Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (V)

(and we continue discussing “the spiritual aspect”…)

“Although women can and did go into the mosque during the days of the prophet and thereafter attendance at the Friday congregational prayers is optional for them while it is mandatory for men (on Friday).

This is clearly a tender touch of the Islamic teachings for they are considerate of the fact that a woman may be nursing her baby or caring for him, and thus may be unable to go out to the mosque at the time of the prayers. They also take into account the physiological and psychological changes associated with her natural female functions.”


Early 80’s ghost: I don’t know why, but this sounds a little… off, I guess. The way the first sentence is worded, it sort of sounds as though whether women can go to the mosque is a question. But why would it be? Why wouldn’t any member of the community be able to enter a place of prayer?? Am I missing something here?

Commentator: Your instincts are correct—there is a long-standing debate among Muslims about whether women can go to the mosque at all, and if they can, what the conditions and limitations on their attendance are.

If you had gone to the major mosque in the city you were living in back then, Early ’80’s Ghost, you would have seen that the men enter through the main entrance, and pray in the main, spacious prayer hall, which has beautiful Persian carpets and a fancy chandelier. Only men could give the call to prayer, lead the prayers, or even give the announcements. Nobody was really concerned with what men are wearing to that mosque, as long as they were reasonably clean and weren’t wearing anything that would be shockingly inappropriate for the occasion.

Women prayed on a small balcony overlooking the main prayer hall. When they sat down, they could not see the imam. Since heat rises, the temperature on the balcony was warmer than in the main prayer hall, and the fans did not help much. Women were expected to wear long, loose, opaque clothing that covers their hair and bodies while in the mosque. Their voices were not to be heard by men, either. But even though it was unlikely that the men would be able to hear their voices way up on the balcony, they were still expected to pray silently.

But even this type of arrangement in your city was (and still is) unacceptably liberal in the minds of some Muslim scholars even today. In North America (as well as elsewhere in the world), there are mosques that do not allow women to enter at all. This is based on the view of some scholars that although women were allowed to go to the mosque in the Prophet’s time, following the Prophet’s death, leading members of the community (including his wife A’isha) decided that women should not attend the mosque any longer due to increasing moral decline. There are well-known hadiths about this debate. Evidently, the author does not agree with the legal opinion that bans women’s mosque attendance—but accuracy would require that the booklet acknowledge that this debate exists, and that it remains a live issue today, even in North America.

Some North American mosques allow women to enter, but require them to enter by a back door, and exclude them from the main prayer hall. They pray in the basement, or in a classroom, where they cannot see the imam (unless there is a closed-circuit tv). A growing number of mosques in North America that do permit women in the main prayer hall have installed barriers of some kind—such as curtains or office dividers—and women are required to pray behind them.

Super-commentator: Just FYI, the Qur’an does not say anything about forbidding women to go to mosques or take part in congregational prayers. Nor does it mention barriers in the prayer hall, or tell women that they have to pray silently, or forbid women to lead prayers.

Early ’80’s ghost: I don’t quite understand why attendance for women at Friday Prayer would be optional, when at any given time, only some women would be caring for babies or small children. Where does this come from—the Qur’an?

Commentator: The Qur’an does not say that women’s attendance at Friday Prayer is optional. Nor does it suggest that childcare responsibilities should take precedence over women’s participation in communal worship. The idea that women are not obligated to attend Friday Prayer is from the hadith, as well as from the jurists. It is interesting that although the author is relying on the hadith here—although he does not quote them for some reason—he ignores the existence of a fairly well-known hadith in which the Prophet said, “Whenever I stand for prayer and want to prolong it, if I hear a small child crying then I shorten the prayer, because I dislike causing its mother distress.”

Super-commentator: The author is projecting a very modern idea of “the family”—though also a conservative idea of it—onto rulings made centuries ago. He seems to think that the jurists assumed that every woman will marry, and that as a wife, she will stay home and take care of the children—a sort of Muslim “Leave it to Beaver” family. But the jurists only assumed that free women would necessarily marry—and that a free woman of means would probably have slaves or servants to do tasks such as feeding babies. Their concerns with women’s mosque attendance had nothing to do with childcare, and much to do with preventing sexual temptation.

Early ’80’s ghost: And what does attending the mosque have to do with “physiological and psychological changes” anyway?

Commentator: “Physiological and psychological changes” appears to be code for menstruation. Meaning, menstruating women, as well as women bleeding after childbirth, are forbidden to enter the mosque, as well as to perform salat. Scholars debate the particulars of this ban on entering the mosque—whether it applies to the entire building or only to the main prayer hall, whether a menstruating woman is allowed to walk through the mosque as long as she does not sit down, etc.

Super-commentator: The author is engaged in an interesting balancing act here: On one hand, he is trying to argue that women and men are spiritually equal and that proof of this is that they have the same religious obligations. But on the other hand, he does not want to part company with the views of the jurists, who held that men’s and women’s performance of rituals differs in a number of important ways, and that women’s access to mosques as well as to other public spaces where rituals are carried out is significantly limited in comparison to men’s.

The jurists specified that almost every ritual (whether obligatory or optional) is to be performed differently by men and women—and in many cases, these rulings are based on hadiths. So for example, in congregational prayers, women pray in rows behind men. A woman must have her husband’s permission to make the pilgrimage, and is not allowed to travel alone either. A woman who wants to do sunna fasts outside of Ramadan also has to have her husband’s permission if he is with her at that time. And so on. The overall impression that such rules create is that it is men’s worship that really matters to the community (and to God), while women’s worship is at best secondary. Therefore, measures are taken so that male worshippers are not distracted or tempted by female worshippers, and so that husbands are inconvenienced as little as possible by their wives’ worship practices.

Commentator: The author does part company with the jurists who bar women from the mosque, or who put very strict conditions on women’s attendance—such as only allowing old women while banning women of child-bearing age. In this, he agrees with a number of nineteenth and twentieth century conservative Muslim revivalists, who were very concerned about ensuring that women weren’t led astray by “superstition” (aka folk beliefs and practices) or “harmful” modern ideas. Some (though not all) such men thought that women’s attendance at the mosque should be allowed so that they could be exposed to some basic religious instruction and admonition. At the same time, though, they did not want women to get the idea that they had the same rights of access to the mosque or involvement in it. They assumed that mosques ought to be male-dominated spaces.

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  1. #1 by luckyfatima on February 2, 2013 - 7:40 pm

    For some reason your Status of Woman in Islam series prompted me to watch the 1992 “debate” between Aminah Assilmi and Deborah Scroggins. Don’t know why but I felt like telling you that.

    • #2 by xcwn on February 2, 2013 - 9:33 pm

      Luckyfatima—OMG. Even when I watched that “debate” back in the day when I was a hyper-conservative, I found it really embarrassing. I mean, was that supposed to be the best that Muslims could come up with? Really??

      • #3 by luckyfatima on February 2, 2013 - 10:02 pm

        Yep. I couldn’t help but feel Scroggins was in an Emperor’s New Clothes situation…everyone was cheering at the apologistic neo-orthodox script from Assilmi—same level of depth as the Badawi stuff. Scroggins seemed very sensitive and well-balanced in the way she addressed issues in various Muslim majority countries, though I could not find the article she penned which prompted the event in the first place, so I can’t comment on that. But to me each issue represented the divorce between what was supposed to be neo-orthodox “true Islam” and what life was/is like for women living under state designated versions of Shari’ah. The question-answer session was even harder to watch. I have never been very conservative and always been critical, but I do remember buying into some of those ideas in my early days as a Muslim and thinking that they promoted a better society. Huge ‘what the heck was I thinking’ moment. But I was like eighteen. Live and learn.

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