A Woman’s Reflection on Leading Prayer

3257044979_89c468cf91_bOn March 18, 2005, Amina Wadud led the first female-led jum`ah (Friday) prayer. On that day, women took a huge step towards being more like men. But did we come closer to actualizing our God-given liberation?

I don’t think so.

What we so often forget is that God has honored the woman by giving her value in relation to God—not in relation to men. But as Western feminism erases God from the scene, there is no standard left—except men. As a result, the Western feminist is forced to find her value in relation to a man. And in so doing, she has accepted a faulty assumption. She has accepted that man is the standard, and thus a woman can never be a full human being until she becomes just like a man.

When a man cut his hair short, she wanted to cut her hair short. When a man joined the army, she wanted to join the army. She wanted these things for no other reason than because the “standard” had it.

What she didn’t recognize was that God dignifies both men and women in their distinctiveness – not their sameness. And on March 18, Muslim women made the very same mistake.

For 1400 years there has been a consensus of the scholars that men are to lead prayer. As a Muslim woman, why does this matter? The one who leads prayer is not spiritually superior in any way. Something is not better just because a man does it. And leading prayer is not better, just because it’s leading. Had it been the role of women or had it been more divine, why wouldn’t the Prophet ﷺ have asked Ayesha or Khadija, or Fatima—the greatest women of all time—to lead? These women were promised heaven—and yet they never led prayer.

But now, for the first time in 1400 years, we look at a man leading prayer and we think, “That’s not fair.” We think so although God has given no special privilege to the one who leads. The imam is no higher in the eyes of God than the one who prays behind.

On the other hand, only a woman can be a mother. And God has given special privilege to a mother. The Prophet ﷺ taught us that heaven lies at the feet of mothers. But no matter what a man does he can never be a mother. So why is that not unfair?

When asked, “Who is most deserving of our kind treatment?” the Prophet ﷺ replied, “Your mother” three times before saying “your father” only once. Is that sexist? No matter what a man does he will never be able to have the status of a mother.
And yet, even when God honors us with something uniquely feminine, we are too busy trying to find our worth in reference to men to value it—or even notice. We, too, have accepted men as the standard; so anything uniquely feminine is, by definition, inferior. Being sensitive is an insult, becoming a mother—a degradation. In the battle between stoic rationality (considered masculine) and selfless compassion (considered feminine), rationality reigns supreme.

As soon as we accept that everything a man has and does is better, all that follows is a knee-jerk reaction: if men have it, we want it too. If men pray in the front rows, we assume this is better, so we want to pray in the front rows too. If men lead prayer, we assume the imam is closer to God, so we want to lead prayer too. Somewhere along the line we’ve accepted the notion that having a position of worldly leadership is some indication of one’s position with God.

A Muslim woman does not need to degrade herself in this way. She has God as a standard. She has God to give her value; she doesn’t need a man.

In fact, in our crusade to follow men, we as women never even stopped to examine the possibility that what we have is better for us. In some cases we even gave up what was higher only to be like men.

Fifty years ago, society told us that men were superior because they left the home to work in factories. We were mothers. And yet, we were told that it was women’s liberation to abandon the raising of another human being in order to work on a machine. We accepted that working in a factory was superior to raising the foundation of society—just because a man did it.

Then, after working, we were expected to be superhuman—the perfect mother, the perfect wife, the perfect homemaker—and have the perfect career. And while there is nothing wrong, by definition, with a woman having a career, we soon came to realize what we had sacrificed by blindly mimicking men. We watched as our children became strangers and soon recognized the privilege we’d given up.

And so only now—given the choice—women in the West are choosing to stay home to raise their children. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, only 31 percent of mothers with babies, and 18 percent of mothers with two or more children, are working full-time. And of those working mothers, a survey conducted by Parenting Magazine in 2000, found that 93% of them say they would rather be at home with their kids, but are compelled to work due to ‘financial obligations.’ These ‘obligations’ are imposed on women by the gender sameness of the modern West, and removed from women by the gender distinctiveness of Islam.

It took women in the West almost a century of experimentation to realize a privilege given to Muslim women 1400 years ago.

Given my privilege as a woman, I only degrade myself by trying to be something I’m not – and in all honesty – don’t want to be: a man. As women, we will never reach true liberation until we stop trying to mimic men, and value the beauty in our own God-given distinctiveness.

If given a choice between stoic justice and compassion, I choose compassion. And if given a choice between worldly leadership and heaven at my feet—I choose heaven.

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  • Abeer A

    MASHALLAH! Wow at first I was hesitant after reading “I don’t think so” in the second paragraph, ready to ignore, disagree, and close the tab, but it is such a good thing I continued because this is definitely one of the best, most mind-opening articles I have ever read. I love your revitalizing perspective (caught me off guard) and logic about this! How can we be so blind to the truth; this ‘error’ in society’s circumstances brought me to tears– and yes, a woman who cries is a human being who is strong.

  • Ghassan Al-Sammari

    you admittedly raise some good examples and points. However, you give the example of only women being mothers in analogy to the privileges of men but I think the analogy isn’t fullproof. Yes, biology dictates that only women can be mothers. There’s no learning, no process, no opportunity even for a man to even consider motherhood. But what are facets of men and women that make the former so much more suitable for leading the prayer than the latter? Women are as clever as men, from my experience just as pious and learned as their male counterparts and are often more organised and dependable. Why then the restriction/favouring of the male? You bemoan women striving to meet the ‘male standard’ all the time, but why is it always so bad? What problems arise in cases like this, or if women have their hair short, or pray in the front rows?

    Anyway, if one considers themself a member of the Islamic religion, I was under the impression that they’d believe its rulings to be all logical and consistent. Surely women questioning, scrutinising and contemplating the logic of such a rule is a good thing, and perhaps an update to take into account the modern age wouls also be welcome It certainly seems a better way of doing things than dismissing these changes out of hand as an attempt to ‘get even with the males’

    • yeah...ok

      EXACTLY, Only women can give birth but traditional mother/father roles are gender specific NOT sex specific. It’s said that a woman should cook, clean, and care for the children. I’m not opposed to this but a man could easily do these things and is physically capable of tucking his children in at night and should not be denied that privilege because of his sex.

      • ilm

        If a man could easily do these things and is physically capable of tucking his children at night, then he SHOULD do it. Who is denying him that privilege? In fact that will make him a better father. What Yasmin talks here is Not about what a man and a woman Can willingly and wholeheartedly do. She is talking about the situation when certain societies push people to believe and do certain things that they might not wholeheartedly like to do and are more suitable to do other things that they enjoy better and are more in harmony with, but still do those things set by the societies just to feel a sense of approval. Those Standards set by others for women/men are the problems, not a person’s own free will out of their own sound judgements when they view the infinitely powerful God to be their only standard.

    • yeah...ok

      ps. I agree with you and “short hair”? What does that have to do with MALE AND FEMALE equality? Hair length is absolutely trivial and women have been cutting their hair long before the feminist movement, not because they wanted to be like men (Who have historically had long hair) but because hair is annoying, sheds, gets in the way and attracted lice.

      • ilm

        She is Not talking about the women cutting their hair short because of inconveniences; she is here talking about the women who cut their hair short solely because men do it. To give you another example, there is nothing wrong with me eating chocolate chip icecream everyday out of my own will, but there is something wrong if I am eating it every day because Kim Kardashian eats it everyday, that shows what my standard is. Yasmin is Not talking about women with short hair in general. Pay attention to the context.

    • ilm

      When a law is given by Allah or His messenger, there must be a good reason, and human beings being imperfect, the right reason might not always come to the mind of a human. When you are talking about “leading the prayer” all you are considering are cleverness, piety and wisdom of the genders and thinking that if both genders are given all three then why should one be allowed to lead the prayer. Now, what if the reason is that if a woman leads the prayer it would be hard for the men behind her to concentrate on the prayer, given the body movement/positions the woman has to undergo to pray the Islamic way, or that it would be hard for the woman to concentrate on the prayer thinking that many of the men can choose to stare at her from the back if they wish to (given that the woman can never know who among the people standing behind is pious from the heart and who is not). I am not saying that this must be the reason, but just trying to show you that there can be so many reasons that you, being just one human being, cannot think of; Allah has the knowledge of everything and when He imposes a law through the messengers it’s only because He knows the Best and we often times don’t.

  • Gareth Bryant

    Honestly, this really hit the nail right on the head!!!

  • MsAmberE

    Beautifully put sis. MashaAllah. This continues to be a struggle for me as I continue to negotiate my career goals and thoughts about my own family life.

  • yeah...ok

    Maybe it is YOU who once sought equality for feminists reasons or “just because a man did it.” There are a plenty of women who seek male/female equality for their rights as human beings in order to lead happy and fulfilling, physically and psychologically safe and healthy lives…not because they want to be like men.

    • moonlight

      I think you need to read this with a more open mind. I don’t see how what you say contradicts anything she said.

    • ilm

      “Equality” and “Sameness” are two different words with very different meanings. There is nothing wrong with seeking equality in terms of rights (for example – rights to free speech, freedom to choose own lifestyle, equal payment for the same work/job done, equal right to gain knowledge etc etc) and Yasmin has never said anything against women seeking equality of rights. But there is something very wrong with women/men seeking to be “the same” as men/women, it devalues one’s own intrinsic qualities/nature that makes him/her who he/she is. Men and women are distinct in nature; they are Equal, but Different. All Yasmin is saying is that women should accept this difference and enjoy it because their qualities are as great as men’s and in some cases even better, rather than blindly trying to be the “same” as men by thinking that man is their standard and being the “same” as man would give her “equality”; that’s just wrong. If equality is lacking in a society then a woman can seek for equality Being a Woman, she doesn’t need to be a man.

  • A woman CAN lead the prayer, IF it’s a women only congregation. :)

    And I scorn women who think motherhood is not a noble endeavour but a burden. This mentality has led to a failing society.

    Jazake Allah Khair for the article :)

  • Perishan

    The thing a lot of you aren’t understanding is that we are doing things and avoiding things simply in reference to men. The best example I can give is my own personal hobbies. I am very crafty and I like making things with my hands. Some of the things that I like to do are knit, crochet, and cross stitch. I am always very shy to admit that I like to do these things because I think that most people view them as the femine movement taking a step backwards. In other words, I fear that it is viewed as a frivilous and silly hobby. It is this element that is being talked about and not wether a woman wants to cut her hair short or not.

    Another thing I want to bring up is the idea that being emotional is silly. God gave us emotions and he did so for a reason. If we were to examine our past, how would we, as a human race, have survived without our emotions. The fact that we are social creatures and form emotional bonds with eachother is what has allowed us to survive for so long. The best example of this is a mother and a baby. Would the baby survive if the mother didn’t care about it? Of course not. Being emotional is a good thing and is encouraged even among men in Islam.

    Also, Islam elevates the status of mother not because she feeds her kids and is loving to them. Her status as a mother is elevated because of the biology of becoming a mother. Anyone who has been pregnant and given birth knows how physicaly taxing this is. Now add the element of breastfeeding. A lot of the time, especially in the first few months, half of your day is spent in just breastfeeding. It is because of these biological elements that God has elevated the status of a woman. A man once carried a woman on his back and asked if he had repaid his mother. The answer was that he had not even repaid one contraction.

  • hi

    “But as Western feminism erases God from the scene, there is no standard left—except men. As a result, the Western feminist is forced to find her value in relation to a man. And in so doing, she has accepted a faulty assumption. She has accepted that man is the standard, and thus a woman can never be a full human being until she becomes just like a man.”

    I like the idea of the article, but I do not agree with your underlying assumption: that the West is “erasing God” and encouraging Muslim women to use men as a standard to judge themselves.

    Many women in the West, because of the women’s rights movement, were able to pursue their passions and God-given talents that they otherwise would not have been able to. They did not want to become doctors, soldiers, or business women because men did it… they were born with gifts and it was their dream to pursue those goals. Surely, God wants women to use their talents in the way that benefits themselves, their families, and their societies best, and not to squander his gifts.

    I see your point, but I think you are over-using “the West” as the scapegoat for why many Muslim women are seeking traditionally male-roles in society.


    “And so only now—given the choice—women in the West are choosing to stay home to raise their children… It took women in the West almost a century of experimentation to realize a privilege given to Muslim women 1400 years ago.”

    You cite the reason for this is financial obligations “unduly placed on women in the West.” I do not see anything wrong with women working to help pay the bills and feed their children out of necessity.

    I honestly believe ANY mother would rather be at home with their children – no matter what religion or place in society – as would the father! Unfortunately it is not enough in our culture/economy/country to only have the man working.

    And this “privilege” of not needing to work given to Muslim women… unfortunately there are many Muslim women who are more intelligent, more trustworthy, and more capable than many men in Muslim countries, and yet they are discouraged from using their God-given talents. This is not always a privilege, as you promote through your article.

    Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading.

    • Agreed.

      Thank you!!! You took the words right out of my mouth! And good job, you clearly explained the faults within the article in a logical and reasonable manner.

  • Nafisa_beg

    Salaams Yasmin I love your article.
    When you have some time how about addressing all those Muslim females who have written books about their miseries at the hands of men thus portraying that our men are bad. I feel the books are read because it’s something else to tarnish Islam with so it’s our fault that we wash dirty linen in public, not that these things don’t happen. They take place in many societies but somehow those don’t become widely read books,
    Nafisa Beg

  • sister r

    love love this!, even the whole being an ‘independent’ woman phase going on in the west has slowly died out, sure being ‘independent’ sounds great, when you come from a family taking care of you. but ask any single mother in the west who has to work full time and take care of kids either from never finding the right man /divorce, and they will tell you it is not a fun time. And again, the western woman unfortunately fell prey to this because of the backlash against getting married, and to ‘choose to’ have one night stands, which in reality they find a miserable experience but do so because ‘men enjoy it’ women have pretended to ‘enjoy’ that lifestyle too. It’s really sad to see our sisters suffering this way, we need to stick to the beauty of Islam which allows women an easy life and forces men to be real men by respecting and taking care of their women and there’s nothing wrong with that. May Allah guide us all.

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