Can Muslim women pray in a mosque?

Muslim women pray in a mosque

A friend sent me a video about an all-women mosque (actually it turned out to be women praying in an all-faith center) in California with the caption, ‘This is Haraam and is a sign of Dajjal.’ I debated with myself whether this was even worth spending time to refute. But I recall the Hadith of Rasoolullahﷺ who emphasized principle of ownership for action and the courage to act.

Abu Sa’eed al-Khudreey narrates: I heard Rasoolullah say, “Whosoever sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart (hold it as hateful in his heart) — and that is the weakest of faith.” [Muslim]

Let us therefore see what the reality is.

First let me speak about the position of women in Islam. Islam gave women equal rights at a time when women all over the world were treated as the personal property of men who could dispose of them at will. In Arabia and most of the world, a man could not only do whatever he wanted with his wife but could even kill her or kill his daughter and not be blamed for it. In Europe, America, India and Arabia, a woman came with a dowry into her marriage which promptly became the property of her husband who could do whatever he wanted with it. The legal doctrine that was applied in the West, to justify this obvious oppression was called Coverture (sometimes spelled couverture) whereby, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband, in accordance with the wife’s legal status of feme covert. It was only in 1835 that in the states of Massachusetts and Tennessee, a married woman was given the right to own and manage her own property, but only in the case of incapacity of her husband. It took a couple of decades more for this ‘right’ to be extended to women in other states. Needless to say, if her husband was not incapacitated, no matter how sick he might have been, he owned and managed her property by law. Only in 1861 did Illinois and Ohio grant married women control over their own earnings. I invite you to do your own research. You will be astonished, even hopefully horrified, to discover the status of women under systems other than Islam. Women’s suffrage became law only in 1920 but women’s suffering is far older. To this day women are paid 20% less wages for the same work, than men and are fighting for their right to equal pay for equal work. As if that needs to be fought for.

Islam gave women the right to own and manage their own property without even the knowledge or permission of their husbands, in the 7th century. Islam gave women the right to hold property, earn and keep her income, spend her money as she wished without any restrictions or even the permission of her husband, to inherit property from her parents and be its sole owner and disposer. A woman had to pay her own Zakat if she was liable for it and could pay that Zakat to her husband if he was a poor man. A woman had the right even to retain her name and had no need to change it for her husband’s name, upon marriage. In short, Islam treated men and women as equal in all respects with difference only in primacy of roles.

When Islam brought this law, it created great outrage in the society of Makkah where men who ruled the roost were very angry about these rights given to their women who used to be their chattels, but after Islam they became their equals. The interesting thing is that even today, these laws create outrage among many men, when they are reminded about them. I should say, ‘Muslim men’ because that outrage is not seen elsewhere. Allahﷻ gave Muslim women, rights fifteen centuries ago which Muslim men (in many places) refuse to give them to this day. Patriarchy is as old as humanity and is common to all cultures. It is commendable to say the least that when Islam challenged it and introduced revolutionary changes, the Arabs accepted them and applied the new laws. Sad to say that patriarchy has once again asserted itself in Muslim society and Muslim men deny their women, the rights that Allahﷻ granted them. Let them remember that one day they will answer to Allahﷻ for this when the women they oppressed will ask for what crime they were killed. Killed literally or by implication where their rights were denied to them.

This article is about the entry of women into mosques (Masajid) but it is also about the position of women in Muslim society also. It is tragic to reflect that Islam has the worst rap about women’s rights when in reality, the rights that it gives women, are at the forefront of women’s rights in any society to this day. Let us reflect on this and ask ourselves what the reason for this is. It is not simply propaganda, though that is a reason. But who must we blame for those who give the propagandists, fresh data every day?

In Sahih Al-Bukhari we see this narration: The wife of Umar ibn Al Khattaby used to go to the mosque (Masjid An-Nabawi) for the prayers of Fajr and Isha. It was said to her, “Why do you go out when you know that Umar doesn’t like it.” She said, “What stops him from forbidding me?” It was said to her, “What stops him, is the saying of Rasoolullah who said, “Do not stop the women from the Masajid (mosques) of Allah.”

Please note that the Imam of Masjid An-Nabawi at this time was Umar in Al Khattaby himself. Still he didn’t stop his wife from praying there by Jama’a, even though he personally didn’t like her to go out in the dark, fearing for her safety. In fact, when Umary was stabbed in the mosque the same lady, his wife Atikah bin Zayd (RA) was present in the congregation [Fath Al-Bary].

In this, there is a strong warning for all those who spread the false allegation that Umary forbade women from going to the mosque. In fact, under his rule, not only did women go to the mosque but they participated in battles (which is not obligatory for women). It was also Umar ibn Al-Khattaby who appointed a well-known and learned Sahabiya (female Sahabi) namely, al-Shifa bint Abdillah Al-Adawiyyah (RA) as the Supervisor of the Markets of Madina. He did this when there were numerous men who could have fit the bill, but he chose this lady for her scholarship and leadership character. It is said that she would go into the market with a whip in her hand. It is not known if she used it, but it was the symbol of her authority. This was at a time when there was a huge number of Sahaba in Madina, but nobody objected because they were all familiar with and followed the teachings of Rasoolullahﷺ and didn’t try to change them according to their own desires.

Salim ibn Abdullah ibn Umar (grandson of Umar ibn Al-Khattaby) informs us that his father Abdullah ibn Umary (who was one of the greatest scholars of Islam and the son of Umar ibn Al-Khattaby) said, “I heard Rasoolullahﷺ saying, ‘Do not stop your women from the mosques when they ask your permission to go there.’ His son Bilal said to him, “By Allahﷻ we will certainly stop them.” Abdullah ibn Umary (his father) turned and abused him with the most vehement abuse. Salim says, ‘I have never heard him abusing anyone like that.’ And then he (Abdullah bin Umary) said, ‘I am informing you of something from Rasoolullahﷺ and you say: By Allahﷻ we will certainly stop them?’

My simple question to those who stop women from entering Masajid is, “What do you think Abdullah bin Umary would say if he knew this rule that you have created which goes against what Rasoolullahﷺordered? Even more importantly, what do you think Rasoolullahﷺ himself would say if he knew what you did to change his religion after he had departed?”

This brings us to the usual argument which is trotted out i.e. “Times have changed. Things are not like they were at the time of Rasoolullahﷺ.” My warning to those who try to use this argument in this case is, that if we are to accept this argument in this case, then the same argument can be applied to numerous aspects of Islam and we will be left with a new religion which will have no resemblance to the Islam that Rasoolullahﷺ brought. I remind myself and you that the basic principle in Islam is that the religion is complete and that no change is permissible. This is based on our belief that Allahﷻ knew and knows what is in the future and that the rules and laws of Islam cater to all conditions until the end of time. It was in this context that alcohol, narcotics, pork, fornication, interest-based banking and many other things are prohibited. Nobody can come after Rasoolullahﷺ and declare that interest-based banking or narcotics are now legal because times have changed. The same principle applies and has been held valid and sacrosanct by the scholars of Islam starting from the Sahaba themselves; that Islam is complete and unchangeable. In adhering to this, lies safety from deviation and from opening a door that is best left shut.

Allahﷻ said about this religion of ours:

الْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَأَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِي وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ الإِسْلاَمَ دِينًا

Ma’aida 5: 3 This day, I have perfected your religion for you, completed My Favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.

Rasoolullah told us that: “Every innovation is going misguidance, and every misguidance will be in the Fire.” Narrated by Muslim (867) and an-Nasaa’i (1578) 

A foundational principle in Usul-ul-Fiqh is that there is no abrogation of Qur’an or Sunnah after the demise of Rasoolullahﷺ. Anything that was considered Mubah or Mustahab in the time of Rasoolullahﷺwill remain Mubah or Mustahab, forever. As the divinely-guided legislator, the actions, sayings and tacit approval of Rasoolullahﷺ hold the status of immutable law. Umary demonstrated his understanding of this when he refrained from preventing his wife from going to the mosque despite having a personal preference for her praying at home.

The argument that is used about Rasoolullahﷺ’s advice to Umm Humaid (RA) that her prayer at home is better than her prayer in the masjid, is not a sound basis to extract a ruling because it is a solitary incident and specific advice given to an individual in the light of her peculiar circumstances. This doesn’t negate the general permission and command given to the men of the Ummah not to prevent their women from attending prayers in the masjid.

The incident of Umm Humaid (RA) was not a general one but one specific to her circumstances. Umm Humaid’s husband, Abu Humaid Al-Saedi (RA), was from the family of Bani Saedah, a branch of the Al-Khazraj tribe of Madina. They lived outside the borders of Madina at that time and far from Mashid An-Nabawi. They had their own mosque and council [Al-Tabarani, Al-Baihaqi and others]. Therefore Rasoolullahﷺ only intended to resolve a marital disagreement between Umm Humaid and Abu Humaid (May Allah be pleased with them) – where he was unhappy with the long distance she had to walk to pray five times a day at Masjid An-Nabawi. Rasoolullahﷺ’s advice was therefore that she accommodates her husband’s request and prays at home or at her tribe’s mosque. There is no evidence in hadith literature that Rasoolullahﷺ meant to change the general permissibility or commendation of women praying at the mosque.

It is to be noted that if this command was to be applied generally, then Rasoolullahﷺ would have done so. After advising Umm Humaid (RA) he would have prohibited women from entering Masjid An-Nabawi and told them to pray at home. He didn’t. On the contrary when they asked him about women and where they should stand, he said, ‘Let them stand behind the men.’ If anyone wants evidence, this in my view, is the strongest evidence to show that Rasoolullahﷺ permitted women to pray in the masjid and that his advice to Umm Humaid (RA) was restricted to her and her special situation.

What is also interesting to note is that Rasoolullahﷺ didn’t create a separate section for women in Masjid An-Nabawi. Neither did he order a screen to be placed between the men and women. This is in accordance with the general principle that there is no gender-based segregation in public spaces. There are no women-only and men-only roads or markets or hospitals and so on. So also, masajid are public spaces and so physical barriers or gender-specific spaces are not a requirement in them. Both genders are prescribed their dress codes, and these are the marks of separation and distinction. That is why dress codes are important and must be understood for what they are and not interpreted out of context in Western terms. Black tent-like burqas are not required but covering all the body and hair except the face and hands is a requirement of Islam for women, whether it is in the masjid or anywhere else. This is proof that they are permitted to go out of their homes into places where non-mahram men will be present. If this permission was not there, a specific dress code would not have been necessary. In Islam women are permitted to participate in all aspects of life on equal terms with men. That is why dress codes have been specified and physical barriers, walls, screens and so on are not necessary.

If Rasoolullahﷺ had wanted to build a wall or erect a screen in Masjid An-Nabawi, he would have ordered this to be done. He didn’t. He specifically told the women to stand behind the men. Not among them. Not in the same saff (lines). Not beside them in a separate column. But behind them. Today we see everything but the Sunnah. On the one hand we have masajid which don’t permit women to enter at all. Others which have a women’s section, often cramped and neglected. Others where women and men pray side by side with an aisle between them. And yet others where it is a totally mixed gathering with both women and men praying in the same suffoof (lines). All these are not from the Sunnah and the last one is Haraam and invalid for prayer.

In addition, what these innovations (like praying side by side and in a mixed gathering) do, is to harden stances and lead to people shutting masajid to women altogether on one hand and the creation of exclusive women’s masajid on the other. What amuses me no end about women’s only masajid is that it doesn’t seem to strike their founders and participants that they are perpetuating the same injustice that they are supposedly protesting against. If anything, they should establish masajid on the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ. Not exclusive women’s masajid.

In the case of Salat-ul-Eid Rasoolullahﷺ specifically directed that not only should women attend the prayer but all the women, including young and old and even those menstruating must attend the prayer but stay off to one side as they are excused from praying during this period. But they must still come to the place of the Eid prayer and participate in the dua.

Umm Atiyyah (RA) narrated: “Rasoolullah would order the virgins, the mature women, the secluded and the menstruating to go out for the two Eids. As for the menstruating women, they were to stay away from the Musalla and participate in the Muslims supplications.” One of them said: ‘O Messenger of Allah! What if she does not have a Jilbab? He said: ‘Then let her sister lend her a Jilbab.'” [Jami` at-Tirmidhi]

It is clear from Usul-ul-Fiqh that some statements of Rasoolullahﷺ held a general (Umoomi) application while others pertained to specific cases (Khusoosi) – the case of Umm Humaid (RA) is one such case. There are two other incidents which come to mind where Rasoolullahﷺ gave a special dispensation to an individual about a matter which the jurists have never taken to mean that the general rule was changed. Rather it was taken to be what it was, i.e. a special dispensation which Rasoolullahﷺ in his capacity as the divinely-guided law maker was authorized to grant due to special circumstances. One is the permission given to Umm Waraqa (RA) to lead her family in Salah because nobody else was qualified to do so. She was told to get a man to call the Adhaan and to lead the Salah while standing behind the men and not in front of them. How this has been twisted and permission granted to women by those who have no authority to grant or refuse permission in rituals of worship, to lead Salah for mixed gatherings while standing in front like a male Imam, beats the imagination. Rasoolullahﷺ never gave women permission to lead a mixed congregation in Salah. All the jurists of Islam and all the Imams of Fiqh are agreed upon this principle that a woman is not permitted to lead a mixed congregation in Salah and that if a man prays behind a woman, his Salah is not valid. It is essential that we keep in mind the fundamental principle that it is only the pleasure of Allahﷻ that matters. Nothing else.

Umm Darda (RA) used to give Dars in Masjid An-Nabawi and would sit on the Minbar to do so. The men would be in front (right before her) and the women behind the men at the back. There was no screen placed between her and the men. At the time of Salah, one of the men would lead Salah. On several occasions, the Khalifa Abdul Malik ibn Marwan would be present in the Dars and would lead Salah at its time. Umm Darda (RA) didn’t insist that since she was the teacher of the men and women, she should lead Salah. Neither did any of the learned women listening to her Dars, which included Ayesha Siddiqa (RA) and other Ummul Mu’mineen insist that she or they should lead Salah. People like Ayesha Siddiqa (RA) were scholars of such eminence that her Fatawa are taken to this day as valid rulings in Islamic Law. So, did they know this Deen or do those who pretend to scholarship and learning today? We, all of us, need to fear Allahﷻ.

There are other incidents where Rasoolullahﷺ gave specific instructions to people about certain matters which were not meant to be general and were never taken as general or as abrogating the general instruction. One is the case of the man who was given a special dispensation with respect to the Kaffara for a broken fast. Another, the permission to a young boy who was below the age of maturity to lead his whole tribe in Salah. Another was for a man who asked permission to join the army, to serve his parents instead of taking part is a battle. All these were special instructions to individuals and did not abrogate or change general instructions in these matters.

Furthermore, when Rasoolullahﷺ made the statement “One prayer in this mosque of mine is better than one thousand prayers elsewhere, except for the sacred Mosque in Makkah” [Bukhari, Muslim] he made no distinction between men and women, and it therefore had a general applicability, for both genders.

Yes indeed, an all-woman or a women-only mosque is not from the Sunnah and would be an innovation in Islam. But then what do we say to an all-men or men-only mosque when it is well known that not only did Rasoolullahﷺ permit women to attend Salah in Masjid An-Nabawi when he was himself the Imam and they attended Juma and his lectures and teachings regularly, but he specifically ordered us not to stop them from entering any masjid? By this definition an all-men or men-only mosque is also an innovation and not from the Sunnah.

It is essential to remember that the next generation is watching us and taking lessons from our actions. Let us not sow the seeds of disaster for which we will be responsible. Extreme steps like women-only mosques are a cry of pain and a sign of desperation which indicate that communication has totally broken down. This must be addressed and rectified instead of treating it as a rebellion to be condemned and put down by force. Firstly, we have no authority or power to do so. Secondly such attitudes only exacerbate issues instead of mitigating them. Let people speak openly and air their issues and come to mutually agreeable conclusions and evolve a course of action. May Allahﷻ grant us the patience to deal with each other keeping in mind the etiquette of disagreement and enable us to arrive at a course of action which will enable us all to stand out as standard bearers of Islam.

In conclusion, may I suggest that to avoid all these tensions it is necessary for men and women (prominent people from each community) to sit together and follow the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ. Whenever the Ummah leaves the Sunnah, they come to grief. It is essential for both men and women to be meaningfully involved in the affairs of the community of which the mosque is the most important and critical. Tokenism is useless and counterproductive. Both genders are responsible as both are equally accountable before Allahﷻ.

I ask Allahﷻ for His Mercy and guidance.

Mirza Yawar Baig is based in Hyderabad, India and is the founder and President of Yawar Baig & Associates; an international leadership consulting organization. He can be reached at [email protected]


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