Women and the Masjid between Two Extremes

Louay M. Safi

Posted Apr 13, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Women and the Masjid between Two Extremes
by Louay M. Safi
(Thursday 10 March 2005)

“It is quite apparent that Muslim reformers, concerned with evolving the
practices of the American Muslim community, and ensuring the full and
meaningful inclusion of women in community life, must navigate their way by
maintaining a middle ground, away from extremist tendencies: away from
extreme conservative tendencies obsessed with preserving cultural traditions
even at the expense of distorting Islamic teachings, and from extreme
liberal outbursts that want to break fully with all traditions and delve
into an empty space with no directions and road signs.”

The masjid, better known in North America as the Islamic center, is the
center of spiritual, social, educational, and, most recently, political
activities of the American Muslim community. The masjid is also the place
where Muslims of diverse cultural and ideological backgrounds meet and
interact. The diversity of interpretations of Islamic sources and practices
has created tensions, particularly in Islamic centers where the tendency is
to impose strict interpretations about the appropriate place and role of
Muslim women in the masjid and the community.

An increasing number of young Muslim women complain of restrictive
arrangements and practices, impeding their ability to fully participate in
educational and social programs. Many masjids today restrict the main prayer
hall to men, and assign women to secluded quarters. Women are asking out
laud: is this the place Islam assigns for us, or is it the imposition of
cultural traditions? Some have even gone to the other extreme of rejecting
all traditions and discarding all limits.

For Believing Men and Women

The masjid is a place for spiritual growth and development for all Muslims,
and should be equally accessible for both genders. The Quran has set the
spiritual and moral equality of men and women in explicit and unequivocal

Allah has prepared forgiveness and great rewards for the Muslim men and
women; for the believing men and women; for the devout men and women; for
the truthful men and women; for the men and women who are patient and
constant; the men and women who humble themselves; for the men and women who
give charity; for the men and women who fast, for the men and women who
guard their chastity; and the men and women who are exceedingly mindful of
Allah. (Al-Ahzab 33:35)

Both men and women, the QurҒan stresses, have a moral obligation to develop
themselves spiritually and morally, and to fulfill their social
responsibilities. The masjid is, and has always been, the center of moral
and spiritual learning and growth.

Likewise, the masjid is a public place for discussing issues of public
concern and to respond to challenges facing the community. The Quran is
also clear on the equal responsibility of both men and women for developing
the public good:

The believing men and women are protectors and helpers of each other. They
(collaborate) to promote all that is good and oppose all that is evil;
establish prayers and give charity, and obey Allah and his Messenger. Those
are the people whom Allah would grant mercy. Indeed Allah is Exalted and
Wise. (Al-Tawbah 9:71)

Promoting public good and opposing evil are public duties equally required
from men and women, and the masjid is the place where Muslim men and women
can meet to plan community development and devise strategies for promoting
public good.

The Prophet Affirms Equal Access

During the formative years of Islam women participated in public services,
and shared the Masjid of the ProphetҒs main hall. Sharing the main prayer
hall allowed women to fully engage in public debate and influence decisions
affecting their lives and the life of the community. When the second Caliph
Umar bin al-Khatab wanted to put a cap on dowry, he was challenged by a
woman, who stood up in the middle of the masjid and pointed out that his
proposed policy violated Islamic law. He conceded and the proposed policy
was never carried out.

Although the Quran is clear on the spiritual and moral equality of men and
women, the Prophet, recognizing the tendency of some men to be
overprotective of their female relatives, cautioned the Muslim community
against preventing women from frequenting the masjid:

Ibn Umar narrated: The Messenger of Allah, peace be with him, said: Do not
deprive women of their share of the masjids, when they seek permission from
you. Bilal said: By Allah, we would certainly prevent them. ‘Abdullah said:
I say that the Messenger of Allah, peace be with him, said it and you say:
We would certainly prevent them! (Sahih Muslim Book 4, Number 891)

Narrated Ibn Umar: The Prophet, peace be with him, said, “Allow women to go
to the Mosques at night.” (Bukhari Volume 2, Book 13, Number 22)

Sidestepping Established Principles

The argument against women sharing the main prayer hall is based on the
principle of ғcorruption prevention (darԒ al-mafasid). The principle states
that whatever leads to unlawful practices (haram) is in itself unlawful.Ӕ
The principle, though not widely accepted by Muslim jurists, has been
extensively used to limit actions that are otherwise lawful under Shariah.
It was invoked by some jurists to reject the use of radio, TV, press, and
other inventions because these were used to promote corrupt practices.
Indeed, by invoking the principle of ғcorruption prevention many good
practices and devices could be declared unlawful, including the use of the
internet and popular governance, as both are open to abuse.
Employing the ԓcorruption prevention argument, a number of masjids have
decided to assign secluded quarters for women, and have placed many
restrictions on womenԒs use of the masjids facilities. In recent visits to
three Islamic centers, several Muslim women complained bitterly to me about
their experiences with community leaders. They complained of their inability
to participate in general lectures and discussions, of the quality of the
quarters assigned to them, and of their reliance on audio and video systems
that frequently cut them off from the ongoing lectures or discussions.

Assigning women to separate quarters during lectures and discussions does
not ғprevent corruption but rather ԓprevent education and spiritual
growth. I have heard many accounts of women completely immersed in
conversations about shopping and cooking during public lectures. The
seclusion gives some women, particularly the feeling of distance and
separation, and some women conclude that the events that take place in the
main hall do not concern them. In such instances, the womenԒs quarters
become less friendly to women who want to concentrate on learning and
community issues.

Not all masjids embrace a mandatory seclusion policy. Many leading masjids,
such as Dulles Area Musim Society (ADAMS), ensure that women share the main
hall, participate fully in learning and consultation, and take active role
in running the masjid. Women serve on the executive board of ADAMS and on
its board of trustees. 5 of the 13 Board of Trustees members are women, and
ADAMS vice president is a women. While ADAMS gives full access to women to
use its main prayer hall, it still permits women who want privacy to stay in
a separate quarter, thereby ensuring that Muslim women with different needs
and convictions have place in the masjid.

Preventing women from exercising established rights or undertake duties
cannot be justified under argument of corruption prevention.Ӕ This argument
was used at the formative stage of Islamic society, but was rejected by
early Muslims. Abdullah bin Umar rejected this same argument of prevention:

Ibn ‘Umar reported: Grant permission to women for going to the mosque in the
night. His son who was called Waqid said: Then they would make mischief. He
(the narrator) said: He thumped his (son’s) chest and said: I am narrating
to you the hadith of the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him), and you
say: No! (Sahih Muslim Book 4, Number 890)

Problems with Womens Seclusion

Assigning women a separate and secluded space does not only go against
QurҒanic injunctions and the practices and directives of the Prophet, peace
be with him, but is detrimental to the spiritual and moral growth of women
and the development of the community.

Preventing women from gaining direct access to the main hall of the masjid,
where lectures and study circles take place, deprives them from taking
active role in learning. In addition to the psychological and emotional
feeling of not taking active part in the meetings, the ability to interact
with the speakers, to ask questions and offer comments, is impeded.

Secluding women deprive the emerging Muslim community from a growing number
of young Muslim women who do expect, and rightly so, that the masjid does
not take away their right to take active part in serving the community. When
legitimate expectations are not met, and when the customs and cultural
traditions are given priority, they often force women to stay away from the
masjid, and hence from Islamic learning and activities.

Elevating the cultural traditions and customs of immigrants works against
the very mission of the masjid, as it becomes an impediment for educating
people of other faiths about Islam. Historically, Islam found home in
different communities throughout the world because of its ability to
accommodate local customs and cultures, as long as they are not in conflict
with Islamic teachings. Immigrant communities would be betraying their
mission and trust if they insist on imposing their customs and cultural

Women and Masjids Governance

WomenҒs leadership in the community is another contentious issue. Women have
assumed, in some Islamic centers, key leadership positions, by serving on
the executive board, and leading key committees, while they are kept at
arms bay in others. Although Islam recognized the capacity of women to
enjoy equal moral responsibility, as we saw earlier, many Muslim community
managed, nonetheless, to curtail womenҒs participation in public duties on
social and rational grounds. The degree of limitations placed on womens
ability to serve in public capacity varies across historical periods and
fiqh schools.

Early jurists disagreed as to whether women can assume public office; while
Ibn Jarir al-Tabari placed no limitations on womenҒs right to assume the
post of judge in all legal matters, al-Mawardi contended that women cannot
be allowed to serve as judges under any circumstances. In between stands Abu
Hanifa who allowed women to serve as judges except in cases involving
commercial deals.

To their credit, early Muslim jurists recognized womens rights to serve in
public capacity at times when many women have limited involvement in public
life, and limited exposure to public service. Contemporary Muslim jurists
should ensure that the original QurҒanic position of equal spiritual and
moral rights and obligations is respected and advanced in todays society.
This is more pressing today as the question of women capacity to exercise
leadership and serve the community is put to rest through impressive track
record of Muslim women achieving in the academia, professional work, and
community service.

Our masjids must reflect the leading role played by American Muslim women by
ensuring that they are represented on the masjid board and join the rank of
leadership. The importance of women taking active part on the executive
board and in executive committees is further underscored by the need to
represent concerns that can not be expressed except by women, who feel the
impact of decisions made by the masjid on the quality of life and
participation of other women.

Swinging to the Other Extreme

Several feminist Muslims, supported by a network of progressive activists,
have been pushing the pendulum to the other extreme. Their solution for
limiting women to secluded quarters, and their marginalization in ultra
conservative masjids, is to open the masjid to a mixed congregation lead by
women. The Progressive Muslim Union has already announced a mixed
congregation to be led by Amina Wadud this month in New York. It is
unfortunate that Muslim feminists are following in the footsteps of their
secularist precursors, breaking all traditions, and engaging in
experimentations that break out with formative principles and values. For
individuals and movements interested in reforming attitudes and practices to
take the opposite extreme can only hurt the reform agenda already underway
throughout North America.

The recent push to break out with community and tradition goes far beyond
any reform agenda. Reform requires that one articulate the foundational
principles and then engage the larger Muslim community in dialogue to create
a new awareness and to translate the articulated principles into a living
tradition. Reform aimed at critically engage Muslim traditions must stick
closely to the QurҒan and prophetic practices, to clarify Islamic
injunctions and established prophetic traditions. The Progressive Muslim
Unions leaders have apparently decided to push the envelop beyond all
limits and operate in revolutionary rather than a reformist mode.

It is quite apparent that Muslim reformers, concerned with evolving the
practices of the American Muslim community, and ensuring the full and
meaningful inclusion of women in community life, must navigate their way by
maintaining a middle ground, away from extremist tendencies: away from
extreme conservative tendencies obsessed with preserving cultural traditions
even at the expense of distorting Islamic teachings, and from extreme
liberal outbursts that want to break fully with all traditions and delve
into an empty space with no directions and road signs.

Originally published at http://blog.lsinsight.org/  and reprinted in TAM with permission.