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Quran’s Core Teaching Establishes That Men and Women Are Complementary To Each Other

By Roshan Nageena

May 26, 2020

Women and their status, role and position in society is a topic close to my heart. A picture widely circulated in WhatsApp during this troubling time of lockdown as to how families can pray in congregation in their own homes evoked in me the need to comment on the issue of women’s leadership in prayer. The picture showed, in its first panel, that a male offspring could stand one step behind his Father who stood as Imam. But the next panel claimed that if the mother is joining then she must be in a whole new row behind. If male and female children are present, then the sons occupy the row behind the father and the women (including mother and daughters) occupy the row behind the male children. This picture disturbed me as it was describing a scene inside a home, and not public congregational prayer.

For one thing, the title of the most knowledgeable member in the family in religious matters was automatically conferred upon the Father. The sons were next given preference, over even their mother, her religious qualifications and knowledge (Ilm) notwithstanding. Incidentally, my niece who has a beautiful style of recitation was not allowed to stand as Imam in her own home by the elders citing that she cannot lead mixed-gender prayers. The congregation behind her would have comprised her parents, grandparents and younger brother.

Evidence from Qur’an

Modern-day practising Muslims would rather err on the side of conservative thought processes of religious interpretations and doctrines than challenge the status quo for fear of bringing new practices (Bid’ ah) into the Deen. But there is a difference between ‘Bid’ ah (innovation) and ‘Ikhthilaf’ (difference of opinion). There have always been differences of opinion throughout Islamic history starting with the companions of the Prophet (PBUH).

The Qur’an, we Muslims believe, is a living Scripture which applies to every age and time. The Qur’an is my source Scripture from which I am convinced that Allah does not differentiate between men and women and they are equal in accountability and responsibility before God. They are partners and counterparts of each other.

Surah 9, Verse 71

The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give Zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.1

The Arabic word, Auliya as translated here is ‘allies’ (Singular Wali meaning helper, supporter, guardian, protector, ally, friend). Please note that Allah did not say in His Holy Book that believing men are the ‘wali’ of believing women. Nay, they are ‘Awliya’ for one another.

Surah 3: Verse 195

And their Lord responded to them, “Never will I allow to be lost the work of [any] worker among you, whether male or female; you are of one another… 1

Surah 4: Verse 124

And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer – those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed. 1

Surah 16: Verse 97

Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer – We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do. 1

Surah 40: Verse 40

Whoever does an evil deed will not be recompensed except by the like thereof; but whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer – those will enter Paradise, being given provision therein without account. 1

Surah 49: Verse 13

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. 1

Surah 33; Verse 35

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. 1

It is said that this verse was revealed to the Prophet soon after his wife, Umm Salama, asked him why God was addressing the men in the Qur’an and not the women. It seemed like God’s way of immediately stressing that men and women are equal in Allah’s sight.

In her home, the woman may be better informed in matters of religion. Can men dare to say that their ‘Taqwa’ (piety) is stronger than their women counterparts? In the Quran, Allah warns us not to think that our purity is unique. Only Allah knows what is in the minds of people, men and women. If men claim that their ‘Eeman’ (faith) is stronger than women then they must know that they have to stand before their Lord and be answerable for that arrogance in their hearts.

A careful study of the Quran in these and many other verses reveal that Allah did not favour men over women in the Holy Scripture. Even mathematically, the number of times men and women occur are equal. Further, the number of times old men are mentioned is equal to the number of times old women are mentioned. In most places in the Quran Annas (Mankind) and Ins (people) have been translated as men. Please note that these verses apply to both men and women equally. Apart from these verses showing that men and women are complementary to one another, there is no verse in the Qur’an which forbids women from holding a position of any form of leadership. The Quran explicitly warns against making the forbidden permissible and the permissible as forbidden. What is forbidden is clearly outlined in the Quran.

Evidence in Hadith

As the hadith has been the lens through which the scriptures have been interpreted, and since the Quran does not explicitly forbid women’s leadership, it becomes necessary to engage with and examine the vast reservoir of our hadith tradition.

From the Sunan Abi Dawud 591 Grade: Sahih,

Umm Waraqah reported, The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, would visit her in her house, he appointed a caller to prayer for her, and he ordered her to lead the people of her household in prayer.

The hadith which says the Prophet asked Umm Waraqa (who was proficient in Quran) to lead members of her household/ village in prayer is most popularly quoted to show permissibility for Muslim women to stand as Imam. It is argued by some that the word ‘Daar’ in this hadith mentions only Umm Waraqa’s household. Even if that were the case then there was a male muezzin and he was assumed to be part of the prayer. While some scholars consider this hadith as weak, many others have considered it to be Hasan. They are Hakim, Zahabi, Daruqtuni, Abu Hatam, al- Ayni, Ibn Hajar, Shukani and the contemporary scholar Imam Albaani. This narration is accepted by these scholars because Ibn Khallad was considered trusted by Ibn Haban and also the fact that the hadith is narrated by Layli bint Malik as well. 3 Interestingly, Hadrath Umar in later times gave Umm Waraqa the post of managing the market in Medina 4

Further, Imam Tabari (838-932) (as narrated by Sanayee, in Subul al-Salam) and the Shafei scholars Abi Thur (764-854) and al-Mazni (791-878) (al- Majmu 4:52, al- Mughni 333, Bidaya al- Mujtahid 3:189) and Muhyeddin ibn al- Arabi (1165- 1240) (as reported by Muhammed Hussein al- Jaberi in Bahth fi Imamah al- Mir’ah Li- Rijaal) have said it is permissible for women to lead prayers for men. Imam Ahmed and the early Hanbali scholars have allowed women leading prayers for men in non- obligatory prayers (al Mughni 3:33, al-Insaaf 2:264). 5 Ibn Taymiyya mentioned that Imam Ahmed allowed women to lead men in non- obligatory prayers with a condition that they must lead from the rear provided she is well versed with the Quran (Majmu al-Fatawa 5:317).6 In another account (Radd al- Maratibul- Ijma) Ibn Taymiyah refers to the narration contained in the Musnad of Ibn Hanbal where it is affirmed that women can lead non-obligatory prayers.7

Furthermore, we see in a description on Ibn Arabi that on an occasion when Ibn Taimiyyah who was known to be more hard-line and strict went to a Masjid, a woman was delivering Khutbah.8 More recently; Shaykh Hamza Yusuf stated in a speech that female leadership in prayer was permitted by Ibn Ayman from Maliki Madhab and Imam Tabari. He asserted that it was debated much earlier on by Islamic traditionalists and that there were multiple opinions on it.6

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi says the question as to whether women can stand as Imam itself is a skewed one.9 Yusuf Qaradawi has also permitted women to lead mixed-gender congregations but in their own homes so that men may not be aroused by her presence. The argument most often made against women standing as Imam in the public space is that men will be distracted by the presence of a woman’s figure while he is praying. But Muslim men should be the best of men in society (because that is what Islam teaches) who discipline themselves with prayer 5 times a day and abstain from even food and drink during the days in Ramadhan.

Then, what about the hadith against women as leaders? There are thousands of hadith and the study of its critiques makes it impossible for anyone to completely undertake its study in a lifetime. For an average thinking Muslim, diving into the database of hadith is a formidable task. Just as Allah reprimands the Jews, in the Quran, for making religion difficult to follow, Muslims are also guilty of making it difficult to study the vast range of opinions. But they are a part of our rich scholarly history. However, it would be wise to bear in mind that even when the major hadith scholars proposed their own interpretations, they were tolerant of the other’s ideology. Modern-day Muslims imagine that they must completely adhere to one school of thought and regard every other practice incorrect. Is this practice informed by a careful study of all the madhabs (schools of thought) or are we simply following what our forefathers followed? This is the very thing that the Quran criticises. Hadith started being recorded 200 years after the Holy Prophets death. While a huge amount of effort was invested in keeping the hadith canon free from forgery of any sort, it was still a human effort. Hadith reports were not immune to external influences of each age and time. Even assuming that not a single mistake ever crept into the hadith collection it is still an endeavour of humans and the divine cannot be compared to any human endeavour.

Unfortunately, we have in our hadith collections some hadith which see women in a derogatory light. Ayesha R.A openly criticised Abu Hurayra for relating wrong sayings to the Prophet (PBUH). Imam Malik is said to have called a famous hadith transmitter Abu Bakra (not to be confused with Abu Bakr R.A.) a liar. 10 Despite this many of these hadith have found its way into the Saheeh hadith of Imam Bukhari and Muslim. But it is not in the scope of this paper to discuss this issue. Since these hadith go against the very core teaching of the Quran they must be critically examined and disregarded. I cannot imagine that the Prophet of Islam who brought great reforms to the way women were seen and treated would utter such words. From a community that buried their girl children alive to being the community that granted their rights to women, Islam paved the way for women’s rights all over the world. Hence any hadith that goes against the egalitarian teachings of the Holy Quran must be discarded. The early collectors of Hadith were more involved with establishing the Isnad (chain of transmission) than rationalising the matter (the actual matter) 9 and hence the hadith that defies human intellect must not be entertained. After all, doesn’t the Quran repeatedly exhort its followers to ‘think’! Like the scholar Muhammad Akram Nadvi, my grandfather, late Justice Khalid, used to say that in modern-day practice, the equivalent for burying the girl child alive is to deny her, her rights.

Hadith reports claim that women as leaders will not succeed but the Queen of Sheba is described in the Quran as an able leader and a contemporary of Prophet Suleiman. Maryam R.A, revered Mother of Jesus Christ was dedicated to the service of God by her mother who denounced the tradition of her time and dedicated her female offspring to the service of God. While God graciously accepts her prayer, He also rebukes the priesthood who were hesitant to care for the girl child in Allah’s service.

Some hadith declare that it is better for women to pray at home but there are also hadith which strongly encourage women to go to mosques and pray. There are many reports from Ayesha R.A. that not only were women an integral part of the Prophet’s mosque (they even went for Fajr and Isha prayers, in the dark) 11 but the mosque itself housed the early first aid unit with a woman handling it. In Umar R. A.’s army, there were thousands of women who fought besides men.9

Evidence in History

Examples in early Islamic history include Juwariya, Abu Sufyan’s daughter standing as Imam at the battle of Yarmuk. Another woman, Ghazala al Haruriyya- a Haroori woman from the Khawarij during Hazrat Ali’s time led her male warriors in prayer in Kufa and she is said to have recited two of the longest chapters in the Quran during that prayer.5

The Islamic tradition, more than any tradition in human history, is one where you find scores of women jurists, scholars, philosophers and religious teachers. Some examples of exemplary roles played by women in Islamic history are highlighted by the scholar Mohammed Akram Nadwi who has found more than 10000 women scholars in Islamic history. Women jurists such as Umm al- Fadl bint Harith, Maymouna bint Sa’d, Amra bint Abd al- Rahman bin Zarara al- Ansariyya, Nabda Mawlat Maymuna, Fathima al-Khutha’iyya, Hind bint al- Harith al- Farisiyya, Umm Abd Allah al Dusiyya, Aisha bint Sa’d al Zuhriyya, Umm Umar bint Hassan al- Thaqafi, al-Salam bint al qadi Abu Bakr bin Shajara al Baghdadiyya were on the forefront in the early centuries of Islamic thought and leadership.12 A 10th c Baghdad born jurist, a 12th century Egyptian scholar, another 15th century woman who taught hadith, a 7th century medina woman who gave key fatwas on hajj rituals and commerce and Fathima bint Muhammad al-Samarqandi, a female jurist who issued fatwas in Aleppo and advised her husband on how to issue his are all part of our vast tradition. Umm al Darda the prominent jurist in 7th century Damascus taught hadith and fiqh at the local mosque, lectured in the men’s section and her students included the Caliph of Damascus. She prayed shoulder to shoulder with men and issued a fatwa allowing women to pray in the same position as men. She was considered superior to all other hadith scholars at the time. Unfortunately, after the 16th-century citation of women scholars dwindles.13 It was Islam that taught the World to value women and ironically it is the Muslim world that is under attack for undermining their women.

Our Collective Experiences

My own experience when I went for Hajj and was doing tawaf in the mataf area when the call for prayer was made proved a point of contention. We immediately fell into place making sure that modesty was maintained in our midst. Suddenly a self-appointed religious authority came and practically sent all of us in disarray screaming out “Nisa’a Wara’a”. The moment of peace was lost. The woman next to me mumbled, “Always Nisa’a Wara’a”. We exchanged glances. I was not alone in what I felt. Interestingly, my memory of performing prayers in Mecca as a 7-year-old was standing between my mother and father amidst a large sea of men and women.

When prayer spaces are segregated, we find women’s prayer areas are poorly designed, almost as an afterthought. When I travel with my ageing grandmother and experience the difficulty my grandmother has to face to do her prayers because women’s spaces are either in the basement or the upper floor. As an architect, I wonder which designer would have conceived segregation in the standard and design of prayer spaces for men and women.

Allah is the Most Just and he does not wrong His slaves. If a section of people in society, feel wronged then clearly someone is oppressing the rights of that section. Allah does not wrong anyone, they wrong themselves. The injustice is not only to women; it is to men themselves for these feelings of being superior permit men to show a laxity when it comes to their behaviour. And this after the Prophet (PBUH) repeatedly told his followers to look after their women.

Haya (Modesty)

An oft-repeated hadith quoted often to prove the point against women standing as Imams is that the best rows for men are in front and the best rows for women are at the rear. Women are taught from a young age to show more modesty than men. Modesty prevents most women from making it to the frontlines of public spaces. The hadith then only gives women the consideration of this inherent quality of modesty but does not forbid her from standing in the front rows either.

Sometimes women have an exaggerated sense of modesty in Muslim spaces like mosques which hinder them from seeking knowledge or being a part of Islamic discourse. She may feel left out and disregarded. Modesty is demanded by God from both men and women equally. It would be healthier for the Muslim societies if places of worship instilled an inclusive environment, and rules of modesty were inculcated right from there. This would give both Muslim men and women operating in a secular world a first-hand illustration of how to behave in the public sphere.


God has not made women secondary in any way. The Quran’s core teaching establishes that men and women are complementary to each other as a truth. Hadith and traditional reports of early Muslim societies point to an egalitarian society wherein Muslim women seem to have enjoyed a better standing than modern standards. Some Hadith discourage women from the public sphere but it seems to be counter to the Quranic message and many of Prophetic hadith.

Then the innovation (Bid’ah) would be in imagining that women are secondary and cannot be allowed to hold positions of leadership in their homes and the public arena. Islamic history is replete with the most astounding examples of women’s leadership which is still lost to the modern world. If Islam has to continue inspiring just societies in the present day, it must be open to differences of opinions and as long as we close the doors to that very important aspect, we will be blinded despite the glory of a long-forgotten history. This access to discourse should be available for men and women alike. In public congregational prayer, it may be more modest for men to lead men and women in prayer. But a woman capable of leading in the public domain must be granted that right. And inside her home, she can definitely pray alongside her male counterparts and can lead them as well.

Women are slowly rediscovering their tradition and space in society. Women have always had to fight for her dignity and her rights and it seems more challenging for her in the modern-day for it seems that her counterparts are trying to relegate her to the background. In the public domain, women are seen as achievers in every field. Many women who are more learned and more proficient in religious studies like Dr Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas and Fathima Mernissi among others have already made headlines on the issue of women’s leadership in society. The Islamic community is slow at responding to changes but change is incumbent. Muslim women in my parents’ generation were barred from higher education on the grounds of religious beliefs.

What was then an embarrassing aspect of an overtly regressive Muslim thought process has transformed towards making great strides in the field of education for girls. I do not imagine that naysayers will become convinced of my position on this issue. The Quran is my primary source of guidance and I speak as a believing Muslim woman standing within the framework of a large, composite and complicated awareness of Islam that is followed by a myriad number of followers in a wide variety of ways. If we must move forward with Islam as a beacon of light guiding us to the true path, then we must engage with all the factions that make up society. Do you want to be, an exclusivist or do you want to practise the universal virtue of inclusion which Islam practised from the Prophets (PBUH) time?

Roshan Nageena is an architect based in Kerala, India. Describing herself as a lifelong learner, she loves to write and paint to express herself and draws inspiration from nature.  

Original: Headline: Believing Women Who Pray, Evidence From Scripture And History

Source: Two Circles


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