From the Ritual to the Spiritual

From the ritual to the spiritual


At the rate poison darts are soaring towards me, one would think I led a chorus line and not an Islamic prayer!

Yes indeed, the fatwas are flying (I already have one from a Saudi network based in the United States, thank you!). The GTA Muslim community, even those who profess to be liberal, are doing what has become the norm — condemning without considering, labelling without listening and judging without justice. Since the Talibanization of Pakistan, I’m well aware of stoning first and debating later.

Let me confess where all this began. About three weeks ago when Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC), asked me if I would lead a mixed-gender group in prayer, I said No! I wasn’t ready to be part of a media frenzy.

Tarek and I have agreed to disagree on many points, but we have what I call “a dignity of difference” — a respectful exchange of ideas, which is a characteristic abysmally lacking in some parts of the Muslim community. My husband convinced me that it would be a natural progression from giving sermons in churches, praying in synagogues and temples to lead prayer for my own community.

I checked with a professor of religious studies who was an imam in Toronto. He said categorically that nowhere in the Qur’an does it specify women can’t lead prayer. Also, when the Prophet Muhammad preached his message in a male-dominated society, he did not speak out for or against women leading prayer. As a matter of fact, women at that time were entrepreneurs, theologians, mystics and also participated in war. I’m extremely impressed by these female role models.

The three men in my life (two sons and spouse) encouraged me to take this leap of faith — what more could I ask for? I’ve always believed God created us equal and that spirituality is not dependent on gender.

However, there are many people who are barred from places of worship. Some women have stopped going to the mosque because they are stuck near the bathrooms or kitchen due to their gender.

More important, all worship in Islam begins with a declaration of intent. My intention was not reactionary, not defiant and definitely not a show of militant feminism. It wasn’t about a battle between progressive and conservative — it was about sharing some profound thoughts with my fellow Muslims and also to help other women find a safe space to worship.

April 22 was Earth Day, and after moving the venue twice (because so-called liberal and culturally progressive centres refused to have a woman lead prayer), a backyard in Cabbagetown became the sanctuary. A motley crowd of about 40 people from as far as Oakville and Pickering came to join in this historic Friday prayer, among them an imam, women in hijab and diverse Muslims from various backgrounds.

There was no security guard posted at the door to check ID credentials or people’s intentions since I don’t believe that is our mission in life. I am responsible only for my conscience and answerable only to God. This event also was an attempt to break the domination of a few misguided bigots who try to reduce God to a policeman.

Although physically I led the prayer by standing in front and reading the sermon before the prayer, we all were bound by our united submission to God. I felt we were truly blessed.

Why? Because the brave men and women who chose to stand behind me and pray empowered me with a responsibility that made my own prayer more poignant and meaningful. It allowed me to move away from the ritual to the spiritual and actually hear and understand myself better than I ever have.

At the end of the prayer, some of the non-Muslim observers had tears in their eyes and were touched to the core. Some participants told me they had not prayed in years and were thrilled to come back into the fold.

As for the critics, let me try and understand where their problem lies. Our message was one of tolerance, peace, spiritual equality, compassion and love of Allah and His Prophet. Obviously that is not the message coming from mosques that base their sermons on negating others.

While this service was not the ultimate move for reclaiming our place in Islam, it’s a fact that our faith is frozen in time. Dialogue and debate, also known as ijtehad — an important cornerstone of Islam — have been deemed an unnecessary evil and stopped since the 16th century. So the hope is that events like this one will open the doors to that much needed discourse and put us on the path to enlightenment together as men and women in faith.

Raheel Raza is a media consultant and freelance writer. 

Originally published in the Toronto Star and reprinted with permission of the author.