They Say This Mosque is a Jewel, But How Would I Know?

By Joanne McEwan
Staff writer – IslamOnline

Mosque of al-Mu’ayyad, Cairo. Photo by Lorraine Chittock in Cats of Cairo: Egypt’s Enduring Legacy

Enter the mosque of “Al Dhahar Baybars Al Jashenqir” in Gammaliyya, Historic Cairo, and you will feel solitude, peace and refuge from the dust, overcrowded streets and a vociferous thoroughfare of Vespas. The courtyard has a breeze of mysterious origins. How in this hot summer does it happen to be a haven from the heat of the sun? Birds nest above in the cloisters and the odd stray cat lazes about in the shade. Some elderly men are reading the Qur’an as they wait for the prayer to begin. It is a serene mosque with modest decoration and without any gaudy embellishments. But as it is time for prayer I, as a woman, have to step behind this musty curtain and my view of this modest masterpiece is blocked. Its unique cool microclimate has now changed to a stale claustrophobic one.

Enter Masjid An-Nur: the largest and formally most prestigious mosque in Egypt. Its pastiche of Mamluk-style, Makkan minarets and Florentine domes pierce the skyline. It is famed for its splendor, ample space for worshippers and its magnificent chandelier. It is a chosen favorite for live, televised Friday prayers. Its registry office in the lower ground floor is popular for signing wedding contracts, and its construction was nearly a hit and miss when there was wrangle between erecting it and a massive flyover.

But again, as a woman, I have to settle with an upper floor a fraction of the space with a screen that practically blocks the view of the prayer hall. The chandelier is just a tingle of light faintly glimmering through the lattice screen. The ladies prayer hall is a climb of six flights of stairs if you can’t be bothered waiting for the elevator that only holds three people. Friday prayers are so packed that women are squeezed into the corridor in front of the toilets. In fact, in the prayer, I am on the verge of falling down the stairs.

This is a common site and experience with most mosques throughout the world. Today, women are sectioned off either behind a partition or in a separate room, often in damp basements – dungeons as they are often coined.

But how did this imposition become such a common feature in mosques when they were not like that in the past? If we consider that the time of Prophet Muhammad was the epoch of Islam at its peak and as near to perfection as possible, then it follows that we should look at how women prayed then to ascertain what is correct according to Islamic law.

Medieval drawing of a woman giving a lecture in a mosque

Let’s start from this example by quoting the hadith of the Prophet: “Do not prevent the female-servants of Allah from the mosques of Allah.” The female Companions of the Prophet frequented the mosque for the purpose of prayer as well as listening to the Qur’an, helping out in any duties required there, or just sitting in the mosque. This was witnessed by the Prophet himself and they were never made to feel unwelcome. Even `Itikaf, or the seclusion in the mosque during the last ten days of Ramadan, was practiced by women, among them Prophet’s wife, `A’isha. The mosque was the hub of the community for all Muslims, regardless of gender. So what about the segregated space in the mosque?

According to Shari`ah, the actual placing of a barrier which precludes the sight or sound of the imam (the person who leads the prayer) or the rows in front from the rear rows violates what is acceptable in the prayer. The Hanbali school of thought says that if there is any obstruction to the emulation of the imam, in either vision or hearing, then this prayer is not counted as a collective prayer. It is a must to either see the imam or the rows in front with no interruption.

This is the case for all those praying in collective prayers, and women are no exception. By blocking a woman’s sight from the rows in front she is likely to make a mistake, for example, getting up before the imam, or not knowing what part of the prayer everyone is praying in the case of entering the prayer late and she is alone. And this invalidates her prayer.

In his paper “Women’s Prayer Areas in Mosques,” submitted to the prestigious Symposium on Mosque Architecture held by King Saud University, Jahed M. Tarim argues that if it were necessary to place a partition, then the Prophet would have done so. For example, according to Qurtubi in Jama`at Al-Ahkam Al-Qur’an (rulings of the Qur’an) there was a particularly beautiful woman who used to come to the mosque to pray. Some of the men would try to stand in the front rows in order not to be distracted by her beauty, and others would go to the back so that when they bowed in ruku`, they could catch a glimpse of her through their armpits. Then the verse from Qur’an was revealed: “And Allah knows those who hasten forward and those who lag behind.” (15:24)

In spite of this woman’s face being a bit of sensation among the men, we note that Allah did not order any change to the situation as he did in other occasions when Muslims had not followed His commands. He merely warns the Companions that He knows what is in their hearts when they are praying and that they should behave modestly. Likewise, the Prophet did not order a screen to be erected segregating the men and the women.

Old design of the mosque of Madinah. From K. Cresswell, Early Muslim Architecture, Oxford, 1932/1940

The mosque of Madinah at the time of the Prophet was a simple and practical structure. The praying area neither had a special section for women, a physical partition, nor a room separating the women from the men. Women prayed behind the men. It was as simple as that.

As for the mosques built in the early Islamic times and later, they were also built with no special praying section or screened area for women. This is obvious when looking at them on plan. Take any famous historic mosque, anywhere in the world, famed for its architectural genius and you will find one prayer hall. Any special prayer halls or sections for women have been recent additions.

It was around the era of the Ottoman Caliphate that there began to be special sections for women. These were raised sections at the back of the prayer hall with a small railing of demarcation. The reason for this was that the upper classes wanted to shield the women of their entourage from assailants and beggars. However, there was no physical obstruction to the sight and sound of the imam or the preceding rows.

But what we actually find today are those historic mosques with a curtain or screen, and modern mosques with purpose built women’s prayer halls. All of them provide mere left over space for women as if it is out of the ordinary for women to pray in a mosque. Certainly, with the uncomfortable little milieu these partitions create, it is no wonder that women don’t feel encouraged to pray in mosques.

I think, however, it is all too often forgotten that there are times when it is women who become the majority in mosques. After the war in Sarajevo, mosques were full of women. Taraweeh prayers in Ramadan constituted two or three rows of men and the rest of the mosques were packed with women. Luckily those mosques were from the Ottoman period with nothing more than a railing to segregate, which was often ignored due to the numbers. With the growing influence of the Muslim world now on Bosnia it wouldn’t surprise me if those insipid screens and MDF boards have found their way to the mosques of Sarajevo.

In spite of this, there are still some who argue that those mosques were built with one prayer hall because women did not pray in mosques. Yet, there is ample evidence not only from the Prophet’s time but also from historic documents showing that women prayed in mosques and participated in congregational prayer often.

Mosques are losing their aesthetic value for women. They are losing that value for children too: since where women go children go. If this continues, soon mosques will only serve men and be designed for men, and that will breach the harmonious and holistic environment that the mosque should provide.

It is sad to say, but many contemporary mosques (whether conversions or purpose built) remind me of the cubbyholes for tea-breaks in workplaces: they have that fusty unloved smell about it, hold the dimensions of a Wendy house, and you are in and out in no time. As for the mosques emulating as “glories of the past” they are fast becoming mere hidden treasures to more than half the Muslim world, unless, of course, they are on the tourist map. And all this with the loss in one’s duty, prayer and spirituality.

Having said all that, little is needed to rectify this situation in the short term. No props, no money required… Just a simple change of procedure, which means that the women pray directly behind the men. As simple as it was in the Prophet’s time.

Joanne McEwan embraced Islam in 1987 in her hometown Glasgow, Scotland. She is now pursuing an MA in medical geography. Her writing concerns the problems and attitudes of Muslims that are often accepted as the norm. She hopes that her writing encourages a rethink on issues so pertinent in this changing world. She lives in Cairo with her husband and four children.


  • M. Frishman and H. Khan, The Mosque (London: Thames & Hudson, 1994).

  • J. M. Tarem, “Women’s Prayer Areas in Mosques” (Arabic) in Proceedings of the Symposium on Mosque Architecture, vol. 8 (Riyadh: King Saud University, 1999).

Read about Islam’s stance on the partitioning of women in mosques:


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