Suheila Tantawi

(WOMENSENEWS)–Asra Nomani, author of “Standing Alone in Mecca” and former Wall Street Journal reporter, led a mixed-gender prayer on Wednesday inside a prayer hall at Brandeis University in Boston.

Nomani follows in the footsteps of Amina Wadud, who last Friday, cloaked in full Muslim garb, broke tradition and led a mixed-gender prayer inside a building on the grounds of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City.

In a sermon before leading the prayer, Wadud, who sometimes referred to God as She or It, said it was time
“to recognize moral excellence in women” and make them spiritual leaders in Islam.

Wadud, who describes herself as a “lonely academic,” and asked not to be contacted after that event, is a scholar and professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. A mother of five, she is also author of “Qur’an and Woman,” the first interpretation by a woman of the Koran, Islam’s holy book.

There is a tradition of female leaders in Islam. Aisha, one of Prophet Mohammad’s wives, led an army in battle. Traditionalists say women can lead an all-women congregation in prayer. Less conservative interpretations of Islam say a woman can lead her mixed-gender family, but only in the privacy of her home.

But the public, mixed-gender prayers by Wadud and Nomani challenge traditions maintained by clerics. Amid worldwide controversy, the prayers are being noted by religious scholars as the start of a trend towards female spiritual public leadership in Islam.

Recognizing ‘Moral Excellence in Women’

In another departure from tradition, women in both prayers stood next to the men, not behind them. In mosques, women usually pray behind the men or in a separately designated area, sometimes overlooking the men from a balcony. According to custom, women can see men pray, but men usually are not supposed to see women during prayer.

At Wadud’s highly publicized prayer, a congregation of about 50 women and 30 men, some women did not cover their hair, which was also highly unusual.

Women chatting as they waited for the service to begin

One of the men praying in the congregation, Liaquat Ali, 41, of Bridgeport, Conn., returned early from Pakistan where he was on business just to attend this prayer. “We have to go back and correct policies written in previous centuries,” he said.

“It’s great that women finally are doing this and showing the weak argument against it,” said Rakaya El-Kasaby, 11, of New York City, who took the day off from school to attend this prayer with her mother, Tanya El-Kasaby.

“It’s important to make my daughter feel involved in worship and to know that women can, and do, lead prayer,” said the mother, Tanya, 36, of New York City.

Not everyone who prayed in the congregation was so supportive.

“While I respect the role of women in leadership positions, I’m not so sure about a woman leading prayer,” said Abdul Alim Mubarak, 53, of Maplewood, N.J., who described himself as a media editor and producer. “Though I did pray behind her.”

The Wadud event also attracted demonstrators, such as Fareehah Jowdat, 37, of New Jersey. “We take our instructions from the Koran and Sunna, and they both say women should not lead public, mixed gender prayer,” she said as she distributed copies of a decree issued last week by a liberal religious leader, Qaradawi of Qatar, saying that only men can lead a mixed-gender prayer. The conservative Tantawi of Egypt also issued a similar decree.

A New York-based group called the Progressive Muslim Union of North America–which says it seeks to create a space for Muslims with a progressive interpretation of Islam–organized the events. It is planning more in Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. For security reasons, the announcement of times and venues will be restricted to members.

“We’re questioning our assumptions of who gets privilege in society,” said Omid Safi, associate professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Religion at Colgate University and chair of the Progressive Muslims Union. “Is it men? Women? Gays? Rich? Poor?”

World Reaction Mixed

Reaction from Muslims living in the U.S. and around the world has been mixed.

“We’ve received threats and very supportive e-mails from people all over the world,” said Ahmed Nassef, co-founder of Progressive Muslims and editor in chief of Muslim WakeUp!, an online publication addressing issues of interest to progressive Muslims. Muslim WakeUp! was hacked on Tuesday and was still unavailable by press time.

“Many were supportive, but a lot of people were very disturbed by it,” said Tayyibah Taylor, editor in chief of Azizah magazine, a publication for and about Muslim women based in Atlanta, with circulation estimated at 27,000.

Taylor said she has been swamped with calls and comments on the untraditional prayer, and she will launch a survey next week to gauge the reaction of her readership.

Afaf Soueid, 65, who lives in Damascus, Syria, knew her outlook. “It’s like a sign for Doom’s Day,” she said in a telephone interview. “A woman leading prayer is not what we Muslims needs right now.”

Similarities to U.S. Judaism, Christianity

Some scholars say this departure from tradition is part of an inevitable reform in Islam in the United States that follows in the steps of Judaism and Christianity, both of which began conversations four or five decades ago about women leading prayer.

“This event indeed is the legacy of Islam in America,” said Leila Ahmed, scholar and professor at Harvard Divinity School and author of a forthcoming book on women in Islam. “I don’t see European Islam doing this. Women priests in Christianity today are a result of the 1960s and 70s in America. They were trying to reclaim the church as Amina Wadud is reclaiming Islam today.”

John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and author of “What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam” agrees, but adds this is also part of a global trend. “You have women seeking to empower themselves in the global arena, raising issues from education to employment and leadership in political office. Now it’s leadership in prayer.”

After Sept. 11, 2001, many critics said Islam should undergo a reformation.

“I’ve been studying women in Islam for a few years now, and I was expecting a feminist move like this to happen,” said Ahmed. “But I didn’t think it would be this soon.”

“I think 9-11 made room for feminists and progressive Muslims in America,” she added.

“Islam is crossing over a bridge, one that Judaism and Christianity already crossed,” Esposito said. “But it doesn’t mean on the other side of the bridge people will agree women should lead prayer. Judaism and Christianity are still struggling with this.”

“At the heart of the issue,” said Safi, chair of the Progressive Muslims Union, “is whether people are willing to accept men and women as beings created in the fullness of humanity, possessing the fullness of emotional, spiritual and intellectual faculties.”

Rasha Elass has lived and traveled throughout the Islamic world. She attends Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is a freelance writer based in New York.

For more information:

Asra Nomani:

Progressive Muslim Union of North America:

Muslim WakeUp!:

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