Reem Shraiky, UK
I do not know why the idea of a Muslim woman not leading men in prayer disturbs some minds, as if it is the key to gender equality!
Gender equality is what Islam presented 1400 years ago; the Holy Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes the spiritual equality of men and women. Like men, women too can achieve great spiritual heights and are afforded the ability to do so. Throughout the Holy Qur’an, believing men and women have been addressed equally. The commandments are the same for both, and the rewards for both are identical too:
‘But whoso does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, such shall enter Heaven, and shall not be wronged even as much as the little hollow in the back of a date-stone’ 
Spiritual commandments apply equally to men and women and the way to excel in spirituality is the same for men and women.
Women also have the same political and social rights that men do. For example, both men and women are entitled to a suitable inheritance from their parents and near relatives.
Islam is a champion of equality for women. Allah says in the Holy Qur’an that man and woman were created from a single soul. Islam gives the same rights to women as men, however, Islam does distinguish between the different responsibilities of men and women according to the laws of nature.
As for women’s rights, Islam in fact granted women many valuable rights 1400 years ago that women in the West did not obtain until a little more than a century ago. These include the right to divorce, inheritance and education, as well as the rights to vote, to rule and to preach her religion.
Furthermore, it is sufficient for the Muslim woman that paradise has been placed under her feet as a mother, and that she does not need to be depleted in the labour market in order to contribute to the expenses of living. However, if she chooses to work, then this is a legitimate right for her too, and her husband does not have the right to take any of her money. Not only this, but he must provide for her as well as their children. Thus, what a woman decides to do with her money remains for her to decide, be it what she earned from work, obtained as a gift or as inheritance. If she voluntarily contributes to the household expenses, then it is a mere favour from her.
However, when the advent of the liberator of women, Muhammad (sa) brought Muslim women numerous rights, they did not sit passively. Rather, they progressed in all fields of science, medicine, nursing, and religion among other domains.
In fact, Islamic history is full of accounts of illustrious women who showed exceptional wisdom and courage in times of difficulty, as well as women who were considered eminent scholars.
One of the greatest examples from early Islam is the wife of the Holy Prophet (sa), Hazrat Aisha (ra), who used to teach matters of faith to men and women. She was a scholar, interpreter of the Holy Qur’an and narrator of the sayings of the Prophet (sa). The Prophet of Islam (sa) himself said: ‘Learn half of your faith from Aisha.’
Hazrat Aisha (ra) was also a jurist and had expertise in medicine, poetry, and history.
There are many examples of the excellence of Muslim women in various fields. Mariam al-Asturlabi was a brilliant scientist and astronomer of the 10th century. She was likewise a renowned maker of astrolabes and helped to further navigation and timekeeping techniques.
We also have Fatima al-Fihri: she was a scholar who founded the oldest existing continually operating and first degree-awarding educational institution in the world, the University of Al-Quaraouiyine in Fes, Morocco. This University is credited with producing many distinguished thinkers and scientists both Muslim and non-Muslim. It remains open to this day, producing graduates in religious and scientific branches of knowledge.
I would additionally like to mention the female companion of the Holy Prophet (sa), Ash-Shifaa’ Al-‘Adawiyyah, who taught women reading, writing and calligraphy. She practised medicine so skilfully that she was called Ash-Shifaa’ meaning ‘the healer’. The Second Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Umar (ra) appointed her a bazar inspector in Madina – the equivalent to a trade secretary nowadays. These women from Islamic history that I have mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg.
So, does a Muslim woman need to prove she equal by leading a man in prayer, something which has nothing to do with Islamic teachings? In Islam, the mosque is a space for both men and women; it plays an important role in the spiritual and social life of them both. Men and women should pray in separate halls, and where this is not possible, women should pray behind men. During worship, one should focus on Allah and should not be distracted by anything else, and the postures during prayer in Islam make it sensible for men and women to pray separately so that everyone can stay focused on Allah alone. This is the purpose of prayer.
The proponents of the practice of woman leading men in prayer often base their beliefs on the misunderstanding of an incident relating to a female companion of the Holy Prophet (sa), Umm Waraqa (ra). Umm Waraqa (ra) once sought the permission of the Holy Prophet (sa) to take a mu`azzin [caller to prayer] to the call to prayer near her house. The Holy Prophet (sa) authorized her to do this and instructed her to lead the people of her household in prayer. From this, they draw the conclusion that she also led the males of her family in prayer. Umm Waraqa (ra) was in fact leading only the women of her house and the claim that she was leading men too is dubious for several reasons:
- It is necessary to compare all the narrations of this story to understand it. There is a narration that was mentioned in Al-Mughni by Ibn Qudamah which states: ‘The Holy Prophet (sa) gave permission for Umm Waraqa to have a mu`azzin and to raise the iqama [announcement for the commencement of prayer], and permission for her to lead the women of her household.’
- There is a famous hadith in Ibn Majah and other sources where the Holy Prophet (sa) said: ‘No woman should be appointed as Imam over a man.’
- We know from the hadith literature that men should pray in the mosque and not at home.
All of these points demonstrate that what the Holy Prophet (sa) permitted Umm Waraqa was to lead in prayers the women and children of her household only, and this permission is in fact given to all women.
Finally, I wish to express that every Muslim woman does desire and pray to become an Imam; that is, the Imam which is mentioned in the following Qur’anic prayer:
وَالَّذِينَ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا
‘And those who say, ‘Our Lord, grant us of our spouses and children the delight of our eyes, and make us an Imam [model] for the righteous.’ 
 The Holy Qur’an 4:125
 The Holy Qur’an 25:75