Female Leadership in Prayers – Challenging Islamic Male Privilege

Ten years ago, Amina Wadud Muhsin, a Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University, led Friday prayers with a mixed congregation. I can still remember the reverberations in the Muslim world as well as in the then embryonic social media. Conservative Traditional Muslims, guardians of the male privilege in Islam, were up in arms at this affront to Islamic male privilege. When social media became popular, the now notorious picture of a female-led prayer organised by the MPV became viral and not in a good way. The picture was smeared with hate rhetoric, calling them all sorts of hateful names. The Muslim world, it seems, is very resistant to such a big change. Last night, I attended a film screening of The Noble Struggle at the London School of Economics, a documentary about Amina Wadud’s struggle during those early days. There was a massive support of course , since the screening was attended by members of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (of which I am a member) and LSE’s Feminist Society. However, there was a question raised by a member of the audience which I feel doesn’t quite grasp the implications of female leadership in prayers. In Traditional Islam, to understand if something is valid or otherwise, one must recourse to the massive tradition of knowledge (turath). It is true in the Quran and the hadith, there is no explicit prohibition against women led prayers. Scant hadiths are quoted with some logical gymnastics but this is missing the point completely. The opponents of the female-led prayer give one seemingly unassailable point and that is, in the Sunnah (practises of the Prophet and of the Salaf, the earliest community) , there was no female leadership in prayers in a mixed congregation. This point is irrefutable and there must be confronted and overturned by stepping out of the paradigm of Islamic knowledge tradition. The question we need to ask at this point is – how much was Prophet Muhammad a cultural being? In other words, how much of his activity can be attributed to direct inspiration from Allah and consequently to his interactions with his cultural situation? Being a Quranist, the answer simple is for me – everything outside the Quran is culture. It’s such a clear demarcation. However, I appreciate my fellow Muslims would like to use extra-Quranic material. In this case, I urge them to consider the following arguments. Prophet Muhammad engaged in some spiritual practices including the ritual prayers. These prayers were recited in Arabic. If the Prophet was Chinese, Muslims would be praying in Chinese today. This is also true for the ritual itself. The ritual was already being practised in Makkah hence its inclusion with some modifications in the Islamic framework . It is culturally incidental and thus appropriated by the Prophet, historically speaking. Following this, it was probably not a cultural practice for Arabs to have female leadership in prayers. Prophet Muhammad, for reasons of his own, did not contravene this norm. It’s really as simple as that – he was a cultural being and reacting to his own cultural situations. Muslims have no problem adapting to technology. The ultra-conservative Salafees, literalists to the core, have a tremendous web presence despite their dislike of innovation (bid’ah). Ask them about this contradiction and they will tell you, they only dislike innovation for religious matters. Well aren’t religious discussions and preachings religious matters? Of course they are and perhaps the Prophet favoured direct interaction because it was ‘inspired by Allah’. Whatever the case, Salafees have turned a blind eye to this conundrum simply because they have to survive in the postmodern world. In the same way, female leadership is something which challenges them so they redrew the delineations between religion and worldly matters to exclude such a practice. In conclusion, female leadership in prayers is not unIslamic. It is simply an affront to the male-privileged Conservative Traditional Islam that the world knows. I think it is about time for such an affront. The Islamic prayer, being a ubiquitous symbol of the religion needs to be appropriated by women as well. This is simply a first step in overturning the oppression of Sharia law against women. Hail Amina Wadud and those with her!

About Farouk A. Peru
I am a human being in the world, blogging my existence. My thought systems may be found in my website: www.farouk.name

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