In 2005, Muslim scholar Dr. Amina Wadud led Friday prayers despite bomb threats. Curiously, 12 years later, a Muslim consultant, Yasmin Mogahed, addressed a query at the "About Islam" website.
Mogahed invoked consensus that men should lead prayers and that women should stop mimicking men. She created a binary between worldly leadership and Heaven and stated that Dr. Wadud has admitted that it was a "mistake."
*Extract from the previous version at About Islam
Dr. Wadud contacted "About Islam" to ask they retract that statement as a lie and thus slander. The website mysteriously obliged without any response or apology.
Mogahed's response is imbued with the fear of "westoxification," that is, the uncritical adoption of Western values to the detriment of Islamic values. Such a position, however, reduces Islam into the antithesis of the West. It also creates a false binary between Islamic and Western values.
Additionally, instead of reducing the Wadud prayer to a silly mimicry of the West, it is important to directly listen to Dr. Wadud's reasoning, which is firmly rooted in Islamic values.
Mogahed's response is also factually incorrect. Dr. Laury Silvers' co-authored article shows that there is no Qur'anic prohibition on female Imams.
Even a cursory reading of Hanbali scholars, who allowed women to lead supererogatory prayers, and scholars like al-Muzani, Abu Thawr, al-Dhahiri, al-Tabari and Ibn Arabi, all of whom unconditionally supported female Imamate, shows that there is no consensus on the issue.
While many argued against female Imams, they conceded the absence of a Qur'anic prohibition, a point substantiated by scholars like Dr. Shabir Ally and Dr. Jonathan Brown. Dr. Behnam Sadeghi's work on Hanafi legal thought also showcases the socially contextual assumptions that underlie the discussion on women in prayer.
Silvers' paper captures the arguments of past scholars. Those who supported female Imamate argued on the basis of the Hadith that the Imam should be the one best versed in reading the Qur'an. Additionally, some like Ibn Arabi affirmed female prophecy and claimed that, "one should not listen to those who prohibit it without proof."
While detailed arguments are relegated to Silvers' article, here is a list of seven contemporary Muslim male scholars who have supported female Imams or changed their opinions to affirm them.
1) Javed Ahmad Ghamidi
Pakistani scholar Ghamidi mentioned in the aftermath of the 2005 Wadud led prayer that she had not "contravened a sharia directive" and if she had "done anything wrong" it was "to break a tradition."
More recently, he has been even more forthright in a YouTube video. He references the late Dr. Hamidullah, a Hadith expert, who claimed that during the Prophet's time, Umm Waraqa led both men and women in prayers.
Ghamidi is clear that women can do everything; they can become scientists and Islamic scholars. He asserts what objection do we have if people affirm female Imams, and that if they offer a sermon, we will listen.
Former Grand Mufti, Ali Goma's early opinion also parallels this reasoning.
2) Abdullah Rahim
Dr. Abdullah Rahim expresses that while some scholars claim that the Umm Waraqa text is weak, there are many others who claim it to be hasan (good). He distinguishes between the internal aspects of worship from the external aspects and categorizes the issue of female Imams as part of the latter. This allows for the conclusion that the default status of female led prayer is permissibility. Additionally, Rahim states that "we cannot call it haram (prohibited) or bid'ah (innovation) or against the Sharia."
3) Hamza Yusuf
"When I studied the prayer issue, I was so stuck by the fact that not only was it debated early on, but there were multiple opinions. ... Ibn Taymiyyah himself permitted women to lead men in prayer if they were illiterate and she was literate. ... Ibn Taymiyyah! Permitting a woman to lead men in prayer!"
4) Khaled Abou El-Fadl
According to Dr. Fadl, "there were at least two schools of thought that allowed women to lead men in prayer, if the woman in question was the most learned." Like Ghamidi, he is clear that the issue is more a matter of "customary practice and male-consensus than direct textual evidence." He opines:
"It seems to me that if a female possesses greater knowledge than a male--if a female is more capable of setting a good example in terms of how she recites the Qur'an and also in terms of teaching the community more about the Islamic faith, a female ought not be precluded from leading jumu'a (Friday prayers) simply on the grounds of being female."
5) Mohammad Fadel
According to Silvers, while Dr. Fadel had initially deemed female Imamate as prohibited, he changed his opinion on the ground that "respect for women cannot be internalized in the community until men in authority pray under the leadership of women."
6) Khaleel Mohammed
Imam Mohammed is concerned that those who deny female Imams turn them into sexual objects. He asserts:
"My support is with Dr. Amina and I pray that she will have the strength to continue teaching the men (and women) of Islam the need to not only break out of the static mentality of the past, but to prevent themselves from backsliding into retrogression."
7) Hassan Turabi
"When there is a pious woman, ... she should lead the prayers and whoever is distracted by her beauty should be deemed sick."
Many men support female Imams. The Grand Mufti of Marseilles, Sohaib ben Cheikh even asked female Imams to lead him in prayer.
Many women have led prayers. This includes Nakia Jackson, Pamela Taylor and Ghazala Anwar amongst others. Some female Imams have even led prayers prior to the 2005 Wadud led prayer.
However, Dr. Wadud needs no defense. She has created history!
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