Women's Section

What Does Islam Say About Female Imams, Western Feminism and Gender Equality?


Mahrukh Arif-Tayyeb, UK

Women have always been a part of the public debate for various reasons. Historically, the perception of what a woman is, and what she can achieve has considerably changed over the course of time. She had no political voice until recently, after years of struggle and neglect. The contributions of women in science, community, politics, literature, arts, technology and sports are enormous and still remain, to some extent, underrated. 

In Genesis, Eve is declared to have been created ‘by taking her from the rib of Adam’. She was created to be part of a pair, from Adam and for Adam. By enticing Adam to commit the original sin, the biblical figure of the woman became the symbol of a temptress who, in order to redeem her sin, has to remain subjugated to men and ‘birth in pain’. Although we have come a long way from this initial conception, it is sad to witness that women are still looked upon as sexual objects in our societies where their hypersexualisation is seen as the epitome of empowerement and freedom.

The rise of feminism in the West has, however, brought some balance to the subject; feminism – as a social and political movement – fights for equality. In an ideal western feminist society, women would be paid equally for the same job, have equal opportunities, equal access to any social, political and economic position that a man would occupy. It tends to look at gender equality in a way that may seem confrontational and competitive at times.

In much the same vein, some women are now asserting the right to occupy the role of imam and lead worshippers in prayer. Some of these female imams are performing this role in women-only mosques, while others are claiming the right to lead prayers in mixed gatherings. Both these movements have been widely praised by the western media – especially in Europe where these movements have emerged over the past years – but the latter have been saluted for their courage to ‘challenge the patriarchal institutions of Islam.’

However, while a female imam leading female worshippers only, is entirely acceptable and is, in fact, the correct course of action according to Islam, the notion of a female imam leading prayer in a mixed mosque stands in direct contradiction to Islamic teachings.

How Islam views gender equality

Islam does not view gender equality in the same way that the West does. Islam looks at gender equality in a different way and defines feminism in a different way; it enables both genders to flourish and grow independently, while remaining in harmony with one other. Therefore, looking at Islam and its structure through the lens of western feminism, and forcing that understanding of feminism upon Islam as the most liberating ideology for women, is in itself nothing short of a blinkered, orientalist approach.

Islam has always put women at the core of society. It has not only given them rights, but also a specific role and elevated status in a society and world where they were invisible and irrelevant. Before the advent of Islam, when a girl was born in Arabia, she was often buried alive. Although this was a practice common to some parts of Arabia only, girls were generally seen as a burden, as supposedly not serving any purpose. There is a famous narration where a man came to the Prophet of Islam (sa), and admitted that, before becoming a Muslim, he had buried his daughter alive. Whilst he was doing so, his daughter kept begging him for mercy, but he did not stop. When this man finished narrating the story, he looked up at the Prophet of Islam (sa), who could not hold back his emotions. Some narrators record that the Holy Prophet (sa) wept so much that his whole beard was soaked with tears. After the man finished his story, the Holy Prophet (sa) asked him : ‘O cruel man, did you not have any mercy for her?’ It is important to bear in mind that this level of compassion for women, was, at that time, nothing short of revolutionary. 

In fact, it is also narrated that while the Holy Prophet (sa) was preaching the message of Islam, some Meccans were reluctant to accept his message on the sole basis it gave women too many rights. [1]

Women had next to no status; they were ostracised during their menstruation and men could engage sexually with as many women as they pleased – sometimes even with their own mothers. Men could abuse women physically and emotionally with impunity, and such treatment was considered to be completely normal. At that time, for a man to stand up for women’s rights was truly remarkable.  

If we look at history outside Arabia, during that same period, the status of women globally was not any more desirable either. In fact, most of the rights that women enjoy in the West now, were only given to them in the recent past, after centuries of neglect. In the UK for example, women were granted their rights to divorce or inheritance in the late 1800’s.

However, that extraordinary man, Muhammad (sa), granted these same rights and spoke to women as equals, over 1400 years ago. 

The establishment of spiritual equality         

First and foremost, Islam refuted the idea that Eve tempted Adam to have a momentary lapse in judgement and thus caused his downfall. The Qur’an says that they both inadvertently commited this error, and negates the idea that women are a source of evil. This is a very important point; Islam does not pass premature judgment against women, and emphasises that they are just as spiritually capable as men (4:33): 

‘And covet not that whereby Allah has made some of you excel others. Men shall have a share of that which they have earned, and women a share of that which they have earned. And ask Allah of His bounty. Surely, Allah has perfect knowledge of all things.’ 

They are as pure as men but also are as vulnerable and inclined to sin as men. Therefore they hold no burden of the original sin.

Allah says in the Holy Qur’an (49:14) that men and women were created in pairs – equally – from the same source. Although their physiology is different, men and women have equal access to spirituality and God, which is the ultimate goal of mankind’s creation. If a woman commits a good deed, she will be rewarded the same as a man who does the equivalent. Righteousness is what prevails in the sight of Allah the Almighty regardless of the notion of gender.

‘O Mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another. Verily, the most honorable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.’

As far as the interaction of both sexes is concerned, Islam calls for modesty; it allows them to cherish and enjoy their equal rights in their own spaces. Islam looks at gender independently, while at the same time enabling both sexes to flourish harmoniously and complement one another via the institution of marriage.

As such, although men and women have equal access to the mosque, they require having their own separate space. There is no tradition in Islam that supports the idea of a female leading a mixed gathering in prayer. This is because that would simply contradict the word of the Qur’an calling at men to lower their gaze in front of women and vice versa. 

How is it possible for a man to constantly lower his gaze when the imam is a female? How is it comfortable for a female imam to address a crowd that she cannot even look at or interact with properly? 

More than this theological consideration, the level of discomfort would be enormous. When the Qur’an preaches modesty, it addresses men first. It commands men to lower their gaze in order to maintain pure thoughts (24:31). Many would argue that all men are different, and some would not necessarily hold any impure thoughts towards a woman. However, the Qur’an prefers caution and prevents any sort of thoughts from its very inception by wisely offering women their own space where they can comfortably pray and are free from the concern of having to cover themselves as much as is necessary in the presence of men. It honors women in such a beautiful way, by giving them the necessary and desired space. Therefore, the very notion that sex segregation in Islam is misogynistic, is prejudiced against Islam – men are just as restricted from women as women are from men.   

Unfortunately, the current state of mosques in terms of gender equality and equal space is not ideal either. Most of the traditional Muslim mosques are controlled by men. Men are at the head of the hierarchy and decision-making. For this reason, many women – rightly so – feel left out, and are just passive attendees of the mosque. Moreover, many of these mosques do not provide equal entrance and the required space for women, which, explains the recent surge of female imams. This sad reality cannot, however, be imputed to Islam as a religion; Islam cannot be blamed for the mismanagement of men.

Female leadership in Islam: equal access to the mosque

Ironically again, this observation seems far from the traditions of Islam, according to which, the contribution of women to religion is huge. The Holy Prophet (sa) has said to all believers – men and women – that, ‘half of your religion can be learnt from Aisha,’ who was one of the wives of Muhammad (sa). Women were – and remain – active and essential members of the Islamic community. There are many traditions to support the fact that women would gather often to debate and discuss religion. Some even memorized the whole Qur’an and were given the title of ‘Hafiza’ – as honorable as a ‘Hafiz’. 

On such occasions, it is mentioned that the Holy Prophet (sa) enjoined women to pray together and even allowed a female to lead the prayer. Often (mis)quoted by the founders of the female imams initiative, such as Kahina Bahloul in France and Sherin Khankan in Denmark, is the incident with Umm Waraqa. According to tradition (reported by Abu Dawood), she was instructed by the Holy Prophet (sa) to lead the people of her home in prayer. This authorisation given to Umm Waraqa stirred a debate among Muslim scholars, where some claim that she led women only and others claim she led a mixed gathering. 

Umm Waqara bint Abdallah, was an Ansari woman, who knew the entire Qur’an and was instructed by the Holy Prophet (sa) to lead the ahl dariha in prayers. In Arabic, this sentence would refer to the people of her home. However, some scholars argue that there is an ambiguity on the exact translation of the arabic word dar, that can also refer to a village or neighborhood. However, this idea is not supported by many scholars. 

However, looking at other traditions simultaneously, we often find that Hazrat Aisha (ra) and Umm Salamah (ra) have also lead the prayers for women only. 

The hadith of `A’ishah and Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with them). `Abdur-Raziq (5086), Ad-Daraqutni (1/404) and Al-Bayhaqi (3/131) reported from the narration of Abu Hazim Maysarah ibn Habib from Ra’itah Al-Hanafiyyah from `A’ishah that she led women in Prayer and stood among them in an obligatory prayer. Moreover, Ibn Abi Shaybah (2/89) reported from the chain of narrators of Ibn Abi Layla from `Ata’ that `A’ishah used to say the Adhan, the Iqamah, and lead women in prayer while standing among them in the same row. Al-Hakim also reported the same hadith from the chain of narrators of Layth Ibn Abi Sulaim from `Ata’, and the wording of the hadith mentioned here is Al-Hakim’s.

Furthermore, Ash-Shafi`i (315), Ibn Abi Shaybah (88/2) and `Abdur-Raziq (5082), reported from two chains of narrators that report the narration of `Ammar Ad-Dahni, in which he stated that a woman from his tribe named Hujayrah narrated that Umm Salamh used to lead women in prayer while standing among them in the same row.

The wording of `Abdur-Raziq for the same hadith is as follows: ‘Umm Salamah led us (women) in the `Asr prayer and stood among us (in the same row).

In addition, Al-Hafiz said in Ad-Dirayah (1/169), ‘Muhammad ibn Al-Husain reported from the narration of Ibrahim An-Nakh`i that `A’ishah used to lead women in prayer during the month of Ramadan while standing among them in the same row.

Further, `Abdur-Raziq reported (5083) from the narration of Ibrahim ibn Muhammad from Dawud ibn Al-Husain from `Ikrimah from Ibn `Abbas that the latter said, ‘A woman can lead women in prayer while standing between them.

All of the hadiths aforementioned, state that the given woman leads the other women in prayers while standing among them in the same row, and not standing on the first row of the prayers as imams do. They further state that they were among only women, not male worshippers.

Aside from the hadith, there are other sources to consider. The sunnah is a more general source of precedent; it is usually considered to count against women leading mixed congregations, as there are no reports of it happening in the Holy Prophet’s (sa) time. 

Moreover, it is obligatory for men to perform their five daily prayers in the mosque, whereas this obligation is not devolved to women. Bearing this and the spirit of the Qur’an in mind, which calls for modesty in the interaction of both sexes, it is evident that the tradition supports the possibility of female imams in women-led congregations only. 

Therefore, it becomes absolutely clear that initiatives calling for female imams leading mixed gatherings is in direct contradiction with Islam and the Qur’an. One must not blame Islam as a religion and label it ‘patriarchal’ solely on the basis that mosques are, in their majority, controlled by men. Instead of claiming to challenge the structure of Islam from within, it would have been a greater service to Islam for these women to ask for an equal space in the mosque while maintaining the dignity of the status Islam has afforded to them. Women in Islam looked beyond gender considerations, and mostly aimed for higher purposes rather than constantly asserting men’s roles. 

As far as equal space within the mosque is concerned, women of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community are truly blessed. They have the same functions as men, the same hierarchy inside the mosque and are even leaders at the head of decision-making for the management of the women’s spaces. Men and women both work under the guidance of the Khalifa, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (may Allah be his Helper). Sex segregation does not mean that they cannot interact with each other at all – when there is a need for collaboration, men and women, observing the principle of modesty, can and do work together. However, these women insist upon the fact that they enjoy working independently from men a lot more. Muslim movements should draw inspiration from the internal organisation of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community which gives equal space, equal opportunities and leadership roles to men and women inside the mosque. This is in accordance with the beautiful teachings of Islam – far from any concept of patriarchy. 

Instead, all these movements choose to adopt a patronising narrative, claiming that Islam needs reform and must revisit its take on gender equality in accordance with the western understanding of feminism. However, Islam does not need any reform as suggested by the female imam initiators; it defines gender equality in its own beautiful manner and has given women confidence and autonomy, liberating them from all sorts of gender-related complexes.


[1] Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Revolution, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth