Women-led prayer: Do female prayer protests miss the point?

On March 18, Dr. Amina Wadud gave the Friday sermon to a mixed gender audience at Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York. She also led the Friday prayer to the joint congregation. Dr. Wadud, an Islamic studies professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, is nationally and internationally known for her book “Quran and Woman: Re-reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective”. She knows the meanings and implications of her ijtihad in the eyes of God, and she will be judged according to that. Those who disagree with her ijtihad would be judged according to their own understandings as well.

This controversy cannot be cast as Islamic or un-Islamic, because there is no one to judge people’s actions and intentions but God Almighty. However, what one can discuss is the effectiveness of such an action in proving points pertaining to the status of women in the eyes of God or believers.

If it meant to prove to God that He created everyone equal, then it is futile. He already knows that everyone is equal, and the spiritual status of people in His eyes is not determined by where people stand and how they stand, but what they do.

If it is meant to prove to adversaries that women’s equality cannot be compromised, then again it is a futile effort, especially in a country where the First Amendment allows each individual to express his or her individuality in whatever manner and form as long as it does not violate the laws of the land. In this Christian majority country, people have the right to produce movies against Jesus or burn the national flag or even burn the religious scriptures. Similarly, Muslims who want to practice their religion in a particular form can do so without any restriction as the law of the land allows them to so.

However, if the purpose of the organizers is to improve the status of the average Muslim women, then this is neither the issue nor the place to make the point.

The Muslim establishment in general will simply describe this action as un-Islamic and will urge its followers to oppose it tooth and nail. Perhaps it may even impose more restrictions upon women who want to use masjid facilities to express their spirituality.

Those who describe them as moderates would most probably remain quiet, as they don’t want to alienate either traditional or so-called progressive Muslims.

In a global community where 73 percent of women are illiterate, the controversy about women leading the prayer or giving Friday khutbah is irrelevant. In an ummah where 64 percent of women live below the poverty line, this controversy is useless. And in a nation where 79 percent of women suffer from lack of adequate health care, this controversy is a non-issue.

Those who are seriously concerned about improving the status of Muslim women should devote themselves to identifying with the impoverished, underprivileged and powerless women that are scattered all over the world. To talk about equality in a country that protects equality through constitutional means is a meaningless effort. However, to identify with those who suffer at the grassroots is heroic.

Muslim women who suffer from all kinds of ills that a patriarchal society has imposed upon them have often been betrayed by those who claim to be religious leaders, or by those who want to denounce religious establishment for its lack of commitment to Islam. Indeed, both have betrayed Muslim women. During the last several decades, both have watched Muslim women lose their dignity while they have conducted debates about Islam and its relevance for the world at large. Both have failed to identify with those invisible beings whose whole existence has become subject to the prevailing ignorance.

True empowerment will not come from imposing this new controversy. Rather, it will come when intellectuals who are genuinely concerned about the plight of women identify with women at the grassroots level. The real battle is not in mosques here in the United States. This is a free country. Everyone is entitled to do whatever he or she wants to do. The true battle is against those centuries-old traditions and attitudes that have deprived women of their creativity and role in the reconstruction of a new civilization that can surpass all previous civilizations. It is time that we realize what our priorities are, and devote our intellectual and material resources to execute them.

However, if we continue to impose controversy after controversy upon a community that has no leaders and no teachers, we will plunge ordinary people into a crisis that we will not be able to control.

The divine teachings are for guidance, and not for settling one’s personal differences. Much of what we see in our organized activities is nothing but a reflection of our egos and super egos. We fail to do the most obvious and fight over the most trivial, because it serves our egos to see people humiliated, or degraded or proven wrong. We have got to change our entire attitude to the divine message if we truly want to be ambassadors of Islam.

God wants a group of selfless people who can share the divine teachings with the rest of humanity – beyond their personal likes, dislikes and egos. Until that group emerges and takes its rightful place in the community, we will all be plagued with non-issues and trivial controversies.

Dr. Aslam Abdullah is editor of the Muslim Observer and director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, Las Vegas, as well as the director of the Muslim Electorates Council of America.