Not a Prohibitory Diktat
Praying inside a mosque is not a serious enough issue to approach the apex court. It is more in the nature absence of logistics required for segregation of sexes.
The Supreme Court has been approached by a Muslim couple from Pune seeking women’s entry into mosques for worshipping. The couple has pleaded that Islam and the Quran do not place any bar on women entering and worshiping inside a mosque and it was normal for women to pray inside mosques during the time of the Prophet and in the early Islamic era. They have contended that several mosque managements have turned down their plea for allowing women to pray inside mosques while a few sects such as Mujahideen in Kerala allow and facilitate their prayers.
It is a widely-known fact that women used to stand in rows behind the men even as the Prophet led the prayers in the Masjid-e Nabawi. This allowed them to make a quick exit and avoid intermingling of men and women. Hadiths also relate instances when the Prophet would shorten prayers if he heard the cries of kids who would accompany mothers to the mosques. It is also quite well known that a woman congregant at a Friday sermon questioned the second caliph Hazrath Umar about the dress he wore for the occasion as it was made out of clothes procured from the war booty.
Over the centuries, Islam entered several societies and geographies and the practice of women praying in the mosques took various forms as per the local conditions, architectural layout of the mosques and the prevalent security conditions. As a whole, mosques in South Asia did not make any special provision for women to pray inside, though not expressly prohibiting them. Yet, some sects such as Ahl-e Hadith all across the region and Mujahideen in Kerala generally allowed them entry and even arranged segregation of the two sexes within the premises. In more enlightened societies such as Egypt, women continued to worship inside mosques. In orthodox societies such as Saudi Arabia and other states in the Arabian peninsula, women were kept off mosques. But women from all these societies migrating to nations in Europe and America found the environment freer and share the sacred spaces just as their male counterparts do.
The South Asian clerical establishment takes the position that though the holy Prophet directed his followers not to restrain women from entering mosques, they should not be encouraged to pray there either as mingling of sexes is fraught with moral hazards. This is more in the nature of a cautionary approach rather than a prohibitory diktat. That some mosques do not have adequate space to allow women’s use of the space is partly the reason to avoid making a provision for them. Others may be apprehensive about their security during prayers at dawn and after dusk.
The issue is not serious enough to secure a judicial ruling or directive in the matter. However, with changes in times and the in the role of women, it seems imperative that women be allowed inside the mosques located inside or near colleges, universities, workplaces, vacationing sites and shopping areas. It is a common sight for burqa-clad women to stand outside the mosques even as men worship inside mosques in such places.
With a bit of management of logistics more mosques can make provision for women to pray within their premises. Modern architecture allows cellars, basements, side halls, upper floors and acoustics to take care of such segregation of sexes within mosques. One hopes the issue does not snowball into a contentious controversy with the community and leaders taking irreconcilable stands with media in the middle to inflame passions and pitting up ‘hardliners’ against ‘reformists’.