpartum bleeding alike are considered states of major ritual impurity whose lifting requires a ghusl, or purificatory bath. Prayer is simply not allowed under any of the above circumstances. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, told a woman named Fatima bint Abi Houbaish, may Allah be pleased with her, "When you menstruate, leave the prayer, and when you are done, perform the purificatory bath and pray." (Bukhari, Muslim)[12]

3. Is placing women in prayer lines directly next to men conducive to an atmosphere of piety and mutual respect? How many sisters would like a brother to stand right next to them, touching their bodies with his as they pray? Our Lord instructed us, "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof..." (Al-Nur, 24:30-31) We need to be realistic about the biological and physiological differences inherent in men and women. In such a situation, what would prevent a man with a diseased heart from harassing the sister? From personal experience, I know that when women go to the Haram in Mecca and because of the huge crowds are forced to pray in places where they are accessible to men, bad things can and do happen. Women experience enough sexual harassment at the hands of men without making the prayer another venue for sexual advances! Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad, in his writings on Islam and gender, contends that certain Western scientists, gender theorists, and even feminists, like Germaine Greer, are coming to realizations about gender that are highly reminiscent of Shari' conceptions of gender identity. The universe is a gendered universe, with the bivalence of male and female assuming its ultimate reflection in the Divine Ninety-Nine Names of Allah. Allah's jamal, or beauty, balances Allah's jalal, majesty. The one neither neutralizes, subverts, nor exceeds the other.[13] Allah Most Exalted declares, "the male is not as the female..."[14] an explicit statement of the inherent physiological, biological, and dispositional differences between males and females, differences for which Sacred Law has accounted beautifully. For Shaykh Abdal-Hakim, a trumpet call for "gender equality" fails to take into accoun t these distinctions, both subtle and profound:

Intelligent thinkers such as Greer are no longer demanding 'equality'. It is not that they are demanding inequality or injustice instead: far from it. Instead, they are recognising that our awareness of the categoric difference between the sexes makes the whole concept of 'equality' rather too simpleminded. Men and women are neither equal nor unequal. We can no more say that men are better than women than we can say that 'the rain is better than the earth'. To use the old language of 'equality' is in fact to be guilty of what the philosopher Wittgenstein called a 'category mistake'. Modern Muslim theologians who have assimilated the new insights insist that the demand for 'equality' is less helpful than the demand for opportunity and respect. Here there is clearly a congruence between Islamic discourse and the new difference feminism of Greer, Gilligan and a growing number of others.[15]

4. When we pray, our foremost concern is that our prayers meet all the requirements for validity as laid down by the jurisprudence of Islam. If, for example, a sister follows the Shafi'i school of thought and her ablution is nullified by skin-to-skin contact with a non-mahram (marriageable) male, then what happens when she prays next to a man and they (mistakenly, I would imagine) touch each other? Once she has broken her ablution, her prayer is no longer valid. This position is based on sound interpretive reasoning from Allah's words, "or ye have been in contact with women, and ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands..." that such contact automatically nullifies one's ablution, hence, one's prayer. Even the Hanafis, who do not view such contact as nullifying ablution, still deem such contact as completely impermissible.

This list of questions is certainly not exhaustive. It is unfortunate that the Progressive Muslims have seized upon the issue of prayer as a way to highlight gender discrimination against Muslim women. There is profound wisdom in following the Prophetic command, "Pray as you have seen me pray." Our prayers, more than likely, cannot favorably compare with the prayers of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and those around him. Why jeopardize the quality of our prayers even further by making this pillar of Islam a platform for social rather than spiritual activism?

The Progressive Muslims raise valid and relevant questions about women's issues, especially those pertaining to women's space in the mosque and gender relations. However, there is a way to address these issues from within the Islamic paradigm, without compromising the authority of the Quran, the integrity of Prophetic practice, and the intellectual heritage passed on to us by the great scholars of old.

I believe that it is time that Muslim women reclaim their rights from within Islam. I humbly suggest that our scholars be more aware of the sensitivity of women's issues. The Progressive Muslims raise some important points, and while we may not accept their philosophy, we do ourselves a disservice by dismissing legitimate concerns that affect Muslim women today.

This topic really hit home for me, because as a woman, I too have experienced discrimination in the mosque. I simply ask that when our scholars discuss the issue of women's leadership, they keep an open mind. Many brothers use the hadith of Abu Bakrah as a weapon against women. Did the Prophet, peace be upon him, intend to prohibit women in all places and all times from assuming any and all types of leadership positions? History points to many examples of positive female leadership, and, indeed, many examples of negative male leadership. Consider what the Qur'an has to say about Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba. Look at the example of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and how he routinely consulted his wives in matters of utmost importance.

Finally, dear brothers, realize the impact of your words upon your listeners, male and female. When the Imam in the masjid harshly tells the women to sit in their own space, tells them to be quiet because their voice is a private part, tells them that he has to protect the men from them because "the worst rows are those nearest to the women," honestly, how do you think these sisters are going to feel? And who will they feel the most welcome with, the local Imam who humiliates them, or the Progressives who greet them (literally) with open arms?

May Allah forgive me, for all mistakes I have made are mine alone.

And Allah knows best.


Umm Salah (Zaynab Mansour Ansari)

August 18, 2005



[1] Event, Friday Prayer Led by Dr. Amina Wadud, http://www.muslimwakeup.com/events/archives/2005/03/friday_prayer_l.php


[2] Waking Up to Progressive Muslims, by Nazim Baksh for Q-News, http://www.ihyafoundation.com/index.php?page=nazim_baksh/15


[3] Amina Wadud Responds to Tarek Fatah, http://www.muslimwakeup.com/main/archives/2005/02/amina_wadud_res.php


[4] An Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom, http://www.asranomani.com/freedom/archives/2005/02/an_islamic_bill_1.php


[5] What Would the Prophet Do? The Islamic Basis for Female-Led Prayer, http://www.muslimwakeup.com/main/archives/2005/03/women_imamat.php#more


[6] Why Must Women Pray Behind Men? http://www.abc.se/~m9783/o/wbm_e.html

[7] Siddiqui, M.Z. 1993 (revised ed.). Hadith Literature. Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society

[8] Women Leading Men in Prayer, http://www.sunnipath.com/resources/Questions/qa00004848.aspx


[9] Zaid Shakir, "An Examination of the Issue of Female Prayer Leadership," http://alghazzali.org/resources/femaleprayer.pdf


[10] Ustadh Recep Senturk, lecture at Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, April 3, 2005. For more information on Ustadh Recep's work, his current research project is titled: Sociology of Rights: Human Rights in Islam between Universal and Communal Perspectives at www.law.emory.edu/IHR/wrkpaper/r_senturk.doc.

His publications include:

v "Sociology of Rights: Human Rights in Islam between Communal and Universal Perspectives", Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, 2005 (Forthcoming).

v "Adamiyyah and 'Ismah: The Contested Relationship between Humanity and Human Rights in the Classical Islamic Law", Turkish Journal of Islamic Studies, 2002 (8), pp. 39-70, http://www.isam.org.tr/YeniWeb/Yayinlar/IsamDergi/Dergi08/039_069.pdf.

v "Towards an Open Science: Causality and Beyond-Learning from Ottoman Experience", The Humanities on the Birth of the Third Millennium, Fatih University and Brigham Young University, New York, 2002.

v "Toward an Open Science and Society: Multiplex Relations in Language, Religion and Society," Turkish Journal of Islamic Studies, No 5, 2001, http://www.isam.org.tr/YeniWeb/Yayinlar/IsamDergi/Dergi06/093_129.pdf.



[11] http://www.muslimwakeup.com/main/archives/2005/03/women_imamat.php#more


[12] Al-Khen, Mustafa, Ali al-Sharbaji, and Mustafa al-Bugha. Al-Fiqh al-Manhaji. Damascus: Dar al-Uloom al-Insaniyya, 1989.

[13] Abdal-Hakim Murad, "Islam, Irigaray, and the Retrieval of Gender," http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/gender.htm

[14] Al-i-Imran, 3:36

[15] Abdal-Hakim Murad, "Boys Will Be Boys," http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/boys.htm



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