Femal imamate in Islam

The female religious leadership and imamate

Traditionally, one aspect of leadership in Islam is leading Muslims in prayer, like imam. Today the almost unanimous majority of scholars maintains that women should not lead the prayer of mixed groups of faithful, and celebrate the community prayer on Friday . While not a priority among the many difficulties experienced by women, it is nonetheless a significant issue, because women are unable to hold leadership positions in communities also because they are not allowed to lead prayer. In recent years Muslim feminists have addressed the issue of the female imamate , which is not new, as it has also been addressed in ancient times. Although traditionally the imam for mixed groups is a man – even a child with extensive knowledge of the recitation of the Koran is accepted -, in reality there are no prohibitions in the Koran, nor in the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad regarding the fact that a woman can fulfill this role of guide of the Ṣalāt (canonical Islamic prayer). Women have always led the prayers of other women, starting with Aisha bint Abu Bakr , who served as imam for women in the mosque . Despite this, imamate among women is also sometimes questioned, although it has always been practiced and is very common. Traditional legal schools have expressed differing views on whether or not a woman can lead a promiscuous group of worshipers in the Ṣalāt . Some schools make exceptions for Tarawih prayers (optional Ramadan prayers) or for groups consisting only of close relatives.

What did scholars of the past say?

Some medieval scholars such as Al- Tabari (838–932), Abu Thawr (764–854), Al- Muzani (791–878), and Abu Bakr Ibnu al Arabi (1165–1240) considered it admissible. Ibn Taymiyya (1263 -1328), theologian of the Hambalite school , believed that it was not forbidden for women to be imams, because even at the time of the Prophet Muhammad his wife Aisha had held several prayer meetings in the presence of men, even if not before them, and some of them learned from her how to pray. He states that in the event that within a community a woman is more competent than the man in religion, she is the one who should lead. Some feminists argue that, by virtue of the equal status that men and women have, as believers, in the Koran and the Sunna – and all the more in the absence of a ban – women should be allowed to lead the prayers of both promiscuous groups as well as women and that prohibition developed in ancient societies that deprived women of space and rights in the community, so it is unthinkable that a figure of female guide would develop. The argument is based in particular on a well-known hadith of the Prophet Muhammad in which it is reported that he commissioned a woman, Umm Waraqa , to lead the prayers for all of his household. This hadith, associated with the absence of prohibitions, would demonstrate the legitimacy of the female imamate . The text is:

(Reported Abu Naīm who narrated Waleed )

“My grandmother told me about Umm Waraqa bint Abdullah ibn al- Harith al-Ansari: she had collected all the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad had told her to lead the people of her house and she had a muezzin with her, and she led the people of her house in prayer”.

Who was Umm Waraqa?

Umm Waraqa bint Abdallah was a Medinese woman well versed in the full Qur’an ( hafiza ), among those who transmitted it  orally, before it was written. The Prophet Muhammad referred to her as “the martyr” because she wished to die in battle, and for this reason she participated in the battle of Badr (624 AD ). She was commissioned by the Prophet Muhammad to lead the people of her household in prayer (the word in the text it refers to the residence, but also neighborhood or village), to the extended family, which consisted of men and women. The “people of the house of Umm Waraqa ” were so numerous that the Prophet appointed a muezzin for them to call the five prayers. This hadith which is not disputed as being classified as good, has had different interpretations: although it is not specified, many scholars have maintained that the assignment was to lead prayers only for the women of his house, others believe that the order was to all relatives, and to male servants. In fact, the text does not give indications on the gender composition of the congregation behind Umm Waraqah , but speaks of a generic “people of the house” and has been interpreted in the majority as if it were referring to women. But “ahl” can also be understood as all the people of the house, since the term indicates an extended family, a group, a community (for example, Christians and Jews are called in the Koran “Ahl al Kitab” , the People of the Book, where ahl indicates an entire people or nation) moreover not having the Prophet specified “to the women of his house”. Those who deny the faculty of leading prayer for women appeal to the principle of analogy ( qiyas ) by reporting the example of Aisha who seems to have never led men in prayer even though many were certainly less educated than her in religious sciences. However, Aisha led the women in the obligatory prayers in the mosque.

The Imam must be a man?

The imam is not only a person who led the  prayer;  he/her can be a spiritual guide for the people. In other words, the leader’s role is to follow the teachings of Islam and act as a role model. From the first time of Islam women were spiritual guides for all the people and imam for the other women. The head of a community may not lead the prayer personally. He can delegate this function to another person.  So leading prayer is therefore not a necessary criterion for leadership, but it can be symbolically favorable.  Several prophetic traditions  establish the criteria for conducting prayer: knowledge of the Quran and the ability to read it according to the rules of recitation, knowledge of the Sunna and being accepted in this role by the congregation of the faithful. A hadith states that Prophet Muhammad said:

“The imam of a people should be the one who is more knowledgeable in the Quran. If two are equal in their recitation, one who is more knowledgeable in the Sunnah. If they are equal in the Sunnah, then he is the one who emigrated first. If they are equal in everything, then he is the eldest in age. And one should not conduct prayer in other people’s houses without permission.” Scholars have always admitted that it was not forbidden for women to lead collective prayers, the texts are clear.

As -Sayyid Sabiq , scholar of al-Azhar, stated that people who cannot lead the prayer are: someone who has a legitimate reason not to pray (according to the prayer rules) and a person incapable of understanding. He further states that the evildoer and the apostate are discouraged from leading the prayer, not mentioning masculinity as a criterion, we do not know if because it is not requested or because the problem of the possibility that it was not a man was not raised. Also, as Sayyid Sabiq states, it is preferable for a woman to lead other women in prayer, taking Aishah as an example bint Abu Bakr who did .

According to Ibn Rushd , Imam al- Shafii argued that a woman may lead other women in prayer, and At- Tabari and Abu Thawr asserted that a woman may lead both men and women in prayer. The scholars report the aforementioned hadith of Umm Waraqa bint Abdallah, which is not the only known case. In 699 a woman named Ghazala led her warriors in prayer at Kufa , after checking the city for a day, reciting the two longest chapters of the Quran.

Traditional imams do not accept this episode as a legitimate precedent as she belonged to the sect of the Kharijites , a group of puritans who rebelled against Ali and Muawiya . The problem therefore remains the guidance of prayer of mixed groups, which although not prohibited, is not yet accepted in a situation of consolidated male leadership, and in official religious circles in which a vision of women as a danger to morals still exists. In conclusion, even if the practice of female imams in mixed prayer is not commonly accepted, it is not even officially prohibited, and the question from the point of view of jurisprudence remains open, while things are changing in communities, in small steps.

Contemporary experiences and opinions

Amina Wadoud published her degree thesis at the International University of Malaysia in 1992 with the title “The Koran and women: re-reading the sacred text from a gender perspective”, and in 2006 “Inside the gender jihād . Women ‘s Reform in Islam ”. Inspired by Umm Waraqa , the African-American theologian led prayers for a small group of worshipers (men and women) at the Anglican Church of St. John the Divine in New York on March 18, 2005, breaking with Islamic tradition which mainly saw men leading the prayer. Previously, in August 1994, he had read a Khutbah (Friday sermon) at the Claremont Road mosque in Cape Town, South Africa. The grand mufti of Egypt Ali Gom’a then took a public position expressing his approval in an interview with Al Arabiya television: “The majority of theologians do not allow a woman to carry out the function of imam for the male faithful. But some theologians, such as Al Tabari and Ibn Arabi, allow it. Well, when there is no agreement on these issues, the decision rests with those directly concerned. If they agree to be guided in collective prayer by a woman, that’s their business”. However, the response was not shared by either the sheikh of Al Azhar Al-Tantawi, or by the sheikh Yusuf al- Qaradawi , who expressed themselves unfavorably on his gesture, while recalling that the female imamate is not prohibited in Islam. Al- Qaradawi justified his disapproval by emphasizing the value of the consensus on which the Islamic tradition was formed and expressed strong doubts on the priority of the issue with respect to the concrete problems faced by Muslim women in the world today. Among the supporters the Egyptian scholar Leila Ahmed who considered the gesture useful, as it brought attention to the issue of women in Islam. Beyond considering women imams as more or less necessary, what appears clear from this debate is that there is a problem in the Muslim world for women’s leadership in general: the absence of women in positions of religious authority in the Muslim world it is a factor that contributes to the degree of oppression experienced by Muslim women, and it becomes increasingly heavy, in a globalized world where Islam crosses all continents, speaks all languages and where women do not stop fighting for their rights.

Wadud ‘s example was also followed by Asra Nomani , an American feminist of Indian origin on March 18, 2005, when she led the prayer of a promiscuous group of faithful, publicly motivating her initiative: “We are affirming our rights as women in Islam. We will no longer accept back doors or shadows at the end of the day, we will be leaders of the Muslim world. We are leading Islam into the 21st century and claiming the right to speak that the Prophet Muhammad granted us 1400 years ago ”.

US professor Amina Wadud (photo) prepares to kneel in front of the congregation whilst leading Friday prayers for men and women at the Oxford Centre in Oxford, in southern England, on October 17, 2008. AFP PHOTO/Adrian Dennis (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Today there are several mosques in Europe, the United States and Asia that have female imams female imams, among which we remember the Ibn Rushd Mosque of Berlin, the Mariam mosque in Copenhagen. These experiences continue with the intention not only of consolidating the female imamate , but also of creating places of worship open to all , without exclusions due to gender identity and sexual orientation.

For the affirmation of female religious leadership, mosques and Koranic schools for women are also very important, which have a long tradition in traditionally Muslim regions – China has a long tradition in this regard – but in recent years also in the West. American Women’s was founded in 2015 in Los Angeles Mosque , open only to women and children under 12, where Friday prayer and sermon are led by female preachers on a rotating basis. The mosque is also an important training center for female imams and organizes courses, lectures and conferences. Community prayers are webcast through social media, as well as contributions from Muslim religious figures outside the context of Friday prayers through events, lessons and programs, sometimes in collaboration with others The founding group does not define the project as progressive or reformed , want to remain within the sphere of orthodoxy, but some features of this experience make it quite unique. organizations. The characteristic of this place is that it is open to all the faithful, of any Islamic juridical and theological school, even minority groups in the Muslim world. A dress code is not required, respect for any differences is requested. They have chosen an interfaith center for their activities, to mark the importance of the long history of peaceful relations between the Abrahamic religions. The Women of America Mosque celebrates Friday community prayer only once a month in order not to compete with existing mosques. Even if they are recognized within Islamic orthodoxy, there seems to be the conditions for growth and greater flexibility, particularly in the production of women’s jurisprudence and women’s theological studies.

I presented you today small experiences – but well known thanks to the web- which not only make women protagonists of their religious experience, but also make community worship possible for minorities. We know that minorities often don’t find a friendly place in traditional mosques. The lack of a clergy, of a central authority and the possibility of opening and managing autonomous places of worship are a richness of Sunni Islam. In recent years, Muslim feminists have shown themselves to be capable not only of creating physical and cultural spaces for a dignified and equal worship for women, but also of being able to address the issue of discrimination against many faithful who are excluded by Islamic orthodoxy . unable to make a contemporary reading of the texts and develop an adequate vision of the world.

This is-in my opinion- the power of Islamic female activism, and islamic feminism. It is possible to open theological paths that make religious communities places of welcome and personal growth, in the name of that equity that distinguishes the Koranic message and which cannot be claimed if not by those who have always been an oppressed minority.

The margin, as bell hooks writes “is a place of radical possibility, a space of resistance. (…) A place that can  offer us the possibility of a radical perspective from which to look at, create, imagine alternatives and new ways.”



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