On March 18, a truly historic event is going to take place. Dr. Amina Wadud, Islamic Studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, will lead a mixed-gender Friday prayer service in New York. Now, before you scream Aouthubillah!!! at the screen, you must realize this: whether or not you agree with a woman leading a Friday prayer, it is going to be a most important event in American Muslim history nonetheless. Thus, I called the event a “historic” one.
Throughout my life, I had always thought that only men could lead other men and women in prayer, just like most of the Muslim world. Yet, when you look at it from the outside, something just does not add up. When Muslims talk to non-Muslims about gender equality in Islam, they seem to glow when talking about how women are “equal” to men in Islam. It is always one of the things about which many Muslims “brag” when talking to non-Muslims. Yet, when asked a very natural question: “Can Muslim women lead the prayer?” There is either nervous hand-wringing or outright shock while saying, “Uh, well, no.” This exact scenario happened to me.
I was with a number of Muslim activists in the office of Illinois State Senator James “Pate” Phillip, and we were discussing women in Islam. As usual, the others were “gloating” about how Islam treats women, and when the Senator asked, “Can women lead the prayer?”, everyone quickly said, “Oh no.” And the Senator laughed at how they all said “no.” It seemed to me an inconsistency that really does not make Islam look very good.
So now, Dr. Wadud and her supporters are calling Muslims’ bluff: if women are equal in Islam, then why can’t there be Muslim women leading prayers? The response is: “it never happened before…it is not in our tradition.” Those who advocate Dr. Wadud’s position beg to differ, and a lengthy essay detailing the evidence for women being allowed to lead mixed-gender prayer can be read here. I have read it twice, and I must be honest, it’s going to take some time for me to digest what was written. Read it for yourself and see what you think.
Yet, I am not here to debate the merit of the argument. I am here to express my deep concern at the response by many in the Muslim community. Yes, there have been the requisite astaghfirullahs and aouthubillahs. If it was restricted to this, then it would be great. But it is not restricted to gasps and sighs.
One of the main sponsors of the Friday prayer, Muslim WakeUp!, was hacked on more than one occasion, and one time the hackers redirected the site to another site that read: “Murtad WakeUp!” Murtad is an Arabic word which literally means, “one who turns back.” It is commonly used for the term “apostate.” Apostasy? Why? Because a woman is leading the prayer? How could that be put on par with disbelief in God and the Messengership of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)?
People have claimed Dr. Wadud has fallen “out of Islam” because of her advocating female imams and some of her other views. One of these views, for instance, is that Dr. Wadud believes there are times to say “no” to the Qur’an. When I first read this, I was seriously taken aback. Yet, I did not scream “You Kaafirah!!!” at the computer screen. I emailed her and respectfully asked her what she meant. You can read what she meant here. If you disagree with what she has to say, just disagree with what she has to say. By what right do you call Dr. Wadud or anyone else an “apostate”? If God truly did not allow females to lead the prayer, then this Friday prayer will not count, and Dr. Wadud will have to answer for her actions before God on Judgment Day. She is taking on an enormous responsibility by this action. But, I don’t think she is committing apostasy! After all, she is offering a Friday prayer, for God’s sake. She is not doing a public strip tease!
This whole situation reminds me of a story from the time of the Prophet (pbuh). Usama bin Zayd (r), the Prophet’s (pbuh) grandson, had confronted a pagan Arab who mocked the Prophet (pbuh) and Islam to his face. When Usama (r) turned to the pagan, he stopped. As Usama (r) turned away, the pagan resumed his mocking and maligning of the Prophet (pbuh). Usama (r) turned to him again, and the man stopped. When this happened a third time, Usama (r) lifted his sword in the man’s face, and the pagan said, “I bear witness that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is His messenger.” Usama (r) paid no heed to this testimony of faith and killed the pagan anyway. Usama’s (r) companion was shocked, and he said, “Usama, how could you kill him when he said, ‘There is no god but God?'” Usama (r) replied, “He only said this for fear of the sword.”
His companion took Usama (r) to the leader of the military expedition, and he also asked Usama (r), “How could you kill him when he said, ‘There is no god but God?'” Usama (r) repeated his claim, “He only said so for fear of the sword.” They then told the Prophet (pbuh) about what Usama (r) did. The Prophet (pbuh) asked Usama (r), “Usama, how could you kill him when he said, ‘There is no god but God?'” Usama (r) said yet again, “O Messenger of God, he only said so for fear of the sword.” The Prophet (pbuh) replied, “Did you examine his heart?” Then the Prophet (pbuh) said, “Where will you go from ‘There is no god but God’ on Judgment Day?” Usama (r) said once again, “O Messenger of God, he only said so for fear of the sword!” The Prophet (pbuh) continued to repeat, “Where will you go from ‘There is no god but God’ on Judgment Day?” Usama (r) later said, “The Prophet’s continual repetition of this phrase made me wish that I had first become Muslim on that day, for conversion to Islam erases all sins committed previously.”
The Prophet (pbuh) strongly rebuked Usama (r) for killing someone who very well may have uttered the Islamic testimony of faith to escape being killed. That did not matter, however, to the Prophet (pbuh). To claim Dr. Amina Wadud is an “apostate” for leading a Friday Prayer in New York is a serious matter, and those who advocate thus have no right to do so. Far too easily, many Muslims today scream “apostate,” or “traitor,” or “sell out,” or “CIA agent,” when they hear something from a Muslim’s mouth with which they do not agree. Why? Did not God say: “Believers, Let not some men among you mock others: It may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): Nor let some women mock others: It may be that the latter are better than the (former): Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, (to be used of one) after he has believed: And those who do not desist are (indeed) doing wrong” (49:11).
If God did not want us to mock each other or call each other offensive nicknames, how could we even fathom calling someone an “apostate” for advocating female leadership in prayer. “We are defending the religion!!!” may be the response. Well, let me tell you, Islam is threatened by many more serious problems and issues than having a woman lead a Friday Prayer in New York City.