Shattering the idol of spiritual patriarchy: Towards a gender-fair notion of prayer in Islam

By Omid Safi

The imperative to undertake critical, independent reasoning within the framework of Islamic thought (ijtihad) has been one of the hallmarks of the creativity of Islamic thought through the centuries. As recent scholarship has established, the gates of ijtihad have always been open, and we assert that they continue to remain open today. The numerous traditions that have asserted the need for perpetual renewal (tajdid) of the religious tradition remind us of the need to perpetually articulate the timeless and eternal teachings of Islam in a way that addresses the timely challenges of the era in which we live. Part of the challenge before us is: how to articulate the core values of justice and compassion that are at the heart of the Islamic tradition in a way that addresses the contemporary challenges we all face as Muslims and as human beings.

Over the centuries, there have been various guidelines suggested by different scholars for ijtihad. These rules have consistently held that the process be a rigorous and systematic one, one that must be conducted with integrity. Among the usual qualifications for someone to conduct systematic ijtihad have been a knowledge of Arabic, command of the Quran, hadith, and Islamic law, expertise in matters of socio-historical knowledge, etc. In many ways, the questions that we are raising, including the issue of women leading mixed-gender prayers, fall under the rubric of ijtihad. At the same time, it is important to begin the conversation with a wider discussion, involving many voices in the Muslim community.

In the classical period of Islam, there were always multiple centers of authority that offered interpretations of Islam. These included, but were not limited, to religious scholars (ґulama) whose expertise focused on matters of Islamic law and jurisprudence and Sufis, whose expertise was the spiritual path. The operating procedure in Islamic discourse has historically been one of disputation and consensus, whereby different individuals and schools of thought offered perspective on various issues. By and large, a spectrum of responses, indicating a plurality of perspectives and interpretations was acknowledged by the various participants. Whereas today many are quick to identify practices as IslamicӔ or unIslamic,Ӕ medieval Muslim jurists would rank practices as ranging from required, recommended, neutral, disapproved and finally prohibited.

And yet the historical condition of the world, including Muslim countries, is radically different today than it was a few centuries ago. The traditional sites of production of knowledge, ranging from the madrasa and the khanaqah, among others, have fallen on hard times. In a medieval time period, one could expect the most rigorous (male) intellectuals in an Islamic society to be involved with madrasa life. With the advent of colonialism, many of the madrasa institutions were undermined by the colonial powers. In addition, many madrasas have not kept pace with the evolving requirements of broader modern educational needs beyond religious instruction, limiting their appeal to the best and the brightest. Today, some madrasas continue to train rigorous scholars, while far too many are a shell of their former glory, not breaking any new ground.

Even more problematic is the historical fact that the madrasa system as it has existed historically in Islamic societies has been an all-male space. While we have had individual women who have been learned in the matters of Quran and hadith, the madrasa door as such was open to men only for most periods of Islamic history. LetҒs acknowledge the importance of this pattern of exclusion: to engage in ijtihad, one had to have qualifications. To have qualifications, the best way was to become a master of Islamic law through the madrasa system. To be at a madrasa, one had to be male. In other words, historically speaking, ijtihad has been limited to men. This fact has to be addressed openly, and as Muslims we have a responsibility to transcend this historical limitation today.

This exclusion of women from authoritative interpretations of religion can no longer be maintained. It is morally and socially unacceptable to support a system whereby half of all the human beings that God Almighty has created are prevented from engaging in religious thought and leadership. If we understand our God as the Just (al-Adil) and the Compassionate (al-Rahman), it is morally repugnant and irrational to believe that God would have designated half of this human creation automatically subservient to the other half. And it is with regard to this issue that we come back to the prayer topic.

No one disputes that women are spiritually qualified to lead prayers. All jurists would recognize that women may lead other women in prayers. (And men can lead all men in prayer.) So women have the spiritual qualification for imama, even by the most traditional consensus of Islamic law. The question is rather this: who is qualified to lead prayer for a mixed-gender congregation. There have been some debates on this point in Islamic legal sources. There is the early example of Umm Waraqa, appointed by the Prophet to lead her household in prayer reported in the compilations of Abu Dawud, al-Daraqutni, al-Bayhaqi, al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi, The Tabaqat of Ibn Sa`d, and other sources. Based in part on this report, Imams al-Muzani, al-Tabari, Abu Thawr, and Dawud al-Dhahiri allowed for females to lead men in prayer. And yet, the majority of Muslim jurists in the past and the present have reached a conclusion that if the congregation consists of a thousand women and one man, only a man may lead the prayer.

Letђs examine the presupposition of this position. It cannot be based on the spiritual worth of women as imams, as demonstrated above. If the one man in the above example were removed, then the female imam would pose no challenge to the consensus of the jurists. The underlying issue, then, is clearly not the spiritual qualification of the imam. It is something much more fundamental, and basic: it is rather the concept of the spiritual authority of men over women.

We do not deny that a majority of scholars in the past have givenӔ spiritual authority for women over to men. And yet we today object to this dispensationӔ, since women were notand in far too many conversations still are notחpart of this decision making process.Ӕ What we are refusing today, in this discussion, is the presupposition that God has handed exclusive spiritual authority over women to men. In our reading, a Just and Loving God has created humanity, all of humanity, in the full possession of human dignity, and in a relationship of basic equality both towards the Divine and among themselves in human society. To use Islamic language, all of humanity, male and female, has been born with a primordially pure nature (fitrah), all of humanity has had the spirit of God breathed into them. As the Quran records God saying, wa nafakhtu fihi min ruhi [15:29]. The idea that all men have automatic spiritual authority over all women is completely inconsistent with this fundamental Islamic (tawhidi) conception of the relationship between God and human creation, and between people among themselves. As we will argue, the distinctions in our spiritual rank in Islam should be derived not from our gender, but rather from our piety and God-consciousness (taqwa).

So how do we think through this very serious and urgent problem in a systematic and holistic fashion? The great scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl has offered us some very important tools. He calls for developing a ғconscientious-pause when we are presented with a text that challenges everything else that we know to be true about God, in this case the notion of a good, just, and compassionate God. It behooves us to first develop this conscientious pause, and seriously ask ourselves whether as Muslims we really believe that God has created women deficient in intellect and incapable of broad spiritual authority, that a community that follows a woman is bound to go astray, etc. These are all ideas traced back to certain hadiths, unsound yet commonly hurled around, attributed to the Prophet (S) that violate what we know of him and his treatment of those around him, as well as everything that we know to be true about God in our own being, a certainty based not only on personal knowledge but by a holistic reading of the QurԒan where God creates everything good and beautiful in a state of purity, not deformity. So, when challenged by misogynistic statements, it is good to pause conscientiously at first. But we need to go further, and ask the question that so many Muslims around the world are asking: can the presuppositions about gender that have informed these rulings still be regarded as sound? We are not the first Muslims to be asking these questions. In fact the reform movements of thinkers such as Abd al-Karim Soroush and others in Iran are asking precisely such important questions about ѓpresuppositions with respect to ijtihad. In that sense, we view our task in the United States not as breaking with or abandoning the tradition, but rather as joining a global Islamic conversation about re-imagining Islam along a holistic and just paradigm, one that seeks to realize on earth a tawhidi principle.

We have to scrutinize the presupposition of the male medieval (and modern) interpreters of Islamic law about women, and whether they assumed that all women must spiritually submit to all men. If that is the presupposition, then everything else that we know about both God and humanity tells us to first develop a conscientious pause and then reject that presupposition. And we reject that presupposition of womenԒs spiritual inadequacy on a ground no less sublime than that of the Quran, where God tells us that all of us human beings have been created from a single male and a single female, where we are to learn from one another, and that the only form of nobility and privilege in the sight of God is that of our God-consciousness (taqwa) (inna akramakum ґinda Allah atqakum) [49:13]. There are many human beings around the world who arrive at the notion that all human beings, male and female, are in full possession of their dignity and humanity through humanistic reasoning and ethics. We here assert that we believers also arrive at the same recognition of and commitment to equality through our reading of the Quran and our experience of God. All of these approaches are ones that we are called to do in the QurҒan, where the Divine has instructed us to look for signsӔ (ayat) in the Holy Quran, in the wider cosmos of human society and nature, and significantly, inside our own souls (sanurihim ayatina fi ґl-afaq wa fi anfusihim) [41:53].

Our aim in this process of ijtihad is to open up the debate to the whole of Muslim society, female and male. Our question is that of the presupposition: do we believe that God has created women in the fullness of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dignity, or not? Do we believe deep in our hearts that women are fully human, entitled to their humanity as a precious creation of God, or not? Are women not also the bearers of the Trust (amana), that we are told in the Quran is of such cosmic significance that the Heavens and the Earth could not bear it, but all of humanity took upon itself? If our nobility in the sight of God is not due to race or gender or national origin but is rather based on our piety and God-consciousness (taqwa), then let us pray behind imams who are God-conscious and pious, be they male or female, of whatever racial and ethnic background.

There are so many women for whom the process of being confined to drab, segregated, and inadequate corners of the mosque is a vivid reminder of the sense of not belonging, not being fully accepted, valued, and cherished in a mosque or Islamic center.

These spaces serve as a physical representation of the role of women as a secondary, barely relevant part of many contemporary Muslim societies and gatherings. Indeed, even those who are committed to a strict policy of gender segregation owe it to their own conscience to make sure that the space for women has the same square footage, same lighting, same ventilation, same carpet, and same facilities as the space for men. We know that this condition is not currently being met in far too many mosques.

Likewise, the argument that no woman can lead a man in prayer reinforces the patriarchal assumption of menҒs spiritual power over women. It pushes too many women away from the faith rather than drawing them towards God, by openly saying to them: you can never be as central to the core practices of Islam, you can not assume the same position of ritual leadership, no matter what your level of knowledge, practice, or piety.

Moreover, this prohibition deprives men as well as women in the Muslim community of the potential leadership of countless brilliant and spiritually inspired women. We hold that the community of believers will function best in a spirit of unity and inclusion, and by judging ourselves according to standards of piety, religious learning, and devotion to God rather than on gender, race or other spiritually irrelevant divisions.

We deserve to live our lives in accordance with the sharia, but it is and must be the purpose of shariҒa to provide us the opportunity to live lives of dignity and grace. Let us recall the root meaning of the word sharia, which is not a hermetically sealed list of doђs and dont, but rather a path. The shariґa is, and should be, a path that leads us all back towards the Divine. To be on a path always implies a sense of movement, dynamism, and transformation. These difficult and rigorous conversations that we are undertaking are a way of honoring, and ensuring, the vitality and dynamism of the sharia, not of abandoning it.

We want to live prayerful lives, lives spent in the remembrance of God in every breath, and shariђa must facilitate, not complicate, that goal. We ask only that the judgments of scholars be consistent with the core values of Islam, so that we can all promote a just and truly God-conscious society. What we are specifically opposing here is the absurd proposition that the same God who is al-Rahman and al-Rahim has made half of humanity spiritually deficient and subordinate by definition. That is not the God we know from the Quran. The problem is not the QurҒan, it is not God. It is patriarchy, a profound human error that must be addressed, resisted, and corrected. Let us strive to create a society in which prayer, that most intimate of human acts towards God, can be a reflection of Gods own mercy towards us, drawing us closer on the basis not of our race or gender, but of our piety and mindfulness of the Divine.

Omid Safi is the Co-Chair of PMU


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