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Inspired by Women Led Prayer
By Pamela K. Taylor
March 25, 2005

Each Friday, Muslims gather together for their weekly congregational service, consisting of a sermon and group prayers. This past Friday, one such service held in New York City made news because it was the first public, mixed gender service led by a Muslim woman. Reaction from the more conservative Imams in American and across the Middle East was predictable.

"Blasphemy! Disciples of Satan," they cried, some going as far as to call the woman who led the prayers and her supporters apostates deserving of death, despite the fact that the organizers had offered scholarly defenses of their position, and pointed to various scholars past and present who allow women to lead mixed gender prayers. A few notable exceptions, such as the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Guma' declared that there was nothing wrong with women delivering a sermon and leading the prayers so long as the congregants agreed. But these voices of sanity were nearly drowned out by those declaring Amina Wadud and the organizers of the event, Asra Nomani and the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, were wrong-headed and had tarnished the image of Islam forever.

To those who oppose women in leadership of prayer, I ask who really has tarnished Islam? Those of us who would reassert the equality and dignity in which Islam views women, who would reclaim the political, economic, spiritual and individual parity set up by the Qur'an in such verses as, "For men and women who are devoted to God - believing men and believing women, law abiding men and law abiding women, men who speak truth and women who speak truth, men who are steadfast and women who are steadfast, men who are humble and women who are humble, men who give charity and women who give charity, men who fast and women who fast, men who keep chaste and women who keep chaste, men and women who remember God often - God has prepared for them forgiveness and a rich reward" (33:35)? Or those who would distort its teachings to kill thousands of innocent men and women - on 9-11, in Bali, in Madrid ?

It is a crying shame that it takes a woman leading men in prayer to unite the Muslim world in horror. As a Muslim, as a woman, I say to my brothers and sisters across the world, fie, are these the priorities our Prophet would have chosen? And what kind of moral leadership are our scholars providing when they are more concerned with people praying to God than committing heinous crimes in the name of our religion? Yes, there have been denouncements of terrorism, some loud and vocal, especially from the American Muslim community and its leaders. But rarely have I seen our community so worked up over this or that atrocity as they have been over a group of people praying halfway across the globe. Where are the fatwas declaring Bin Laden and his gang of thugs apostates?

I suppose, it does not surprise me that women leading prayers with both men and women following is such a volatile issue. The social construct of many Muslim cultures is predicated upon notions that women are more emotional and thus inferior to men, that women are to be "taken care of" and led by men, and that women's bodies are sources of temptation and chaos.  In one bold swoop, a woman delivering the Friday sermon and leading the Friday prayers exposes all of that as rubbish, undermining every institution that oppresses women in those societies. If a woman is capable of leading the community in the most holy and sacred of duties, it is far more difficult to justify keeping her sisters from driving cars, getting and education or a job. It is more difficult to justify discriminatory practices in divorce and custody cases. It challenges cavalier attitudes towards domestic violence, fgm, and honor killings.

About time, I say. About time.